A headline we thought we’d never see:
Leafs advance in NHL playoffs.
And yet there it was on the Internet on Saturday night, right over Globe and Mail reporter Marty Klinkenberg’s byline: “Toronto Maple Leafs defeat Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in overtime to advance in NHL playoffs.”
That would be Tampa Bay, the NHL’s elite team these past few years, and the Leafs, 19 years since they last won a playoff series, a sorry team that had gone 0-11 in series-clinching matches since 2013.
But they did it, finally, in Tampa taking a third successive road game in overtime, meaning Toronto will now meet the Florida Panthers, who defeated the Bruins 4-3 in overtime of Game 7 in Boston on Sunday night. Boston, just for the record, owns the record of most-victories in a single NHL season, 65.
It doesn’t get any easier from here on, but it certainly has got a lot less anxious and discouraging, regardless of what happens next. The dragon was slayed 4:36 into the first overtime, when captain John Tavares – featured on Twitter during the game as a child sleeping in his Leafs bed sheets – put a puck into the Florida net off a defender’s skate.
In a year in which beer commercials have been replaced by repulsive and obnoxious gambling ads, who had the inside tip to bet on this?
That one bounce put an end to the annual jokes about how, in Canada, the Leafs fall in spring. The team’s inability to get anywhere in the playoffs since they last won a Stanley Cup in 1967 – 56 years ago! – had become part of the country’s laugh soundtrack. Writer Gare Joyce had even penned a hilarious book back in 2013, Every Spring a Parade Down Bay Street: An Eyewitness Account of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Forty-Five Straight Stanley Cups, by Red York as told to G.B. Joyce. It was, needless to add, a parody.
The Internet has long been stuffed with Toronto Maple Leafs jokes. “Q: What’s the difference between the Toronto Maple Leafs and a mosquito? A: A mosquito stops sucking.” Joke now on hold, at least until next spring.
A couple of years back, Leafs mega fan Justin Bieber released a sort of “love song” to the hapless Toronto team, the beer-league-level recreational player’s opening lines being, “You know you can call on me if you need someone. I’ll pick up the pieces if you come undone.” Turned out they didn’t need to dress Bieber. They picked up their own innumerable pieces.
No sports team in Canada has ever drained as much emotion – both good and bad – as the Toronto Maple Leafs. They are the Damn Yankees of hockey, with the largest spectator base by far, but one split sharply between those who worship and those who despise.
In NHL cities such as Ottawa and Winnipeg, not to forget the four other non-Toronto teams, the Leafs are often deeply resented, as hometown fans in those centres obsess on what seems to them such a television bias that they refer to TSN as the “Toronto Sports Network.” Foolish as it may be, they feel that if Connor McDavid scored a triple hat-trick for the Edmonton Oilers, the Toronto-based sports networks would still lead with a lower body injury to a Leafs fourth liner. It’s absurd, but it’s out there. And has been for a long, long time.
Some time back, Bleacher Report ranked the most-disliked teams in sport and, no surprise, the New York Yankees – “The Evil Empire” – ranked first overall. Second was the showboating Dallas Cowboys of football, then basketball’s egomaniacal L.A. Lakers. Hockey’s lone entry, the Philadelphia Flyers, came 13th, well behind soccer’s Manchester United, New Zealand Rugby and West Indies Cricket.
Clearly, Bleacher did not survey north of the 49th parallel.
An academic study that can be found on KnowRivalry.com has conducted 30,000 fan surveys over the past decade. The two founders, David Tyler of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Joe Cobbs at Northern Kentucky University, both doctorates in sports management, reached the conclusion that much of professional sports engagement comes down to schadenfreude – “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.”
The flip side of this, of course, would be pleasure derived from another’s good fortune, but that has always been in short supply in Canada.
That said, this country could do with a shot of this after 30 straight years of not lifting the Stanley Cup. It is worth remembering that the trophy was introduced on March 18, 1892, at a hockey celebration dinner held at Ottawa’s Russell House Hotel. Lord Kilcoursie, an aide to Lord Stanley, read a letter from Stanley in which the Governor-General proposed that “it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup which should be held from year to year by the champion hockey team in the Dominion.”
That Dominion is still Canada – the sacred Cup so American in recent decades that challenges from the north are rare, and fail.
Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves that this is the national winter game, that hockey, not God, has been on Canadian currency, that the game is at the core of the country’s most-beloved children’s book, that news used to be regularly delayed until the scores came in. As poet Richard Harrison once said, hockey is “the national id.” It’s who we are.
You don’t have to love the Leafs to cheer for them.
How sweet, after all, would it be to cheer for them all the way to the Stanley Cup final, where they might then meet the … Edmonton Oilers.
It may be unlikely, but it’s not impossible.
Then let the cheering and the schadenfreude battle it out in the stands and across the land.