Every year when hockey season rolls around people in Canada go out of their minds. They gather in droves to make their predictions for the year and to discuss the finer points about the game played on ice. Some take it more seriously than others, and some make it the only thing that matters in life until summer rolls around again. However, there is one group who takes it even one step further. They are the ones that can be found draped in blue and white, either explaining how every player on their favorite team is a superstar, or else complaining how they traded a deadbeat who eventually bloomed into a star elsewhere. They consistently plan out the route for the championship parade before the season has even started, and have been known to have many grandiose ideas that border on the lines of schizophrenia. They are the Toronto Maple Leafs nation, and they must stop dreaming.
After losing their eighth straight game on Saturday to the Detroit Red Wings, a team that they are desperately trying to catch for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, their hopes for making a playoff run are dwindling. The worst part about it is that the teams that Toronto has an outside chance to catch have played two less games than they have. In order to keep the Leafs post-season hopes alive now it will essentially require them to win out and hope for the Capitals, Red Wings, and Blue Jackets to drop several games down the stretch. But even if Toronto were to stumble into the playoffs, are hockey fans to believe that this Maple Leafs team could actually do some damage, especially after what happened in the first round last year?
Granted, the Leafs deserve some credit for pushing the physical Bruins to a seventh game, nobody saw that coming, but with a 4-1 lead with only 14:31 remaining in the game, it is supposed to be automatic at that point. And yet, Boston charged back to tie the game, and then won it in overtime on a goal from Patrice Bergeron. Thousands of fans scattered throughout the Toronto streets, only moments before cheering triumphantly as their Maple Leafs were about to advance to the second round now stood still and silent, some even in tears. The dream had ended. The Leafs were out. Maybe next year, as they always say.
The problem is that every year is the year in the minds of Maple Leafs fans, or at least they talk that way. Whether it is a hereditary trait passed down through generations of families that bleed blue and white, who knows, but one thing is for sure and that is that Leafs nation must stop dreaming. They do not match up against the elite of the Eastern Conference in a seven game series, and in the past two decades they have not had the talent that can push through to a Stanley Cup Final. If they found themselves beyond the first round, it was usually due to some well-needed overachieving and some stellar goal tending performances from the likes of Curtis Joseph.
But the problem does not lie in the fans’ love of their Leafs. A true sports fan should be expected to exude a great level of pride in their team, no matter what the level of talent is out on the ice. The real problem is that for decades the Leafs organization has been building an inferior product by trading away draft picks for aging players with name power, shipping out young prospects before they are given a fair chance to succeed, pressing good players with unreal expectations until they are believed to be a problem. Yet, the fans continue to support the team and go to the games, people everywhere still buy their jerseys and other memorabilia, and the Leafs still attract mass media coverage throughout Ontario and across Canada. This leaves one to ask why their would be any incentive for the team to get better and end their 47 year Stanley Cup drought?
That is why Maple Leafs need to wake up. It is not because they have a strong pride in their team, it is because their pride is misguided by the idea that they can win championships with the way they are. It has been 47 years since they held the Stanley Cup so clearly the current way is not working. But as long as Maple Leafs fans continue to support and believe in the structure put in place, the reality of a championship will remain a dream. Maple Leafs nation, you must stop dreaming.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky