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You Realize We’re The Bad Guys, Right?

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Why the Toronto Maple Leafs lose.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens - Game Six Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens are one win away from the Stanley Cup Final. The Montreal Canadiens finished fourth in a division with seven teams who all disappointed in various ways, and would have missed the playoffs in any division but that one. The Montreal Canadiens lost eight more games than they won this regular season and spent the last six weeks of it getting beat like an exceptionally fine and dusty rug. And the Montreal Canadiens are one win away from the Stanley Cup Finals.

Here on this blog, we cheer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, which is sort of like cheering for the feeling of your dad failing to show up at your birthday every year since your parents divorced. In light of this dubious hobby, we spend a lot of the best days of Canadian summer trying to autopsy the most recent failure the franchise has inflicted on us. Not to brag or anything, but we’re very experienced at it. I can think of years where the underlying numbers were good, so the loss seemed unlucky, and where they were bad, so the loss seemed overdue. I have seen this team blow leads that a squad of balloon animals should have been able to hold. I have seen once-in-a-lifetime shooting slumps happen countless times in my one life.

There are different flavours. Some years William Nylander plays badly, and people want to trade him because he played badly; some years he plays well, and people want to trade him because, I don’t know, it’s probably some sublimated sexual thing or whatever, I’m tired of those people. Some years everyone notices Mitch Marner is overpaid by two to four million dollars a season while he tries to surround the other team and exhaust them with perimeter passes. Some years the goalies are made out of goo. We’ve all heard the No Series Wins In 17 Years Factoid, but the entire Leafs roster has flipped over multiple times since 2004, and really the only commonalities across those teams are two: they were called the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the year ended in some ridiculous, excruciating fashion.

And you know why?

We’re the bad guys.

Imagine, for a second, that you’ve never heard of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Actually, if you can, just sustain that as long as possible, it’ll help you quit drinking, but at least for this hypothetical. You, having Eternal Sunshine’d the Leafs from your brain, hear about a team:

  • That has a huge fanbase in the richest city in Canada
  • That gets a wildly disproportionate amount of media attention
  • That charges ticket prices so enormous that ordinary people struggle to attend games
  • That paid its stars enormous contracts before the team had experienced meaningful success
  • That was previously owned by Harold Ballard, who was so cartoonishly evil any actual description of him I put here will sound like a joke
  • That is currently owned by an unholy alliance of two telecommunication companies who conspire to charge you $300 a month so that you can receive eight spam calls a day from a branch of Revenue Canada that apparently takes payment in Amazon gift cards
  • That turfed its old, dependable GM for a flashy young exec, lured away a beloved franchise icon from another fanbase with the promise of money and glory, and then delivered only the former while the plucky squad left behind rallied to win playoff rounds
  • That cruised to a 3-1 lead over a gritty, no-stars team of destiny before collapsing to lose

You would say, oh, yes, I get it, these are the villains in a sports movie where the hero is Air Bud.

People hate the Toronto Maple Leafs for plenty of reasons. Some hate the Leafs because they cheer for rival franchises. Personally I hate the Leafs because I cheer for the Leafs. But it’s easy, especially now, to understand the real, deepest reason people might not like this franchise: because they present an enormous disparity between what they earn and what they get. In every piece of media made for children between ages 3-13, there is some smug rich kid coasting on what he’s been granted who looks down on the plucky hero. Because we also grew up watching those movies, we like to think of our team as the protagonists. But come on!

Look at the New York Islanders, who have a bunch of gritty, hard-working guys who come together to be more than the sum of their parts? That’s a hero story. The Montreal Canadiens, who you all laughed at for paying too much to their beloved franchise goalie and for their interminable opening ceremonies about a bygone past, who fought through a wave of late-season injuries? That’s a hero story. What the fuck have the Leafs ever overcome? Being paid an enormous amount of money to lose every elimination game in which they appear?

The Leafs don’t overcome the adversity because they are the adversity. They’re the obstacle that always gets surmounted at the last second, in true cinematic fashion. The Leafs have been on the wrong end of The Greatest Comeback In Hockey so many times that you genuinely can’t be sure which one I’m talking about with that phrase. They exist like a fearsome henchman in an action movie: to look scary for the first act of the film and to die funny before things get serious. Honestly, they’ve mastered the part.

Yes, I know, this isn’t real analysis. The Leafs lost because of all sorts of reasons related to their finishing going cold and the Habs having a strong counterattack offence, a rejuvenated Carey Price, etc. etc. Yet by this point, I don’t think there’s a Leaf fan living who hasn’t wondered if the issue is something more fundamental. Maybe some days you think it’s cap allocation, shooting variance, whatever. Maybe you think this team really is a thousand miles deep in its own head, and nothing’s going to fix that except finally winning; natural enough.

Or maybe whatever Hockey Gods exist hate everything the Leafs stand for. Maybe it seems fitting that the Leafs’ season seems to follow the Monstars from Space Jam: ferocious and dominant early, and by the end, left stumbling in jerseys too big for them to fill. That makes about as much sense as Toronto going ice cold at the wrong time every year forever.

The Habs feel like their Cup win is written in the stars, at this point, or I guess “gritty mid-tier forwards” instead of stars. Maybe not; maybe the Isles will surge back and take the championship. Maybe it’ll be the Bolts, who are the revenge of every small-market fan who got mocked for iffy attendance and a hot climate. Maybe the Vegas Golden Knights will recover to win against the odds and finish their expansion fairy tale. Any one of these teams could win!

Not the Leafs, though. The Leafs are the rich kid villains, and in the end that kid always loses. We’ve seen this movie enough times.