Monday, July 6, 2020

The Leafs are the Best: An oral history of ‘The Passion Returns’ VHS video

“This has been… an unbelievable… turn of events!”

If you’re a Maple Leafs fan of a certain age, you know the moment. Those words conjure it instantly. They belong to Bob Cole, and they came from the immediate aftermath of Nikolai Borschevsky’s Game 7 overtime goal against the Red Wings on May 1, 1993. You can hear Cole’s voice, probably picture Borschevsky getting bear-hugged by Wendel Clark, or Cliff Fletcher’s ear-to-ear grin, or Brian Papineau going nuts with a water bottle. You’re right back in the moment, all these years later.

If you’re not a Leafs fan, your eyes have already rolled deep into the back of your head.

Look, I hear you. That 1993 run didn’t end with a Stanley Cup, or even a trip to the Final. But Leaf fans won’t shut up about it. Almost three decades later, they – ok fine, we – still go on and on about that season. It’s the most beloved Leafs team since the Original Six days, and it’s not even close. If you’re a fan of another team, you might be completely confused.

But if you’re a Leafs fan, you get it. And here is something else you almost certainly got: A copy of a VHS tape called The Passion Returns that came out later that year. You probably got it for Christmas, and had watched it a dozen times by New Years. And you know, to this day, that it is a masterpiece.

Everything about The Passion Returns is just about perfect, from the overly dramatic opening credits, to the heavy dose of early-90s dance music, to the heartstring-tugging epilogue after they lose to the Kings. It’s so over the top. The Leafs weren’t the only team to make a season-in-review tape in the ‘80s and ‘90s to commemorate a season where they didn’t even win anything (no really, save your punchlines, your team probably had one too). They were just the only team to reach the absolute peak of the art form.

It really was, as a wise man once said, an unbelievable turn of events. But how did this thing get made? And why? And why does it still resonate with so many Leafs fans, even almost three decades later?

We decided to find out, by talking to the people who made the tape, the faces that appeared on it, and the fans who loved every minute of it. And along the way, we’re also going to talk about a very unfortunate haircut, and, yes, whatever the hell that music video was.


The Toronto sports and media landscape in October 1992 would be unrecognizable to many fans today. The Argonauts were a year removed from playing home games in front of 50,000 people at SkyDome. The Raptors didn’t exist. The Blue Jays — who before the month’s end would claim their first World Series championship — were unquestionably the toast of the town, if not the entire country.

The Maple Leafs? After missing the playoffs earlier that spring, expectations were low entering the 1992-93 NHL season, despite the addition of Pat Burns behind the bench and the prospect of a full season with Doug Gilmour as their No. 1 centre.

Damien Cox, Toronto Star Maple Leafs beat reporter in ’92-’93, author, The Last Good Year: Seven Games that ended An Era: My expectations were not very high. It’s hard to explain to people now, but they really weren’t even a consideration to be a playoff team… we’re not even talking Stanley Cup. When the season started that year, they still didn’t have Dave Andreychuk. They had Grant Fuhr. Bits and pieces, but not anything solid. Gilmour wasn’t a superstar at that time. I don’t think there were any expectations at all.

Sean McIndoe, high school student in ’92-’93: I remember there being a little bit of optimism at the start of the season because they’d been OK down the stretch after the Gilmour trade. And more importantly, Pat Burns was going to come in and finally teach them how to play defense. Then they went out for the home opener and lost 6-5 and it was like, OK, yep, same old Leafs.

On television, every Maple Leafs game was produced by Molstar Communications, a subsidiary of Molson Brewery, who owned both the NHL’s national Canadian broadcast rights and the Maple Leafs regional rights. Regional games were aired on the Global Television Network across southern Ontario, while CBC carried national Leafs games on Hockey Night in Canada.

One Molstar employee in the fall of 1992 was 34-year-old, Mark Askin. Entering his seventh year producing games for Molstar on both CBC and Global, and as a lifelong, long-suffering Leafs fan, the Toronto native would bring a unique perspective to his work during the season, and in the summer of ’93 once tasked with a special assignment…

Mark Askin, senior producer with Molstar in ’92-’93: I grew up a Leafs fans. I remembered the night the Leafs won in ‘67. I remember the night Bobby Baun scored, I watched it on TV with my dad. My uncle and dad kept payments on season tickets. We’d go down in section 67, row B, seats 11 and 12. Fifteen-to-20 times a year. They were the highlights of my year.

In 1992, pre-internet, newspapers were at the peak of their power in terms of their ability to shape opinion and distribute information. TSN was the only 24/7 sports network in town. Toronto’s first all-sports radio station, The Fan 1430, was a month old when the Leafs season began.

Cox: There was a bit of rivalry between the baseball media and the hockey media and the baseball media were riding high. The CFL was looking south (for expansion), Rocket Ismail had come north. A lot of attention was on the States and in some people’s minds, baseball had become the preeminent sport (in Toronto). (Harold) Ballard had only recently died. By then you were 15 years of (the Leafs) being run into the ground and the Blue Jays were this professional organization with the biggest payroll in baseball. The Leafs were in a lot of ways, a joke.

McIndoe: I know it sounds crazy to today’s fans, but it’s true. The Leafs mattered, but the Blue Jays ruled. They weren’t just winning, they were signing all the top free agents and making the Yankees and Red Sox cry about how unfair it was that Toronto had all the money. And the town was going crazy for all of it. Then you looked at the Leafs and thought “Man, what if they got good too?”

Led by Doug Gilmour’s Leafs record 127 points, and a Jack Adams-winning performance from Burns behind the bench, the Leafs exceeded every pre-season prognostication by posting 99-points, good for third in the Norris Division behind the Chicago Blackhawks (106 points) and Detroit Red Wings (103). Despite finishing just four points back of Detroit, the Leafs were big underdogs entering their first-round series against the Red Wings and the league’s No. 1 offence.

Doug Gilmour, Maple Leafs forward in ’92-’93: People forget what you did in the regular season. People remember what you do in the playoffs.

Mark Osborne, Maple Leafs forward in ’92-’93: We were the underdogs. And yet there was a belief that because of Burnsie and our style of play that something positive would result of it.

Cox: Detroit was such a powerhouse or an evolving powerhouse. Toronto was not in the same class back then. Once the Leafs won Games 3 and 4, you went ‘holy shit.’ Even in Game 7, nobody thought they were going to win. Maybe they did, I don’t know. But once they beat Detroit, everything changed.

McIndoe: On paper, beating a team that was four points ahead of you shouldn’t feel like a giant upset. But these were the Leafs, so we all knew they weren’t going to pull it off. Then they did, and suddenly you looked around and the Hawks were out, the Smythe didn’t have a powerhouse for once, and you were like, ‘Wait a second, something could happen here.’

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