For a while in the late 70s I used to wear this fully-appointed Darryl Sittler replica Toronto Maple Leafs sweater. Thirty years ago today, however, I took it off for the last time, and it has been gradually working its way to the back of my closet ever since.
I'm not ashamed of it or anything, I was a full-blooded Leafs fan from the time I started to watch hockey in the spring of 1963 until very nearly that day. As one who formed still-standing allegiances with the St. Louis (baseball) Cardinals, Edmonton Eskimos, and Pittsburgh Steelers around that time I'm not one to easily give up on a team, but the merger of 1979 was decision time. I was no longer rooting for the Leafs in one league and the Oilers in another, so ties had to be cut.
The formal opportunity to do so arose on October 5, 1979, when the Leafs arrived in Edmonton for a highly-anticipated exhibition game. While we had hosted a number of Western Conference teams in preseasons past and present, this was the first time an Original Six team graced the Coliseum, and for many it was an event which confirmed our new status as a spanking new (if slightly used) National Hockey League city. For sure it was by far the most animated crowd I have ever seen for an exhibition game.
Despite Harold Ballard's best attempts to run the Leafs franchise into the ground, by the late 70s the Leafs had regained a semblance of respectability thanks to a Big Three of Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming. That previous spring they had knocked off the heavily-favoured New York Islanders with their own Big Three of Trottier, Bossy and Potvin, before running into the awesome Montreal Canadiens and their Big Thirteen, or so it seemed. Still, the aforementioned along with Tiger Williams, Ian Turnbull, goalie Mike Palmateer and others made a charismatic crew who were fun to watch. After years of living and dying with these guys on TV, here they were, live and in person.
It was a Friday evening, and the party was on. The Coliseum was dry in those days, but I was high on hockey. I went down early enough to watch the pregame skate and was surprised by the throngs of people who'd had the same idea. Like me, many of them were wearing their Maple Leaf jerseys; unlike me, most of them were obnoxious. ;) A huge cheer went up as the Leafs hit the ice for the pregame skate, in which I heartily participated. Really liked those guys, still do. I got as close as I could and watched my helmetless heroes through the plexiglass. This was it! The NHL had arrived!!
By anthem time the place was absolutely packed like no preseason game since. The crowd was totally into it, and Leaf and Oiler fans alike joined forces for a rousing rendition of O Canada. As the echoes of the closing cheer rang in the rafters, I paused before sitting down, just long enough to take off my white Leafs jersey to reveal the Oiler blue underneath. My true colours formally on display to the world, I stashed the Sittler jersey in an also-symbolic brown paper bag. ("That's for Roger Nielson, Harold!" I muttered.)
And with that it was game on, and the Leafs were the other guys. Have been that way for me ever since, with an attitude ranging from apathy to open hatred. That night I thrilled to see their big guns play, but rooted as hard as I could for my new heroes, the hometown Oilers.
In the end it was less difficult than I supposed. While I maintained strong allegiances for certain Leaf players, I had grown increasingly disconnected from a franchise which was in the process of being run into the ground by Harold Ballard. Old Weird Harold was making money hand over fist, simultaneously selling out Maple Leaf Gardens and selling out its fans by being unwilling to pay his players market value. Many of them including personal favourites like Dave Keon, Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson, Jim Harrison, Bernie Parent, and several others had jumped to the Rebel League over the previous years while the Leafs crashed down the standings.
Moreover, Ballard had consistently trashed the WHA and done everything in his power to keep them -- us -- out of the league. An ex-con himself, he had surrounded himself with shady characters who, it turned out, besmirched the reputation of one of Canada's great hockey centres, Maple Leaf Gardens, in a most reprehensible manner. And he put down his own players, including McDonald and Sittler who were soon on a one-way ticket out of Toronto in any event. "The hapless Leafs" soon became a watchword.
That night, though, they were terrific. In an end-to-end thriller the Leafs topped the Oilers 7-6, with all the big guys playing and scoring on both sides of the puck. Significantly, my new überhero, Wayne Gretzky, scored 5 points and attained first star status in defeat. Two nights later, Gretzky would score another 5 points in the Oilers' last exhibition tune-up, an 8-6 win over the New York Rangers, in another credibility test against the losing Stanley Cup finalist. It was already apparent that he was For Real, and so were we.