Apparently there’s a lot of anger in Leafland.
Of course it’s understandable since there won’t be any playoff buzz around town this spring for the seventh straight year — eight with the lockout. Piled on top of the decades of failure, it’s all getting to be a little much for some and there are signs things are beginning to crack.
Post mortems on the season have started early with some media foaming at the mouth of the alleged catastrophic state of the organization. It’s being dissected so very publicly and in such minute detail that the outrage itself has almost become a parody.
Fire Burke! Trade Kessel! Phaneuf’s a terrible captain!
Toronto’s local tabloid is typically in fine fettle on this matter and enjoys being the straw that stirs the drink of discontent, not just with the Leafs but practically any topic you care to name.
Screeching headlines of “Epidemic!” festooned with crime scene tape on how Burke has failed to eradicate “Blue and White disease”was on the Friday cover of the sports section. It also showed a couple of Leafs laughing during practice, like they’re mocking, mocking! the fed up fans as they blithely go about their business not caring a whit for the suffering fans as their season has fallen into the abyss. Wasn’t it mere weeks ago when he hired Carlyle that Brian Burke said hockey isn’t supposed to fun? So, wipe that smile off your face you losers! How dare you! There’s no laughing allowed. You’re a Maple Leaf, son. You have to scowl constantly like me if you want to play for this organization!
Yet the fan outrage about all this strikes me as a bit muted for a team and organization that has disappointed so many for so long.
Outside of some fans booing, “Fire Wilson/Fire Burke” chants and a few of them wearing paper bags over their heads, it all seems a bit half-hearted. Now the “Let’s go Blue Jays” chant during the 7-1 thrashing by the Flyers Thursday was rather inspired. A clever insult that had to get under the brass’s skin.Yet a win Saturday against an injury-hobbled Sabres team that broke a 55-day, 11-game losing streak on home ice was enough to pacify the paying customers for a night. It was a gigantic relief to get that gorilla off their backs – at least for a night.
What it also shows is how fickle the fed-up fan base really is; give ’em a win at home and nearly all is forgiven. It’s like having a troublesome teenager who, just when you think they never do or listen to anything you say, they do something that just melts your heart — and you’ve got to them credit. So it is with the Leafs and their fans, “Damn! I want to hate you but you had to go and win a game and play with passion. It’s so confusing. I want you to tank for a great draft pick but love you guys when you win.”
And so it is with the Leafs and other established franchises who’ve developed complex, nuanced relationships with their fans over decades sharing the ups and downs with them.
Think of the Cubs. The Bills. The Golden State Warriors. There are many more teams out there where failure is everywhere and success, fleeting.
In 2003, the Cubs’ finally seemed to have fortune in their favour only to once again have it cruelly snatched away and miss the World Series yet again, thanks in part to an overzealous fan. The now infamous Steve Bartman incident practically led to his lynching after he interfered with the Cubs’ left-fielder for a catchable ball that would have ended the eighth inning with a lead. Instead it sparked one of the freakiest unravelings in sports history and made Bartman a pariah in Chicago.
Still, fans got over it and some took it in stride. One long-suffering supporter summed it up. “If they didn’t break our hearts, they wouldn’t be the Cubs.”
Maybe there’s a lesson there for fed-up Leafs’ fans. It’s been a terrible season for this team, made even harder to swallow after looking so promising just two months ago. But it is just a season and there’ll be another one next year. Maybe it’s time to just take a deep breath, dial down the toxic emotions around this club and get a little perspective.
After all, the Leafs still have 67 years of futility to match the championship drought of the Cubs.
There’s still lots of time.