In Defence of Leafs Nation

William Wilson September 9, 2012 11

It’s the passion that unites us all.

It’s also the passion that seems to divide everyone.

For many, Leafs Nation is a source of pride. They respect its rich history; celebrate its everyday heroes; and enjoy its great sense of community.

Leafs fans at their bestPhoto by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images

Others view Leafs Nation as an object of scorn and ridicule. They hang on its failures; lambaste its every player; and react contemptuously towards its fans.

The latest example in the never-ending parade of criticism directed against the Leafs and its expansive fan base is a report from ESPN that named the team worst in North America among professional sports franchises.

Normally, a ranking compiled by questionable hockey minds – the sport is a minor interest at ESPN, if anything – wouldn’t concern me, but it quickly spread to more reputable sources. (Regretfully, this includes my favourite hockey website: the normally original, always fresh Fighting for Stanley.)

It seems some hockey writers are eager to bandwagon this report quicker than they would bandwagon their “favourite” hockey team during the playoffs. The problem is that the report covers issues largely limited to the business side of things: bang for the buck; fan relations; ownership; affordability; stadium experience (defined narrowly as “quality of arena and game-day promotions as well as friendliness of environment”, not fan atmosphere); players; coaching; and title track.

At the outset, I should note that several of the categories seem to overlap. For instance, bang for the buck and affordability seem to mirror each other as defined by ESPN. The same can be said for bang for the buck and title track.

Beyond this minor point of contention, I’m not entirely sure how you would measure bang for the buck if one’s commitment to the team stretches back three generations. Tellingly, ESPN limits the category to wins over the past three seasons, but this severely discounts the importance of tradition in my opinion.

In terms of stadium experience, recent additions at the Air Canada Centre – the arena complex now boosts the largest sports bar in North America – should be enough to rank it fairly high. I mean, the Leafs are a professional hockey team who play in a world-class facility. It’s not as though they’re playing out of a converted minor league barn on Portage Avenue.

Another problem with the ESPN ranking is that it only considers the quality of the facility, not the quality of the fans who fill it. Critics often complain about the empty lower-level seats at the ACC, but anyone who actually watches Leafs games knows about the drunken stagger back to these seats five minutes within the start of every period. This is a reality that casual TV watchers and casual sports fans alike are going to miss.

A more expansive understanding of stadium experience would be able to capture the sense of dread and defeat that hung over Ron Wilson during his final days in Toronto. Think about it: thousands of people chanting, “Fire Wilson, fire Wilson, fire Wilson,” without stopping to catch their breaths. Such an impressive display of passion could only happen in an established hockey community like Toronto or Montreal.

Having said this, the coaching category itself is worth a second look.

Before his dismissal, Wilson had the most career wins among active coaches in the NHL. That’s an indication of coaching success, not failure. In exile, however, the stat becomes even more significant. Wilson currently sits fourth all time for wins among coaches in the NHL.

Wilson’s comrade-in-suits, Brian Burke, is another victim of success. He recently won a Stanley Cup in Anaheim; built a perennial winner in Vancouver; and earned a reputation as one of the most crafty GMs in league history. It’s hard to debate his credentials, but some people like to hold them against him.

The problem in Toronto is not one of coaching pedigree. Sometimes things simply don’t work out and you’re forced to start over. Cue the arrival of Randy Carlyle, whose coaching resume includes a James Norris Memorial Trophy, a Stanley Cup ring and a 58% career winning percentage as head coach.

I could take the time to critique every one of ESPN’s categories – their assessment of fan relations, for example, says nothing about the Leafs annual free outdoor practice or their strong show of support for the military – but I want to finish by saying a few things about players and title track.

The effort put forward by Leafs players and their overall likability doesn’t need to look beyond James Reimer and Joffrey Lupul to rank high. Reimer came out of nowhere to capture the top goaltender title in Toronto –  he also captured our hearts in the process – and brought the team within a few points of making the playoffs in 2010-2011. He’s an incredibly hard worker and his likability is without question.

Lupul, for his part, overcame a young career defined by injuries to finish second on the team and 30th overall in the league for points last year (despite the fact he missed 16 games). He was also named an assistant captain for the All-Star game and was nominated for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. It’s safe to say he’s a fan and player favourite.

My guess is that some people wrongly confuse Phil Kessel‘s noted lack of effort for that of the entire team. I suggest these armchair critics watch an actual Leafs game.

What about past players? Few people question Johnny Bower‘s ability to resemble the Great Wall of China; Darryl Sittler‘s ability to score ten points in a single game; Mats Sundin‘s ability to carry an entire team; Joe Nieuwendyk‘s ability to single-handedly beat the Ottawa Senators; Tie Domi‘s ability to chop-down giants; and Wade Belak‘s ability to rally the hockey world’s attention around the challenges facing former NHLers.

The Leafs aren’t known for elite players. Instead, they’re known for everyday heroes – blue-collar, working class players who can inspire us all. They bank on effort, not skill, and this is why we love them. You can’t measure courage or determination in the same way goals and assists are measured. Put the calculator away.

The greatest testament to Toronto’s blue-collar status is the 1967 team – the oldest team in league history to win the Stanley Cup. Age was not a concern for these legendary Boys in Blue & White.

As for the current Stanley Cup drought, it’s less a question of if or when the Leafs will win another one. It’s really a question of how it will all unravel. Would you really want to be anywhere else when the Cup is finally brought home? It’ll be a celebration of hockey unlike anything ever seen before.

The wait is definitely worth it. In fact, the wait only makes it that much more special. I’ll be there.

In the end, my commitment to the Leafs stems from the players and the many magical memories they’ve created for me. These are things that can’t be measured; they can only be respected.

At the same time, I’m not beholden to management. After all, these are the scandals who overcharge for admission and tarnish the good ship Toronto (see especially the Harold Ballard years), not the players. However, this is a more than obvious difference that ESPN and other Leafs haters conveniently overlook.

Leafs fans support their team in spite of its management.

Although management likely ranks last on everyone’s list – I’m certainly no fan of Burke and company – the team itself will always rank at the top of our hearts.

This is something the critics are wrong to question.

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