By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 2) — Emotion is the life–blood of professional sport.
In Seattle today, football fans are undergoing inter–cranial therapy. The demonstrative impact of their team handing the Super Bowl to New England Sunday night is likely palpable in every corner of town. Fans of the Patriots, conversely, are euphoric — bathed in the wondrous delirium of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Feelings, on either coast, of diametric opposition and fundamental similarity. The equation is simple: Were it not for emotional investment in a team, there would be no financial investment. And, sport, as we comprehend it, would not exist.
Which brings us to our little corner of the universe here in Toronto and the mystic spell of the Maple Leafs. Yes, even Freud would have thrown up his hands. Though appearing unhinged at times — and who can blame them? — followers of the Blue and White steadily evolve and have disbursed enough energy in the past 48 years to power a small country. The form of energy, be it angst or adulation, is immaterial. The only concern for the hockey club is that people care, one way or another. Accordingly, there must be something to care about. And, that’s where the Maple Leafs could be susceptible at the moment — wallowing, as they are, through one of the bleakest stretches in franchise history.
The flip–side to emotion is indifference.
Words that have never been affiliated with hockey in this city, yet threaten to paralyze one of the most loyal coalitions in all of sport.
THE MAPLE LEAFS FINISHED ONE OF THE GLOOMIEST MONTHS IN FRANCHISE HISTORY WITH A 1–0 LOSS AT PHILADELPHIA SATURDAY NIGHT. LEN REDKOLES GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Maple Leaf zealots, it would appear, yearn to place themselves among three categories — only one of which has merit. Even casual Internet perusal indicates that fans either want the Leafs to win; want the Leafs to lose or claim not to be concerned anymore. But, let’s be clear: Any person that consumes even a minute of his or her day to post a comment on–line cares deeply about the hockey club. And, desperately wants the team to win. This is particularly true of those who seek catharsis — fans that take to forums and chat–rooms to tell everyone else they no longer care. I mean, seriously… if you are not the least–bit moved by a particular subject, that subject won’t even arise, much less the need to comment about it. I enjoy classical music but you will not find — anywhere on this site — an emotional assessment of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Contrarily, websites dedicated to such music aren’t likely to be spewing venom about the plight of the Maple Leafs.
So, any Toronto hockey fan posting a comment anywhere on–line has some form of emotional investment in the Blue and White. But, is there a limit? It’s a question we’ve pondered ad–infinitum about the Maple Leafs without a hint of clarity. At what point may the constant pounding of blunder and despair take the starch out of hockey fanaticism here? It didn’t happen in the Ballard years. It didn’t happen when the Teachers were lining their pockets. And, today, it has somehow survived nearly a decade of appalling ineptitude during which the Leafs haven’t qualified for the playoffs in a full 82–game season. Can it survive indefinitely?
The remainder of the 2014–15 schedule could pose a threat, as the Leafs have lowered themselves to a position where the “final” 31 games are essentially meaningless. With an atrocious mark of 3–16–1 since Dec. 18 — and riding a nine–game losing streak — the Leafs are 12 points out of playoff territory in the Eastern Conference. There is “hope” among disillusioned followers that the team could plummet to within reasonable percentage–odds of claiming a top–four selection in the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel/Noah Hanifin/Dylan Strome draft derby. But, the Leafs are still eight–to–ten points ahead of such a pace and cannot possibly continue to resemble the expansion Washington Capitals of 1974–75. There are simply too many engagements left on the calendar and too much of an opportunity for a three or four–game win streak.
If the club, in the final month of the season, finds itself in that murky middle range — with no playoff hope and beyond expectation of a lottery bonanza — might the locals begin to yawn? And, if so, how do we find out? Forget about the arena. All 19,000–plus seats at the Air Canada Centre will be spoken for and one good shift will engender the “Go Leafs Go!” chant. Internet game threads and radio call–in shows will continue to be jammed with people wishing to opine. There may, in fact, be only one tangible indicator: TV viewership. No entity has more to lose from potential Leafs apathy than Rogers Communications, which owns 37.5% of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and has committed $5.2 billion for 12 season’s worth of national telecast rights in our country. No matter how deplorably they perform, the Maple Leafs drive TV ratings. If there is essentially nothing for the team to accomplish in the closing weeks of the schedule, how might viewership numbers decline?
Early on Saturday night, I was listening in my car to the first intermission of the Maple Leafs/Flyers game from Philadelphia on TSN Radio–1050. My old pal Joe Bowen spoke passionately on behalf of Leaf fans. With striking emotion, he wondered rhetorically why the largest and most loyal contingent of hockey followers in North America must endure such uninterrupted gloom and anguish. He encouraged listeners to hang in; that better days were not many miles down the road given Brendan Shanahan’s progressive blueprint. And, it got me thinking that poor Joe has called a grand total of seven playoff games in the past decade — all in the same series against Boston in May 2013. Seven games! Bowen’s veteran counterpart in Los Angeles — Bob Miller — called nearly four times that number (26 games) last spring alone.
MY PHOTO OF JOE BOWEN (LEFT) AND JIM RALPH CALLING THE MAPLE LEAFS–WASHINGTON CAPITALS GAME AT AIR CANADA CENTRE ON NOV. 29, 2014.
So, the resiliency of Leafs Nation cannot be questioned.
But, we wonder: How long can a train keep rolling on crooked tracks? Is there, in fact, a threshold for hockey zeal among tormented followers of the Blue and White or might this decades–long “habit” be foolproof? It’s a fascinating question… without an answer. But, do stay tuned.
BY THE NUMBERS: There have been some fairly wicked months in Leafs Land since 1967, but few compare with the rot of this past January. The Leafs were 1–11–1 in the first month of 2015 — 1–9–1 under interim coach Peter Horachek. Which, for posterity, was the precise mark that ended Doug Carpenter’s tenure behind the Toronto bench. After guiding the club to a 38–38–4 record in 1989–90, Carpenter saw his career vanish when Leafs staggered from the gate at 1–9–1 to begin the following season. He was replaced by Tom Watt after an 8–5 loss at St. Louis on Oct. 25, 1990. Under Watt, the club “improved” to 3–8–0 in its next 11 games. And, yes, the magical 1–9–1 blight happened to be Ron Wilson’s undoing from Feb. 7–29, 2012. Brian Burke fired Wilson after a 5–4 leap–year–night loss at Chicago, replacing him with Randy Carlyle. Wilson dodged the bullet during a team–record 0–7–1 belch to begin the 2009–10 season that grew to 3–11–6 after 20 games. For perspective, the current Leafs need to go 2–0–4 in their next six games just to equal that dubious mark… During the muck of the Harold Ballard era, the irrepressible John Brophy somehow survived the longest winless streak in Maple Leafs history — an 0–11–4 train–wreck between Dec. 26, 1987 and Jan. 25, 1988. I can still close my eyes and see the white–haired ghost exhaling on TV while leaving the bench after the skid ended with a 5–2 victory over Los Angeles at Maple Leaf Gardens… We must not forget how Dan Maloney somehow evaded the guillotine during a 2–18–6 fiasco between Oct. 14 and Dec. 9, 1984. Or the 2–18–5 streak under Mike Nykoluk from Jan. 20 to Mar. 13, 1982. All together now: “Oy vey!”
I TOOK THIS PHOTO OF RON WILSON AT THE UNITED CENTRE IN CHICAGO ON FEB. 29, 2012 AFTER A 5–4 LOSS TO THE BLACKHAWKS. HE WAS FIRED TWO DAYS LATER BY BRIAN BURKE.
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