If the Leafs have a doppelganger, it isn’t a hockey team. No one else in the NHL has the same combo of pedigree and pusillanimity.
Not that that’s hurt them on the business side of things. Rather the opposite. The more cursed the Leafs become, the more anxiously Toronto rushes in to lift the curse with burnt offerings of cash.
If the Leafs have a twin, it’s the New York Knicks.
Like the Leafs, the Knicks are a founding member of their particular gentlemen’s club and have an ancient history of success. Like the Leafs, the Knicks do the rituals right. There are few sweeter moments in sport than sitting in Madison Square Garden in the pregame when the lights go down and the court is spot-lit. It’s the closest sports anywhere comes to theatre.
Like the Leafs, the Knicks are worth a fortune. Forbes ranks both teams as second most valuable in their leagues (behind the Golden State Warriors and New York Rangers, respectively).
The Leafs haven’t won a postseason round in 20 years. The Knicks can top that, just barely. They won a single round a decade ago, but it’s the only one they’ve managed in the last 23 seasons. In Manhattan, the Knicks provoke the same perverse combo of heedless loyalty and low-grade contempt that the Leafs have been fuel-injecting into Toronto’s civic engine for decades.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the stretch of time in which both teams were highly successful as well as hugely unsuccessful mirrors a particular moment in North American history. This period bracketed by 9/11 and the pandemic might be called post-Cold War/pre-Cold War 2.0 – a 20-year stretch when money was cheap and frivolity was aspirational. Our Sex and the City years leading into our Girls years leading into our Euphoria years.
In that moment, it made sense for massive sports concerns like the Leafs and the Knicks to go off on a flakey, two-decade journey of self-discovery. What they discovered is that no one cares if you win, as long as you keep adding zeroes to the franchise value.
Enough people in the respective economic centres of either country had enough money that you could float a loser. You took your clients to a game to close deals or show off to friends. Who won? It didn’t matter as long as everyone was having fun. A formula that worked in New York and Toronto wouldn’t do so well in Pittsburgh or Ottawa. Which is why teams in cities like that must occasionally be good.
Between the upcoming wars, the interest rates and the urban decay, the fun times are over. Time to get serious again. And guess what? The Leafs and Knicks are doing that.
If you’ve been watching the Leafs your whole life, Tuesday night’s third-period, three-goal comeback in Tampa was not exciting. It was more disorienting.
You have believed for most of your life that things go one way – that water runs downhill. As Morgan Rielly saucered in the tying goal from the blueline, you were watching water do a 180 and start climbing the wall. After Alex Kerfoot tipped in the winner, you may have had trouble getting up off the couch. It was getting hard to tell which way was up.
Nothing’s changed yet and, sure, they’ve been in this position before, but it does feel different, doesn’t it? The Leafs are up 3-1 with two home games in hand. If Toronto loses the series now, there will be no need to fire anyone. After the riots, there won’t be an office left for anyone at Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment to go back to.
In New York, the Knicks are having their own 3-1 moment. Like the Leafs, everyone figured they were good enough to win their first round against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Everyone also figured they’d lose anyway.
We have gotten ourselves to a strange place where it is assumed that New York City will lose to Nowheresville, Ohio, at basketball and Toronto will lose to Florida at hockey. Imagine telling that to a fan of 50 years ago. They’d have laughed at you.
But this is part of what made the last 20 years so weird – this sort of thing became normal and accepted. The best teams in the world could be the worst teams in the world. It proves people will get used to – and pay for – anything.
At the risk of jinxing things, that’s about to end. Now we’re into a back-to-the-future present where the Leafs and Knicks are expected to achieve baseline sporting competency on a regular basis.
Unless we’re talking about putting roofs on arenas or ending the indentured servitude of the reserve clause, there are no new eras in sports. It’s the same show with different actors. But if the two most illogically cursed teams in sport are about to change the storyline, that will require a few rewrites in standard operating procedure.
If the Leafs and Knicks are good, that’s good for their leagues. What’s good for leagues is good for broadcast. What’s good for broadcast is good for media as a whole. And what’s good for all the institutions who live off sports is probably bad for fans. If you were willing to pay for the Leafs when they were atrocious, how much might you be willing to pay now that they aren’t?
It goes to the theory that all of us are being moved by the invisible hand of the market. For most of us, when times get bad, that means switching up to the discount grocery store. And for a legendary sports franchise, it means finally coming to grips with the fact that you can’t fool people forever.