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August can be one of the special times of the year for Leaf fans

When I was a kid, in the early ‘60s, being a Leaf fan was tremendous. They didn’t win the Cup every year, of course, but in the old six-team NHL, the Leafs, in my early years, were very competitive every year.

And they did win those four Stanley Cups, which is a great memory to have.

There have always been special times of the year for me as a hockey fan, spring being perhaps the most memorable. Playoffs in the old six-team, 70-game seasons generally started in late March and went into April. There were only two rounds back then. The latest the Cup finals ever went was the last time the Maple Leafs won, on May 2, 1967. That was considered very late to be playing hockey.

(Years before, Rocket Richard commented in a magazine article that he sometimes found it difficult to play hockey in April, because the weather was turning and it didn’t feel like hockey season. It apparently didn’t hurt his mood too much, though, as he scored a then record 82 playoff goals in his hey-day with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1940s and 1950s.)

So spring time was great, especially if the Leafs advanced past the first round of the playoffs. Every playoff goal, every game, was crucial, it seemed, when I was a kid.

Nowadays free agency on July 1 helps to keep hockey in the news. In bygone times we had no real free agency so players weren’t switching teams all summer long. The trade deadline is also a fun time of the year for hockey fans. While there were some big deals completed well into the season “way back when”, (for example, Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney for Dick Duff, Bob Nevin and a young Rod Seiling was a huge deal in 1964) I don’t remember a lot of talk back then of a “deadline”, though there had to be one, I’m sure.

The other time that I recall that was special was the period leading into the regular season- old-time training camps. As a fan, you started to read articles about hockey again in your local paper and were just excited that hockey was coming back. You knew that soon, you could count on Hockey Night in Canada to entertain you every Saturday from October through much of April.

In those days, training camp usually started, if I’m not mistaken, right around Labor Day, not much different from today. But if I remember correctly it was maybe six weeks long, with tons of exhibition games. The guys had to play themselves into shape. It’s not like it is today, where veterans show up in great shape already. Back then, the veterans had their spot, generally speaking, and it was a matter of working your way into game condition.

I remember reading something long-time Maple Leaf Dave Keon (pictured with the Leafs in the early 1960s at right) said early in his career. He commented that the only time of year that dragged for him was the last two weeks in August, because he was so anxious to get back to hockey and training camp. He clearly loved playing the game, and missed being on skates all summer long. (That was solved for a few players like Keon, teammate Billy Harris and later Bobby Orr and Mike Walton when they opened “hockey camps” for kids in the mid- and later 1960s. We didn’t have much if any year-around “ice” for aspiring young players in those days, so the chance to go to a summer sports and hockey camp run was pros was pretty neat. I never went myself, but my Dad offered to send me to the Keon-Harris camp, as I recall. I had their camp brochure for a long time, but I would have been pretty lonesome back then- and I wasn’t that good a hockey player that going to camp would have put me on a professional career path!)

Training camp is shorter now, the regular season is longer with the 82 games and we have four rounds of playoffs with 16 teams involved every spring, so the season runs into June.

I’d like to see the schedule cut back to about 74 games, so the playoffs could get underway a bit sooner and we could finish the playoffs in May. But the need for revenue means that won’t ever happen, unfortunately.

Regardless, we’re heading into that time of year that, to me, is great for hockey fans. Followers of every team hope and maybe even believe that with the changes over the summer, the new season will be better than the old one, or maybe than even the past several seasons. The end of August means the beginning of the end of summer—but it also is the beginning of a new hockey season-one of the best times of the year.

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