I've lived in Southern Ontario all my life and hockey has been one of my greatest passions for as long as I can remember. Admittedly, that's only 18.5 years so a relatively small sample size, but still. I've been a Leaf fan since the moment I was born. Yes, that early. My parents immediately had me reading "there's always next year" over and over until I was a pro. Anyways...
5. THE SPEED
Basketball, Baseball, and Football all have much larger fan support than the NHL, but I've never fully understood the appeal. Basketball is irrelevant and full of overpaid sucks who whine anytime another player rubs shoulders with them. Baseball can occasionally be fun, but it's usually just something to watch when you're looking for an afternoon nap. The MLB season drags on forever, and the games follow suit. Football is actually fun to watch, but the constant pauses in game-play slow the sport down significantly. Hockey is the only one that offers non-stop end-to-end exciting action for 60 minutes of play (unless you're watching the NJ Devils, Buffalo Sabres, or Boston Bruins that is). There's hitting, there's fighting, there's lightning fast skating, and goalies are getting hit in the head with vulcanized rubber travelling over 90mph. I approve.
4. PLAYOFF BEARDS
There is a superstition amongst NHL players, mostly North Americans, that shaving during the playoffs is bad luck. So for more than a month, players go from clean shaven players to ridiculously hairy grizzly bears. Europeans sometimes pass on this and that's fine, but it's so much better when they don't: just ask Henrik Zetterberg. Kris Draper and Maxime Talbot's beards approve.
3. BOB COLE (AND HARRY NEALE)
So he's pretty much vanished off of the face of the map in Leaf land and he's only called a few games this season. He's old, he's getting senile, and half of the time he can't remember player's names. But you know what? Screw all that, Bob Cole is awesome. Sens fans and Habs fans (mostly Sens fans) always accused him and partner-in-awesomeness Harry Neale of being Leafs homers, but they were usually just doing what the rest of Canada does on a daily basis: ignoring Ottawa. Bob Cole was a staple on Hockey Night in Canada for almost all of my life, and I still cringe every time I hear Jim"oh my god that's so terrible" Hughson and Craig "I won't play for the center of the hockey universe and greatest city in Canada, I choose you Edmonton" Simpson calling primary games on CBC. I miss Bob Cole.
And not just any rivalries: original six rivalries. I'm talking about Toronto-Montreal, Montreal-Boston, Toronto-Detroit, Toronto-Chicago etc. These rivalries have been around forever, and any time the two teams meet the intensity is high. When Toronto moved from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference, our two most common rivalries (in the expansion era at least) were taken away from us. We only got to see Detroit and Chicago once every two years or so. Still, despite this, the building is always going INSANE any time these teams meet. It doesn't matter that they're not rivals by quantity anymore, they simply remember what they had and proceed to go for the throat. The same kind of intensity also applies to Toronto-Montreal games in either city, and this is arguably one of the best rivalries in professional sports; it doesn't get much more exciting than a meaningful Leafs-Habs game, such as the one on April 7, 2007. I'm sure most of you remember it.
1. THE FANS
Do you know what gets my heart racing more than anything else? Watching or being part of a fan reaction. Every time I watch Wendel's return to the Leafs in 1996, I swell up with Maple Leaf pride. Hearing thousands of people all chanting his name and cheering whenever he stepped on the ice was something special. Every time I watch videos of home games during the 1993 playoffs I get the same way. The fan reaction videos from Toronto and Vancouver when Crosby scored the greatest goal ever(TM). Hell, watching the replay of the aforementioned Leafs-Habs game gets me that way. Even the Leafs-Rangers game on Nov 1 last year (leafs won 5-2) drives me crazy. There's just something about thousands of people voicing their support and excitement over one team that gets me weepy. We haven't seen playoff hockey in a long time, but when we do the ACC is going to be absolutely fucking electric. If we win a cup... well, let's just say that the 91 World series win got me the exact same way, and we all remember what Toronto was like. It will be twice as big.
I suck at writing, and I'm tired, and my hand may be hurting, so I'm going to go get a coffee from Tim "please play again" Hortons.