Has hockey’s greatest rivalry lost its fire?

If you ever walk around Boston you’ll undoubtedly see t-shirt kiosks selling shirts that on the front read “Yankees Suck” and on the back, “Jeter Swallows”. At one time, you might have seen shirts like these around Toronto but, unfortunately, the Leafs and Habs rivalry has sunk to a level that makes it hard to get excited about, let alone print a dirty t-shirt.

If you ever walk around Boston you’ll undoubtedly see t-shirt kiosks selling shirts that on the front read “Yankees Suck” and on the back, “Jeter Swallows”.
At one time, you might have seen shirts like these around
Toronto but, unfortunately, the Leafs and Habs rivalry has sunk to a level that makes it hard to get excited about, let alone print a dirty t-shirt.
Leafs and Habs games used to be an event, the one game that everyone who didn’t follow hockey watched, but now it has been reduced to just another day on the schedule. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that both Toronto and Montreal’s management have been about as effective as Michael Vick’s PR team.
But, like most things in life, I like to blame the Ottawa Senators.
The Sens have taken the focus away from the Leafs’ true rival. For the last three seasons, including last Wednesday’s opener, the Leafs first game has been against the Senators, setting up yet another season of the Battle of Ontario. The first NCAA football games of the season are always the
big rivalry games, and not some manufactured rivalry made by TSN analyst Pierre McGuire because he needs something to yell about. Real rivalries that are reinforced by decades of hatred: Yankees/Red Sox, Lakers/Celtics, Oilers/Flames, these are the rivalries that have pushed teams to greatness.
Without a strong rivalry, Sundin and Koivu can never be remembered in the same regard as Lafleur and Mahovlich or Salming and Robinson. The Battle of Ontario is just something that was created out of playoff seeding. The fact that two teams from the same province repeatedly played each other in the playoffs created the rivalry, not the fans. There’s no denying that each of the playoff series where the Leafs and Sens have faced each other were a lot of fun and, especially living in Toronto, it’s hard not to get caught up in the rivalry. But none of those series were as much fun as the last game of the 2006-2007 season between the Leafs and Habs to decide which team would go to the playoffs (it turned out that neither would end up making it because the Devils decided not to play Martin Brodeur in their last game against the Islanders).
Despite the fact that my nervous system shut down at least three different times during that game, I haven’t had as much fun watching a game in years. The fact that it was against the Canadiens just made it even better. The entire time the Leafs were hanging on for dear life against the Habs the thought going through my mind wasn’t “the Leafs might actually make the playoffs,” it was “hell yeah, we’re going to knock the Canadiens out of the playoffs”.
I’m not saying Leaf fans should ignore the Sens. I’ll still be rooting for Darcy Tucker to knock the hell out of Daniel Alfredsson. But when the Leafs and Canadiens play this season, I want to see jerseys everywhere. I want this rivalry to get going again. Leaf fans, try to remember how good it felt to beat the Canadiens in that game last year, and to all the Habs fans, remember how much it sucked to be knocked out of the playoffs by the Leafs.
Leafs and Habs games should be the games that we cheer our throats raw at. And, seeing the directions our teams are going, they may be all we have to cheer for a very long time.

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