William Nylander is young and Swedish.
Being so young and so Swedish, he doesn't yet realize he is now playing for the Worst Sports Team in Existence.
"I'm looking forward to putting the jersey on for the first time in the ACC, and playing for the fans for the first time. It'll be great," Nylander said ahead of his preseason debut on Tuesday.
Nylander showed flashes of outrageous skill in a 4-0 win over Philadelphia. He had one saucer pass in the second period good enough to convince you that physics is a matter of opinion. He scored at the very death.
You were left thinking, "This is exactly the sort of player who's going to get cut for no good reason, prompting riots in the suburbs, or wherever it is in this city they still believe."
So … nowhere.
Was it great? Or anywhere close? Of course not.
"Great" is a high bar, and no one on the Toronto Maple Leafs has met it since Lester B. Pearson was a middling politician instead of a hellscape from which no airplane may escape on schedule. Finding "great" in conjunction with the Leafs would require a team of archeologists. Dishonest ones.
Consider that, over nearly a century, only two Leafs have won the Hart Trophy.
Two. In 90 years. As you'll recall, there wasn't a whole lot of competition for a bunch of that time. If you want to talk about the analytics wars, consider how unlikely it is that any Canada-based club could produce hockey players of such consistent (and, often, fairly useful) mediocrity for so long. It's a mathematic miracle.
Several times in our lives, all of us will do something great, usually by accident or as the happy result of incompetence. I once woke up in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan 55 minutes before a flight out of Newark. AND MADE IT.
It's the closest I'll ever come to being a superhero. If I was on the roster, despite having never played a single shift, that suicidal run to New Jersey would qualify me as one of the 20 greatest Leafs of the past decade.
In fact, if there is anything great about the local hockey club, it is its conspicuous lack thereof.
This is the secret of the Leafs. It's what makes them special. And as we embark on another lost season, it's important to remember why we're all here – to suffer together.
It's like church, except we never get to the part about redemption. It's 100-per-cent crucifixion. It's probably a good idea to bring your own nails. You wouldn't believe what they charge for nails at the ACC.
As they are fond of doing, ESPN took a nice little run at Toronto this week on that very subject.
Canada's hockey cross to bear is, according to a U.S.-based outlet that makes its money massaging U.S-based viewers and U.S-based readers, the worst team in all the world (or the United States and a few lucky places that touch it).
There was some sort of empiric rationale to all this, but I didn't read it. I was busy lying face down in a pitch-black room, preparing myself mentally for hockey season.
This would be depressing news if ESPN didn't pull this trick on the regular. They've kicked Toronto so hard, so often, the city reflexively flinches every time it sees an acronym.
Have any of these people been to Sacramento? Or Houston? Or Florida (all of it, outside Miami)? Or pretty much any city in the U.S. that isn't within 10 kilometres of a coastline?
Because I don't care if the '27 Yankees play there. That – that random inland donut-hole blighting some arid strip of scorched earth south of the Mason-Dixon line – is the worst place to root for whatever team they've got going.
Those fans have no faith in anything, and who can blame them?
Up here, we don't need to see the wounds. We've got our own.
From the outside, this may seem masochistic. Which it absolutely is. The only reason why anybody wants the Leafs to win is so they can feel superior to all the front-runners who get bottlenecked at the entrance to Maple Leaf Square after every three-game win streak.
Theoretically, it would be fun if the Leafs were good again. Functionally, it would be a disaster.
Without the Leafs to complain about, we'd all start focusing on important things, like the fact that a decent house downtown costs, like, $5-million. Or something. Who knows? We're busy worrying about the Leafs. Whatever it is exactly, it's a bunch of money and none of us can afford it.
It's just easier if we take the little ready cash we have, give it to Dion Phaneuf and then hate him for having it. It's not financially viable or emotionally healthy, but at least it's pure.
This sort of sports nihilism has its comforts. There's a well-defined code of conduct. The total absence of hopefulness means no one goes home disappointed.
It's the difference between weddings and funerals.
Who's ever been to a really good wedding? There is no such thing. A wedding's all impossible expectations, drunken uncles and then somebody breaks both legs trying to do a spin move in rubber-soled shoes on an insufficiently polished dance floor (true story).
Hockey weddings are what Pittsburgh has every year. More often than not, it ends up two playoff rounds short of a bridal party. Add to that downer the fact that all those poor people must then go back to their homes. Which, though very cheap – maybe $1-million or $2-million – are in Pittsburgh. Rough.
Weddings let you down. Funerals never do. We have a big one in this town every single spring. You can plan around it. It's very cathartic.
We're looking forward to seeing William Nylander there this year. Probably a good idea to not wear his jersey to that particular function.