Friday, November 25, 2011

You and I are a Gang of Losers

This piece originally ran in Cold as Ice, the hockey column I write for Popblerd.

These are strange days for Toronto Maple Leafs fans. A quarter of the way through the season, the Leafs are near the top of their division and boast the NHL’s leading scorer in Phil Kessel. And most of this was done with top goalie James Reimer out with “concussion-like symptoms.”

Still, if you’re a long-suffering Leaf fan like I am, you’re not getting overly excited just yet. After all, this is a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since the league came back after losing the entire 2004-05 season to a lockout. The team is among the youngest in the league, as GM Brian Burke has turned over the roster a few times since taking over the reins in 2008. There are still plenty of holes, and as dominant as Toronto looked in recent 7-1 victories over Washington and Tampa Bay, the team looked equally pathetic in two crushing losses to division rival Boston.

It hasn’t been easy, this lifelong relationship with the Leafs. I was born in Toronto in 1967, a few months after the team won its last Stanley Cup in the last season of the Original Six. My first memories of watching the Leafs were at age 4 with my dad, and I was quickly hooked. The team looked to be on the verge of something good in the late ‘70s led by the likes of Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming, but a batshit crazy owner named Harold Ballard tore the team apart after a few years and sent it into a near-death spiral in the ‘80s.

We moved to the U.S. in late 1981 and it became harder to follow the Leafs, especially the two years I lived in Washington. There was no Internet and no summaries in the local paper, but eventually I discovered this new channel called ESPN that would show nightly hockey highlights. I didn’t get to watch any Leafs games on TV until we moved to New England in ’83 and the Leafs would play the Bruins. It wasn’t much fun watching them then, because despite the presence of some good young players like Wendel Clark, Russ Courtnall and Vincent Damphousse, Toronto was just plain bad.

Despite all that losing, I never considered switching allegiances to another team. I could have easily adopted the Bruins, a team whose games I watched religiously because they were always on, or maybe the Hartford Whalers. But that wasn’t an option for me.

Things started looking up in 1991 when the team acquired Doug Gilmour from Calgary and caught fire. Led by Gilmour (who was recently inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame) and coach Pat Burns, the Leafs were a win away from reaching the finals in the spring of ’93 before falling to Wayne Gretzky and the Kings. They lost in the third round again the following year and didn’t return again until ’99, led this time by the great Mats Sundin. Alas, despite being a perennial playoff team and winning a few playoff series each year, they couldn’t get over the hump. After the lockout, they barely missed the playoffs a few times before sinking to new lows in recent seasons.

So here we sit in 2011, with the Leafs finally seeming to field a competitive team on most nights. Whether they’ll make the playoffs is still a big concern. After Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the top line, the team doesn’t have a lot of proven scoring depth. Of late, younger players have been stepping up, so maybe that won’t be an issue. The defense is led by captain Dion Phaneuf and is young but improving. After Reimer went down on Oct. 22, the Leafs went through some harrowing games with subpar goaltending from backups Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens, but both seem to have stabilized in the last week. Reimer is expected back soon, which will help.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but be pessimistic about this team. It’s just in my nature. I compare being a Leafs fan to the lot in life that Chicago Cubs fans endure as each season without a championship drags on. We don’t abandon our teams, we just sadly watch them lose year after year. I have the Center Ice satellite package so I can watch every Leafs game, so those losses sting even more. I’ve watched fans of teams like the Bruins, Blackhawks and Rangers win Cups after excruciatingly long droughts and I’ve felt happy for them. Should the Leafs ever manage to win a championship in my lifetime, I’m not sure what I’d do, but I’m pretty sure I’d be the only guy in my town hooting and hollering with joy. Years of mediocrity have tempered my expectations, though. Right now, I’ll be happy if they just make the damn playoffs. Such is the mindset of the Maple Leafs fan.

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