In a universe based as much on perception as reality, resentment toward Toronto is ratcheted up because everyone thinks referees favor the Maple Leafs "When I played for Toronto, I never thought about it," Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris McAllister, who was with the Leafs for parts of two seasons, says about officiating calls tilted toward Toronto. "But after I got traded and played against them, I felt they were getting calk in their favor most of the time. A lot of guys on other teams feel the same way."
The NHL's failure to suspend former Toronto goaltender Curtis Joseph for accidentally knocking down referee Mick McGeough in Game 3 of a first-round playoff series against the Ottawa Senators in 2000 reinforced the notion of bias. ("It was practically hilarious," Colin Campbell NHL director of hockey operations, says of McGeough's pratfall, when an enraged Joseph, skating toward the ref, slipped and felled him like a tenpin.) The Flyers still simmer over a borderline elbowing penalty on John LeClair by referee Terry Gregson late in a scoreless tie that led to Toronto's series-winning power-play goal in the first round in 1999, a call that prompted an apoplectic Philadelphia chairman Ed Snider to demand to know where Gregson was born. The answer: Erin, Ont., about 40 miles from Toronto.
The NHL's hockey operations department is on the 11th floor of the Air Canada Tower, an elevator ride from Toronto's home ice. When the league first considered relocating the department from outside the city to downtown (it moved in 1999), commissioner Gary Bettman told Campbell that the NHL's executive committee was leery of putting the offices so close to the Air Canada Centre for fear the move might be perceived as favoring the Maple Leafs. Campbell somehow convinced the league that the move would be beneficial because it was closer to the action. "Are the Leafs a favored nation?" Campbell says. "I think the opposite is true. There's more exposure and coverage [in Toronto than anywhere else]. They can't get away with anything."
The Maple Leafs, of course, are a favored nation, by circumstance if not by formal decree. They are an anomaly in Canada, the land of the 64-cent dollar and mid-level payrolls. The fifth-highest average ticket price and strong corporate backing shield them from the sick Canadian buck, making the Leafs more like Rangers North than their fellow Canadian franchises. "With Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment owning the [ NBA] Raptors and the building," says Pittsburgh center Kent Manderville, who played in Toronto for four seasons, "it's almost like an American-style entertainment company."
The Maple Leafs are clearly favored by CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, which is even more profoundly consecrated as Saturday evening viewing in Canada than Friends and Seinfeld were on Thursday evenings for couch potatoes in the U.S. This season Hockey Night, probably the second most important institution in the sport besides the Stanley Cup, will air 27 games involving Toronto, 12 more than the Edmonton Oilers, the next most televised team. Maple Leafs telecasts have the No. 1 announcing team of Bob Cole and Harry Neale and the fervent good wishes of Don Cherry, who regularly trumpets his support for Toronto on his wildly popular Coach's Corner segment after the first period. Since 1989-90, the 10 top-rated Saturday night games and eight of the top 10 playoff matches have featured the Leafs even though they never reached a Cup final over that span.
"I remember watching the first three or four games of the Leafs-Kings semifinals on TV in New York in 1993," says James Patrick, a Sabres defenseman who played with the Rangers from '83-84 through '93-94. "It was a pretty good series. Dougie Gilmour was in his prime, going up against Wayne Gretzky. I had no preference. Then I went home to Winnipeg and caught the end of the series and was blown away by the biased coverage. Hockey Night wanted Toronto to win so badly, I instantly became the world's biggest Kings fan."
The crush of attention, and occasional fawning, have created a predictable backlash. "There is a certain swagger that comes with being a Leaf, which is probably why they're disliked," says former Toronto goalie Glenn Healy, who is a Hockey Night analyst. "Even the fourth-line guys on Toronto get car [endorsement] deals. In Atlanta fourth-line guys are lucky if they can afford to buy a car."
"If there is a little cock to our walk, it's not so much our doing," Tucker says. "Walk down the street, and people are hugging you like you're a movie star."
But in the corners and in the crease of NHL rinks outside Toronto, the most hated team in hockey is Sundin and a bunch of mother Tuckers.