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Illustration by Adam De Souza

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Earlier this year, I read an article in The Globe and Mail that was most illuminating. It dealt with cults and their enduring power on adherents, citing examples from past centuries up to and including QAnon. There were several salient takeaways – one being that a cult’s predictions are “always near and never here.” The epochal events that will validate their peculiar beliefs are always just around the corner but never arrive. When true believers are presented with hard facts that point out the fallacies of the cult, they don’t turn away but double-down on believing.

As a new NHL season approaches, a bit of reflection made me realize that I, too, am part of something that has many characteristics of a cult: Leafs nation. This was perhaps most recently brought home to me by my nine-year-old grandson in June, the day after the Toronto Maple Leafs’ humiliating disgrace: blowing a 3-1 series lead to their historic rivals from Montreal.

“Grandpa, you seriously need a new team to cheer for. The Maple Leafs are crap.”

A mere child could see it but I had trouble admitting it. The return to glory that we had been promised went up in smoke – “always near, but never here.” Would I do what all cult members do and double-down on the belief that a Stanley Cup, or maybe even a playoff series win, was nigh? Like the rest of Leafs nation, I had been doing exactly that for 54 years.

My slavish devotion started innocently more than six decades ago when, as an eight-year-old, I got swept up in the excitement of the 1958-59 Cinderella playoff run of the Leafs, charging from last place to making the playoffs on the final night of the season. They went on to the Finals before losing to Les Canadiens (yeah, those guys … ). In that season, I made my first visit to Maple Leaf Gardens. Unbelievable! The only arena that I had ever been in was the Bolton, Ont., arena and it didn’t even have seats. I had seen flickering images of the Gardens on black-and-white TV, but here in vivid red, blue and green the seats seemed to stretch up to eternity. (As I got older, I have travelled to the Vatican in Rome and Notre Dame in Paris and other iconic buildings, but none produced the overwhelming sense of awe I felt on my first visit to Maple Leaf Gardens.)

And it got better; the team added Red Kelly and Dave Keon, and went on to win four Stanley Cups in the 1960s. To put it mildly, I signed up for the duration; count me in.

Well, we all know what has happened since then and it’s been pretty bad to put it mildly. Reflecting on more than a half-century of futility has made me seriously ponder if the price of being a Leafs fan is that one has to surrender any concept of evidence-based logic and take on the empty-headedness of a cult follower. The examples of the wreckage are too numerous to recount. There has been terrible ownership, such as during the Harold Ballard days of the 1980s. It was so bad Leafs fans wore grocery bags over their heads to avoid being identified. And the denigrating jokes: “Have you got your place picked out on Bay Street for the Leafs’ Stanley Cup parade?” Ha-ha. The sorry plight of the Leafs even turned up on American late-night TV when they were renamed Toronto Maple Leaf-Blowers on Jimmy Fallon’s show. Did I walk away? No, in true cult fashion, I doubled-down, even to putting one of those ridiculous little blue-and-white flags on my car.

Of course, there have been some excellent players over the years that raised our hopes, such as Darryl Sittler, Lanny MacDonald, Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin. But the people tasked with building a complete team failed miserably. They simply never grasped the fact that a true Stanley Cup contender has to have a complete 20-man roster backed up with a superior organization at all levels. The talents of these marvellous players were thus wasted.

Even worse, the presence of such skilled and classy players engendered in Leafs fans a feeling that a return to glory was imminent. That’s the essence of a cult – “always near; never here.”

One might think that there had to be a statistical probability or even possibility of the Leafs putting forward a contending team over 50 years. Not in Leafland.

But it was all going to get better in the past few years, or so we were told. Brendan Shanahan, supposedly a deep hockey thinker, became president of the Maple Leafs about seven years ago. Some big names joined the organization (Mike Babcock, Lou Lamoriello) and years of bottom-feeding ensured prized high draft choices, and thus the likes of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews laced up skates for the Leafs. We were on our way! Only a year or two away now!

And it all crashed when the Leafs were incapable of winning one lousy playoff round. The bright future seemed remarkably like the dreary, post-1967 Leafs.

It was in June when I finally made Leafs nation/cult connection. Winning a Stanley Cup was certainly never here and not even near. And the double-down: Not only did Shanahan and his general manager not apologize for gross ineptitude, they said that they were on the right path; the only things needed were patience and a bit of “killer instinct,” whatever that is.

It was at this point, and armed with the knowledge of cults, that I decided to walk away from the “Leaf-Blowers.” I proudly told my observant grandson about my plan. Another grandson heard this and piped up, “Grandpa, can I have all those Leafs sweaters and stuff you have in your study?”

Not so fast, young man. It was one thing to say I was finished with the Leafs. It is another to think of giving up a roomful of memorabilia accumulated over the years. That would be heart-rending. Many of those items were gifts and there is a lot of me tied up with them. It was then that I realized that despite what your head tells you, it is so very hard to escape the bonds of a cult that has your heart.

Paul Byrne lives in Brampton, Ont.

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