in which many troubling droughts befall the Toronto Maple Leafs
1994 to 2012
In 1994, as high school was coming to a close, my Creative Writing teacher asked us to make presentations in front of the class about something that best described us. I have no idea what I presented on, if I’d had the guts I should have stood up in front of the class and talked about masturbation and how this seemed to be the sport I was best at and why didn’t they have a masturbation club in high school? I’m not suggesting that we’d sit around masturbating, that’d be disgusting and messy and well, disgusting, but really how else can we stop alienation amongst our youth if not in a masturbation club. Kids sitting around saying, “I do it everyday.” “So do I.” “Hey, so do I.” Think about how much guilt and fear would disappear off of all those teenage boy and girl faces. They’d be united in a passion that was partly driven by their hormones anyway. And the prerequisite for joining would be being able to admit that you masturbated. And you wouldn’t even need to say anything, all you’d have to do is show up. But maybe now that the internet has given young people the keys to the explicit the days of calling my friend and asking him to bring over two VHS tapes that he’d gotten from his hip, young, Uncle, and that my friend stored in a combination lock suitcase that was heavily padded are sadly gone.
The only presentation I remember was given by a guy named Marku, who rolled into class on roller blades wearing a Doug Gilmour Jersey and full Leaf uniform. I think he was even wearing a jock. He was definitely wearing hockey gloves. He came up to the front of the class with a bible in one hand and a cassette tape player in the other. He read several passages from the bible then pressed play on the cassette player and held it in the air. See, Marku had been taping Leaf games off the radio for years, and the moment he played came from the double overtime Leafs-Blues second round playoff series when Doug Gilmour scored the game winner. Joe Bowen was the announcer and as Bowen continued screaming Marku fumbled to turn the tape recorder off with his clumsy gloves. We were supposed to ask question but nobody did. As far as I was concerned Marku had made his point clear enough. That was an A+ presentation. All he needed to do now was awkwardly skate back to his desk with Bowen still going.
That 1993 playoff run was followed by another conference finals where the Leafs lost to the Vancouver Canucks. The way the Canucks sped all over the ice shook Cliff Fletcher so badly that he traded Wendel Clark that summer for Mats Sundin. My mother cried when she heard Clark’s press conference and I’m not sure she cares at all about the Leafs. Though she does like to have a good cry so that might explain why she listened to it.
Now, I know, it’s a business, that’s part of sports, the Canucks were scary, but goddamn it if there shouldn’t be a rule that certain players are untouchable. I’m actually hoping the Boston Celtics learn this for the next twenty years after disgracefully trading Paul Pierce. Some players are the face of the franchise. And in Clark’s case, not only was he the face of the Leafs, his battered, hardworking work ethic was really what Toronto was. If you gut your face what are you left with?
A friend of mine was living in Chicago when Clark drifted onto the Blackhawks team. He told me that when he went to games and watched Clark, even when Clark was on the ice, even if he saw his jersey moving around the ice, he didn’t really know Clark was there. Clark just skated up and down the ice for a little while then went back to the bench then went back out on the ice then back on the bench in a monotony of unidentifiable motions. Does any Toronto fan who grew up watching Wendel Clark really want to know that that’s what happened to one of their favourite players? I think there are plenty of players skating around the NHL every year, superstars who have lost their sports identity after they’re traded and they never get them back. And I know, I can hear you saying “but that was a good trade. That got us Sundin. He was important.” No argument here. But, man, I hate to think about what we left behind for the promise, for the hope unachieved. Because, sure, getting rid of Clark might have made hockey sense but we didn’t win the cup and our record with Sundin?
Those 1993 and 1994 runs were seasons of beauty because they offered Leaf fans the first sense of hope, the first push against the Finals that our Leaf vibrations were tuned to. The next seventeen years? I’m going to make them go quickly. I can’t take them. I know there were some awesome highs but for a franchise that’s at the top of the NHL pile in terms of worth, in terms of worldwide symbol, that the city loves to pieces, and TTC buses announce Go Leafs Go every year in the playoffs, there were some truly unspeakable years to come.
My experience of watching Leafs games is full-body. I shout at the screen. I jump up and fall around. I run through the house during an overtime win. From the moment the puck is dropped, from the first bad play, from the first good play, I can’t turn my commentary voice off. I can’t quiet down. After all these years, after all the times people have asked me to calm down, shut up, sit down, leave on me, threaten to break up with me, and a couple of neighbours who dropped an anvil on my balcony (Warner Brothers cartoon fans…I appreciated the thought though not the damage). During one memorable moment, I was deep in the heart of Verdun, on the greatest street in the world called Cool Street, in a gorgeous space that only Montreal can offer, when Sundin scored the goal against the Hurricanes to take game six into OT. I screamed long-distance down the line at my 12 year old brother and his friends who were watching on a black and white TV set up on my parents front porch while they sat on a couch, much to my mother’s shame. I ran back and forth knowing this was it, we were getting into the Finals, while somewhere in Toronto, my father smiled to himself, knowing that in a few short minutes his unreasonably loud son was going to shut up for a spell at the same time that Habs fans swore at me through the walls, laughing at the fool from Toronto.
But that was another almost great Leafs moment. In 1995 the Leafs lost in the first round. In 1996 they lost in the first round. In 1997 and 1998 they didn’t make the playoffs. In 1999, they lost in the first round. In 2000, out in the second. 2001, out in the second. 2002, the glorious conference finals again. 2003, out after the first round. 2004, out in the second. 2005, season cancelled. 2006, no playoffs. 2007, no playoffs. 2008, no playoffs. 2009, no playoffs. 2010, no playoffs. 2011, no playoffs. 2012, no playoffs.
2005 to 2012.
That’s just stunning. That’s a lot of nights of misery, of silence. Those are the years when my confidence as a fan was chipped away, chipped away some more, and even more. I used to lurch back into each new season so full of hope, because this is the year. And then it wasn’t even close. And then it wasn’t again. And I’m jumping off the couch in spasms of hope through it all until I can’t anymore. I can’t keep pretending that this number of years of losses is okay. My body and heart can’t take it anymore.
Now, I’m also a Raptor fan, which has its own horrible silence, but until a friend finally pulled me away this past Winter, I read The Toronto Star’s go-to Raptors reporter, Doug Smith, everyday. And one of Smith’s favourite refrains is ‘it’s only a game.’ Which is so condescending because really what he’s saying is that it’s only a game to him, really only a job, and that we all need to put that into perspective rather than live and die with every play. But what he fails to comprehend every time he says that is that for many fans, that’s not just a game we’re watching, that’s us projecting all our hopes, our dreams, onto the ice, onto the court, onto the field, because maybe today our boss yelled at us, or our girlfriend or boyfriend broke up with us, or our parents never really respected our life choices. There are any number of reasons why we tune in every night to watch our teams play, and they’re not all tied to our failures in life, but they’re more often than not tied to our faith in our team, and our hope that they win. So, sure, it’s only a game, if you can separate yourself from it emotionally like Smith can, but meanwhile, how about showing the rest of us some sympathy.
And all those years of No Playoffs really pile up. All those lost games at the end of some very crappy days. Those losses make it hard to stay positive as the new season starts or to remember those long ago playoff runs of ’93 and ’94. They make us give up on the Leafs, and resent the Leafs, and remember the hideous Maple Laughs.
I can’t list all the reasons I think that seven year drought happened. There’s Tie Domi being connected to the Computer Scandal and his unbelievably named brother, Dash. There was Doug Gilmour’s return to the Leafs that ended during his first game back with a career ending injury. There were all those names, Pat Quinn, Ken Dryden, Mats Sundin, Brian Burke, Maple Leaf Gardens, coming in the front door and going out the back door, and some even being turned into a Loblaws. Remember all those years of dreams in Maple Leaf Gardens? Now that’s a two for one deal on frozen pizzas.
For me, there’s one moment that sums up those broken years. I was in a perfume and makeup store in downtown Toronto during the Christmas holidays a few years back, the kind of place where the staff quickly came up to me making sure I wasn’t alone acting like a pervert and then gave me pity sample of Men’s cologne the longer I waited, when in walked Ron Wilson wearing a Team USA hat and Team USA jacket.
When Brian Burke arrived as the new GM of the Leafs I really thought this is the year. Burke was so confident. Then the Kessel for draft picks signing happened. And the lazy Susan full of goalies. And there was Wilson, who never really acted like he enjoyed being in Toronto. He was prickly. The kind of guy that I’d hate to get stuck talking to at a party because he’d always be checking his watch, waiting until 9:30 when he could say loudly to his wife, “Time to go.” Even when Wilson was winning in 2011, before the great nosedive of the winter of 2012, that Team USA swag said everything about his loyalty. And don’t say he was trying to go incognito, the blazing Team USA hat and jacket spoke otherwise. And Wilson was around for four years! And maybe that’s because he was Burke’s buddy, I don’t know and I don’t care. Wilson was just another in a long line of mistakes and egos and iced pucks that summed up being a Toronto Leaf fan during the seven year playoff drought when we were adrift.
…end of the 2nd