For 50 years, I've been a fan of the Maple Leafs. It wasn’t my choice. My grandfather was a boulevardier in old Toronto, playing saxophone in speakeasies and playing industrial league hockey, back when this was still a small town. He used to hang around the old Mutual Street Arena, and when Maple Leaf Gardens was built he got seasons tickets right near ‘Connie Smythe.’
In those days, men wore hats, ties, and jackets to a hockey game. He stopped attending games because of the foul language of the players. It embarrassed him when he brought someone with him during the Harold Ballard years. Although Toronto changed around him, he continued to wear suits and ties, and hats, until his dying days.
As a child in Ottawa, I got a Leafs duffle bag from him, which I lugged to school during the years when the Leafs were abysmal and the Canadiens transcendent. I read Allen Abel’s sports columns in the Globe and Mail after my father was done with it, and I gradually became loyal to a team in a distant city, playing a sport I never tried, wearing colours I couldn’t see on our black and white television.
Ottawa was closer to Montreal than to Toronto, with a large francophone population. In a mild way, I shared the experience of Roch Carrier’s protagonist in 'The Hockey Sweater'. Back then, if you liked the Leafs, you weren’t a discerning hockey fan, and if you weren’t a discerning hockey fan, you weren’t a good Canadian boy.
All good Canadians know the Leafs' history since then. Through bad luck, bad ownership, bad management, and bad performances, the franchise has failed to win a Stanley Cup for 51 years. Yet for decades, Toronto fans have dared to dream. If spring is a time when thoughts turn to love, fall is a time when Leafs fans start speculating about how offseason roster changes make for a run at the Cup.
There is no safer subject in a Toronto tavern than the fortunes of the Maple Leafs. In fact, friends of mine started an annual event called the ‘What’s Wrong with the Leafs Luncheon,’ about 25 years ago. Held at the Pilot Tavern on Cumberland Street, it’s a celebration of futility. I used to wonder what the organizers would call it when the Leafs inevitably rocket up in the standings and explode in a starburst Stanley Cup victory. It never happened, and I no longer wonder.
Last night, the Maple Leafs were extinguished for another year. Just when real Maple leaves start to bud in hardwood forests across the country, the blue and white Leafs shrivelled and fell.
There has always been something weirdly Canadian about this annual cycle of hope and despair. It’s got something in common with how we cope with the near-death of deep winter. We know how to ‘eat bitterness,’ as the Chinese would say. Being a Leafs fan means the endurance of hardship with good humour.
That is surely one dimension of our national affinity with hockey, especially the Maple Leafs. They can lose forever, and the arena will still be sold out. It is an amazingly powerful, lucrative, and durable brand. Off the ice, they’re the league’s strongest franchise, while on the ice, they’re a perpetual work in progress. The point is that Torontonians and many Canadians across the continent are peculiarly invested in a multigenerational loser.
I don’t want to make too much of hockey’s unifying value to Canada, but there’s something in its casual violence that inspires respect across lines that divide us. It was evident in the outpouring of grief and support for the recent Humboldt tragedy, but it goes back farther than that. I’ve got nothing to add to what hockey historians have said on this subject except for this one, trite, observation: The team championing the aspirations of French Canada chose to wear the colours of the Union Jack, while the pride of English Canada took its colours from the Fleur-de-lis. If only confederation had worked so harmoniously in other ways like, say, interprovincial trade or pipeline right of ways.
On a day when Torontonians seem a little more sombre than usual, it’s also good to reflect on how the big, red maple leaf held up in the aftermath of a real tragedy last Monday. Canadian values were evinced in so many ways after the sidewalk massacre, it's hard to describe.
The City didn’t go into a panic. People reacted in a calm and measured way to an isolated act of madness. Government spokespeople swiftly quelled fear of political terrorism. The police acted with just the right combination of calm and force. First responders worked with grim efficiency to triage the wounded and get them to hospitals, where emergency wards were drilled and ready for the onslaught. There were no gun shots or histrionic street interviews, no amber alerts, no absurd media speculations, and no reflexive cancellations of public events. There was only sorrow.
Toronto, home of the Maple Leafs, knows how to eat bitterness. As winter finally departs, strings of geese fly in over the lake. Tips of tree boughs turn green, and sad young millionaires empty lockers at the Air Canada Centre. These are signs of spring. We can still see our breaths at night, but we know it’s coming.
While Leafs fans speculate about the cause of this year’s collapse, folks in North York will be bravely, timidly, reverently flocking back onto the sun-warmed sidewalks that make this City liveable. Still digesting the monstrosity of Monday's murders, I find myself pulling for the survivors, the victims’ families, witnesses, emergency workers, and everyone who treads past that bloody pavement today.
Sometimes life imitates sport, and for a little while, I think this City is quietly and solemnly proud of its performance. When it really counts, we’re all players and we’re all fans. If it’s possible anywhere to win by losing, it might just be here.
What an odd place.