This is going to shock you, but not everyone who comes to comment on our website loves us. Plenty of people are complimentary and kind, and I genuinely am grateful for that since it’s not like the money is enough to justify this gig by itself, but mixed in with the thoughtful feedback are some people who wish we would write this or stop writing that or just lighten the fuck up, man. These people are usually Leaf fans, and we are ourselves Leaf fans, and these people think we’re doing it wrong.
You can see a similar dynamic play out on Twitter, if you’re misguided enough to go there. While every other fanbase in the league hates Toronto and Toronto at least returns some of the feeling, a lot of the anger on this corner of that very angry website is between different factions of people who support the same hockey team. Despite all ostensibly wanting the same thing—for the Leafs to crush their opponents, to see them driven before them, to hear the lamentations of their coaches—a lot of these people seem to spend much of their time sniping at each other. Or obliquely referencing each other in pointed subtweets like they’re 1780s aristocrats with phones. Whatever works.
That’s fandom on the Internet for you. But why is that? Why do we all drive each other so nuts? Beyond the fact that hell is other people.
It comes down to why people follow sports at all.
This is obvious to anyone who’s cheered for any team for more than a few days, and especially to Leaf fans—but the vast majority of sports seasons end in disappointment. Only one team wins the championship a year, and while you can find consolations, the last game of every playoff team’s season but one is a loss. You’re gonna be sad.
But, and here’s the consolation, you get to be sad in a group!
Everyone likes to feel part of something bigger than themselves sometimes. You feel connected to others, you have something to socialize over and talk about, you have an activity with friends, and it’s a building block of community that you can share. It’s a group identity, and most people have a few of them. While some consequences of strong group identity can be a little dicey, sports teams are usually a pretty safe thing to bond over.
All identities, though, have a positive and a negative side to them. What I am is defined by what I’m not. And plenty of people want their team to have an identity they can relate to or admire.
Bringing it back from sociology class here, maybe you want the Leafs to be tough, unfuckwithable badasses on skates. I don’t mean this is wrong, either, despite being a nerdy lib; I’ve watched every John Wick movie for what are probably similar reasons. You identify the Leafs with what you think you are or you daydream about being.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence a lot of fans like Mitch Marner as the little guy from Toronto who made it with skill, determination, and boundless energy, and who just seems excited to play the game. This image got a little dented when he negotiated hard for many times more money than most of us will make in our lives, but he was still easy to identify with for plenty of Ontario fans.
William Nylander, on the other hand, is Swedish, blonde, boy-band handsome, and looks like he doesn’t have to try all that hard. That is not the experience some traditional Canadian hockey fans feel they can take part in. The fact that Nylander has probably had to work his considerable ass off to have as much success as he’s had doesn’t register for a lot of people.
And worse, a lot of the people who like him are nerds!
Some kids, when you show them a toy, want to take it apart and see how it works. Some are the type that read the inside of the top of the Monopoly box to learn the rules of the game. They want to know how and why.
That impulse pops up again in sports with the fans who want to understand the game and sort it out, make it more predictable, learn how it can be solved. Some of this is from competitive instinct (you read the rules so that you can bankrupt your friends by putting a ton of hotels on Baltic Avenue); some of it is just because it scratches an itch.
This isn’t a stunning insight, but: PPP tends to get more of this type of fan, and certainly plenty of the people who write here are this way. We’d like to be happy with the Leafs, but we really want to be right. Some of that might come from Toronto’s experience with winning a bunch of games with smoke and mirrors and then collapsing in the Carlyle years. Some of it might be that we’re insufferable know-it-alls who want to win Internet arguments.
That instinct it has the effect of softening that group identity. To pull things apart you have to try to be objective, and that means acknowledging that sometimes the Leafs are bad. If you’ve been a Toronto fan for the past 15 years it would have justified a certain amount of pessimism on quite a few occasions when more traditional fans didn’t want to hear it. That isn’t to say the nerds are always right (trust me, I know), it just takes you out of step with some of the crowd who bleed blue from the heart.
We regularly (still!) get comments from Leaf fans who tell us they don’t want to have to do math or read charts to be a fan of a hockey team. Aside from the obvious fact we’re not holding guns to foreheads to force people to look at Corsi, it actually does sadden me a bit that these people seem anguished just by us publishing a blog. But it’s not too hard to understand, either. All those numbers and spreadsheets, to them, feel like we’re changing what the identity is from passion to procedures and obligating them to like players they don’t. That feeling is why a perfectly fine scoring winger like Nylander can turn into an existential threat. If he’s good, it’s not just that they’re wrong about him. It’s that all the feelings they bring to the table are wrong too.
And that’s a scary thing, if you care a bunch about your hobby. (And we all do if we’re here, right?) People are changing the terms of engagement. And If you go online, there are fans who—most baffling of all—openly cheer for three or four teams at once.
I cheer for the Leafs because my dad cheers for them and I grew up in Toronto. That’s it. I didn’t really choose them. I just grew up in them and didn’t leave. There’s still a big swathe of the Leafs fanbase that grew up this way. For them the Leafs fanbase is almost a birthright. Group identity again.
In 2021, it’s a lot easier to come to the game in different ways. You can more easily be a fan of a team that’s geographically nowhere close to you, and you can find all sorts of smaller communities of fans that don’t fit into the old-fashioned mold. I see more and more fans who claim allegiance to teams for the simple reason that they found a group they liked that cheered for them, and because they liked the players. Maybe they liked a couple of players on the Avalanche and the Hurricanes and thought, why choose? Maybe they have a really well-developed and specific interest in Travis Konecny despite not usually cheering for Philadelphia. Why not?
To a certain stripe of old fan this seems insane. The whole point of cheering for a team is to to support them to the exclusion of all others, and being a fan of, say, both the Leafs and the Bruins is a bit like supporting both France and England in the Hundred Years’ War. It dilutes the group identity, though they wouldn’t say it that way. The fact that some of these newer fans are women, younger, or LGBT brings that whole identity thing into especially sharp relief. It’s just not how things are done!
On an intuitive level it is odd for me to imagine cheering for any team but the Leafs. But that’s habit. There’s no reason it has to be. We’re cheering for laundry, like the Jerry Seinfeld line says. There’s no reason to restrict your wardrobe if you don’t want to. Pick six teams if you like, whatever.
So what’s the issue?
Sports teams are a safe space for people to be crazy and irrational and even kind of chauvinistic in a way that doesn’t do much harm. That means it’s mostly emotion, for plenty of people. Having to subject your emotions to other people’s reasons or other people’s sense of identity is a threat to that. You don’t get to have things all your own way with your feelings about the team.
I’d love to end this on some everybody-comes-together note. I don’t think there is one, unless the Leafs win the Cup and we’re all too deliriously happy to care. You just have to accept that other people aren’t fans for the same thing you are, and that’s fine. It has to be said that a lot of the traditional fans aren’t good at all at living and letting live, which is lousy, but more than that?
Fandom is irrational. You can’t really fix that, even for the reason-first fans. You just have to let everyone have their lane, their community, and cheer as they see fit. And in the end, it’s only a game. As long as the Leafs don’t blow another four-goal lead to the fucking Sens.