Cup of Coffee – A great title and message for all players who dream of playing pro

A cup of coffee.

I’m having one now as I type. I’m really enjoying the taste of it and hoping it won’t be my last.

Hard to believe that the authors of Cup of Coffee: A Photographic Tribute to Lesser Known Toronto Maple Leafs actually had to fight with the publishers over this title. But that’s what I heard at the book launch at the Blake House on Jarvis Street the other night. Crazy.

It’s a great title!

In fact authors Graig Abel and Lance Hornby should take credit for bringing attention to a term that was coined long ago but clearly never fully appreciated.

There is a Wikipedia page devoted to the term and it explains:

“A “cup of coffee” is a North American sports idiom for a short time spent by a minor league player at the major league level. The idea behind the term is that the player was only in the big leagues long enough to have a cup of coffee before being returned to the minors. The term originated in baseball and is extensively used in ice hockey, both of whose professional leagues (MLB and the NHL) utilize extensive farm systems…”

As a long-time hockey fan I have heard the phrase countless times over the years:

“He came up for a cup of coffee,” a commentator would say.

“I had a cup of coffee with…,” a retired player would say.

But I am more than just a hockey fan, I am a Leafs fan. And I loved flipping through this fun book featuring Leafs names and photos which bring back many memories.

Nobody possesses the photos that Abel has (he has exclusive copyright for twenty years of Leafs player photos) and nobody has the unique knowledge and perspective that Hornby has about these lesser known Leafs (he has covered sports for the Toronto Sun for over 30 years).

Many of the players featured in this book may in fact have been lesser knowns but in my opinion there is nothing “less” about the experience of playing even one pro game.

You see, the beauty of having even one cup of coffee as a player is that the experience (even if it is just one cup) actually lasts forever. You have a cup of coffee as a Leaf and hey you’re a leaf forever. Imagine that.

Abel says as much in the introduction to the book:

“Through the years, some of these players would contact me when they found out I had photos of them. They thought that there was no evidence that they’d actually played a game for the Leafs. It meant a great deal for them to show their kids and grandkids that they actually did suit up, even if it was for one of their exhibition games wearing a random number.”

You see – forever.

And on a more personal note from Abel, here is a notion that many of us who grew up as hockey playing Leafs fans can appreciate:

“When I’m taking pictures, I often think what I’d give for that chance to be on the ice as a Leaf. As a junior player in Streetsville, I thought maybe one day even I could make it with my Leafs. So you have to give a lot of credit to the guys who did make it. Even if it was only for a cup of coffee.”

That was always my fantasy as a kid born at Toronto General and raised in High Park and then Oakville and watching painful Leafs games during the 70s and 80s in a dark, damp fake-panelled basement with my raging Slavic-tongued Dad.

Despite being subjected to my Dad’s anger (at the Leafs) and poorly played, losing hockey, I dearly wanted to play for the Leafs, at the Gardens and be included the Leafs annual team picture just once. But it never came close to happening. I was good enough in another sport (soccer – yes that European game full of divers where I guess short visits up from the reserves could be called a cup of tea or a shot of espresso) but not hockey.

People often ask me which team I support, thinking that I as a former soccer player would respond with the name of a world famous soccer team. They are surprised when I reply, “the Toronto Maple Leafs”. But they understand when I explain: “I’m a neutral when it comes to soccer because there was very little televised soccer when I was growing up and the one sport and the one team I watched plenty of was hockey and the Leafs.”

But the watching led me to being more than just a Maple Leafs supporter or a fan. It was deeper than that because like Abel I played the game in rinks and streets a short drive away from the magical Gardens. It made me a dreamer.

Even now I can imagine myself getting called up, skating the warm-up at the Gardens – or later the ACC – and then sitting on the bench with other fourth liners featured in the book, players like Ken Baumgartner or Craig Berube or  Jeff Brubaker, waiting to get tapped on the shoulder so that I can hop over the boards and into forever.

That’s the beauty of this book. It teaches us that every moment of achievement should be savoured – because you never know when you’re going to play your next game. Abel and Hornby teach us that.

At the book launch I heard that Graig Abel after forty years of capturing the Leafs would be retiring. People focus on the general managers and coaches and scouts who are so important to the building of great sports teams and the development of star players but we should also occasionally take a moment to consider what photographers and writers and other observers and thinkers and artists bring to our beautiful games. They bring more than just reports and stories and accessories. They also bring the lessons and inquiry and inspiration that contribute significantly to the whole process and the big picture. They are a big part of the winning and the losing, a big part of the pursuit of excellence and the chasing of dreams and trophies. Think about them from time to time and appreciate them because without them the teams and the players of the games we love would not be nearly as great.

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