There was, and is, no good reason why the Maple Leafs can’t finally win a Cup. Because they’re a damn good team, foremost, but also because the temporary pandemic realignment that allowed them to feast upon the dregs of the Canadian division will let them play those selfsame mediocrities through the first two rounds of the playoffs. From a pure numbers game, this is perhaps the Leafs’ best shot since the Original Six era ended in 1967. What else happened in 1967? Right. The point is, it’s been generations since this organization and fanbase had a chance like this, and the entire regular season, in which the Leafs achieved ascendance early and thoroughly and throughout, felt like a not-particularly-satisfying snack tray that merely stoked the appetite for the main course which started last night at home against the hated Habs. Call it an extra five days because of the North’s regular-season Canucks coda, or call it 54 years: Toronto had been waiting a long time for this.
And then, barely half a period in, a nightmare.
Leafs vet John Tavares, their captain and second-line center, was knocked off his feet by a hit from Ben Chiarot and while falling to the ice was struck in the head by the knee of Corey Perry, who was diving to avoid contact. A concussion, of course (and thankfully nothing catastrophic beyond that, according to later tests conducted at the hospital). But the word “concussion,” read and heard so many times by any sports fan as to seem commonplace, doesn’t really do justice to the violence taking place inside an athlete’s skull. It was Tavares’s reaction after the hit, as his bruised brain misfired for all to see, that was truly horrifying. He tried to get up; he sank back to the ice; he fought for consciousness and lost. Trainers called for medics with an urgency that made you sick to see. A stretcher was rushed out. The television viewer wondered, if just for a moment, if they were watching a man die. An already-empty arena can reach an even deeper level of silence, it turns out.
“It was probably the most uncomfortable situation that I’ve been a part of on the ice. It was really tough to get through,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. Added Zach Hyman, “It was scary thinking about his family.”
As rattled as anybody was Perry, who had done all he could to avoid the hit. Perry and Tavares have played together for Team Canada and know each other decently well. “I honestly felt sick to my stomach when I saw it, when I saw him, with the way he is,” Perry said. As Tavares was being wheeled off the ice—flashing a thumbs-up—Perry skated over to give him a pat.
That was the dark side of the sport, but when play resumed, we got to see its idiotic side as well. On the first faceoff following the injury, Tavares’s linemate Nick Foligno dropped the gloves with Perry.
Perry clearly wanted no real part of this, but knew he had to do it. Why? A silly code that says Foligno has to “protect” or “avenge” or whatever the fuck you want to call it when you stage a fight following an injury, no matter how obvious it was that the hit was a complete and total accident, because “honor” and “jumpstarting the boys” and whatever the fuck other buzzwords you want to toss in there. Dumb, dumb, dumb. The Leafs were so upset by their captain’s traumatic brain injury that they had no other choice but to have two players punch each other in the head a few times to make it right? The game, the series, the postseason that started with all the promise in the world mere minutes before had almost immediately turned stupid, violent, and hollow.
“Our captain is laying on the ice,” Foligno said. “They would have done the same if [it was] their captain. It wasn’t malicious. [Fighting] takes away any gray area. Perry’s a big boy. It just allows everyone to go back and play.”
There’s an argument in some corners that the Maple Leafs were so shaken up by Tavares’s injury that the fight was needed to get their minds back in the game. It’s a losing argument; the Canadiens scored the game’s first goal 90 seconds later after a sloppy Leafs turnover. Frankly, I can’t believe we’re even debating performative fights for the second time this month. What is this, 2014?
There was still most of the game left to be played, though no one’s heart looked particularly in it. “I think the boys are a little shook up. We need to take this time in the dressing room to regroup,” Wayne Simmonds said at the first intermission, and though Willie Nylander would tie things up by potting a rebound early in the second, the Leafs looked out of sorts the rest of the way, taking penalties and turning the puck over. Paul Byron put Montreal back on top with seven and change left on a shorthanded goal, and that’s how it’d end, with the Habs taking Game 1 by a 2-1 score.
After the game, word came down that Tavares was “conscious and communicating well” at the hospital, where he was held overnight, and that tests so far have “come back clear.” What precisely that means wasn’t elaborated upon, though one would assume it included examinations for a brain bleed or a spinal injury.
The Leafs must pick themselves up and come back for Game 2 on Saturday night, and play as though this never happened and Tavares’s absence is just a hockey problem, a lineup hole to fill. Though it may feel impossible now to just move on from this, they’ll do it, because they have to. The shock and sickness and sadness can linger, but it can’t dominate. The sport can’t be played without occasionally confronting the damage it can do. That knowledge doesn’t necessarily make it harder to play, but the evidence certainly doesn’t make it any easier to watch.