The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Futility of Caring about NHL Hockey
~ 1 ~
I grew up in southern Ontario back when we used to get winters.
In those Januaries when the cold of the season had really settled into the ground my father would build a hockey rink in our back yard. A roughly rectangular and approximately smooth sheet of ice banked on four sides by mounds of snow.
Friends and family would skate for hours on that rink.
On weekends we’d play hockey and pretend that we were the great players of the day. The air chilled our throats and burned our ears. We wore long scarves tucked into our jackets. Toques were yanked down tight on our heads, and we wore gloves under our gloves and our fingertips felt like they might break off like the icicles that hung from the eves of our house.
I remember cold days of clear blue skies and hockey all afternoon until the sun went down and we lost the puck in the snow or it got too cold.
I’d unlace my skates with uncooperative fingers, then embrace the warmth of the house and the smell of family dinners.
Later in the evening we’d sit in the rec room and watch the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada.
~ 2 ~
When I was eight years old my father took me to my very first NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was February 16th, 1980, and the Hartford Whalers were in Toronto for what would be Gordie Howe’s final game at the legendary old arena on Carlton Street.
I don’t remember much about the game itself but the internet tells me that the Leafs won that night and that Howe scored his 799th goal. He would only score twice more that season and would retire as the greatest goal scorer in the history of the game.
We parked the car in some janky lot and walked a short distance in the cold crush and bustle of wintery Toronto.
The big city where the big games were played!
The entrance to Maple Leaf Gardens was magnificent.
Men in blue jackets checked tickets and directed people to escalators that took them up and away to their seats. Men in fedoras cajoled one another in loud voices and some of them chomped on cigars. Souvenirs and programs were hawked and a sea of blue and white jerseys flowed around us.
Gordie Howe was standing near the escalators towering above the men who crowded around him. He must have been wearing his skates he was so tall. He was smiling, relaxed, probably joking with old friends, teammates and coaches. His last professional game in Toronto, all the boys had come out to see whether he could pot a pair to hit the 800 goal mark and round off a truly epic career.
Up to our seats we went on the silver mechanical stairs.
Giant black and white photos of Syl Apps, Bill Barilko, Hap Day, Ted Kennedy adorned the walls. Old banners and retired jerseys hung from the rafters.
We sat in our seats and watched the game.
During a break in the action my dad pointed to two old white men who were standing in a room all by themselves like the NHL’s Statler and Waldorf.
Their room was built into the stands behind one of the nets and those two old white men drank from plastic cups and leaned on the cinderblock ledge of their private domain watching their sport, chuckling to each other as the fans sat row upon row around them cheering on the players.
“That’s Harold Ballard and Punch Imlach,” my dad said.
Harold Ballard. The owner of the Leafs. Very likely the most hated man in Ontario. A man who ruled his team with a supreme and bitter ruthlessness that was matched by only by his greed. He was widely known to be incompetent, arrogant, brutally stupid, and a criminal who had once been convicted on 47 counts of fraud, theft and tax evasion.
In other words, he fit the template for NHL team ownership that still presides today.
And beside him, Punch Imlach; the Salacious Crumb to Ballard’s Jabba.
Though Imlach had coached the Leafs to 4 Stanley Cups in the 60’s his return to Toronto as General Manager in 1978 was not designed to turn the Leafs into legitimate championship contenders.
At Ballard’s request Imlach crudely eviscerated the healthy core of an emergent Leafs team with divisive internal measures and self-destructive trades that netted little return on the talent going the other way.
After all, what is the definition of success when the arena is full to capacity every night?
And so, before the end of the first period I had beheld at relatively close range the greatest player that the game had yet produced and two of the most malevolent, reviled and selfish personalities in professional sports.
At intermission my dad and I got up from our seats and cruised the concourse. Beer flowed, the crowd jostled in every direction, there were loud voices. The hawking of souvenir pucks, jerseys, ball caps, and programs continued unabated.
We waited in line at one of the giant washrooms.
Once within that space I beheld the Troughs of Piss.
They were wall to wall stainless steel and gleaming in the flourescent light. A vision of blinding austerity. Men stood shoulder to shoulder shuffling like a blue and white conga line, returning the Labatt product from whence it had come.
That flood of co-mingled liquid eddying around the silver drain at the end of the trough was the terminus of some holy cycle that I was too young to comprehend.
Minus the foam fingers, the Bill Derlago jerseys, the talk of truculence, and the $25 parking, this is what we’re left with.
This is what ownership provides.
~ 3 ~
We are just one small shuffle step into the most recent lock-out of the players by those geniuses in the corner offices of the NHL.
I’m not going to recap the scenario here.
Any Canadian daily newspaper will provide you with updates and overviews.
What I would like to do here is say three simple things:
The job of Team Owner is to get out of the way and provide the players, trainers, and the coaches everything that they need to succeed.
Also: provide the fan with an exciting team, atmosphere, and a sense of inclusion.
Do that, hire smart people, let them do their jobs, and the money and success will follow.
It is NOT the owner’s job to waste my time with bullshit public disclosures, nor to arrest progress of the game and frustrate the paying customer with work stoppages.
Who cares what Gary Bettman thinks when he clearly has ZERO in common with the average hockey fan?
His presence before various microphones spilling his limitless jibberish is an obstacle to progress and a supreme test of credulity.
I think that it’s fair to say that this lock-out could have been avoided if people had used a little imagination and put the game ahead of their naked self-interest.
It is an embarrassment to the game when smart men in executive suites believe their personal profit is more important than the sport.
The fans pay the money and we’re not stupid.
Everybody get back to work.
Last fall when the NBA and the NFL were locking out their players – and the media was reporting the emergence of the shadow of this current NHL lock-out – Major League Baseball quietly signed yet another CBA continuing the real and lucrative partnership between owners, players and fans.
Don Fehr represented the MLB players association during the infamous strike of 1994. The same work stoppage that effectively killed a Montreal Expos team that was poised to represent the National League in the World Series. Pedro Martinez, John Wettland, Moises Alou, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Ken Hill. Just an epic team. The Braves had nothing that year.
Anyway, that team was incredible and that strike was absolutely criminal.
Fehr has said that the effect of that strike on fans motivated him to develop a relationship with the game of baseball that saw to it that a strike or lock out would never happen again.
And it hasn’t. Baseball has seen incredible prosperity for players, owners, and fans since the end of that strike.
And, hey look, no cap!
Don Fehr is someone who has built long-term prosperity for the players and the game of baseball over the illusion of short-term rewards for the owners.
As a fan who does not want to continually be reminded of the futility of my loyalty to a sport and a team that repeatedly demonstrates nothing but contempt for it, I’m in favour of supporting someone who has guided baseball to labor peace rather than the goons in the soft offices of the NHL who can only see discord and selfish short-term solutions.
Kill Phoenix, put the ‘yotes in Quebec City. Grease the rails for Columbus to relocate to Seattle.
Put a team in Hamilton, Ontario, and you won’t be able to manufacture the foam fingers fast enough.
Donald Fehr has solved labour problems for a professional sports league with more at stake than the NHL. Since ’94 he has presided over a players union that spent zero days locked out or on strike.
This is lock-out number 3 for Gary.
Let the evidence show.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are The Worst Team in Professional Sports.
Nobody knows this better than a Leafs fan.
ESPN has recently rated the Leafs as dead last in their annual Ultimate Rankings. The Ultimate Rankings measure teams in terms of value vs ticket prices, ownership, wins over the past three years, recent championships and etc…
Given those criteria it’s hard not to see how the Leafs finished at the very bottom.
And yet, I remain a fan of the blue and white.
It’s in my blood, it’s woven into the deepest fibre of my self, there’s nothing to be done about it.
I nod along in bemused perplexion as Mike Komisarek wears the ‘A’ on Toronto’s third defensive pairing. I grind my teeth in barely muted rage at the memory of the Tuuka Rask for Andrew Raycroft swap and the double humiliation that Raycroft dealt to the Leafs when he played spectacular games against them as the Canuck’s second stringer a few years later.
The brutal history of stop-gaps and bad decisions is long and sordid.
The Troughs of Money that the owners of the Leafs consume while providing precious little glory in return does nothing to diminish my desire to spend Saturday afternoons watching the team on tv.
The ongoing ineptitude and the inability of the professional media – team-owned and otherwise - to hold them accountable is nothing more than subtext for a simple narrative.
Teams belong to their fans.
Nothing can change that.