The NHL is Snubbing the Leafs Centennial

With the announcement on Thursday that the 2017 NHL Entry Draft will be held in Chicago, one more NHL event in that year has been officially handed to a city not in Toronto. In 2014, then-MLSE president Tim Leiweke announced that the Maple Leafs were already making plans for the 2016-17 season, which will be recognized as the 100th anniversary of the franchise. It was rumoured in that year that the team had asked the NHL for—among other things—the draft, the All-Star game, and the Winter Classic to celebrate the Leafs centennial.

At the time, Leiweke was quoted as saying “We’re telling the league that they owe it to our fans. They don’t disagree, but we’ve got to go through a process to win it. I think we’ll win it.” Now, however, it is confirmed that the Leafs bids were unsuccessful for the draft and All-Star game, which was awarded to Los Angeles a few weeks ago.

In 2009, the Montreal Canadiens had their centennial. They hosted the All-Star game and the draft at the Bell Centre, as well as an incredible amount of other celebratory initiatives—a Canadian dollar coin with their logo, a legends team in EA Sports’ NHL 09 game, and five throwback jerseys to be used over the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. We could still see something like these for the Leafs centennial; it’s rumoured they will at least be unveiling several heritage jerseys, to go with the team’s new uniforms using the logo that was revealed on February 2nd.

An outdoor game is also likely to be awarded to Toronto—at this point, there would be nothing short of outrage among Leafs fans if they didn’t get at least that. BMO Field is currently undergoing renovations that will allow it to temporarily expand capacity to 40,000 people, which is around the same most baseball stadiums can fit, as they have at several previous outdoor games. It won’t be the Winter Classic, though—easily the most prominent and marketed event on the NHL’s outdoor calendar—it’s rumoured NBC put a stop to that, as having the game take place in Canada would cut into their viewership.

The Leafs will probably get something like the Heritage Classic; hopefully against the Canadiens, but it would not be surprising to see the NHL include an American team like the New York Rangers, to increase the audience south of the border.

The Winter Classic in 2017 will more than likely be going to St. Louis, facing (in what will be their fifth appearance outside) the Chicago Blackhawks, of course. Giving events to St. Louis and Los Angeles is justified, of course, given the NHL is also celebrating its 100th anniversary, as well as the 50th anniversary of expansion teams like the Blues and Kings. However, Jonathan Toews must be getting cold by now.

Far harder to justify, though, is the NHL’s decision to give the 2017 draft to Chicago. Sure, they’ve never hosted a draft before. But if they’ve waited this long, why can’t they wait until 2018? The argument for always including the Blackhawks in outdoor games is that a marquee American team appeals to the casual fan. However, the Blackhawks are typically almost a non-factor at the draft, picking at the end of the first round if at all. Besides, casual fans tend not to care about the draft anyway. There’s no hockey played there, so Patrick Kane can’t do anything.

Toronto, on the other hand, would understand the meaning of the draft, especially considering it will probably be much more significant to the team’s future than Chicago.

NHL apologists are saying that the sports schedule in Toronto is jam-packed in 2016-17 already, with part of the World Junior Championship, the CFL’s Grey Cup, and the World Cup of Hockey. But really, how do any of those do anything to celebrate the Leafs centennial? The World Juniors will probably have many Leafs prospects attending, and the World Cup might have Morgan Rielly and Leo Komarov, if they’re lucky. But none of those really have much to do with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The World Cup, a cash-grab of a tournament to begin with, was not given to Toronto for the Leafs 100th anniversary. It was given to Toronto because it’s the NHL’s biggest market, and the tournament would be a flop anywhere else.

And that’s just it. The NHL’s biggest market is Toronto. It’s understandable to want to spread the wealth around, and give some events to other cities, but to only give the Leafs an outdoor game, which will be no more special than every other one, is short-sighted. Surely it’s in the league’s best interest to reward the fans who bring them the most money?

The Leafs organization themselves will have no problem organizing festivities in-house. There will absolutely be heritage jerseys, commemorations and statues. Fan Fest will probably be a bigger event than it was this year, and there will be several Alumni events (Leafs fans are probably happy to forget that 2017 is also the 50th anniversary of when they did that thing that good NHL teams do). But it appears the NHL won’t be doing much for them.

An outdoor game will be a great event. But it’s not enough for the 100th anniversary of probably the second-most storied franchise in hockey history. One would’ve expected them to get the All-Star game, since 2017 will also be the 70th anniversary of the first occurrence of the event—the first of which was hosted by the Leafs in 1947. But giving it to L.A. is at least justifiable. The draft? That just doesn’t make sense.

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