By the time next April rolls around, it will have been 8 years since I saw Jeremy Roenick end the Maple Leafs' 2004 Playoff run. That will be almost half of my 20 years of life. It's safe to say it's been a while since I've had any vested interest in Playoff hockey for the better part of a decade. I don't ever remember feeling so utterly heartbroken. But I'd relive it in a heartbeat over the Leafs' seasons that would follow the NHL Lockout.
I'm living with two of my best friends from school this fall. One: a diehard Leafs fan, much like myself (we'll call him Ron); the other, a Canucks fan from the heart of British Columbia (Mike). You can probably imagine that Ron and I had quite differing emotions than Mike entering the 2011 NHL postseason.
In fact, our emotions were so polarized, Ron and I experienced uncontrollable jealousy towards Mike's exuberant April attitude. We observed our complete indifference to nightly results during the most competitive time of the year and his living and dying by each move Luongo made. It didn't take long to realize what we had been missing for almost a decade.
As a lonely Leaf fan in Northern Ontario, I had long forgotten the intensity, the constant feeling of pins and needles stabbing my stomach for 3 to 6 weeks after a long and satisfying regular season. I never had someone with whom to share my increasingly forlorn disposition towards April hockey until meeting Ron and Mike.
In Ron, I found someone who could reciprocate my feelings of incompleteness and lack of fulfillment. In Mike I saw a gradually developing arrogance attributed to a President's Trophy run and the agony that comes with failing to claim the only trophy that means anything.
Both Ron and I wondered what it would be like to feel so caught up in a game like the seventh between the Blackhawks and Canucks this past season. From a neutral perspective, it was definitely an entertaining 60+ minutes of hockey, but the end result was meaningless to me. We went so far as Sidney Crosby's goal for Canada and concluded that even that victory wouldn't compare to a Maple Leaf Stanley Cup.
That may come off as a shocking statement but there's just something different about Playoff success we discovered. It's something I feel that Leaf fans have swept under the rug of late. When we get to February and March and the annual push for the last Playoff spot begins, Leaf fans have adopted an "it-would-be-nice" mentality. "Sure, there's an outside chance Toronto could sneak in, and that'd be great, but they probably won't."
I'll admit that even I fell into that category shortly after the Leafs missed the post-season for the third time since the lockout. That mental state stuck with me for two years until I saw Mike nervously shifting in his seat waiting for Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarter-Final against the defending champs.
I realized, "Holy shit, this actually matters to someone."
It immediately brought me back to April 2004. I was sitting alone in my basement, twelve years old and vowing to attend Sami Kapanen's funeral, when Belfour got beat glove high. That moment of elation and celebration was so quickly replaced by disbelief and emptiness.
Some people say it's better to feel pain than to feel nothing at all. 8 years. They may be on to something.
Just over seven years removed from that defeat, I'm hereby resolved to no longer accept an "it-would-be-nice" mentality. I think it's fair to say that I have truly lived and died by the Maple Leafs since their 2001 sweep of the Sens. That means I've devoted a solid ten years and half of my life, to this club. After all this time, for me to accept "it-would-be-nice" attitude wouldn't be fair to myself. I deserve a hell of a lot better than that and so does every other blue-bleeding Leaf fan out there.
Here is my cry out to my Bay Street Brethren: NEVER accept "it-would-be-nice." Come October, Maple Leaf hockey matters and I want a contender. Because after what will be 8 long years, I know now more than ever that I'd take Jeremy Roenick's OT winner over a (8) year(s) of mediocrity every single time.