Dion Phaneuf walks off the ice after his Maple Leafs were shutout by the New York Rangers in late October. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
I must admit I was a little hurt and confused in the aftermath of Toronto Maple Leaf fans booing their new captain Dion Phaneuf barely 10 games into the season.
Hurt and confused that Leafs fans could be so cruel and unappreciative of their new culture-changing leader? Hardly. I watched most of Phaneuf’s past two seasons in Calgary and saw him shockingly devolve into an error-prone, defense-challenged defender. I figured it was only a matter of time before fans saw that in Toronto.
I was more hurt and confused by comments made by Leafs GM Brian Burke after the fact, chastising the Toronto fans who chose to voice their displeasure with Phaneuf’s play. Burke called it disgraceful.
To that, I call Burke’s response disgraceful and confusing. OK, so now big brother is telling paying customers about protocol and behavior at the arena? Give me a break.
While one corner of Burke’s mouth was saying fans are entitled to boo, the other corner of his mouth said it was unfair, bothersome and disgraceful. Fortunately for sports fans everywhere, Burke is not the arbiter of how fans should act at games. He’s a powerful man in Toronto, but not nearly that powerful. Thank the lord.
The hockey fans of Toronto are a discerning bunch. They understand the game and appreciate good efforts from great players and great efforts from good players. They don’t suffer fools gladly, even if they follow a team that hasn’t won much of significance since 1967.
They booed future Hall of Famer Larry Murphy when his struggles on the Maple Leafs blueline got out of control. They booed Bryan McCabe when his giveaways became commonplace. And when Phaneuf returns from injury in December, they’ll surely boo him again when he makes lame-brained mistakes in his own end.
And you know what, Brian Burke, you’re going to have to accept that. The fans not only have the right to do that, they should be encouraged to voice their opinions. In an environment where the owners and managers dictate prices and lineups and the players dictate product, it’s the fans, the paying customers, who bankroll the entire industry. It’s effectively their constitutional right to provide feedback, positive or negative.
And they shouldn’t be spanked and intimidated from doing it again. So bring it on.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.