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Leafs' fans, players patiently wait for glory's return

TORONTO -- The slogan runs the length of their stately locker room, twice, on facing walls, commanding the eye of every Toronto Maple Leaf who glances overhead:

"Defeat Does Not Rest Lightly on Their Shoulders."

How accurate they are, those words first employed by Conn Smythe, the franchise founder. But the connotation has been altered by what's been an unending parade of sometimes tumultuous, always unfulfilling decades.

The Leafs are in their 80th season, reside on the fringes of playoff contention and warrant no earnest Stanley Cup consideration. All indications are that this spring will mark the 40th season since the NHL's most beloved franchise, Canada's national sports treasure, last captured a championship.

"It hasn't happened in my lifetime," said Matt Stajan, a 23-year-old center. "It's been a long wait for a lot of people. But that's our goal in here."

Defeat does not rest lightly on their shoulders. Those were meant to be fighting words, a battle cry. Beat the Leafs and rest assured they'll seek revenge, undeterred in their quest. And for 40 years the slogan played out as intended, with Toronto winning 11 Stanley Cups, four of them between 1962 and 1967, with Punch Imlach, eventual architect of the expansion Buffalo Sabres, behind the bench.

These days, Smythe's maxim has come to represent the heft of the burden bequeathed from one Leafs team to the next. Toronto hasn't played in the finals in the four decades since it last won the Cup. Fans endured 18 years of abject emptiness after part-owner Harold Ballard, jailed for a year for tax evasion, emerged in 1972 to assume control of the franchise he would run with myopic vision and a stingy hand.

Ballard was a beauty, all right. He sold off the championship banners that hung in the old Maple Leaf Gardens, erasing the reminders of how others succeeded where he had failed. He dismissed the threat of the World Hockey Association and lost the nucleus of his team to the fledgling league. He initially defied an NHL mandate to place players' surnames on their jerseys, arguing for the sake of nickels that scorecard sales would suffer. Ever the cantankerous tyrant, he stripped the captaincy from Darryl Sittler, the most popular player of the era, and ran him out of town. And yet Ballard, who died in 1990, could do nothing to diminish the unconditional passion Toronto harbors for its team.

Leafs fans are, to the consternation of Sabres fans, a zealous, fanatical bunch. They reside in all corners of the country and pledge their unyielding support. A good number will make the trek to Buffalo this Thursday, devouring tickets at inflated prices, because it's cheaper than dealing with the local scalpers and trying to finagle their way into the Air Canada Centre. Being a Leafs fan means doing whatever you can to see a game, wherever you can see it.

There's a unique quality to Leafs loyalists. They can be obnoxious in their obsession but they always keep the faith, maintain an optimism that often contradicts the reality of the situation. Even during the darkness of the Ballard years kids grew up yearning to wear the maple leaf, to be part of the team that might one day end the torment. Stajan knows. He was one of them.

Stajan was born in 1983, in Mississauga, into a household of rabid Leafs fans. Playing for Toronto was perpetually the dream even though he was well aware the scrutiny can be overwhelming.

"There's positives and negatives," Stajan said. "I grew up in Toronto so I knew all the attention that the Leafs get and the media attention and all that goes with it. But for guys who aren't familiar with it, it's got to be a bit of a transition to come in here. When things are going good everything's all fine, you're going to win the Stanley Cup. But when things aren't going good it's trade everybody and times can be tough. So you got to definitely stay mentally focused and just kind of adjust to being in the spotlight all the time."

Stajan's a veteran of the circus that accompanies the Leafs compared to Kris Newbury, a Brampton native who made his NHL debut just before Christmas, thereby immediately rising to celebrity status.

"It's amazing really," Newbury said. "You don't really know what it's going to be like until you actually put on a jersey and stuff. Even being here a week or two, you go out in my hometown of Brampton and some people recognize you. The media's everywhere and you can't get away with anything."

The Leafs began to retool after missing the playoffs last year. They conceded, albeit belatedly, that skill and speed are the weapons of choice in the post-lockout NHL, the surest way to build a contender.

The transition will take time and Leafs fans will wait. They always have, undeterred by the weight of the burden, sure that one day Smythe's words will revert to their original meaning.

"You hear people saying you have to win, that they haven't seen it yet," Stajan said. "I think we're trying to get there and working hard for it and that would be a dream come true for sure. I think for pretty much the whole city."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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