UnLeafable: Why the Leafs are Unlovable Losers

Word spread across the wires (are there still wires? Maybe it spread across the Twitterverse) this morning that Theo Epstein, boy wunderkind General Manager of the Boston Red Sox, was preparing to take a similar position with the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs and their fans are suffering through the longest championship drought in pro sports. 1908 was the last time the Cubbies won a World Series, a span of 103 years. Epstein presided over the Red Sox as they won a World Series for the first time in 86 years in 2004 (and won another in 2007) guaranteeing he’ll never need to pay for a beer in Massachusetts again. New Cubs owner Tom Ricketts is hoping that Epstein will bring that same spell-breaking magic touch to the North Side of Chicago. It will be a matchup of lore for the ages. The Curse of the Bambino versus The Curse of the Billy Goat, Bill Buckner versus the black cat, Bucky Dent versus Steve Bartman. A matchup of lovable losers. In fact if you google “Lovable Losers” the first result is the Chicago Cubs, and the Sox are not far behind. Which brings us to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team whose own drought reaches back to 1967. But unlike the Cubbies, and once the BoSox, no one loves the Leafs for their ineptitude.

The Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens in six games to win the 1967 Stanley Cup. 44 years ago. And since then nothing. Barely a sniff. But fans of other franchises don’t feel for Leafs fans, in fact they seem to revel in their lack of success. But why is this? The Leafs have an intriguing and rich lore. The story of Bill Barilko, the insanity of Harold Ballard, the paper bag of Roger Nielson, and the Kerry Fraser non-call on Wayne Gretzky in the 1993 conference finals. But rather than endear themselves to the greater sports fanbase, non-Leafs fans have celebrated the team’s failures. Nobody wants to hug a Leafs fan and tell them it will all be okay. But what is it that fans found in the Cubs and Sox that they don’t see in the Leafs?

Consider Toronto itself. In Canada it’s a national pastime to detest Toronto if you don’t live there or aren’t from there. I’ve never been entirely sure why that is. It’s a nice enough city. They have parks and galleries and museums. Cool bands come through on tour. It’s by a lake. The pubic transit works pretty well. There’s a big tower in the middle so you can’t get lost. Rob Ford, its mayor, is a horrible man but that seems to have united the citizenry in a way I haven’t seen before in a modern metropolis. The film festival is good. Summers are pleasant. Winters are tolerable. But still, the city gets no love. People love Chicago. Silly accent. Deep dish pizza and sausages. Al Capone. Lake Michigan. And a history of racial tolerance that people respect. Boston has its own silly accent. Cream pie and chowder. A colonial past. Cape Cod. And a deep-rooted racism which people tolerate. From this I suppose it can be surmised that Toronto, and its failing Leafs, gets no love because the city’s populace doesn’t have an accent.

Perhaps it’s the ownership. While the Cubs and the Red Sox certainly don’t have prominently visible proprietors, at least their fans know who they are. Leafs fans have to deal with the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund owning majority shares in Maple Leaf Sport and Entertainment. It’s hard to find a faceless entity loveable. They tried to correct this a few years ago by hiring Brian Burke as the General Manager and public face of the franchise. But that face has quickly become tired, and Burke’s curmudgeonly demeanor has alienated those who may have found his struggles to mould a winning franchise endearing. Burke strikes you as an angry drunk uncle who you’re afraid of when he drinks. And given the Leafs’ record, I would imagine Burke would have to drink a lot.

The Leafs had an opportunity in the summer of 1996 to break their curse, and for reasons that should hereafter be known as The Curse of Gretzky they did not. Gretzky was a free agent and looking to sign a contract that would be his last as a player. His first choice was to sign in Toronto, a homecoming of sorts for the Brantford native. It would have been serendipitous. The player whose clip of the Leafs’ Doug Gilmour went unpenalized and lead his Los Angeles Kings to the finals, where fate had suggested a Toronto-Montreal match-up. The game’s greatest player in the centre of the hockey universe, one-two up the middle with Gilmour. To finish his professional career in the same city it began with the Toronto Nationals some 20 years earlier. It would have been a thing of beauty, and if there’s one thing sports fans love it’s stories that seem rooted in destiny. This would have had it all. Habs fans may have embraced the team. But Leafs’ owner Steve Stavros was broke at the time, and nixed the deal and Gretzky instead finished up his career with three non-descript seasons with the New York Rangers. How could anyone love a team who passed up that opportunity?

Finally, and the reason the Leafs really get no love, is their fans. Not their larger fanbase, the common fan, the family in their rec room on Saturday night in matching Russ Courtnall jerseys being perpetually disappointed, known as Leafs Nation. No, I’m referring to what is seen on TV, and in a larger framework what is perceived as an apathetic bunch. Watching Leafs games can be torturous. Not because the team is bad or boring (which they are), or aesthetically upsetting (traditional blue and white, patriotic maple leaf), or that the telecasts are poor (TSN, CBC et al. are world class). No, it’s the crowd shots that are upsetting. The lower tier seats, seats many a hockey fan would sell their first born children to sit in for the warm-up, often remain empty at the beginning of periods only to be filled by a corporate fanbase, still in thousand dollar suits at 7PM on a Saturday, using the games to sell something else, to sell themselves. Those empty seats are a slap in the face to fans who can’t afford to go to games, let alone sit just a Molson Canadians’ throw away from Ron Wilson. And should the Leafs be fortunate enough to score, so very few of these suits get out of their seats to cheer. Just polite clapping, or waving of their BlackBerries. An attendee could get beaten for such behaviour at Habs games and the only people who ever sit down in Montreal are the separatists during the anthems. Cubs and Sox fans are similar. They’re blue collar. They’re the everyman. Or at least that’s the perception. Anyone who has been to Fenway Park or Wrigley Field knows there’s nothing polite about those crowds. Steve Bartman hasn’t left his apartment since 2003, and Bill Buckner didn’t venture east of the Mississippi until recently. But that passion is endearing, and even a Yankees fan can appreciate it. Well, maybe not a Yankees fan.

Furthermore, why has this fanbase allowed the drought to continue? If this was happening in Boston or Chicago, their fans would have dug up Bill Barilko’s body, put it in a Fairchild 24 floatplane with a dentist, crashed it in Quebec, sent out a search party to find the charred remains, and had The Tragically Hip record a follow-up hit in order to break the curse. Statues of Kerry Fraser would be burned in effigy. Doug Gilmour’s DNA would be extracted from his body and injected into the team’s current roster. Montrealers riot after pre-season losses. Vancouverites burn the city down after a game seven Stanley Cup loss. If the Winnipeg Jets ever win the Cup, the entire province may literally explode in euphoria. But in Toronto, there is a perceived apathy that fosters a hatred from fans across the rest of the league.

When Theo Epstein’s 2004 Red Sox broke The Curse of the Bambino he had assembled a team that reflected the city and fanbase that loved the team. Affectionately referring to themselves as a bunch of “idiots” the 2004 Sox were an affable bunch of beer swilling, overweight, scraggly haired scrappers led by a players’ manager in Terry Francona, who were the antithesis to the rival clean-cut pinstriped New York Yankees. Epstein changed not just the record of the team, but its culture as well. One would suspect that he’ll attempt the same thing with the Cubs, and should the Lovable Losers win a World Series during his tenure he will be immediately deified. Burke has attempted to change the culture of the team in his short time with the franchise. But he is limited by the NHL salary cap, what’s commonly referred to as Blue and White disease, an affliction that makes you stupid upon joining the Leafs organization, and Phil Kessel. But until Burke can do something about the suits in the lower bowl, the Leafs will continue to be unloved losers. Perhaps when Epstein’s done in Chicago, having broken the two longest and most celebrated curses in pro sports, he’ll need a bigger challenge. In the meantime, Leafs fans wait, losers forever disappointed, forever unloved.