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TORONTO, ON - APRIL 17: Marcus Johansson #90 of the Boston Bruins skates to check Jake Gardiner #51 of the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on April 17, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)Claus Andersen/Getty Images

At the beginning of his end-of-season locker-side chat, a couple of long-serving members of the Toronto Maple Leafs media corps shook Jake Gardiner’s hand.

That’s a terrible sign. It means people know you’re already dead. Because they won’t be seeing you again, it’s a final gesture of civility.

You could see the symbolism register on Gardiner’s face. Soon enough, you could hear it in his voice. By the end, he had come close to tears.

But Gardiner is well equipped to take bad news on the fly as people watch him do so. Few modern athletes have as much experience. Fewer still deserved it less.

The Leafs have many sins going back a long time. Someone has to pay for them. For the past couple of years – and with no good reason to do so – they decided it was Jake Gardiner’s turn. It made about as much sense as having a bad day at work and taking it out on the family dog.

Gardiner was an uncomplaining, uniformly bright and occasionally brilliant presence on some of the most wretchedly dysfunctional Leafs’ teams in history.

While bigger names were whining their way out of town, Gardiner plugged away at his craft and got steadily better at it. As the team improved around him, Gardiner remained a key to the mix. Seldom great; almost always good.

It is in the nature of playing defence in the NHL that you will occasionally be made to look foolish out there. If those things didn’t happen, hockey would be called Red Rover instead.

Gardiner had his moments of on-ice comedy. But each time he put his hand up, took his licks and went back to work.

It wasn’t enough to prevent a wagon-load of people from climbing on his back, then commencing to jumping up and down.

His long-serving contemporaries have learned how to carry themselves in the kangaroo court of Leafs opinion. Morgan Rielly does it with a disarming wit. Nazem Kadri does with a stare that tells you, “Maybe I shouldn’t ask that question.”

Gardiner never developed a defence. His live-for-broadcast personality was and is a combination of earnest and opaque. It makes a person seem as though they don’t care.

Gardiner cared. How do I know? Because if everybody was telling you over and over again that you were a turnover waiting to happen, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you try very hard to make sure they weren’t right? Maybe too hard?

“That’s just how it is here,” Gardiner said, meaning the beating he takes in Toronto.

He’s given this speech before about how people love you when you’re up and hate you when you’re down. It’s the way sports works, yadda yadda. Throughout Gardiner stuck to the blank second person – “you” have to deal with it, “you” have to perform and so forth.

But this time at the end, he forgot himself and mumbled, “I just gotta get through it.”

Yes, he screwed up in Game 7. Yes, he’s done that already. Yes, he should not do that. Yes, it’s why he is paid millions of dollars to go to work in short pants.

But when you hammer on someone so hard, for so long that they are flush with the ground, why then be surprised they aren’t all nerves-of-steel in the moment?

After Tuesday’s game there was a perverse pleasure in the Leafs diaspora that it was Gardiner again. Who else would it be? Who leaves the puck sitting behind their own net when they can see an opponent coming straight for it?

A man who is so intent on not making any mistakes that he makes an awful one. “Don’t think of a pink elephant” and so forth.

Here’s another thought – maybe they should have scored some goals? Maybe when Zdeno Chara chimed John Tavares’s head like a church bell, someone should have returned the favour? Maybe they could deploy a coaching philosophy better than “Didn’t work before; might work this time.”

There are a lot of reasons the Leafs lost. One of them is that, compared to Boston, they’re soft. The city of Toronto has done some of the tenderizing.

No one got it worse than Gardiner. To all those who gleefully went in on him – congratulations, mission accomplished. Gardiner’s ruined, at least as far as Toronto is concerned.

He knew it. Rielly, who’s taken it upon himself to become Gardiner’s defence counsel, knew it. Leafs GM Kyle Dubas knew it – “I think in time the way that people view Jake will be so positive.”

That’s not a vote of confidence. It’s a funeral oration.

Gardiner is a free agent. The Leafs don’t have the money to sign him. What a mercy. It’s hard to think of any hockey player who could benefit more from a change of scenery, for his emotional health if no other reason.

Of course, Gardiner wants to stay. It would not be like any pro to feel good about going out as the goat. But Gardiner, a Minnesotan, really pressed his case, calling Toronto “different” than other teams.

How?

“You come to the rink and everyone’s got a smile on their face every single day,” Gardiner said.

What will you miss?

Gardiner’s eyes glassed up.

“A lot,” he said. “But probably the guys in this room the most.”

His lip was trembling. He swung away quickly. No chance for more handshakes.

This city beat this guy like a mule for the crime of trying too hard. And he still doesn’t want to go. Sports is truly amazing.

This sort of cruelty is crucial to fandom. Someone said to me recently that “hate is mismanaged love.” Where would that apply better than up in the stands at a hockey rink, everyone all together, piling on that night’s screw-up?

It’s less enjoyable when you watch the screw-up in question coming to terms with the results from up close.

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