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Fans believing in Maple Leafs again

Expectations raised with Toronto nearing playoff berth

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

TORONTO -- It has been a rough few days for Steve "Dangle" Glynn.

His credit card number has been stolen, he has spent the morning stuck in the horrendous Oshawa-to-Toronto highway morass, and a piece of tire has bounced off his car as he tried to navigate the traffic. He will later be rear-ended on his commute home. And yet, Glynn is bouncing, bounding, his eyes alight, as he rushes to the Starbucks counter.

Moments after he enters, a man walks up and thanks him. The man appreciates what Glynn is doing, the videos he has put together for almost a decade expressing his every wish and every hope for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the often-funny and always-manic expression of the every-fan id.

Glynn is explicating his fandom, coffee in hand, as he slips. He slips, as fans tend to do, from the distance of "them" to the personal of "us," when talking about the Maple Leafs.

Video: NJD@TOR: Nylander stickhandles and snipes top shelf

Instantly, he apologizes.

"I've really made a conscious effort not to say 'us' over the last few years," said Glynn, who creates YouTube videos and is a blogger at Sportsnet. "I'm starting to say it again. I like them. I don't know how to describe it."

It is an unfamiliar feeling in Toronto, a feeling of trust where there wasn't any before, a feeling of belief where once it had been washed away. In a city that has been frustrated and disappointed for half a century, watching team after team claim what it thought it deserved -- the Stanley Cup -- Toronto Maple Leafs fans have found their spring, as the games tick down to a playoff berth that was once a pipe dream and now feels like a birthright.

"It's definitely a renewed hope," ardent fan Pardeep Sidhu said. "There's renewed hope where the lost fans that they had, I think that they're coming back, saying, 'OK, let's give them another shot.'"

There is no question that the Maple Leafs, led by a crop of rookies including Auston Matthews, have arrived ahead of schedule, no matter what the players or management might say publicly. They are better than they should be, at least at this point. They are fun to watch, a mess of acrobatics, rookie mistakes, lost leads and comebacks in an Instagram-ready package, one in which their 30-year-olds are elderly, even if they have started to feel 23 again.

Perhaps, when watching the Leafs, we all feel 23 again.

Or maybe 23 isn't even the right age. Maybe it goes back further than that, to a time of guileless fandom, of idols and dreams and anything-is-possible. Maybe the right age is 12.

"I haven't felt this way, genuinely, since I was a kid," Glynn said. "You're talking to someone who just turned 29, but really you're talking to a 12-year-old. Because that's how I feel when I talk about this team. I feel like a kid again."

****

The day before, Lou Lamoriello's eyes had crinkled in the corners as he anticipated the line of questioning. "Now," the Maple Leafs general manager said, "you're going to do exactly what I'm telling you not to do."

The message has gotten away from him. This is why he interrupts when asked about what a Stanley Cup would mean to this city and this team and this fan base.

For a man who preaches caution and patience and time, it is at once gratifying and treacherous to see what the Maple Leafs have become this season. The plan is a long-term one and the result -- right now, at least -- has raised expectations.

So he does not want to hear it. He does not want to contemplate it. He wants to talk about the process and the foundation and the building blocks and the way the veterans have learned and the rookies have joined them and he wants to leave the tantalizing future as just that, the future.

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"We'll have to wait and see," he said.

He said it again and again, four more times in total. It is his refrain and his mantra, a gambit to put off those who would push too fast and too soon, exactly the way his team is doing right now.

He has reason to be cautious. The Maple Leafs have, after all, not exactly proven to be worthy of much lately, with a playoff drought that extends back to 2003-2004 except for that one year that -- well, Maple Leafs fans would rather forget that one year.

As Glynn put it: "In my head, the last time the Leafs made the playoffs was 2004. I just Men in Blacked 2013. It's gone. It helps me sleep."

That was, of course, the year the Maple Leafs led 4-1 against the Boston Bruins in Game 7 in the first round before giving up three unanswered goals in the final 10:42 of the third period and losing in overtime.

Since that crushing moment, the Maple Leafs have been completely rebuilt, bringing on Brendan Shanahan as president after the 2013-2014 season, a move followed by the hiring of Mike Babcock as coach and Lamoriello as GM and the trading of franchise faces Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.

There was an about-face in strategy, one in which the short-term fix has mostly been forsaken for the long-term view of improvement through the draft, through shrewd decisions on veterans, through the stockpiling of talent, callow though it might be at the moment.

But it all started with Babcock, one of the few coaches in the NHL nearly guaranteed to inspire faith.

"I think that when we got Babs, there's definitely a cool feeling around the room and around Toronto," defenseman Morgan Rielly said. "Of hope."

Babcock began to work his magic, first on the veterans in an effort to cull the herd, to find out which players could adapt to the new normal and which could not, and then on the rookies, in an effort to build them up and figure them out and mold them. As Lamoriello said, "We went through 47 players last year to find out who really wants to be part of this program.

"The thought process was, let's get the foundation of what you need to sustain success over a period of time. Let's not rush it. Let's not let anybody get in the way. Let's not let the media, let's not let the fans, let's not let any of it. From our years of experience, let's just do what's right."

If there is one person who has watched -- and experienced -- this transformation with more than a little bit of interest, it's Nazem Kadri. The forward has been in Toronto since being selected in the first round (No. 7) of the 2009 NHL Draft. He has played in 399 regular-season games -- and seven in the playoffs.

"Often, early on in my career, I felt like we were just kind of left out to dry in a certain sense," Kadri said. "Now I think they protect the players and they care about them [as] more than just a number, a player on their team, more about how they are off ice, how their families are. It's a lot more personable."

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He has come to trust in the new regime, in its long-term vision. And he trusts that they have arrived, even now, even ahead of schedule.

"The process has sped up, for sure," said Kadri, who has scored an NHL career-high 30 goals this season. "And I've been waiting a long time for this. It's about time."

****

When William Nylander scored the empty-net goal that sealed a significant win against the Bruins on Monday, the cameras panned up to the executive suite, showing a rare celebration from Shanahan and a mostly passive reaction from Lamoriello.

It was a moment prized by the fans in this oft-teased and oft-disappointed city. These are their stars -- "a veritable all-star squad," as fan Paul Bruno put it -- more so even than those on the ice, than Matthews and Nylander and Mitchell Marner and Frederik Andersen. These are the people they look to for guidance and direction, in whose hands they have placed their faith.

This is why this time feels different, for the fans, for the players, for everyone.

At one point this season, early on, perhaps after Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, stunned the League with his four-goal debut, these same fans would have been happy just to see incremental progress. They would have been happy to cheer on a better product, with the knowledge that the playoffs are coming, eventually.

That isn't the case anymore. Not with the Maple Leafs in third place in the Atlantic Division with nine games remaining in the season.

Suddenly, the expectations are higher.

"I think it's a fan base learning to love winning again," Glynn said. "They've always loved the Leafs. That's never been a problem. But they're learning to appreciate winning again."

Suddenly, 50 years after the Maple Leafs last won a championship, there are visions of the Stanley Cup dancing in their heads, an image that would have been unimaginable just four short years ago. It hasn't felt this close since 1979 or 1993 or 2002, depending on which variety -- or age -- of fan is asked.

"If we don't win one in the next five to 10 years, it's definitely not going to be through lack of trying, and through management throwing their heart and everything into it," said Mike Wilson, 62, who has been billed as "The Ultimate Leafs Fan." 

"Do I think it's going to happen? Yeah, I do, actually. I firmly believe that. I really do think it's going to happen."

****

Aerosmith's "Dream On" is playing, as the Maple Leafs' opening montage flits across the video screen at Air Canada Centre. It seems only fitting. Because that is what they're all doing, the fans in the 300 level and the ones watching at home, the executives brought in to create, and the players readying themselves in the dressing room.

You can see it. It is there in their words and their actions and their continued belief, a belief that suddenly doesn't seem so blind or foolish. They have been through the years of chanting for chanting's sake, when "Go Leafs Go" felt as much like an obligation as an exhortation.

No longer.

Still, as Lamoriello cautioned: "We have a ways to go. You can't get teased by a little bit of success, nor should they. We're not there. But are we moving in the right direction? Without question."

He added, later, "There's going to be more pain."

They can live with that, all of them, from the management on down. They will go through more pain, more disappointment, if needed, because it is all tinged with a sense of possibility. It is a new day in Toronto, and these are the new Maple Leafs.

"Everyone is just excited again and just proud to be a Leafs fan again," Kadri said. "We leave the rink every single day proud to put on that jersey."

There is a future. There is hope. They have been once, twice, thrice bitten, and still are not shy. Still, they believe. Now, just maybe, they feel they have something to believe in.

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