2017 has been a special year for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the NHL. Both venerable establishments turned 100 and celebrations were had. The Leafs hosted the Red Wings in the Centennial Classic on New Year’s Day, a birthday party of sorts. The outdoor game (played at BMO Field) was essentially the Winter Classic, but gussied up with additional historical elements. There was no official word on whether party hats and cake were on offer, however.
The Leafs dressed the part all season as they have moved to a new (old) logo and uniforms, which harkens back to the club’s look of the 1960s. Gone is the simplified 11-point leaf. In its place is the more detailed 31-point throwback. For the Centennial Classic the Leafs altered their jersey slightly, adding a white band around the chest and silver accents. They went green for the St. Pats back on March 18th and will wear "Arenas" across their chest this 2017-2018 season, salutes both to the Buds’ previous identities.
While the Leafs have been in party mode, some disgruntled Torontonians are very aware of their sustained lack of success and are surely weary of celebratory acts. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the club’s 1967 Stanley Cup win, of course, the last time they captured the cup. There have been some good times since then — the Leafs made the Conference Finals four times between the 1992-93 and 2001-02 seasons — but no Stanley Cup Finals appearances. And, since 2004-2005 the they have missed the playoffs every year but one.
Sorry, Leafs Nation, before we move on there is a little more failure to relay: that one playoff appearance of the 2000s, in 2012-2013, ended with the Buds coughing up a three-goal, third period lead to the rival Bruins in game seven of the Conference Quarterfinals. It sums up Toronto’s suffering quite well, sadly.
Things are looking up as of late. No, really. Mike Babcock, who was so successful with the Wings, is bench boss, and Lou Lamoriello — another winner — is GM. The Leafs also snatched up the much fawned over Auston Matthews in the 2016 draft with their first round pick, and the young man has already been labelled the franchise’s saviour after scoring 40 goals last season. And while the kids couldn't get past the first round of the playoffs in 2016-2017, they look primed for an extended run in the near future.
And, really, why not like the Leafs? They have a long history, a great look (with a symbol shared with Canada itself), heroes to idolize, and a dedicated fanbase. There is still a long waiting list for season tickets despite the club’s strong ties with futility. The Leafs are — or should be — the Cubs of the hockey world. Lovable losers. Now that the Cubbies have their trophy, the Leafs can even take full reign of that title across all North American sport. But, instead of being loved, they are hated as much as the Yankees and do not have the same wealth of championship rings to keep them warm at night.
The funny thing is that, while the love and respect for the Cubs has grown with their winning percentage, if the Leafs were to win their division, and then a title, they would be despised even more. No pat on the back, no ‘job well done’ from fans of the opposition or even the general public, just more fuel added to the fires of hate.
Much or all of this dislike is due to Toronto’s self-importance; the country’s biggest city, its financial and cultural mecca, is therefore the country’s best, or so it goes. Put simply, Toronto: The Centre of the Universe. The rest of Canada rails against this, though it is hard to tell whether the average non-Torontonian actively brings the city down, or if that notion is generally understood, but incorrect.
There is, however, absolutely no way to claim bias against two other Toronto teams. Countless Canadians — coast to coast — adore the Blue Jays. Just look at their recent series in Seattle, where west coast Jays fans have repeatedly invaded, turning Safeco Field into a sea of blue for three games. The Raptors have a big following now too, as their pre-season tradition of playing sold-out games in different Canadian cities (Vancouver and Calgary last season) indicates.
So, why not the Leafs? The obvious reason is that the Jays and Raptors are now the only Canadian teams in their respective leagues. There are six other teams (Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Montreal) in the NHL that represent the Great White North. For most, there is no need to love the Leafs with so many other, more local options. The NHL also has a high number of Canadian players on successful American teams, which draws some fans south.
Those actually from Toronto have, for the most part, stuck by their club despite the down years. 2012-2013 may have been it for some, the game seven collapse the final nail in the coffin. There were empty seats at the Air Canada Centre a couple of years ago, with tickets available for cheap on online resale sites. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal, and the arrival of Matthews and other young talent has rejuvenated Leafs fans. The franchise’s first 50 years saw great success, maybe the coming 50 will too. Cleveland won an NBA title, and the Cubs the World Series, so anything is possible.
Win or lose, let’s all give the Leafs a big birthday gift: some love. They are never going to be number one in the hearts of many, but that does not mean so much negative energy must be directed their way. To hate the Leafs is to hate Tim Horton, and to hate the man is to hate his donut and coffee franchise. Timbits, Double-Doubles, and the Toronto Maple Leafs: all much needed, and very Canadian. Cheers to 100 years of the Buds