From The Star
VANCOUVER—As the Maple Leafs and Canucks held practice here in anticipation of their Saturday night matchup, nobody was pretending there was a classic in the offing.
The Maple Leafs, after all, are in sole possession of last place in the NHL. They’ve been lit up for nine goals against in two games since trading away captain Dion Phaneuf. And a handful of their most experienced players have been injured, among them centreman Nazem Kadri, who said on Friday he’s “day to day” with an alleged lower-body injury.
“I’m going to wake up (Saturday) morning and see how I feel,” Kadri said.
You get the sense plenty of Leaf fans wouldn’t mind being woken up when it’s time for the draft lottery. And as for the Canucks, well, it can’t be a comfort to hockey-loving patriots that this injury-depleted team still led by the 35-year-old Sedin twins is shaping up to be a nation’s best hope at avoiding a Stanley Cup tournament without a Canadian entry.
Still, the Maple Leafs and Canucks are living in very different circumstances with very little in common. Hardly ancient rivals, they don’t play often enough be hated foes. One would be at pains to spin a storyline of acrimony — except for maybe one.
There is an annual source of resentment in the Terminal City when the Leafs make their lone visit to Rogers Arena. It’s aimed at the start time: 4 p.m. local.
It’s a time clearly geared toward the GTA television audience, and based on pure economics. As the heart of Canada’s largest population base, southern Ontario harbours a vast audience sponsors pay maximum dollars to reach. Yet as sensible as that sounds, it doesn’t stop some West Coasters from harbouring ill feelings. What’s prime time in Toronto, after all, isn’t prime time here.
As Ray Ferraro, the NHL alumnus and Vancouver-area resident, was saying on Toronto-based TSN Radio on Friday: “(Some Vancouver fans) seem to think (the 4 p.m. start time is) a sign of disrespect.”
Chris Tanev, the Canucks defenceman who grew up in Toronto, said he has picked up on the negative vibes that emanate from this issue.
“I know a lot of people from Vancouver don’t really like Toronto,” Tanev said. “So that could be part of it.”
Another part of it, perhaps, is that Maple Leafs games in Vancouver — like Maple Leafs games in a lot of cities — sometimes feel like home games for the visitors. Thanks to their century-old heritage and long-ago hey-day, the Leafs boast a fan-base that’s well-dispersed geographically. Even in their current tattered state, the Leafs drew rousing support in Thursday night’s 5-2 loss in Edmonton, where chants of “Go Leafs Go!” went back and forth with “Let’s Go Oilers!”
Heck, even GTA-bred Oilers star Connor McDavid, on the night he torched the visitors for five points, admitted to getting “chills” seeing the hallowed blue and white crest worn by his childhood heroes warming up on the other side of the red line. Never mind that some of those crests currently are being worn by not-yet legends like Martin Marincin and Mark Arcobello.
For non-Leaf fans, this vein of undeserved veneration — the cheering for laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld pegged it — can get annoying. And there’s always political hay to be made by tapping into the anti-Big Smoke sentiment. It was just last season that Christy Clark, the premier of British Columbia, trolled Leafs Nation on social media when Toronto’s home ice was pelted with blue and white sweaters and the Leafs made public a threat that jersey-throwing fans could be subject to arrest.
“About time. Most Canadians would rather be arrested than put on that jersey,” read a message posted on Clark’s Twitter account.
Even Leafs goaltender James Reimer, the nicest man on the planet by many estimates, says he has observed the mostly playful antagonism.
“Everybody always mocks that Toronto is the centre of the universe. So it’s things like that — that we have to have a 4 o’clock start so things work out for the Torontonians — that (fuel) it,” said Reimer, who hails from rural Manitoba and summers in Kelowna, B.C. “I don’t know if you want to call it a resentment or a good-natured (rivalry), but if you’re in the West you hate Toronto, and if you’re in Toronto, you hate the West.”
Whether the feeling goes both ways is a point of debate. Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, a Vancouverite by birth, said he regularly absorbs verbal barbs when he comes home for the off-season.
“It usually starts with ‘Toronto stinks,’ or something, and I’ll just ignore it. And then usually it just keeps coming,” said Rielly, who notes nobody in Toronto gives him a hard time about being from Vancouver.
“Maybe Vancouver is Toronto’s little brother,” Rielly said. “I have no problem saying it. I love Toronto. And I love it here.”
What’s not to love? When the teams emerged from practice at Rogers Arena on Friday they found the sun shining and the temperature reaching toward 13C. Someone made reference to it being late afternoon and sub-zero in Toronto. Someone else laughed.
And the hockey people sped off toward a horizon framed by snow-capped mountains and warm daylight.