Over the years, I’ve made several trips to Toronto, the first time being in 2001, two years after the final game played at Maple Leaf Gardens, the longtime home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. While I wasn’t able to go inside at the time, I was able to take a few photos of myself outside the old barn.
Fifteen years later, when I traveled back to Toronto for WWE Survivor Series, a friend and I stayed in a hotel not far from the old arena. By this time, however, the building had been converted into a mixed-use facility with the main floor being used as a grocery store. Within one of the aisles they have a red dot on the floor that symbolizes where center ice used to be when the Leafs called the building home.
While I recognized that I was physically inside Maple Leaf Gardens at the time, I was a long way from the roaring crowds, the on-ice fury and the fast action that made up the Leafs’ last great playoff run twenty-three years earlier. In his book, THE LAST GOOD YEAR, author and journalist Damien Cox took me back to 1993 and into the Gardens, when a long-suffering fan base experienced a brush with greatness and the deep sadness of soul-crushing loss.
If you’re not a fan of the Leafs, you could easily look at this book and scoff; of course the Maple Leafs would have a book written about a playoff run that wasn’t successful and a series that wasn’t even the finals! But that’s not just what this book is. This book is also about the game of hockey itself and how it seemed to change following the 1992/1993 season. Gone would be the days where reporters could catch a player for an interview on his way to his car after a game. Player contracts would explode in the coming years and hockey would become more of a business than ever before. Some things would change for the better in the coming years with respect to player compensation and protection, but it was around this time that the wild and crazy days of the NHL would come to an end.
I’ve read a few memoirs and biographies surrounding the participants in the Toronto Maple Leafs/Los Angeles Kings series (Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Pat Burns, Wayne Gretzky), but none quite captured the true urgency and competitive nature of the series. I loved getting multiple sides from the main players and how they viewed each play and event that made up this seven game war of attrition.
I’m not the biggest fan of Damien Cox with regards to his modern day journalistic work and his constant gloom-and-doom reporting of the Maple Leafs, which in turn causes myself (and the fanbase) to spiral out of control multiple times a season. That being said, he has written one hell of a book in “The Last Good Year”. Cox perfectly captured the drama of the series and the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants nature of the NHL in those days. For those that remember the glory days of this Leafs team, this book will probably rank higher, but you do not need to be a Leafs-loyalist to enjoy what Cox has crafted.