I’ve been waiting nine years to write this column. I didn’t know it would be nine years. How could I?
Who would have imagined that the National Hockey League lockout in the 2004-05 season would have been the beginning of a near-decade-long wander in the wilderness for my tribe, my nation, my Maple Leafs.
Missing the playoffs is a tragedy known to most NHL hockey fans — the exception being the Detroit Red Wings, who hold the pro sports record of 22 straight post-season appearances.
Why, even the mighty Montreal Canadiens have failed to make it to the dance several times in the past decade, even finishing dead last the previous season (I needed to rub that in.)
But the Leafs, good Lord, the most lucrative franchise in the league, the team with the most crazed fans (he wrote, struggling out of his blue and white straight-jacket), how could such denial, such penitence, such prolonged suffering be possible?
A few years ago, a friend, thinking it a gentle tease and not knowing how it actually hurt, gave me a copy of a book titled “Why The Leafs Suck,” by veteran sports writer Al Strachan. It chronicles the woeful tale of frustration since 1967, the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup, which, naturally, is the current league record for a championship drought. (The New York Rangers were the last to have that distinction, ending a 54-year Cup-less stretch in 1994.)
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and start to dream of sipping from Lord Stanley’s mug; playoffs are won one game at a time. As of this writing, the series versus the Bruins has not yet begun, and your scribe lives in the blissful ignorance of not knowing yet how badly — or well — the Leafs’ first playoff game in nine years went.
I have often reflected on the psychology of the sports fan, which, remember, comes from “fanatic.” How does one explain the obsession that leads one to scour every word written on the Internet seeking explanation for Tyler Bozak’s mystery injury or Phil Kessel’s favorite breakfast cereal?
I don’t know these guys personally or necessarily even like them. None of the Leafs come from my hometown, only five are from my home province, none are from Quebec where I live. They are very rich, very well-treated and can become a member of an enemy team at any given time before the trade deadline.
Yet, they are the Leafs, the bearers of a torch of hockey history that goes back, depending on whether you consider the Blueshirts, Arenas, St. Pat’s or Maple Leafs the starting point, more than a century. They are in my blood, my closets and my head. The team slogan is: “The Passion that Unites Us All.” More likely, the Mania that Drives Us All Nuts.
I am old enough to have logged lots of emotional Leaf ice time. I have had my own treasured moments following the blue and white. I got Tim Horton’s autograph as a child, one of my hometown pal’s brother was a Leafs’ goalie, I got Wendel Clark’s first French autograph when he was traded to the Nordiques (for Mats Sundin, and look how that worked out).
What’s worse, of course, is being a Leafs fan in Quebec, the prideful turf of Les Glorieux (in the absence of the Nordiques). Last Christmas, our office secret Santa (a secret Habs fan, to boot) gave me a Leaf’s T-shirt (yay) with lettering on the back: The red light district in Toronto (boo).
The only consolation for the abuse I’ve taken over the years is the fact the minor hockey league in Quebec City uses Leaf socks — the only ready-made blue and white hockey hosiery available to match the sweaters.
So, I don’t have big expectations for this group of Leafs. We fans have learned not to dream too big.
Breaking a nine-year curse is a good start back to the days when the Buds were a feisty franchise and playoff regulars.
That said, Bruins in six.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.