The Leafs have played approximately 3,000 hockey games since I started following them back in senior kindergarten. I don’t want to guess how many hours of my life have been spent watching them play. By any measure, it’s too many.
The worst Leafs game I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some shameful performances, came against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Boxing Day 1991.
I’m sure a case could be made that the Leafs have played worse games. Managing just eight shots against the Devils in an elimination playoff game or coughing up four third period goals in under five minutes to the St. Louis Blues en route to a 6-5 overtime loss would likely crack my top 5.
I’m sure there are dozens of other examples that each and every Leaf fan can conjure up. Each of us morbidly, masochistically trying to out-do the other..."and then McCabe put it in his own net..."
That game against the Penguins on Boxing Day over 20 years ago ranks as the worst for me for many reasons.
A 12-1 score line is a good place to start.
Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens and Joey Mullen combining for 19 points is another.
Tom Watt refusing to pull Grant Fuhr, leaving him net to get shelled for the full 60 minutes, made for a great post-game discussion point. As did the Penguins finishing the night by scoring five goals in an eight-minute stretch in the third period.
All of those would be reason enough to list this among the Leafs worst performances, but they are not THE reason.
I watched the game at a cottage in Huntsville. The cabin was barely winterized and we froze every time we visited, a fire place barely keeping us warm. But the opportunity to play hours of shinny on the lake and drunkenly build and ride jerry-rigged toboggans always drew us north.
The guys I went with were a mix of high school pals. I’m not in touch with a single one of them these days and even back then there was a sense that these friendships were transient. I was one of the few that had gone on to university and the only one who left the city to do so.
The cottage was old school and the lone TV was even older. I recall it being a large console set with rabbit ears, but in truth I have no idea what the TV looked like. I do remember, and this is the most important part of the story, that we couldn’t get any reception. We had 13 channels and a UHF dial of nothing but grey lines and static.
After dinner, and more beer, two of us futzed with the rabbit ears. We likely rehashed the tired joke that a Canadian by-law makes CBC coverage mandatory and HNIC coverage essential. By game time we’d managed to pull in a signal.
The Penguins scored early, but the Leafs soon tied it at 1. Kevin Maguire from Mike Krushelnyski and Todd Gill. What a combination. It would be the last time we cheered that night.
It was all Penguins after that. 3-1 after the first; 6-1 after the second and a 12-1 final.
Stuck in a freezing cabin with a room full of buddies, maybe one-third of whom are Leafs fans. It’s one thing to watch your team get destroyed, it’s another thing entirely when you’re surrounded by friends who cheer for other teams.
Being up at a cold and dark cottage we stuck it out to the very end.
Years later, I would find out Larry Murphy picked up his 700th point in that game -- an assist on a Mario Lemieux breakaway that made it 7-1.
The next day, we played hockey and raced toboggans made out of recycling bins and old skis.
I’d like to say that the game was quickly forgotten, but 21 years have passed and that game still comes to mind each time the Leafs play the Penguins.