Someone was wearing a Bill Derlago jersey on Thursday. It was the number-19 sweater he wore as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs for six years rather than the number-18 he sported for 27 games during a brief stop in Winnipeg in 1986, but given that it was the Leafs in town to face the Jets on this night I wasn’t all that surprised.

There were plenty of Leafs jerseys in the MTS Centre stands: Sundins, Sittlers, Clarks, Gilmours; even a Kessel. But the Derlago was especially appropriate. Here was a fellow born a few hours away in Birtle, Manitoba, whose hockey upbringing was overseen by the Brandon Wheat Kings and whose path led him to both Toronto and Winnipeg over the course of his NHL career.

“Toronto and.”  Is there a phrase that sums up the hockey loyalties in this country better than that?

Wasn’t the Jets every Saturday night

Like many Manitobans of a certain age I grew up in the absence of local NHL representation. I was 12 when the original Winnipeg Jets packed up and, like many Winnipeggers I know now, headed south to spend their winters in the balmy climes of Arizona. But by then I had developed a certain affection for the Leafs, anyway. I lived on a farm three hours away from the old Arena, and it wasn’t the Jets who appeared on the family television every Saturday night.

If the Toronto Maple Leafs are The Establishment of hockey in the Great White North it has at least something to do with that most effective of propaganda machines: Hockey Night in Canada.

Since the first radio broadcast in 1931, Saturday nights for millions of Canadians have begun in Toronto, where Foster Hewitt (“Hello Canada, and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland”), Bill Hewitt, Bob Cole and Jim Hughson have each taken their turn welcoming listeners, and now viewers, to Maple Leaf Gardens, and now the Air Canada Centre, for the evening’s entertainment.

If the railway was the first, great unifying force in this country, Hockey Night in Canada was surely the second, and the gospel it preached to an eager congregation was that of the Toronto Maple Leafs. But unlike so many other religions its faith-base has only grown, and continues to grow.

Pilgrimage

I saw my first Leafs game in 2000. I was 16, and a buddy and I loaded up his Honda Civic and headed west to Calgary where the Leafs had a Saturday appointment with the Flames. (We also took in the Friday game as a bonus, where we had the great pleasure of seeing Paul Coffey before he retired.)

It was a very Canadian pilgrimage. We set off at dawn and arrived that same evening in Calgary, where we checked into a cheap hotel that boasted, separately, a lounge, a bar and a night club. They made us pay cash up front. The vendor across the street never asked our ages (I credit my scraggly beard) and there was a Denny’s next door where we had pie.

Early Saturday afternoon we drove to the Saddledome. During warm-ups we wandered down from our seats to the yet uninhabited front row, from where I snapped a few photographs of Curtis Joseph, Brian McCabe and Mats Sundin—my favourite players. And we made sure to have a good place to stand above the tunnel where Ron McLean and Don Cherry did the pre-game show. Seeing them was as special as the game itself.

Like many of the other folks in the arena, we also wore Leafs sweaters. My buddy had a Joseph jersey of which I was eternally jealous, but the new design with silver trim had just been introduced ahead of the 2000-01 season and I had picked one up before Friday’s game against Boston. When we found our seats and sat down the kid next to me asked if it was the new one.

A few days later, once my film had been developed, I had 30 or 40 poor-quality pictures of Ron McLean, Don Cherry and Leaf players who were likely only recognizable to me in their blurry state, but they lined my bedroom at the farm until the morning I moved out of it. I took them with me on my own journey.

The Establishment

I’d imagine some of the youngsters who went to see the Leafs play the Jets on Thursday were making a sort of pilgrimage of their own. They might not have driven 12 hours to make it, but it was being made nonetheless. And James Reimer, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel will have been to them what Joseph, McCabe and Sundin were to me. The only thing my pilgrimage had that theirs didn’t was McLean and Cherry. They don’t travel like they used to.

But mediums such as Twitter and live blogging make media personalities more accessible than they ever were, and when it comes to the Leafs the reporters who follow them around are treated like royalty. Several times during the game I would overhear a remark or come across a comment from the Toronto press about how the Winnipeg fans were more enthusiastic than their counterparts along the Gardiner, how the game-day atmosphere inside MTS Centre put that of the Air Canada Centre to shame.

But I have a secret for them. It was because the Leafs were in town that the building sounded like it did. It was because the Toronto Maple Leafs and the legions of fans they pulled out of Charleswood, North Kildonan and South St. Vital were that night’s opposition that the cheers were especially loud, and the jeers even louder. The crowd, as it is whenever the Leafs travel across Canada, was at war with itself.

Not that any of this should be a source of shame. Because love them, loathe them or die laughing at them, the Leafs have been, are, and will continue to be one of the unifying characteristics of this country. After all, their own, formative years coincided with those of radio and television—unstoppable forces in their own times.

That the Leafs are Canada’s Establishment team has nothing to do with the Jets, or Winnipeg itself. This city has done nothing wrong, just as the people who laced the MTS Centre seats with the other kind of blue and white have done nothing wrong. Theirs is merely an allegiance split between a physical home and a fanciful one. For them, and for so many other Canadians, it’s simply a case of “Leafs and.”

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Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @jerradpeters