"My attitude toward the Red Sox, as a huge fan, is up and down like the weather. Wins and losses, I go up and down. This guy's great. The pitching stinks. We need a new catcher.
We've got to fill this hole. And Leafs Nation was the same thing," says Fitzgerald.
Pat Quinn had long coveted the scrappy, no- nonsense veteran but when he came calling in 1999 and tried to convince [Fitzgerald]to come north after some solid years playing for the Florida Panthers, Fitzgerald balked and ended up joining the expansion Nashville Predators.
The money was the same; the scrutiny wasn't. "My first kick at free agency, it came down to Nashville and Toronto. At the time, I just felt I wasn't ready for that pressure. You put pressure on yourself as a player, but you fly under the radar a little bit when you're playing in South Florida. At the time, I was scoring ten to fifteen goals a year.
What if I [signed with the Leafs and]scored four?"
But after four seasons in Nashville as team captain, Fitzgerald felt ready when the Leafs came calling again, excited by the prospect of playing for an Original Six team.
Scrutiny? There was some, not always good. The Leafs lost in seven games to Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs in 2002-03.
"I had a buddy, after we lost to Philadelphia, he came to me after with a six- pack of eggs. He said, 'Do you want to throw 'em at your house or do you want me to?' "Everyone had an opinion," says Fitzgerald, now the director of player development for the Pittsburgh Penguins. For the most part it was fun, or funny. The exception being when his kids would hear it from friends at school when their dad had a rough night, or when he had to give consideration to taking his name off his eight- year- old son's hockey jersey because people in the rink would see the Leaf player at the game, see the name on the jersey, put two and two together and turn a boy's hockey game into a referendum on the old man's talents.
"I could care less if someone tells me I suck," says Fitzgerald. "When you're telling my kids, 'Your dad really sucks,' that's when it crosses the line."
The downside of celebrity in Toronto can be annoying at times, to say the least. If it isn't armchair power play quarterbacking, or overzealous enthusiasm, there is always the rumour mill. Remember the "Wendy" Clark rumours in the early '90s? The idea that the rugged Leafs captain was gay, and fond of figure skater Toller Cranston? Remember Vancouver fans maliciously chanting "Wen- dy, Wen- dy" when the Leafs faced the Canucks in the 1994 semi- finals? (Or coach Pat Burns shrugging off the rumours to reporters with the memorable quip that if being gay meant play ing like Wendel Clark, then he wanted to be gay too?) If anyone needs to be reminded from time to time that that unfounded, salacious rumours pre- dated the Internet, surely the whispering about Number 17 should offer convincing proof.
(In any case, Toronto nightlife impresario Nick Di Dinato can put the rumour to rest. "...He was always chasing women," he says. "For sure. I knew that Wendel Clark was not even slightly that direction. Him and Todd Gill lived in a place on Madison Avenue and they had a backyard hot tub and you would go to parties there and it would be them, a few other Leafs, and a lot of girls in the hot tub.") Still, no one ever died from a bit of celebrity gossip.
In February of 1994, Doug Gilmour began getting threatening mail and disturbing phone calls from a female "admirer" complaining he wasn't being nice enough to her. The caller grew increasingly volatile and irate. "'I know where you live,' that kind of thing," says Gilmour. "And finally I got one that said, 'Next Thursday, after practice, you'll be dead.'"
He reported it to NHL security and the police, and it made for a day of high drama. When the day came, the Gardens was surrounded by undercover officers, and Gilmour was given a police escort to and from practice, but nothing happened. The threats eventually stopped. Gilmour suspects they may have come from a disgruntled Gardens employee, but he's not sure. "I was pretty shaken, especially when they tell you a date they're going to kill you," says Gilmour, who was coaching the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League in 2008-09.
"I was like, okaayyy. Do I have to practise that day?" The answer in Pat Burns's world: yes.
Excerpted from Leafs Abomination: The Dismayed Fan's Handbook to Why the Leafs Stink and How They Can Rise Again. Copyright 2009 by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.