The tribulations of the Maple Leafs are well-documented, with the team now having the unfortunate distinction of being the only NHL franchise not to have made the playoffs at least once in the 7 seasons that have been played since the lockout.

But playoff hockey is still alive in Toronto. The Leafs AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies are competing in the Calder Cup final. And, unlike four years ago when the Marlies also made it to the semi-finals, fans in Toronto are taking notice.

For much of the farm team’s existence in this city – the St. John’s Maple Leafs having moved to Toronto in 2005 to become the Marlies – the home rink, Ricoh Coliseum, has been filled with empty seats.

Take a look at this CBC News clip from April 2006, at the end of that first season in Toronto.

Yes it’s outdated. Paul Maurice isn’t even the LEAFS coach, yet.

But the team’s anonymity – up until this season – continued.

During the Marlies’ magical playoff run of 2008, a squad coached by Greg Gilbert and backstopped by Scott Clemmensen in goal played in front of sparse crowds. This was despite two thrilling Game Sevens played on home ice. Included was a rally from trailing three games to one to defeat Syracuse in the second round. Average attendance over the 10 playoff games at Ricoh that year was just 2,708.

The indifference reinforced the premise that Toronto is a Leafs town, not a ‘hockey’ town. The low turnout was also attributed to the 2008 Marlies having few blue-chip prospects, none of which are in the Leafs’ organization any longer.

However, the presence of young NHL-calibre talent that was not evident four years ago has finally generated some excitement around the team. Fans have been flocking to watch key components of the Leafs future such as defenceman Jake Gardiner and forward Matt Frattin, although Frattin’s season-ending injury will hinder the Marlies chances trailing 2-0 to Norfolk.

Over the first three rounds, the first 5 home playoff games at Ricoh Coliseum were attended by an average of 6,617 people; more than double the figure from 2008. Two extra media work areas have been assembled to accommodate the amount of press covering the games. Coach Dallas Eakins is far busier fielding questions during his post-game commentary than his predecessor Gilbert was, four years ago.

The next three games in the Calder Cup Final are all scheduled for Ricoh Coliseum, and a packed house is expected for each one.

While a frustrated fan base waits impatiently for its NHL team to return to the post-season, Toronto fans are finally starting to take notice of the future players who they hope will help clear the hurdle.

Related link: The Globe And Mail: “Interest in Marlies ‘just incredible’”

Rob Del Mundo is the author of Blue And White Beat, and is a regular columnist at

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