(Steve Russell, Toronto Star)
After their beloved Maple Leafs were humiliated 9-2 by Nashville Tuesday, Toronto fans were as angry as ever and screaming out for change. And if they've gotten a little crazy over the years, they're completely justified in doing so.
On the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live, cast member Leslie Jones was on the Weekend Update segment of the show
essentially arguing that women are crazy because they have to be in order to deal with crazy men. And I couldn’t stop thinking of that dynamic Tuesday night as I watched the outpouring of anger, frustration, confusion, and resentment from Toronto Maple Leafs fans during and after their team put in a thoroughly embarrassing effort in
a 9-2 drubbing by Nashville at Air Canada Centre. People outside of Toronto can make jokes about Leafs fans all they want – and believe you me, they
want – but the truth is, if you’d lived in this city (as I have) for the past four-plus decades (as I mostly have), you’d understand why they’re beside themselves on a far-too-regular basis. If Leafs fans are crazy to keep subjecting themselves to this show of gongs – and to offer unrelenting support for a perennial disappointment year-in and year-out as they have is at the very least 1% crazy – they've got damned good reason to be. If you grew up having either had a small taste of the Leafs’ last Stanley Cup – or, like a growing number of Buds fans, were born after 1967 and thus had never seen a Toronto team win an NHL championship – you’d be a little sensitive to begin with. But it’s not just the volume of losing that’s made Leafs fans so tender to the touch. It’s the way the franchise has lost over the years that’s so maddening.
It’s living for two decades under the thumb of
the mad dictator Harold Ballard, and watching helplessly as the organization become an laughing(if still valuable)stock until his death in 1990. It’s being teased by watching a truly fun Leafs team for a couple years in the early 90s and a couple more at the end of the century – but knowing that, even then, Toronto had never won more than two games at the conference final level. And of course, it’s been about being a Leafs fan since the 2004-05 lockout – the second in the trilogy of NHL owner lockouts, subtitled “The Empire Strikes Back” – and suffering through a near-constant
game of Roshambo in which you are the nutkicked and not the nutkicker ever since. Most recently, it’s been the calamitous
playoff collapse to the Bruins in 2013 and Toronto’s nasty habit of playing solid hockey early in a season, only to completely disappear when the battle for the puck and room on the ice inevitably increased in difficulty in the spring. But it’s more than that: it’s also the tendency for history to repeat itself with this organization in the worst way possible: by not being good enough to ever do anything of real consequence on the ice come mid-April, May and June, yet not being bad enough to finish at the bottom of the league and draft a generational player of real consequence, the Leafs have left themselves and their fan base in perpetual limbo, choking on a lukewarm soup of sub-mediocrity, forever chasing their tails just to make it into the post-season to “see what happens”. Unfortunately, we’ve actually got a fairly solid idea of what happens. If the Leafs are fortunate to make it into the playoffs, they’ll most likely be mincemeat in the first or second round for a Pittsburgh or a Tampa Bay-type powerhouse. If not, they’ll finish anywhere from 9th-13th in the Eastern Conference, and anywhere from 17th-24th overall – in other words, far from the likes of 2015 draft phenoms Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. It’s either sadly or comically predictable, depending on where your loyalties lay. But coping with year after year of it, regardless of what new management team comes in, is more than enough to drive any rational hockey fan batty. And lost in all of the Leafs’ current predicament is a fact I don’t think has gotten enough attention: sure, they’re no longer owned by a lunatic like Ballard, but they’re currently owned by two
giants in direct competition with one another. Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys were co-owned by
Time-Warner. Would that strike anyone as odd? They’re fighting it out every day in their primary industry, yet they’re working together to bring a Cup to Toronto? Sorry, but the optics of it are abysmal. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying Bell and Rogers are making moves behind the scenes to actively mess with the Maple Leafs’ ability to win games, but it’s no secret there have been a number of internal power struggles since Ballard died, and there are likely going to be more. In some ways, the Leafs would be better off being owned by an individual again than they would be by retaining this faceless corporate monolith that looms in the background, inured from any real blowback. This is not to argue I think team president Brendan Shanahan should act rashly in the wake of the loss to the Predators by firing and trading everyone who comes into his line of sight in the next few days. (That said, if I were head coach Randy Carlyle, I wouldn't be making long-term social plans in and around the city for the time being.) I do think Toronto is on the right track with Shanahan, who recognizes the franchise’s pattern of finishing in competitive no-man’s land and intends on changing it one way or another and showing the requisite amount of patience and bravery necessary to get it done. But I also don’t blame Leafs fans for screaming at him that he ought to clean house, or for being humorless or thin-skinned or irrational or sick at heart or any other feeling that stems from the latest in a long line of utterly humiliating on-ice results courtesy of the players wearing blue and white. Nobody should blame them. As if you’d be any different after dealing with what this team has made its fan base deal with. Please. When you’ve had little other than craziness shoved your way for nearly a half-century, being crazy right back is a natural coping mechanism.
Adam Proteau is a columnist at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @Proteautype