Skip to main content

Nazem Kadri picks up a Maple Leafs jersey on the ice after losing to the Washington Capitals on Jan. 7.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

There have not been a lot of wins in Brendan Shanahan's year-and-a-half-long tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

That's not really on him, as he inherited a mess to clean up when brought in by MLSE as president back in April of 2014.

Still, as a local, Shanahan has found it difficult to watch the franchise and fan base go through what they did last season, when the Leafs won only 11 of their final 51 games and finished fourth last in the NHL in one of the worst stretches for any team in recent memory.

It was the Leafs fourth late-season collapse in four years.

Last season it was so ugly that for the first time in 13 years, the Leafs didn't sell out some games at the Air Canada Centre. Late in the year, there were thousands of empty seats for midweek games, as fans didn't even bother to use their tickets.

Whenever Montreal or Ottawa was in town, the building was full of Habs and Sens fans, as Leafs season-ticket holders had either sold or given away their seats.

The Leafs are holding their annual Fan Fest this weekend in Toronto. As part of that event, Shanahan addressed a group of about 3,000 season-ticket holders on Thursday night at a question-and-answer session at the ACC.

His message? Bear with us: Things will get better.

"I do want to say this to our fans because I understand that, for lack of a better term, it's been sometimes difficult to be a Leafs fan," Shanahan said. "In spite of the fact that we have more hockey fans than anybody else in the world.

"We will have bumps along the road. Not everything is going to go perfectly. We will have difficult nights. We will have difficult stretches. But I say this and I mean this: Be very, very proud to be a Leafs fan. Don't be embarrassed to be a Leafs fan. Our players are going to work hard. Our staff is going to work hard. We are going to get this done. We are not going to quit. That is not boastful. We know it's not easy. But we will not quit. Be proud, hold your heads high and we will try and make you proud as well."

After such a difficult season and with another one likely on the way, that might ring hollow in a lot of markets – especially for a team that has made the playoffs only once since 2004. But, largely because of the hiring of Mike Babcock as coach and Lou Lamoriello as GM in the off-season, the Leafs have bought some goodwill.

The fans attending Fan Fest on Thursday left the pitchforks at home, as the mood at the ACC seemed hopeful more than anything.

Most fans addressed their questions to Babcock, including one who wondered when exactly the long-time Detroit Red Wings coach would deliver the Stanley Cup to Toronto.

Babcock in turn praised the fans for understanding that getting better would be a process, one that starts with building through the draft and the minor-league system and that could take years.

"When you're in a place like this, it's very, very special," Babcock said. "But we have to hold our rightful place in the NHL. In order to do that, we've got to improve the product on the ice. That's going to take some time, but we're going to do that.

"It's great to have passionate, knowledgeable fans that understand the process and understand what's coming."