A few years ago, the former mayor of a smaller Nova Scotia city explained her affliction. “I lost the election,” she said. “I divorced my husband. But I can’t give up the Leafs.”
Yes, she admitted, Nova Scotia didn’t have a National Hockey League team, so she did have options. But she was born a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, and she would die one. She was, therefore, a member of Leafs Nation.
Canada divides along many lines: French/English, East/West, aboriginal/non-aboriginal, rural/urban. But each of these lines blurs at the edge. Where, after all, is Northwestern Ontario? East or West? How many Métis are there, the offspring of aboriginals and non-aboriginals? Where’s exurbia on the rural-urban divide?
In hockey, however, there’s no such line. You’re either in Leafs Nation or you’re not. Why otherwise sane, discerning, intelligent people, such as that former Nova Scotia mayor, remain in Leafs Nation is, frankly, something those outside the group can’t fathom.
These people could switch teams. They could just get fed up and quit. They could protest by refusing to buy the astronomically priced tickets. They could mobilize, through social media, a huge demonstration outside the Air Canada Centre before the last game of the season, with thousands of people wearing paper bags over their heads and waving signs that would read “Seven Long Years,” “1967,” “Fire Burke.” That would never happen because Leafs fans are, well, Leafs fans, fanatical suckers.
Presumably, Leafs fans wouldn’t keep buying a car model that performs poorly but costs a fortune. They wouldn’t buy a house with a mouldy basement or a leaking roof. Yet, apparently without remorse, guilt or discernment, they pay their money and offer their loyalty to a franchise that takes them for chumps.
So, as another dismal season winds down, the Leafs will fail for the seventh consecutive year to qualify for the playoffs. No other team, including the lamentable Columbus Blue Jackets and Florida Panthers, can match that record of futility. And, of course, the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup, Lester Pearson was prime minister, Lyndon Johnson was president, bell-bottoms were the rage, The Graduate was the top-grossing film, the Ford Mustang was the best-selling car and modern Canada was having its coming-out party at Expo 67.
To sit among Leafs fans is to wonder at their lack of humility or black humour. In Wrigley Field, home of the perennially hopeless Chicago Cubs, a wicked sense of humour reveals itself just as soon as something goes wrong, as if their fans expect the worst, are seldom disappointed, and use humour as the best defence against disappointment.
Not so for Leafs fans. In the buildings of other teams, where Leafs fans flock in vast numbers, many of them drink heavily and brag about some victorious season long ago, and generally comport themselves in keeping with Toronto’s epithet, Hogtown.
You’d think, listening to them, that Leafs fans had something to be proud of, but Darryl Sittler and Davey Keon played for the Leafs decades ago. And the great Frank Mahovlich (now a member of the Senate) prefers to be remembered as a player for the Montreal Canadiens.
Early in the season, the team’s brass and, presumably, Leafs Nation thought that maybe this version might actually do something – like make the playoffs. After all, were they not in Burke-the-Magnificent’s fourth year of a makeover that would turn the Leafs into a “truculent” (his word) bunch of winners.
Despite all the available money and all the Burkean bombast, the whole edifice of pretense melted, the coach got fired, and the painful reality sank in that the Phil Kessel trade (once defenceman Doug Hamilton joins Tyler Seguin in a Boston uniform) will make the Bruins, not the Leafs, a playoff team for years to come.
The Germans have a word, schadenfreude, meaning enjoyment in the misfortunes of others. Outside Leafs Nation, from coast to coast in hockey circles, it’s schadenfreude time once again.