At the time of writing this, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the second round of the playoffs. To my non-Canadian friends, I’ll try to capture what a BIG deal this is: You know how every year around December 23, the air takes on a sparkly charge as strangers start randomly wishing each other Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays? It’s like that — except imagine this is the first December to come around in nineteen years, and Santa’s been AWOL since 1967.
People are wishing each other “Go Leafs Go” in parking lots, checkout lines, in lieu of goodbye as they walk out the door or hang up the phone — even though the Leafs have an unspeakably long history of . . . you know . . . not going.
(But seriously . . . don’t ever speak of it)
For years, I’ve been mystified by the Leafs’ fan base — unwaveringly loyal, perpetually hopeful, doggedly optimistic — as well as kinda pissed at the Leafs as a franchise for repeatedly disappointing people I love.
I don’t watch hockey, but it’s been running in the background my whole life. Don and Ron were the white noise of my childhood. My dad, uncles, cousins, best friends through high school and university, colleagues, neighbours and husband are always watching the game.
They’re always repeating the same mantra (“It’s a rebuilding year”).
And although I have only basic knowledge about the sport and the franchise, I too, really want the Leafs to win — for them. The fans. For the place I was born in that holds its breath and bites its nails then erupts as one giant blue-and-white beast of elation with each faint glimmer of hope. For the (possibly overserved) pedestrian I watched plow into a (slowly moving) car on Bremner Blvd in a fit of jubilation after the Leafs beat the Senators to advance to the second round in 2004, and all the people and vehicles around him that froze in concern, until he sprung up, unharmed, with a valiant “GO LEAFS GOOOOOO!” and the party resumed.
But then, the story always plays out the same way. Flags emblazoned with “Go Leafs Go” get folded up for another year and Leafs Nation goes quietly home.
WHY, I ask them. WHY do you put yourselves through this year after year? WHYYY do you willingly hand over your time and money and hopes and dreams and heart like this?
But seriously, the other day I did actually ask them these questions. And their answers had nothing to do with hockey, in every way that resonated:
“Because when we immigrated here, my brother and I practiced skating in the pitch dark for hours after all the other kids went in. We saw hockey as our way in. Every boy in the class dreamed of being a Leaf; they were common ground. Cheering for them, you always knew you were safe.”
“Because when my grandparents were alive, I could drop by their house on any Saturday night and they’d be there in their matching recliners, watching the Leaf game.”
“Because the Leafs are the only thing my father and I have ever agreed on.”
“Because crowding around the television for puck drop was our family tradition. And now, some of those family members are gone.”
“Because no matter how low things got, Hockey Night in Canada was the one sure thing. Even if you didn’t have cable, you could always find the game.”
“Because as we got older and life got busy, the Leafs were the reason my friends and I still made time for each other.”
“Because I watched them win the Cup in ’67. They were the underdogs, everyone kept saying they were too old, they were washed up — and they went and brought it home anyway.”
Go Leafs Go, indeed.
Cheering for the Leafs, I’ve come to realize, is not really about whether they win (though of course, that’d be nice). It’s not even really about the team itself at all, when you think about it. Not a single player or coach is the same now as it was when this generation (or the three before it) started cheering for them, much in the same way we’re all made of cells that continuously turn over such that, eventually, we consist of entirely new stuff — yet, we’re still us.
It’s about the magic that transpires from BeLeafing and touches everyone in its own way. It’s history, tradition, memory. It’s a never ending story of relentless perseverance and blind faith that against all odds, tomorrow just might prove different.
In a way, even the unabating losses unite us in a manner that outsiders can’t fully understand, whether we’re watching on the edge of our seat or just trying to tune out the commentators while doing our homework.
Tonight, as we head into the too-familiar do-or-die with hopes high and expectations low, I will try to remind myself what Leafs fans everywhere seem to have long accepted as true: the final score doesn’t matter all that much, anyway. It’s always been more about what’s transpiring in the stands than on the ice.
Granted, the following quote pertains to football not hockey, but Coach Ted Lasso may have said it best when questioned about letting fans into the stadium to watch “his” team during practice:
“It’s their team. We’re just borrowing it for a little while.”