You would think that 56 years and counting of failure would have taught Toronto brass and fans something.
Living six hours up the 401 from Toronto is like watching the NHL’s longest-running soap opera from the cheap seats: As the Leaf Falls, now entering its 57th season.
Rarely has it been more entertaining than the past week, when in the wake of the Maple Leafs’ loss to the Florida Panthers, GM Kyle Dubas held a Monday press conference in which he expressed doubts that he wanted to continue in the job.
Brendan Shanahan, who believed in the young GM so passionately that he had a new contract ready for him to sign, began to have doubts on the basis of a press conference.
Then Dubas decided he wanted to keep the job after all — but he wanted a pay hike.
Then Shanahan fired him.
What is remarkable is not that the two men in charge of the on-ice product apparently can’t make up their minds about the day of the week — what is noteworthy is that despite the failures, few fans wanted Dubas gone.
A Twitter post from the fan website Editor in Leaf went further, deciding that the game itself was the problem, that the outcome is too random and too dependent on goaltending.
“I just cannot believe,” said the anonymous author, “that so many people in hockey refuse to acknowledge how random the game is. Winning is perhaps the worst measure of success.”
Gee, and all these years I’ve thought that winning was the measure of success. Silly me.
The professional journalists were little better. In a segment for TSN between the Dubas press conference and his firing, one reporter talked about Dubas as though he were a cross between Sam Pollock and Gandhi. Another decided to sound opinions from other GMs in the league — on decisions made by the Leafs.
Coverage is bound to be skewed in favour of the Leafs when the sports networks are owned by the corporations that own the hockey team — but the effect is pervasive. In that atmosphere, it’s difficult for print journalists to be unduly critical, for fear of appearing churlish by comparison.
Instead, journalists focus on the “process” and end up sounding as though they’re PR people at the offices of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
The phenomenon, however, goes well beyond the media. Toronto seems to feed off the Maple Leaf culture, and the Leafs feed off Toronto, a city where the fans are as docile as the media. Just once this post-season, fans got up on their hind legs and did the unthinkable: After a miserable first period in Game 1 against Tampa, what is normally the deadest crowd in sports turned on their darlings. They booed the Leafs, loud and long.
The effect was palpable. Toronto lost that game but with a little help from an erratic Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Leafs won their first playoff series in two decades before reverting to form against a disciplined Florida team.
The problem has seemed obvious since Dubas signed John Tavares, even if Toronto doesn’t see it. Perhaps what’s needed is a little distance, like the 910 kilometres between Toronto and Boston. Master hockey writer Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe cut to the heart of it with merciless accuracy in a single tweet. “The Dubas era ends in Toronto,” Dupont wrote. “Reached round 2 once, with a roster vastly overpriced at forward, undermanned at D, and perpetually in need of varsity goaltending.
“Yet the fans streamed in for all of it. Like a magic trick, sans the hat/rabbit.”
The same tired magic trick that has fooled Toronto since the Harold Ballard years is now dressed up with a high-tech corporate gloss under MLSE, but nothing fundamental has changed. Cities with long-standing hockey traditions have their own culture that reflects the team and is reflected in turn. In Boston, trot out the same bunch of losers year after year and they would knock your front teeth out. In Montreal, fans and media alike veer madly from manic heights of euphoria to the slough of despond, depending whether the team won or lost the night before.
In Toronto, it’s praise the process and wait till next year, when the greatest team in the history of the game will surely win that elusive Stanley Cup. Nor are things likely to improve with Brendan Shanahan and his never-ending Shanaplan.
My advice, which Toronto will ignore: Get mad. Boo. Holler. Hell, stage a riot. That’s what Montreal would do.
OK, I’m joking about the riot. But paying $500 a pop to sit and scroll through your phone while the Leafs fatten their stats with another regular-season win? That’s not going to get it done. At the very least, 56 years of failure should have taught you that much.
Heroes: Matt Tkachuk, Sergei Bobrovsky, Alex Barkov, Joe Pavelski, Brittney Griner, Cloé Lacasse, Ingrid Wilm, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Jimmy Butler, &&&& last but not least, the great Jim Brown, warts and all.
Zeros: MLSE, Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, Sheldon Keefe, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Ja Morant, LIV golfers, Claude Brochu, David Samson &&&& last but not least, Jeffrey Loria.
Now and forever.
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