Friends, I have a confession. I do not have the sunniest personality. I physically own multiple Radiohead albums. I watch action movies and count all the times the protagonist ought to have been killed. My favourite superhero is Eeyore. You get it.
This actually suits being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan pretty well. It means I’m prepared. When the Leafs inevitably belly flop and crush the hopes of everyone who supported them, I at least get the grim satisfaction of having expected it. I shout “I KNEW IT ALL ALONG” like an angry relative at the conclusion of a British murder mystery: yes, the victim (my dreams) is still dead, but at least it’s sort of vindicating.
The problem is that this time the pendulum has swung too far. Blowing a 3-1 lead to the Montreal Canadiens, and wasting what was likely their best chance at a Cup for years to come, is a remarkable failure even for this trash-ass failure committee masquerading as a hockey team. Even the true believers are struggling to get excited for this season. For once, all the Leaf fans seem to be as miserable as I usually feel.
This is no fun. It’s also a really bad way to be in September. We’re used to the team imploding in some clown shoes fashion in April or May, but now the spring failures have gotten so comically stupid that they’ve escaped the bounds of their usual season and are infecting us in the fall. That’s a problem. Hockey is important in this country because the weather sucks total ass for like five consecutive months. If we don’t have a Tuesday game against the Sens in January to distract us from the fact it’s minus a billion outside and the sunset happened at lunch, what do we have? Nothing!
Desperate times call for desperate measures. So despite my general aversion to, you know, joy, let’s find reasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs season.
1. Hockey is a fundamentally unfair crapshoot governed by evil gods.
Now, you may say that this does not make you feel better. And yes, the evil gods have been out to get us before. For example when Joonas Korpisalo turned into peak Dominik Hasek for five games against the Leafs in 2020. How did a bunch of great offensive players forget how to score? Yes, sure, gripping of sticks too tight, choke artists, trade everybody etc.—but it was also just a really fluky outcome. Ditto the Leafs losing a series to the Habs while outscoring them 18-14. That’s weird! Why did it happen? I don’t get it! I’m so confused and furious I’m writing in intermittent italics!
Sorry. As I was saying: the Leafs have been on the wrong end of these dice rolls so long that it’s hard not to see more than blind luck at play. And maybe there is. But the fact remains a single puck off a skate at the right time could have swung either of the last two series. In a game focused on the movements of vulcanized rubber on an ice sheet, unlikely things aren’t that unlikely after all. Just because there’s so much that’s beyond human control in hockey, it’s entirely possible the Leafs will limp into the playoffs, play worse than they have the past five years, and win a series anyway.
Blind luck has been the enemy of the Leafs for a long while now. But despite how it feels it is blind, and it’s just as possible for Toronto to go from these things happening to them to being the bad thing that happens to somebody else.
2. Curses end.
At this point, I’d understand if you weren’t buying. Yes, luck can go either way, but the Leafs have failed so often in such seemingly secure situations that even rational fans have to wonder if they pissed off a dead Pharaoh or something. You could be forgiven for wondering whether an annual losing streak so long sustained can ever stop.
The Washington Capitals tended to stumble at the second round and not the first, but they still spent twelve years of Alex Ovechkin—the greatest goal-scorer of all-time, not interested in other perspectives, thanks—before they got over their big hurdle. Then they won a Cup. If nothing else that ought to give some hope to teams built around snipers born on September 17th.
There are other examples. The St. Louis Blues, who fell prey to goaltending collapses for most of my adult life before Jordan Binnington showed up? Cup in 2019. Go outside hockey to baseball, where the legendary curses used to live: the Chicago Cubs (!) finally won after 108 tormented years in 2016. The Boston Red Sox broke an 86-year drought in 2004 and went on to the true destiny of all Boston sports teams, which is heaps of undeserved success.
Nothing is forever. Not even the Leafs being bad. Now, sure, maybe we’re just in the middle of a Cup drought that will last 300 years, but we might not be.
3. They’re still actually pretty good.
That’s partly why they’re so frustrating. But the Leafs have the best top-four defence they’ve had since the 2005 lockout. There were teams in there where I’m pretty sure the Leafs were playing a balloon animal at 1D. We have a tandem of goaltenders who were both good last year; in the late aughts we had tandems I wouldn’t have trusted to save a Word document. Most of all...
We have some really good forwards, and yes, let’s get right to him. Mitch Marner is a really good player. I know your soul screams his eight-figure salary, I know in the playoffs he did a Casper the Friendly Ghost impression at the end, and he’s a really good player. I know many of us wanted to trade him for another star and some of us wanted to trade him for peanuts and still the last line on his evaluation has to be: he is a really good player.
If the worst error in Kyle Dubas’ tenure is paying too much money to the best playmaker the team has had in years, then for all our sorrows we are in a world of luxury problems. There will be moments this season where Mitch Marner makes a pass that ten other men on the planet could pull off, and there will be moments Auston Matthews fires a snapshot that maybe no one else on Earth can match. That isn’t a playoff series win. It’s still something most teams never get.
4. ...and we’ve seen worse.
As frustrating as they are, and my God they’re so fucking frustrating I sometimes want to relocate this team to the goddamn moon, this Leafs team is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than recent models of the same make.
Remember when our 1D was Dion Phaneuf? Remember when we played Dave Steckel as our first-line centre because he won faceoffs? Remember Randy Carlyle failing to operate a toaster? Remember the time a random fan threw waffles on the ice and we were like, yeah, that makes sense, they deserve to have breakfast food thrown at them? Remember when we had a controversy on par with the Watergate scandal because the team didn’t salute the fans after a game? Remember when Joffrey Lupul was playing well and then he got injured and then he was playing well and then he got injured and then he was okay you get the point? Remember the Leafs unironically trading up to draft future Nottingham Panthers depth forward Tyler Biggs in the first round? Remember [Editor’s note: 5000 additional words have been deleted from this paragraph.]
I’ve never been one for the whole daily affirmations thing, but if I did, I would wake up each morning, look in the mirror, and say “At least I’m not watching Keith Aulie anymore.”
5. We’re still here.
The Leafs have given us, in a perverse way, a gift. For off-ice failure we still have to concede we’re behind our Ontario little brother—ain’t nobody matching the soap opera Melnyk and the Ottawa Senators have staged—but for on-ice disasters the Leafs can legitimately claim to be the all-time champs. Toronto has lost in ways other teams couldn’t imagine. You lost to an underdog? We lost to our own Zamboni driver. You blew a lead? We’ve blown every kind of lead. Look on our works, ye mighty.
And the fans, mostly, have hung around. Not because we expect this team to win Cups; even the most optimistic fan would need ecstasy on an IV drip to sustain that confidence full-time. Because it’s an entertaining way to pass the time, a pretext to spend three hours at the bar, a collective shared complaint. It’s been all those things, rain or shine, and it’ll be all those things in the future. At this point we know we’ll be fine even if it’s never anything else. Mitch Marner could, and in my heart I suspect will, go backhand shelf on his own goalie to lose the next Game 7. We’ll swear and shake our heads and prepare for the inevitable trade, and we’ll tune in again.
Because otherwise the winter in this country is really fucking boring.