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I am the quintessential bandwagoner.
For me, the sports section doesn’t exist until April, and then only if the Maple Leafs are up there in the headlines. Then I scrutinize every article, stat and list. I listen to jock radio and arrange my life around the playoff games. It’s like I’ve been at their side all along.
But my brother knows better. My brother is a Leafs diehard. My brother has stood by them for the past 50 years. He knows how agonizingly close they have come time and again, how easily that team can break your heart, tear it into smaller pieces, sauté it and toss it onto a burning slag heap. He is all too aware of how often his beloved Leafs have been robbed, pilloried, sidelined and plain overlooked. He has suffered through the Ballard years and hung in through the umpteenth first-round draft choices that never panned out. He even bought into Red Kelly’s pyramid power in the 1970s. Yet despite the dashed dreams and gnashing of teeth, he knows how predictably he is sucked back into that dreaded vortex every September, with visions of the elusive Stanley Cup dancing once again in his head.
So when I come along at the same time year in and year out with a sudden, impassioned interest in the sport, innocently asking questions like “Who’s this guy Acciari?” he may have the right to scoff. He compares it to someone neglecting to tell you that you have toilet paper stuck to your shoe before walking into a conference room. He says bandwagoners are worse.
It’s a valid point. When the hockey season starts, I am oblivious to it. Watching regular-season Leafs games before Christmas has held for me the appeal of, oh, eye surgery without anesthetic. I care not a whit about their draft picks, salary negotiations and management shuffles, it’s all inconsequential white noise to me then.
Call me fickle. You would not be wrong.
Picture me now: a woman who is, unadulteratedly, Leafs-obsessed. I’ve watched every game unfailingly for the past several weeks, including the between-period filler. I can differentiate between Rielly and O’Reilly, am up on Samsonov’s latest save percentages and know it’s Auston Matthews, not Austin. I am watching Knies these nights with laser focus, announcing I was the first to spot his promise. (Not even close.)
When the other team is in the Leafs’ crease, I grab the closest dog and use her to shield my eyes from the horror. When our guys score? Any dog nearby gets danced with wild abandon throughout my house.
I pepper my conversations with phrases like clutch goal, butterflying, angling and cycling. I long commiserated with my fellow fans (such liberties, eh what?) that we hadn’t won a postseason series since 2004. I know the excruciating details of each time Tavares has been sidelined. I am up on the squad’s best defensive pairings, their most punishing power forwards. Putting me squarely into classic fan territory, I submit, is how I can even reel off stats of the teams we face on the way to victory. (Yes, I said that word.)
Naturally, I wear my lucky Leafs jersey during games. (Okay, I had it altered to fit a little better, and it has a sequined terrier pin on the left shoulder, but it is official issue.) And keep off my special armchair: It’s the playoffs!
When does a wannabe like myself cross that invisible, undefined but all too real chasm and enter the sanctified corridors of fandom? Should I surf to the sports pages before Wordle every morning, stop by the Leafs Nation socials before The New Yorker? Patronize only those bars with TV screens the size of Winnebagos? Walk into Tim Hortons tomorrow and, before ordering my double-double, ask random people to slap me high, while bellowing “Beleaf”?
I’m ready to do it all. I will also share the more obscure Leafs data and backstories, sweet little nuggets I’ve amassed unwittingly after years of living under the same roof of a small house with two Leafs devotees. (My dad, too.)
Consider this: I can talk in detail about Lanny McDonald’s overtime winner against the Islanders in ‘78, about how Gretzky high-sticked Doug Gilmour with no penalty in ‘93, and how that rogue Ken Hodge scored overtime goals two years in a row to put the Leafs out in the early 70s. I can give you chapter and verse about the Mike Allison debacle of ‘87, when he scored in double overtime to beat Detroit and give us a 3-1 lead, only to see Detroit come back and win the next three.
I’ll sweeten the pot more, by reminding everyone how in the late 70s Roger Neilson was fired as Leafs coach and just two days later got rehired. Ballard suggested as a publicity grabber that Neilson put a bag on his head, walk to the bench, and then remove the bag. Neilson fortunately refused.
I am asking a lot; I admit it. I want to share in the glory now, when the stalwart fans have been slogging it out in the trenches for months. But stay with me as I plead my case further; who among Leafs fans, newcomers and old faithfuls included, can claim to have been on a first-name basis with Eddie Shack during the 1970s when he sold Christmas trees on St. Clair Avenue, just down the street from my apartment building? Shared a coffee or two with him, too, there in the cold. Great guy, by the way.
I want to be a full-fledged bona fide Maple Leafs fan. Even though I am a little late to the party every year.
If I’m cut, do I not bleed blue?
Where do I apply?
Tricia McCallum lives in Toronto.