You invite a few people to your place for dinner. It starts out great – music, drinks, everyone's in the kitchen laughing. As the night wears on, things take a darker turn. You burn the roast. You run out of wine and crack open the Scotch. Someone brings up the Leafs, and suddenly people are rooting around in your drawers trying to find the knives. Then one of your guests tips over a framed photo of your mother. And so, you call the cops. This is sort of what happened at the Air Canada Centre on Monday night. Several fans threw jerseys on the ice – the closest thing Toronto now has to a sporting tradition.
Three landed while the game was going on. The barricade-stormers who'd committed this brave act of resistance were collared by security and handed over to police. According to reports, they were initially charged with public mischief.
By late morning Tuesday, Toronto police announced charges against three people had been downgraded to non-criminal fines because "discretion [was] used after investigations."
The fans have instead been banned for a year – the normal treatment for anyone who interferes with play at a major-league event anywhere in the city. That's sensible. Everything else about this isn't.
When did people get so angry about a pastime that has only one viewing purpose – to make you happy? Would you light the screen on fire after a disappointing night at the movies?
Even the cops are getting weird about the whole thing. Toronto police's official Twitter feed wondered, "Car interferes w/ traffic, complaints why cops aren't there. Fans interfer [sic] w/ National game/broadcast, complaints why cops bother."
Everyone's piling in to slam everyone else – the fans, the cops, the club, MLSE. Now that Rob Ford is gone, the Leafs are the only topic that draws this whole city to the public square. Everyone comes with metaphoric clubs tucked under their coats.
(Parenthetical: On the frantic, general discussion that must occasion every small twitch with this club, a quote jumps to mind, a bit of snark directed at the grindingly prolific novelist John Updike: "Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?" We're all Updikes in Leafland.)
There is only one conclusion here: The Leafs aren't really a hockey team. They are a leading cause of nervous breakdowns.
These outsized reactions, by all involved, are the Leafs' last shudders of relevance. The only proof the Leafs matter any more is in how much people enjoy hating them, or hating the people who hate them, or hating the people who tell you that hating them just makes them perpetually hateable. As long there's hate in there somewhere.
This fan base is a beaten dog. You hold your hand up to hit it, it bites. You move in for a pet, it bites harder.
It's gotten so no one really cares if the Leafs win. They've been hurt too much before, and it robs them of their angry raison d'etre. During the team's blazing run through early December, it was crickets. The usual silence in the arena, but also in the talk about town. Instead, people preferred to discuss the Raptors or the off-season Blue Jays – two teams that take a half-century of hard feelings out of the sporting equation. The Raptors and Jays are Toronto's fainting couch. The city goes there to rest between hockey-related swoons.
It wasn't until the Leafs took another nosedive that the mob wandered back into the discussion. They got really interested when Randy Carlyle was fired. Froth began to form at the corners of their mouths when Phil Kessel took a run at the media. By the time the team ran dry on the West Coast, everyone had quit their jobs in order to spend more time at home refreshing a half-dozen different screens.
The media stoke this co-dependence, but they don't create it. If no one read/watched/listened to this stuff, it would dry up immediately. But everybody loves a good Leafs-related hit piece. In this town at least, we didn't remove violence from the game. We changed venues.
Eventually, all this bile has to come pouring out somewhere. There is only one reason to throw your jersey on the ice, and it isn't frustration. It's an attempt to elicit a reaction.
It's the logical conclusion of the desperate centralization of the "in-game experience." Actual hockey gets less and less important, while every quiet moment must be filled with promos and contests, all of which involve some middle-aged schmoe in his Wendel Clark gear out on the ice or up on the big screen. The teams have broken down the fourth wall that once separated entertainers from the entertained. Now the fans want to be part of things while the game's still going on. It's not enough that the team hears them. It has to see them, and acknowledge them.
That was the dumbest part of SaluteGate – it proved to the ACC audience they were getting inside the team's head and, therefore, winning. It emboldened them.
One wonders what would have happened if a player had stepped on a thrown jersey and taken a header into the boards. Would the crowd have cheered?
"It's not about making an example," MLSE spokesman Dave Haggith said of the arrest of the jersey-throwers. "People have to know there's a repercussion for bad behaviour at a public event."
But that's all that's left – bad behaviour. Bad behaviour by the team and most of its fans. No one who wanders into this 50-year-old domestic squabble takes the time to figure out the lay of the land. They just start yelling.
People wonder when the Leafs will start winning again. When it happens, I wonder if anyone will recognize it as fun.