Remember when Garret Sparks v. Michael Hutchinson was a thing? Remember how Mike Babcock made Jason Spezza a healthy scratch in the opener and everyone got upset? Do you remember Babcock at all?
When this season started 27 years ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs were synonymous with their coach.
When the club fired Babcock in November, it was time to go out and begin gathering up kindling. Because there was a fire coming, and the Leafs were headed straight into it.
Those were fun days. Back when a professional sports coach who was – gasp – mean to people at work seemed like an important issue. We were all so young then, and full of hope.
Circumstances have changed somewhat since.
One of the effects of the pandemic is that it has created a Before Times and an After Times. That split is not good for social cohesion, the global economy, international relations and my plan to buy a piece of land up north for next to nothing.
But it has been very good to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In the Before Times, the Leafs were a bunch of overpriced swells who couldn’t get much right aside from hiring exceptional agents to do their contract negotiations. They were haunted by the ghost of a coach who didn’t manage much while he was here, but had at least provided a buffer between the players and the city’s expectations of them.
Now that he was gone, the Leafs had used up all their mulligans.
In the After Times, the Leafs are a scrappy bunch of working-class strivers putting aside the comforts of home to live in loneliness and squalor (i.e. the Fairmont Royal York) for a few weeks. They are an essential morale-boosting service. They are … sniffles … #TorontoStrong.
And now the Leafs have their mulligan back. Maybe a couple of them.
The Leafs begin their playoff run on Sunday against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets are the Brazilian jiu jitsu of the NHL – not much fun to watch, but handy in a fight to the death. Columbus doesn’t score many goals, nor does it allow many. Columbus is tough, while Toronto is skilled (the acceptable, modern way of saying “soft”).
The Leafs are handy Vegas favourites to take the five-game series, but only because Leafs fans like to gamble and Columbus has no fans. Realistically, this series is a wash on the way in.
Had it been played in the Before Times, it was an absolute must-win for Toronto. No excuses, no “great learning experience for the young guys” nonsense. They aren’t young any more.
If the prepandemic Leafs had pooched another first round – their fourth in a row – there would have been demands for action: “Trade (insert absolutely any name here)!”
No action would have been taken. Under current management, the Leafs have finally figured out their fan base is 60 per cent suburban dads, 10 per cent Newfoundlanders and 30 per cent hysterical arsonists whose answer to every question is “Burn it down.”
Toronto’s core isn’t going anywhere. The Leafs could have lost miserably in April, or do so now in August, or in whatever month they hold the playoffs next year. The Leafs will trade Carlton the Bear before they’ll get rid of any one of Auston Matthews, John Tavares or Mitch Marner.
There’s a very good, non-hockey reason for this – once you show your back, that’s when the mob comes for you.
But losing back in April would have created some bad press and some worse feelings. It would have set a new tone for the Leafs – that they were, until proved otherwise, a terminally overrated bunch of stiffs who were never going to win anything.
That is not a fun environment to play in. So then we’re back to the old saw about no one wanting to be in Toronto (or Montreal, or Edmonton) because the expectations are too high and the fans and media are too cruel.
(To which I would ask, “Why would an ambitious person want to play in any other sort of environment?” Would you want a ballplayer who’d prefer the quiet life in Cincinnati to the meat grinder in Boston? Same rule applies to hockey. If Canada is too much for a guy, then he doesn’t deserve to play in Canada.)
Once the narrative got rolling in that direction, pretty soon you’re back to Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and open war between the people who play for the Leafs and the people who pay to watch them.
In other words, the usual.
COVID-19 has realigned that equation. The old rules of combative fandom don’t apply. Win, don’t win. It’s not really your fault. You’ll try again next year when things aren’t so messed up. And if things aren’t back to normal then (Ed. note: they won’t be), then the year after that.
The opposite also holds true – if the Leafs (or Canadiens or sub in your preferred storied-yet-sadsack team) do win, it doesn’t count.
Sure, it’s a Stanley Cup, but it’s not a real Stanley Cup.
This is a mulligan year for everyone, but there is no team in hockey that suits more than Toronto (with the Oilers a close second).
All the Leafs’ past sins are either forgotten or no longer seem important. Caring too much about how the hockey team does – the secret to the organization’s success as well as its failure – now feels grubby and frivolous. Yelling in public about it will seem much worse. The pandemic did Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment that favour, at least.
All the Leafs need to do now is play like they care, avoid saying or doing anything stupid, and hope the NHL leaves the Toronto bubble without going all Major League Baseball.
If they can manage that, the worst you can call this year is a mitigated failure. Which, given the Alice-in-Wonderland rules the Leafs operate under, makes it a mitigated success.