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Phil Kessel deserved better than the Maple Leafs

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For six years, management failed Phil Kessel. Saturday night it was the fans' turn.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Mats Sundin didn't want to leave the team he'd played with for over a decade in the name of a rebuild, and was booed for it.

Phil Kessel accepted a trade so that the Leafs could kickstart their rebuild, and...was booed for it.

Welcome to life inside the centre of the hockey universe, where logic goes to die.

This isn't a new trend, sadly. Tomas Kaberle got boos for not leaving until he left as a pending free agent. Bryan McCabe accepted his trade and got boos when he returned for coming back.

Darcy Tucker and Tie Domi, not even remotely the same calibre of players as others mentioned in this article, orchestrated to block their trades away from Toronto, and yet avoided the same criticism. Doug Gilmour demanded a trade but also avoided any sort of repercussions from the fans.

On and on it goes.

Saturday night was an embarrassment, and not because the Leafs have now won 1 game out of 10 to begin the season. It was an embarrassment because people chose to boo the return of Phil Kessel.

Phil Kessel, the team's leading scorer for the past six seasons.

Phil Kessel, the only player worth a good god damn since Mats left.

Phil Kessel, the guy who shouldered the blame because Leafs management was too inept to figure out how to build around a top-5 scorer in the league.

I can't blame Maple Leafs fans for being frustrated at the recent fortunes of the team; anyone who's read this blog would know that we share that feeling. The problem with the Leafs has never been that Phil Kessel (or Mats before him, or Wendel before him, or Sittler before him) weren't good enough. The problem is that they've never done remotely enough to surround that player with the help they need, and Maple Leaf fans pick the scabs of their star player's faults until they become a festering, toxic mess.

And yet, every summer our over-bloated media (who reinforces and perpetuates much of these myths) influence fans to hew and cry about how the best players in the world don't want to come here and how the local boys won't come home and lead us to glory. Maybe it's because they actually notice how we eat our own?

It's not just the players. People outside of the Toronto sphere have taken notice of how Leafs fans badly bungled Kessel's return, and it stands in stark contrast to Sundin's return. People were angry Mats Sundin wouldn't accept a trade to help rebuild the Leafs. That's a value judgment.

But when Mats returned in a Vancouver uniform, that minor resentment was put aside, and Sundin's return was one of the best moments the Leafs have mustered since Roenick effectively murdered the franchise in 2004. Memories outweigh grudges.

Granted, Phil Kessel didn't have the level of success that Sundin did here in Toronto (Sundin's first few years in Toronto weren't exactly with great hockey teams either), but again it's hard to place the blame for that on a single player when he's not writing the cheques for David Clarkson or Mike Komisarek, among many, many others.

It would be easy to excuse this as a certain subsection of fans and say "#Notallfans", but our fanbase represents all of us. That's why Montreal and Vancouver fans have to answer for drunken shitheads burning their cities down because playoffs. That's why Edmonton fans have to answer for the Stockholm Syndrome that affects their fans after every #1 pick. That's why Florida and Arizona fans have to answer for the empty seats in their arena.

Maple Leafs fans have to answer for the fact that we have never been able to look a gift horse in the mouth without asking why its breath smells. About how we feel the right to glorify fourth-liners who represent the most selfish and destructive parts of the hockey enforcer role, yet run an elite scorer out of town because "he doesn't backcheck."

I'm sure it's just a coincidence that the Maple Leafs implemented a new policy on honouring former players just as Phil Kessel was poised to return to town. Heaven forbid we take down photos of the former stars of our franchise, but our best player returns to town and we don't acknowledge his efforts because "we don't do that anymore." That level of respect for players who kept your franchise relevant worked great in New Jersey, right Lou?

The "New York Yankees of hockey" are a joke. The New York Yankees don't have to talk their fans into believing they'll be good someday. The New York Yankees don't have to rely on the memories of pensioners to recall when their team was good. Fans of the New York Yankees aren't pitied; they're hated.

Best of luck this year with Pittsburgh, Phil. Maybe you'll finally be appreciated for what you are instead of hated for what you aren't.