It's a post about being a fan. Not just any fan, but a fan of a losing team. And not just any losing team.
I am a Leafs fan.
Being a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs is not like being a fan of any other hockey team. In fact, the only team in sports that compares for sheer futility, at least still, is the Chicago Cubs. Like Cubbies fans, Leaf fans are (a) eternal optimists and (b) actually take a perverse pride in their fandom that's inversely proportional to the team's actual performance.
This is, of course, totally illogical. In Montreal, the only market in the NHL more hockey-mad than Toronto, when les Habitants play like crap for a sustained period, the seats at the Bell Center get emptier and emptier. In the southern U.S., it takes winning a Stanley Cup to plant butts in the seats (and sometimes even that doesn't work); ineptitude is punished, and harshly.
Not so in Toronto. The Air Canada Center is full every night, win or lose, year in and year out...and at prices that boggle the mind. In Washington, $99 will get you a primo ticket, plus an all-you-can-eat (and drink) buffet
before the game, a rally towel and a Caps, uh, cap. Extra added bonus: you get to watch the greatest player in the game on a team that's a legitimate Cup threat (and would be a Cup favourite with just a wee bit more defense). In Toronto, $99 will barely get you in the arena. You'll be up so high the players will look like pucks and the pucks like pixels. You'll find yourself watching the Jumbotron more than the game so far below. Food? Hope you smuggled some in: even a snack and a drink's going to set you back twenty bucks. And the team away down there is currently playing, to put it gently, beer league hockey.
This is not unusual in Toronto, but this year it is completely unexpected. The Maple Leafs underwent a massive housecleaning over the past two seasons, exchanging one crop of losers for, we were told, people who knew how to play the game and would play it with passion.
If the first six games are any indication, this team is substantially worse than last year's edition. They haven't won a game yet, have barely put together three periods of consistent effort, widely scattered among the nineteen they've played. In my considered opinion, the Leafs suffer from no fewer than six distinct problems:
1) No offense.
After 6 games, the Leafs rank 27th in league scoring, with 2.17 goals/game.
It was widely speculated this would be the case, as much of last year's scoring punch has relocated.
2) No defense.
The Leafs rank dead last with a pathetic 4.67 goals against per game. Given the huge overhaul on the blueline designed to correct this issue, this is astonishing, and not in a pleasant way.
3) No goaltending.
See above. Also note the Leafs are the only team in the NHL to have started three different goalies. Already. Vesa Toskala has continued his less-than-mediocre play from last season. He often makes very good saves and at least as often lets in odorous goals. You never know when one of the latter's coming, only that it is...and even six or seven excellent saves in a row only means the stinker's that much more imminent. Gustavsson, "The Monster" and potential saviour of Leafs Nation, has played much better, but has persistent groin issues. And Joey MacDonald, as well as he played in the pre-season, hasn't been so great when actual points are on the line.
4) No discipline.
The Leafs have the sixth-most penalty minutes per game, spending nearly a period of every game, on average, short a man. Most glaring are the idiotic penalties taken immediately after the team has scored or put some sustained forechecking pressure on, negating any momentum they've built
5) No coaching.
Given 1) through 5), how can it be otherwise?
6) No heart.
This is perhaps the most surprising deficiency of all. Last year's team didn't have much, either, and GM Brian Burke vowed he would never watch wishy-washy hockey again. In his by now ubiquitous phrasing, he sought "belligerence, truculence, pugnacity, and testosterone". He ended up with a squad that can drop the gloves with the best of them, and even win most of its bouts...but all that fighting doesn't seem to motivate the team. Nothing does.
One is tempted to add
7) No talent
...but many of these players have previously shown themselves to be serviceable NHLers or better, if not on last years' Leafs squad, then elsewhere.
Now, in the words of Leafs fans everywhere and everywhen, at least since my father was a lad, "it's early". They've only played six games. But the way they've played those six games indicates they're not half the team Burke and coach Ron Wilson thought they had.
That said, the fan base is irrational in the extreme. Perhaps it comes with the territory when you haven't even competed for the Stanley Cup since 1967, but a three game win streak has the fans ready to erect statues and plan parade routes; it was only the third loss before I first heard people calling for coach Wilson's head on a goalie pad. Leaf fans come in two flavours: Pollyannas and Cassandras, and never the twain shall meet. Individual Leafs are either hyped to the moon and back or treated as scapegoats.
This team is better than its record. Perhaps not much better, but they will win a game, quite a few games even, this season. Wilson is clearly a better coach than his record indicates--any kind of goaltending at all would have garnered Ronnie a few Jack Adams nominations for coach of the year last year. And even as I acknowledge the many on-ice problems and curse the off-ice moneyprinting machine that is Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, I will continue to watch, and cheer.
I am a Leafs fan.