I wrote a version of this right after I came home from being a pretend hockey fan for two days. I spent Game 6 and Game 7 of the Leafs-Bruins series out at a local bar in Toronto, taking in more hockey than I probably have in years.
The first jersey I ever owned was a Mats Sundin Maple Leafs sweater. I made sure it was the one with the C on it. I saw the end of the Pat Burns era, forgot about what happened between that and when Pat Quinn arrived and an army of veteran reinforcements made us perennial contenders (or close to) year in and year out. But when the lockout happened, and it happened again a few years later, I lost interest in hockey. Maybe in another city, the sport would’ve brought me back. But it’s hard to climb a bandwagon here in Toronto. In one sense, the bandwagon is always full. In another, it feels hopelessly empty. What are we rooting for, when it’s just failures and disappointments over and over.
Gradually, football, baseball and basketball took precedent. It doesn’t help that on some nights, the local sports networks preempt NBA playoff games because a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game is in overtime. The distaste grows almost on principle alone.
But then, after a hastily firing of Brian Burke before this lockout-shortened season began, the Leafs found themselves in a playoff spot as the season neared its end. And this time, they held on, and returned to the post-season for the first time in almost a decade.
When I was at a bar after we won Game 2 in Boston, I asked the people around me how old they were last time they saw the Leafs win a playoff game. Some ignored me, because they were too busy screaming; others said they were a completely different person by then; and most of them were too young to even remember or have any recollection at all.
When a franchise, and the city, spins it wheels and toils in mediocrity for so long, a playoff win in the first round matters. Having a competitive team you can be proud of, or just standing up to the competition matters. Sometimes you get beat down for so long, you start finding respect in the smallest things. You can file Game 2 in that category.
When we fell behind 3-1 in the series, and the city started an uproar over who Elisha Cuthbert was rolling her eyes at, there was disappointment, but a resignation that these were the playoffs, we’re the Maple Leafs; one didn’t really belong with the other.
But sports is weird. Being a fan, most certainly so. A road win in Game 5 that was more an escape than a victory and finally a win in front of the home crowd in Game 6, and here we were: third game in four night, who knew, this team was growing up, taking steps towards something better, and — if we dared — maybe even moving onto the second round.
No one — well, except everyone in the city especially those at Maple Leaf Square — had thoughts of a Stanley Cup. Even at the bar where my friends congregated for the last two games, it was just about how just another week or two of hockey would be good for this city. For commerce, for pride, for just feeling good about sports.
And it felt great when the Leafs scored one, and than another in the third period. A 2-1 lead now became 4-1. Another close finish now became a foregone conclusion. We celebrated, some people chanted inappropriate things about Boston, about the Bruins, and then they settled down and celebrated some more.
And then it was 4-2. The mood was not subdued. There wasn’t much time left. We’re the better team.
With under two minutes left, the net empty on the other side, the Bruins scored again. 4-3. Now people looked confused. But still, nothing’s ever easy. Not here in Toronto, where we know heartbreak and disappointment like they say we supposedly know the back of our hands. This is what we get for letting ourselves go for just a bit, to breath a sign of relieve, even bask in the glory of pulling off a comeback like this against a team we’ve rarely beaten, especially in recent years.
And then, it was tied. The bar that was once on the verge of collapsing from its collective joy now seemed untenable. Shock, anger, and the painful realization that this wasn’t even over yet. There was still one more act to this whole thing.
At intermission, we all tried to remain positive. There wasn’t surprise, just the pain of realizing this felt too familiar.
And then, the inevitable ending in overtime. 5-4. The comeback was complete. The drinks on everyone’s tab went from celebratory pints to consolation drinks. The worst thing.
Here’s the truth: the city, any city, is built on things more meaningful than sports. But without success in this arena where we all cheer and come together, we can’t really escape the identity of being a failure in some sense. People woke up angry yesterday, disappointed, sad, even traumatized if you must, but life goes on. It does, but it’s also just what people say when they rationalize the most painful losses in sports.
In the end, it was just a Round One loss. That’s the truth. I know we all want to rush and compare the collapse to Buckner, or Norwood, or Bartman. But the stakes in those games were considerably higher. I think that matters. No one lost a championship, or eve a chance to advance to the Finals on Monday.
But in the grand scheme of things, for this team, for this city, it’s just another chapter. Another round of comforting one another, of rationalizing failure, and then moving on and being hopeful again.
Eventually this cycle stops, and I can stop writing about sports in Toronto with such somber tones.
But this doesn’t really feel too sad. Maybe because I’m detached from hockey, or probably, because this feeling is so familiar that it doesn’t feel surreal or surprising at all.