After Monday’s Game 6 win, Maple Leaf defenceman Ron Hainsey said, “It’s a terrible day for the city, but for us it’s kind of … odd.”
Hainsey – a 37-year-old man on a team comprised largely of twentysomething kids − thought for a long while about what word he would use in that spot.
“Odd” was a good choice.
Whenever something awful happens and sport is forced to trundle on – being moved by tragedy, compelled to say something meaningful and human about it, but never stopping for it − the roads around Air Canada Centre were blocked off by dump trucks. The contest was preceded by an eerie moment of silence. But the game still got played. People still cheered and ran woo-hooing up Bay Street afterward.
In the dressing room, the Leafs tried their best to be happy without seeming too happy; sentimental, but not maudlin; pained, without making it about themselves.
They all managed it, but you could see the effort involved. Every man in the room was well outside his rhetorical comfort zone.
Eight hours after a terrible act of violence, it’s probably not fair to ask hockey players what it all means to them, how they played through it and what they’d like to say to the city. They’re athletes, not philosophers. They feel the same way anyone feels. They still have to go to work.
The expectations aren’t fair, either. On the one hand, they are expected to say something about wanting to win for Toronto. On the other, they’re meant to nod at the fact that, at times like this, sport doesn’t matter.
The two ideas don’t make sense when combined, but we are now in the realm of pure emotion. Nothing has to make sense. We get to have it both ways because it’s more cathartic that way.
There’s a script to all of this – can’t imagine what this is like, thoughts and prayers, happy to provide a distraction, etc. – that everyone clings to for fear of saying something insensitive.
But we ask them anyway because, however clichéd, people are comforted by the answers.
More than anything, fans would like to believe their sports icons are decent people who share their basic values. That however superhuman they may seem on the ice, they’d be regular guys if you sat beside them at a bar.
Tragedy allows the players to show that side of themselves. It pulls the knot that binds a city to a team more tightly than victory can.
It’s a moment to reassure everyone that we’re all in this thing (life, not the NHL) together. But that’s all it is – a moment.
Short of acts of war or God, sport does not stop. Its inertia is relentless.
That’s more than a scheduling issue. The “forget and move on” ethos is fundamental to the psyche of a pro athlete. They shed defeats as a matter of habit.
So while Wednesday’s Game 7 against Boston has now been freighted with more meaning than it can carry, the Leafs had moved on by Tuesday.
The concession to the city’s funereal mood was an unusual sombreness in tone.
Under normal circumstances, they would be at pains to show how loose they are ahead of a winner-take-all game. Instead, they all whispered rather than talked.
In the case of goalie Frederik Andersen – a mumbler at the best of times – you couldn’t hear him while standing right in front of him.
“We’ll try to do the city proud,” he said.
Since it would now seem unfeeling to talk about Game 7’s meaning in competitive terms, no one did that. All the Leafs described it the same way – “an opportunity.”
That’s another good word. It can mean a lot of things.
It’s an opportunity for diversion; an opportunity to celebrate life; an opportunity to get out and meet your neighbours. It’s also an opportunity for a local sports franchise to advance its long-term hockey goals. Those don’t seem very important just now, and the players had the good sense not to mention them.
“Know your job and do it,” coach Mike Babcock said when asked what was required of his players. It’s a sentiment that might be fruitfully applied to all of us.
No, the Leafs were at pains to describe how little they’re thinking right now. They are instead in the realm of doing.
Perhaps there is one thing they’d like to think on, which has very little to do with winning hockey games. It’s their place in the weave of the city.
Canadians are lucky in that our sports teams do not draw their historical force from tragedy or disaster. Many clubs around the world do.
That’s left the modern Leafs free to be three things – a lucrative business, a nostalgic punchline and a mediocre sports franchise.
But they are more than that. For many people, they’re the primary cultural expression of Toronto. They’re something everyone here has in common.
You grew up with them. You stuck with them. If you didn’t, you’re Torontonian enough to feel bad about it.
However it’s worked out, the Leafs mean something to Toronto in a way no other civic institution can or does.
There’s a responsibility in that. It’s not winning titles (because if it was, they’d have folded up in the 90s).
It’s showing well. It’s saying the right things. It’s making people feel connected to something.
We used to laugh about hockey players not wanting to come to Toronto for fear of being eaten alive, and forgot that it’s a privilege to wear the uniform. It makes you a hero to a lot of people.
After a day like Monday, the Leafs don’t have to lead the city in mourning, or win Game 7 because that’ll boost civic spirits. Those are facile ideas. Sports can’t fix anything.
But what it can do is remind people that if hockey is being played, then things are still okay. That’s the Leafs’ responsibility now − know your job and do it.