On Friday, June 24th, 2016, the Toronto Maple Leafs received the 1st overall pick in the NHL entry draft for the first time since 1985, when they chose a young prairie-boy named Wendel Clark.
The world was a different place 31 years ago. The most popular personal computers were built by Commodore. Portable phones didn’t exist. And the Maple Leafs were only 18 years removed from their last Stanley Cup victory.
The city wasn’t nearly as antsy as it is now for a winner. The Toronto Blue Jays were in the midst of their first pennant-winning season only 9 years into their young existence. The city had baseball fever, which helped the 416 ignore some of the Leafs’ painful years during the Harold Ballard era. The Toronto Raptors were still 10 years away from even existing, Toronto FC, over 20 years away. While many CFL enthusiasts showered the Argos with love, the truth was there were two teams in this city playing within the 4 major professional leagues in North America, and the Jays were the focus.
1992 and 1993 were the pinnacle in this city. The talented Jays in their 16th season, won their first world series. The city celebrated. Then, in the spring of 1993, the magical sports mojo made its way to Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Leafs upset the Detroit Redwings and the St. Louis Blues to reach the Western conference finals, where the infamous missed call by Kerry Fraser allowed the LA Kings to beat our beloved buds and steal Toronto’s spot in a dream final against the Montreal Canadiens. Clark was surrounded by a cast of heroes including Doug Gilmour, Felix Potvin, and a recently-acquired Dave Andreychuk.
The following October, Joe Carter hit his famous walk-off winner against the Phillies in one of the biggest sports moments in the history of Toronto.
In 1994, MLB went on strike, killing a lot of the momentum consecutive world series wins had built in this city. After another trip to the conference finals, the Vancouver Canucks eliminated Toronto, and the cupless streak hit 27 years, and the Leafs did the unthinkable – trading the popular captain Wendel Clark to the Quebec Nordiques for a big Swedish kid named Mats Sundin. But now, due to the baseball strike and the absence of other teams, the Leafs were thrust back into the forefront. The Raptors were introduced in 1995 and received some coverage, but they were far from becoming the exciting brand they are seen as today. The Leafs had some mediocre seasons that saw the removal of players like Gilmour and Andreychuk, while new pieces were brought in like Tomas Kaberle and Nik Antropov.
The Leafs achieved moderate success again in 1999 and 2002, when Sundin led them to the Eastern conference finals twice, where they lost both series. Since 2004, the Leafs reached the playoffs once in 2013 and were ousted by the Boston Bruins. In 2008, after 14 incredible statistical seasons with no actual results, Sundin left as a free agent to finish his career with Vancouver, leaving Toronto with a massive void up the middle.
And that leads us to the present day. 2016.
For the first time since the world series years, the Toronto Blue Jays are once again a team worth watching, coming within two games of reaching the World Series last year, ultimately losing to the World Series Champion Kansas City Royals.
The Toronto Raptors, after virtually no success since their inception in 1995, came within 2 games of reaching the NBA finals, ultimately losing to Lebron James and the World Champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
Toronto FC finally made the playoffs last year, and behind International superstar Sebastien Giovinco, have captured the hearts of soccer fans around the city.
The Toronto Argos… are still around. Moving to BMO field this year, they are still the most recent Toronto-based champions having won the Grey Cup in 2012.
And then we have the Leafs. After trading away polarizing figures like Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, and finishing in the basement, 30th overall – the city was not mad. They were excited. The 416 was PROUD of Toronto’s last place finish. They played the right way and lost with honor, in comparison to the lack of heart and effort from overpaid players in past years. Larry Tanenbaum, Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter, Mike Babcock and the rest of the Leafs brass delivered exactly what Toronto had been waiting for.
The lottery ball fell, and the Leafs received the first overall pick in the 2016 entry draft.
The top prospect was a 6’2 215 lb. centre. A two-way player with the work ethic, the natural talent and the ability to be a franchise player. Auston Matthews.
Before the draft, the Leafs decided to address another massive concern. A position that had felt pretty vacant since the days of Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour. They needed a TRUE number one goalie. Not an Andrew Raycroft, not a Vesa Toskala and sadly, not a James Reimer or Jonathan Bernier.
Thanks to their brilliant stockpiling of draft picks, the Leafs were able to pry Frederik Andersen away from the Anaheim Ducks for virtually nothing. At 6’4 and 220 lbs, he is a big body that will block a lot of pucks. At only 26 years old, his best years are ahead of him. The city buzzed with excitement. We got the goalie, we had some great prospects. Now we needed that next big piece of the puzzle.
Friday, June 24th, 2016, the Leafs announced their selection from the Zurich Mens’ League. The first ever 1st overall pick selected from the Southwestern United States. Auston Matthews.
And while the world is a VERY different place than it was 35 years ago, there are some eerie similarities in the T dot.
Like 1985, other teams in the city are contenders.
Like 1985, there is a core of young talent set up around this pick.
Like 1985, the city is ready to believe it could be our time again.
Nobody is expecting the Leafs to go out and win the cup in its 50th year since winning the last one, but the building blocks are certainly in place for the future. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Frederik Andersen, not to mention other young talent like Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Zach Hyman, and Josh Leivo.
Coack Babcock now has a lot of work to do.
With a bonafide number one centre and goaltender, along with a cast of young prospects – now is the time to teach them, nourish them, let them grow together. After 31 years, the Leafs finally got to draft the absolute best player available, which filled the exact need they’ve had since 2008.
The next few years on the Toronto sports scene are going to be VERY interesting.
» Sports » The pick Toronto has waited 31...