Best Night of the Year for Maple Leafs Fans? Opening Night

Michael Francis
5 min readOct 11, 2023
Opening Night for Leafs fans approaches mystical. (Image Credit: Mark Blinch/NHLI Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs have one of the most decorated franchises of the NHL. Second most Stanley Cups at 13, member of the Original Six, and a franchise going back more than a century. And more, they are an extension of the league; the Hockey Hall of Fame sits in downtown Toronto; atop the Conn Smythe trophy presented to MVP of the playoffs, there is a metal cast of Maple Leaf Gardens, home of the Buds from 1916–2001.

But for many of us, that fond farewell has represented a kind of high point of meaningful things to happen in generations. Plural.

The Maple Leafs have not won the Stanley Cup in 56 years, the longest active streak in all four major sports leagues. We have not reached the Finals since that same year. We have reached the third round only three times in nearly six decades. Then we lived through the worse of “things could always be worse”: in a 12 year span from 2004 to 2016, we made the playoffs just once. In the midst of that, we went 19 years without winning a playoff series. Often, we lose in spectacular fashion — up 4–1 with 11 minutes to play in a Game 7 vs Boston, or blowing a 3–1 series lead to our rivals in Montreal.

Being a Maple Leafs fan can be quite the experience. (Image Credit: Bleacher Report)

It seems unimaginable to want to like this team unless you’re born into it some fashion; growing up near Toronto, growing up with a parent that was already in, or possibly marrying in (as my wife has, the beautiful fool that she is).

Last May, it finally happened: for the first time in 6,948 days, the Maple Leafs were through the first round. A stunning Game 6 overtime goal from our captain, John Tavares. A captain born and raised in the suburb of Toronto (also the birth place of yours truly). A captain who had, two years prior, taken a brutal knee to the face in an unlucky tumble in Game 5 of that blown Montreal series. (He wouldn’t return in the series, suffering symptoms from the major concussion for months.)

The man who tossed a 19 year old back clinging monkey. (Image Credit: SportsNet)

Now a Tampa area native, I had the rather surreal pleasure of being present for that goal. Even I didn’t believe it; despite seeing the puck go in with my own eyes from the upper deck on the opposite side of the rink, I checked the Maple Leafs bench to confirm what I had not seen in two decades.

The bench had nearly cleared, and Coach Keefe, not a small man, had leaped high into the air.

But that has been the first moment of real, total joy in decades. Which got me thinking — what is the best day to be a Leafs fan?

A rare experience for a Leafs fan: seeing the winning side of playoff handshake line. (Image Credit: Me)

While that moment was surely a high point in a long series of low points, it was not without a caveat. Waiting for us was the winner of the Boston Florida series; Boston had just set the single season record for points in an all time great campaign. However supreme the joy, we knew that our old nemesis was waiting for us, and better than ever. As it happened, Florida completed one of the most improbable series comebacks in NHL history; in Game 5, Boston star (and league pest) Marchand was free and clear on a breakaway to close out the series. He would miss, and somehow, Florida would win that game, and the last two of the seven game series. Really, that meltdown couldn’t happen to a better guy or team.

In the weeks after the game — weeks that saw Toronto get outworked an emboldened Panthers team — I reflected on that question: what is the best day of the year for a Maple Leafs fan?

The answer is Opening Night. To be clear, Opening Night here refers to the Home Opener; while the return may come a game or two earlier, the magic of the Home Opener is unparalleled.

The feeling of a hot start to the season, sky high hopes and fearing when the campaign will fall apart? Opening Night doesn’t have that.

The despair of a lackluster team that looks like it’s set to hit the golf course in lieu of the playoffs? Not on Opening Night.

Worrying that your team has all the piece in place, except for goaltending, or a big defenseman, or top lines that can produce when it matters? Doesn’t exist Opening Night.

Radko Gudas being a human trash can and screaming in the face of our rookie goaltender after knocking us out of the playoffs? Won’t happen Opening Night.

Turns out, we did not want Florida. Also, fuck Radko Gudas. (Image Credit: The Toronto Star/Ben Cohen)

Instead, it’s all a warm return to the familiar.

We get to relive the past. Hype videos and montages, featuring old greats and the current stars. The only game all season where the entire team is introduced, from your star center to the equipment manager.

Opening Night is a special night. (Image Credit: Scotiabank Arena)

The entire night has come to feel something approaching mystical. There’s no room for all those fears and thoughts. The playoffs are as distant as they’ll ever be.

And for a few moments, it’s just calm excitement. The return. Hockey is back. The Maple Leafs are back.

So tonight, I will settle in, (alcohol free) beer in the fridge, steaks for the grill, and tune in on Opening Night. It will be my wife’s fourth Opening Night. I’ve been alive for 37, and I’ve watched the majority of them going back as far as I can remember.

Tonight is the best night to be a Maple Leafs fan. For the inevitable, distant as ever, disappears.

Perhaps this is the year where the unlikely happens. Maybe this is a year that ends in another fantastic, creative and crushing end.

The uncertainty breeds certainty: Opening Night is the best night of the year.

(Until it’s not, of course.)

A forever proud member of Leafs Nation, I am obliged to end this piece the only way I know how, with those three incredible, awful, amazing, disappointing and forever passionate words: