TORONTO (Reuters) - So starved for success that even a taste of playoff action can be savored, the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans are enjoying a long-awaited return to the postseason but hunger for more.
A Mardi Gras-like buzz swept across Toronto with the Maple Leafs in the postseason for the first time since 2004, but the excitement may be short-lived as the team was pushed to the brink of playoff elimination after Wednesday’s gut-wrenching 4-3 overtime loss to the Boston Bruins.
The Bruins now hold a commanding 3-1 lead in the opening-round series and can deliver the knockout blow at home on Friday that would end the Stanley Cup dreams of Leafs Nation.
Toronto snapped the NHL’s longest active post-season drought this year but have failed to record a home win for a fan base that has stood by their team through thick and thin, selling out the Air Canada Center (ACC) year after year.
The Maple Leafs have not won a playoff game at home since April 2004 but they came excruciatingly close until Boston’s David Krejci delivered the dagger in overtime on Wednesday, two days after the visitors enjoyed a 5-2 win.
Treated to a display of hockey at its thrilling best, it was the type of enthralling game that reminded Maple Leafs fans of what they had been missing through those barren nine years and surely whet their appetite for more.
For once, fans who pay the highest ticket prices in the NHL, even before prices were hiked 75 percent to an average $218 for the first round of the playoffs, left the packed ACC feeling they had received full value for their money.
“I have been around this game a long time and it seems in overtime it is one bounce, one shot, one rebound, one deflection, one block, it’s all the ones that go against you,” lamented Toronto coach Randy Carlyle.
“It feels like a dagger after the effort that was put forth by our group.
“It was a man’s hockey game out there. There was a lot of energy, a lot of physical play but that’s the way the playoffs are played.”
After watching playoff hockey from a distance for nearly 10 years, Leafs Nation can be forgiven for not fully understanding the nuances of postseason hockey.
Better days, however, may be ahead for a franchise that has always appeared more interested in the bottom line than their place in the standings.
The recent hiring of Tim Leiweke as chief executive of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), which in addition to the NHL team owns the National Basketball Association’s Raptors and Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC, signals a shift in philosophy within the sporting empire.
Leiweke, who steered the Los Angeles-based sports colossus Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) for 18 years, says winning trophies will be the priority in Toronto, which is exactly what the Leafs faithful, who packed Maple Leaf Square outside the team’s arena on Wednesday, want to hear.
Under Leiweke’s watch AEG filled its trophy case with the NBA’s Lakers, NHL’s Kings and MLS’s Galaxy winning a combined 10 championships and he now wants to do the same at MLSE.
The Maple Leafs are the NHL’s only franchise valued at $1 billion, according to Forbes, and are the crown jewel in the MLSE portfolio that also includes condominiums, stadiums, arenas, bars and a television station.
But it is a ravenous and loyal fan base that provides the foundation for all MLSE businesses.
The last time the Maple Leafs appeared in the playoffs Maple Leaf Square was nothing more than a plan on the architect’s drawing board.
Now it is the gathering place where MLSE’s biggest asset, its fans, gather in the thousands to watch Maple Leafs games on a massive outdoor screen just outside the ACC.
Wearing Leafs sweaters, their faces painted in the team’s blue and white colors, fans line up for hours just to be close to their team while the overflow spills onto nearby streets and into nearby bars.
Chants of “Go-Leafs-Go” echo off the condo towers that cast long shadows over the square but there is nothing organic or spontaneous about the scene, the space designed for just such a purpose and providing a lively backdrop for MLSE’s media co-owners Rogers and Bell.
From the MLSE boardroom to the Leafs lockerroom the value of that support may be counted in different ways but there is no disputing its value.
“We have unbelievable fans here and I think it’s great for them to finally be able to cheer a playoff game,” praised Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul. “They’ve stuck with us. They deserve this.”
Editing by Frank Pingue