TORONTO (Jan. 1) — We begin the new year with a Maple Leafs scene setter. The re–post of a blog from last summer that is perfectly relevant today. It shows how Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment wants the Leafs to stay competitive… but not win the Stanley Cup. That sounds cynical, yet it may seem less–so after reading the blog. Overlooked in this column is the ongoing calamity between the pipes. At the time, I felt that Ilya Samsonov would continue his steady play from a year ago as the club’s No. 1 stopper. I was wrong. The blog, here, was written on June 27:
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the National Hockey League’s most–apathetic and complacent franchise is “running it back” for an eighth consecutive disaster in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
If you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you should be proud of how diligently the club is working on your behalf (sigh) to change a demonstrated culture of losing. General manager Brad Treliving confirmed today the job criteria as laid out by the Teflon Prez, Brendan Shanahan: a) Sheldon Keefe stays on as coach and, b) the Corpse–4 returns intact, this time with lengthy contract extensions. After all, why do some actual work when it’s unnecessary?
No city in North American professional sport demands less of a team than Toronto does the Leafs. The lazy owners and management of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment understand the region is bursting with hockey zealots and take full advantage of it. Even after watching such a real team as the Stanley Cup–champion Vegas Golden Knights grow fed up with playoff incompetence after only two years, thereby prompting bold moves on the ice (Jack Eichel, Alex Pietrangelo); in the front office (Kelly McCrimmon) and behind the bench (Bruce Cassidy).
Sure, some hockey rooters in our city create a stink. The overwhelming majority, however, follow along as always, like sheep, because there is no assuring point of reference. To wit: You must be 70 years old to remember the last time the Leafs played for the Stanley Cup; more than 30 to recall the most–recent visit to the Conference final (in 2002). Young fans of the club know nothing about success in the post season, so why even break a sweat?
The MLSE business model of keeping the Stanley Cup fantasy alive — but never threatening to win — works perfectly. You can be sure the moguls on Bay St. are damned scared to learn what may happen if the Maple Leafs fluke their way to a championship one year and end the charade. Here in Toronto, pretending to care about winning is far–more lucrative than actually following through with a Stanley Cup challenge. All the while recognizing there will be minimal push–back from the soft and fidgety local media. There is no financial or emotional stimulus to make a noticeable effort. As such, the tall thinkers at MLSE routinely assume the path of least resistance… year after year after year. With the same results — in the bank and on the ice… year after year after year.
Ken Dryden said it best, a quarter–century ago, when he was running the hockey club: Watching the Leafs is a “habit.” No different, really, than smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and driving too fast. It may not serve your well being, but you do it anyway. In other hockey markets, a club has to show a commitment to winning in order to sustain interest. In Toronto, the Leafs merely have to show up. Management could dress 20 clowns each night — it was pretty close to that in the 1980’s — and the denizens are satisfied. They may bitch and moan with envy about teams that try to prosper, but they still cram the arena; watch every game on TV and hoard the club’s merchandise. It’s actually quite sad that the Maple Leafs are held to no standard by their admirers. But, again, what point of reference do they have? Playing for the Stanley Cup in 1967 doesn’t count anymore. Hasn’t really for 30 odd years. So, the team and its fans careen through each lost opportunity and hollow promise for the future.
Which never arrives.
Then, the cycle renews itself once more.
The business model, as mentioned, is brilliant, albeit criminal. That’s the only way to describe the Maple Leafs making no systemic change from one underachieving year to the next. As I’ve written, show me an industry in which the top figurehead (Shanahan) fails to reach company goals* for an entire decade, yet is allowed to keep his job… and deploy the same, losing cast. It wouldn’t fly in any environment other than hockey in Toronto, amid the compliance of those who cover the team with such tepid resignation, setting the market tone. The fans just follow along. The club watches… and does nothing while other teams are adding players; visibly trying to improve. Remarkably, this routine is echoed and rehashed from one year to the next. Without so much as a peep of protest.
*Unless the “company goals” are to make gobs of money between October and April. If so, Shanahan has succeeded.
So, enjoy your Maple Leafs, once more, with Keefe behind the bench and Mr. November (Auston Matthews) leading the way each spring. It has worked so spectacularly for seven consecutive years; why not make it 10 or 11? An alternate strategy would require exertion. Perhaps some ingenuity. But, MLSE and Shanahan have grown far too smug and satisfied to extend themselves for the fan base. It’s a glaring violation of the trust lavished upon them by the hapless followers of the Blue and White. But, somehow, and tragically, it remains the Toronto way.