1 January 2016

Why am I still a Leafs fan?.

Sports is supposed to lift us up and show us the magnificence of the human spirit. Triumph over adversity and character in the face of insurmountable odds. That sort of stuff.
Blah, Blah, Blah.
My name is Rob and I have a problem.
I am a lifelong fan of Toronto Maple Leafs. For the majority of that time, this team has brought me nothing but disappointment, sadness and bitter, bitter endings. Why do I keep coming back for more? What makes a man come home from a long day at work, rush through dinner and sit down for three hours 82 times a season with nothing but a child like hope that maybe this season will be the ONE?  What could explain this slavish devotion to an organization that seems to delight in breaking my heart? 
Damned if I know, but I'll give it a try.
The Leafs were my Papa's favourite team. Whenever he and Grandma would come over, I of course wanted to spend time with them. So if there was a game on in those long ago days (the 1980's), I would watch it with him. Wednesdays and Saturdays were game nights, not like today when we are exposed to all the teams in the NHL on pretty much a nightly basis.  Only in the playoffs would you really get to see the other 20 teams and by then it was too late. I had been transformed into a diehard fan through osmosis.
My other Grampa was a Boston Bruins fan. That would have been so much easier on my heart. 2011 would have been the greatest year of my life. But it was not meant to be and now I bleed Blue and White with all the pain that comes with that damned team.
It was the mid 1980's when I really latched onto hockey as my sport. The Leafs were just about the worst run team in the NHL at that point. Their owner, Harold Ballard was a curmudgeonly sort who didn't care what anyone thought and ran the team through a series of coaches, players and executives in a desperate attempt to bring success to the city. Children today shake their fists at corporate owners, but at least they don't carry out personal vendettas against good players simply because they don't like them. Or hire and fire a coach in the same day. Or try to ban female reporters from the locker room. The man used the team as a Whack-a-Mole game for his own personal foibles. This was my introduction to the madness of Leafland. That should have chased me to another team, but I was hooked.
Two Leaf teams stand out above the rest in my memory. It is the 1986 and 1993 versions that cemented the team in my heart and probably why I can't let go.

In 1986 I was very lucky to be able to actually attend a few games at the storied Maple Leaf Gardens. I was awestruck at being able to walk behind the bench during warm ups for an up close and personal view of my heroes. The arena was like a holy place for me and I wanted to absorb everything about it. This team will always hold a special place in my heart for being the first Leafs team to make the playoffs since I had become a fan. Even better, my Dad got us tickets to Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs and it was the highlight of my year. Playing the heavily favoured Chicago Black Hawks, the Leafs appeared to be outclassed in every conceivable way.

Ken Wregget 1986. Love the mask and look at those goalie pads.
Rookie goaltender Ken Wregget became my hero for stealing the first two games of the best of five series at the Old Chicago Stadium. That meant our tickets to the third game held the possibility of seeing the Leafs sweep the Hawks and advance to the second round. I was nervous, but giddy.  I remember we went to the game with my friend Marty and his father Phil, both of whom are big Chicago fans. We had great seats and Marty and I walked down to the ice level to watch warmups. The players looked huge to 12 year old me and to this day I still think that Murray Bannerman, the Hawks goalie who was 5'11", was a giant.
The Leafs pounded the Hawks 7-2 and dad and I danced our way onto Bloor street with the other 15,000 fans. Marty and Phil have made out okay still being Hawks fans, I guess. I mean 3 Stanley Cups since 2010 is pretty good, but a 1986 first round victory is epic. I know, not really. We Leaf fans have so little, so let us have this one.
The team lost in the next round and for the next 6 years wandered in the wilderness until that fateful trade in 1992 that brought my all time favourite Leaf to town. Doug Gilmour's arrival from Calgary in a ten player trade came near the end of the season, but signalled greater things as the team passed from the Ballard estate to new owners.
Cliff Fletcher had come on as General Manager and hired Pat Burns as the coach. The new owners were making amends for the 25 years of hurt caused by Pal Hal and at 20, I was really falling in love with my team finally climbing the standings, but it was Dougie that captured my heart. He wasn't the biggest player and as the season wore on, he took on a gaunt look as he drove the team forward with his hard work and determination. The team tinkered and traded for parts and when the playoffs started, the Leafs were in. A surprise victory in the 7th game over the Detroit Red Wings followed by another 7 game nail biter over the St. Louis Blues left me with the real prospect that this team would be the promised Champion of my youthful belief.
Look at that hockey hair!
Then came the Los Angeles Kings. Oh, man. This one still hurts 23 years later.
I have to stop here for a moment because I think rarely does a discussion about hockey occur with my friends before I am compelled to remind them of the Great One's high stick on Gilmour in overtime of Game 6. The Leafs were up in the series 3-2 and a victory in L.A. would send them to the Stanley Cup Finals where our hated rival Montreal were already waiting. To this day I think if we make it there we win. But it was not to be. Moments after his uncalled high stick cut Dougie, Gretzky scored the game winning goal. Number 99 came back home and  put on a one man show in Game 7 and I was left with the memory of what might have been.
Seriously, I will talk about this play forever. Look on YouTube, watch this video and tell me Gretzky didn't deserve a 5 minute major for that high stick. Even Don Cherry knows the truth Sigh, I know I should just let it go. But I never will. it epitomizes everything a Leaf fan is. Optimism and never letting go of what might have been in 1993. That's what keeps me going.
There have been other close calls over the next 20 years. Toronto made the Conference Finals in 1994, 1999 and 2002. But none of those evoked the feeling I had in '86 or '93. There was something about having experienced unexpected joy while being a Leaf fan that sticks out with those two teams. The heart break happens almost every year when you are the fan of any sports team. Only one team can be the Champion and the odds really aren't in your favour in any given year. When your a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, they are never in your favour. Ever. Damn.
The last ten years have been a dead zone for fans of the Leafs. On playoff appearance that resulted in blowing a huge lead in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins is all we have to show for a decade of hockey. It hasn't been pretty, but hope seems to be on the horizon. The team has hired Brendan Shanahan as President and he in turn has found Lou Lamoriello from New Jersey to oversee a young and dynamic front office team. Mike Babcock came over from the Detroit Red Wings, bringing his Stanley Cup and Team Canada Gold Medal winning ways with him. There is an optimism around this team I haven't seen in a long time. They are still not very good, but they have some grit and are in every game, The Leafs are a long way from a Stanley Cup contender, but we see improvement and a high level of compete every time they step on the ice. Time will tell if we are being led down the garden path of disappointment again or not, but as anyone who loves the Blue and White will tell you, There's always next year.
Keep your chin up Leaf fans. I believe in the future of this team and will continue to carry a torch for my boys in Blue. Somehow, someday we will win it all and oh, how sweet it will be!
I will be front and center for the parade and then we will show those other teams how to really celebrate a Stanley Cup victory.
Until then, we always have the grainy videos from 1967 to keep us warm. Plus beer to drown our sorrows in.
Game on!
Keep hope alive!

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