RIVALRY REVIVAL: Leafs-Canadiens rendez-vous took long enough to resume

t’ll be the skill of Mitch Marner and the Maple Leafs against the hard-hitting Canadiens, led by winger Josh Anderson, when the two longtime rival teams square off in their first-round playoff series starting Thursday in Toronto. When the teams last met in 1979, the sleek, first-place Habs were the heavy favourites, the Leafs the gritty underdogs.

This time, Wayne Gretzky can’t trash a potential Toronto-Montreal Stanley Cup playoff series.

After years of Leafs Nation lamenting ‘what if?’ when No. 99 derailed their dream matchup in the 1993 Cup final, the NHL’s oldest rivals are finally back to playoff hockey.

The Cliff Fletcher-era Leafs were 60 minutes from an all-Canadian championship, which Toronto fans believed they were destined to win after three straight seven-game series, the last against Gretzky and his Los Angeles Kings.

“Then Wayne had the hat trick in Game 7, the one he called his greatest night,” said John Shannon, veteran producer of Hockey Night In Canada and now a broadcaster/podcaster. “You’ll recall that was also a time where the Leafs and Canadiens could still play for the Cup because Toronto was in the West, which was one of the reasons the league left them in that conference, for the chance to meet Montreal in the final.

“No question there was great anticipation that year about the Leafs and Canadiens. ESPN was the rights-holder in the U.S., and it would have (resonated) there, too. Up until then, ratings for the final were OK through the years, but not solid.”

Montreal went on to beat the Kings in the final, the most recent Canadian team to claim the Cup.

A few years later, Toronto was back with Les Glorieux in the East, yet they still somehow missed each other every spring, two flagships passing in the night. Now, thanks to this season’s North Division, a necessity of COVID-19 restrictions, all seven Canadian teams were under one post-season tent.

Zealots coast-to-coast, with current or ancestral ties to one of the clubs from the earliest days of NHL radio and TV, can’t wait for puck drop on Thursday at Scotiabank Arena. It’s only the first round, but this match has loud echoes of playoffs past, an era when these teams symbolized language and cultural pride.

Their most recent head-to-heads in the late ’70s were both over in four straight — a good Toronto team trounced by a great Montreal side. The most recent Leafs playoff win over the Habs, in 1967, was also their last Stanley Cup to date.

That pre-expansion triumph, in the nation’s centennial year, is still one of this city’s greatest pro sports chapters. The underdog old-guard Leafs with an average age of 32, shut down the dynamic first-place Habs.

In 2021, it’s role reversal. The Leafs, who led the division almost wire-to-wire with a flying circus of skill and scoring, versus the gritty Habs, steeped in defence with the league’s highest hit count.

On alternate nights, the audience will enjoy Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers against the Winnipeg Jets in the other North series.

TV treats such as these are why Rogers Communications shelled out $5.2 billion in 2013 for national broadcast rights.

“In both series, Rogers has hit a home run,” Shannon said. “Edmonton-Winnipeg, Toronto-Montreal, I don’t think you could draw it up any better. Fans who’ve clamoured for this for so long are going to be excited. We’ve seen it in the West (with local rivals at playoff time), now the whole country gets to enjoy it. They could have remarkable viewing numbers.

“NBC is also covering Montreal-Toronto as they are every series. There’s excitement everywhere when you get any of those six older teams against each other in the playoffs. And as much as the pandemic has been an issue for all of us (no fans will be permitted at Scotiabank Arena or the Bell Centre in Montreal), this will be a positive.”

Since ’93, both franchises fell on hard times, the Canadiens missed the playoffs three straight seasons, the Leafs seven. Now, things are looking up.

“You really have to give both teams credit,” Shannon said. “Montreal, in the past 20 years, has done a tremendous job re-engaging with their fans of every age. And what the Leafs have done since the arrival of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews is create a new generation of fans in southern Ontario.

“Also, don’t discount the Raptors effect in all of this, the pressure within MLSE that the Leafs have to match what they did. This is hockey’s chance to get to the same level as what the basketball team did.”

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