FeaturedNational Hockey League (NHL)Toronto Maple Leafs

Leaf Cycle

Pre-season ends, everyone is absolutely psyched about the new arrivals and the up-and-coming young draft picks. Based off their pre-season performance, why wouldn’t they be? Finally, opening night is upon us, the spotlight shining brightly around the ice in a familiar form. There’s an incredible laser show, the anthem singer steps out to an adoring crowd, roaring in anticipation of a great season based on building upon the successes of the pre-season. The few first notes are heard “O, Canada, our home and native land…”

The sea of blue joins along; the sold-out crowd putting their heart and soul into the song they’ve grown so accustomed to hearing. “True patriot love,” from starting lineup to backup goaltender, the players paid their dues and are thinking that maybe this is their year. “With glowing hearts, we see thee rise,” the players mouth, as they mentally rehearse their next deke, their next breakout pass, their next backhand goal when it seemed impossible, as they hope to rise in the standings.

The anthem ends, it’s time to drop the puck. The fans are excited: after an ever-increasing wait, surely, this will be their year. Welcome to the Toronto Maple Leafs fan struggle.

As a resident of Southern Ontario, I am surrounded by self-described members of Leafs Nation, some of them blissfully unaware that almost without fail, ESPN constantly ranks their favourite franchise as one of the worst in terms of value to talent ratio, yet season after season, they flock to the Air Canada Centre, to watch their team play approximately 60 percent of a season.

Join me as we observe the regular behavior of a wild Leafs fan through a longitudinal study; in other words, a study that follows the subject through the course of the experiment.

 

September: pre-season begins. Rookies, draft picks, new arrivals are all making a splash; some of them clicking, others perhaps not as much. Fresh from their extended vacation due to missing the playoffs yet again, the players work as a cohesive unit, fiercely defending and playing to every last whistle. Fans are excited, and so begins the avalanche of fanfare surrounding the most over-hyped team in the NHL.

October: the puck drops for real this time. The Toronto Maple Leafs have an embarrassment of riches in every position, with line combinations clicking and hot goaltending, they manage to string a decent amount of wins together, putting them safely in first place in their division. Many fans rave about the team, some of them even theorizing whether their Stanley Cup parade will pass by Casa Loma or not.

November: the decent record continues, but a key injury brings the dreaded injury bug to the locker room, causing the then-league-leading forwards to go on a slump, perhaps reliance on the backup goaltender, who steps up and shows incredible potential. The Toronto Maple Leafs just barely manage to stay above .500 this month, and fans are still very excited, despite ending the month on a losing streak.

December: The losing streak continues, dragging on longer and longer, like nights in the unforgiving Canadian winter. Fans begin making demands such as trades, coaching changes, GM changes, et cetera. Despite their dismal record in December, the Toronto Maple Leafs begin winning as the year comes to a close, leading pundits to believe that the team was only going through a slump; as such, no moves are made before the Christmas trade freeze, to the dismay of many, but the delight of more.

January: The Christmas holiday brings a rejuvenated spirit to the team, bringing the team to string a few wins to start off the year. Many fans joke that “we’re undefeated in two-thousand <blank>,” much to the dismay of their non-Leaf fan acquaintances, significant others, friends, and relatives. They bring themselves back to playoff position, firmly ahead of the playoff bubble pack.

February: The Toronto Maple Leafs start showing signs of cracking, with some near wins, some shootout losses, and one or two dominating performances. With the trade deadline looming, fans and pundits speculate about how to spice up the stagnating form that the Toronto Maple Leafs are in, including theoretical blockbuster trades, key prospect signings, and depth “hockey moves” to assist on a lengthy playoff run. Despite all of the speculation, only minor moves are made by the Maple Leafs organization during the trade deadline, stocking the shelves for the future.

March: The proverbial semi is dangerously close to the cliff, tethering on the edge. An extended losing streak sinks the Toronto Maple Leafs from a playoff spot to a draft lottery spot, leading fans to speculate what the Toronto Maple Leafs would do with their first overall draft pick, imagining the hot prospect in a blue and white sweater, and how this player will be the savior and usher them to the promised land. Somewhere in this month, fans stop booing and demanding heads on platters and begin actively cheering against their beloved team; however, just as fans are giving up hope of a playoff spot, the Toronto Maple Leafs get their act together and, inspired by paper-bag-wearing fans and waffle tossing antics, begin stringing an impressive record.

April: The door into the playoffs begins shutting quickly, and much like an action movie hero, the Toronto Maple Leafs begin sprinting towards safety, ignoring the crumbling palace around them (yes, I’m imagining Indiana Jones, what of it?), or the hired goons shooting all around them (any Bond movie). It looks like a stretch, but maybe sliding under the door as it shuts, or the heroic dive away from an explosion’s sonic boom will finally get the team (and the action movie hero) to safety; however, much like in real life, the hero does not slide under the door in time as it bisects him, or the sonic boom liquefies his insides (don’t try it at home), and the Toronto Maple Leafs are left with four excellent months of giving Rory McIlroy a run for his money at Pro-Am tournaments, their middle-of-the-pack record good enough to almost get them into the playoffs, but not good enough to land them a draft lottery spot, ensuring continued mediocrity.

May: The endless finger-pointing and blame shifting game begins, as the Maple Leafs somehow wedge themselves into every Canadian analyst’s teleprompter. Lots of “they turn their xbox off” punchlines are heard at local sports bars, as well as ever-mounting speculation about who is on their way out, and who wants to play in Toronto, and who does not. Fans begin drooling at the idea of the major free agent wearing the blue and white.

June: The Stanley Cup is awarded! The draft lottery occurs, and the Maple Leafs get to select anywhere between 5th and 12th, while rampant speculation surrounding the GM trading up to get the hot 1st overall prospect, and what it would take for them to move up in the draft. Despite all the hope and speculation, nothing happens, and the new draft pick is selected at their intended spot.

July: Free agent frenzy! A couple surprising names are signed by the Maple Leafs, but none are the major players that fans had hoped to land. League revenue figures are released (best year yet!), which means that the Toronto Maple Leafs can afford to hike up their ticket prices by 3-5%. Great financial year, everyone.

August: Analysts begin breaking down the off-season moves, pre-preseason media hoopla begins. Fans are still hoping that the Toronto Blue Jays get into the playoffs, but their door is quickly shutting too, bringing us back to where we started.

 

Ever since the 2004-05 lockout, the pattern has been the same. The names and faces have changed, but the situation has not become any different whatsoever. Will the Toronto Maple Leafs break the cycle this season, or will they continue their brave march of testing their fans’ patience by getting increasingly close to a 50-year cup drought? Only time will tell, though one thing is for certain: come playoff time, we will reconvene and we shall see how far off the mark I was.

Pedro Rengel

Pedro Rengel

Originally hailing from the tropical paradise of Venezuela, I moved to Canada at age 11 for the sole reason of falling in love with hockey as a self-proclaimed Pittsburgh Penguins fan. Now a Canadian citizen, my mad love affair with hockey represents a statistical contribution as opposed to an anomaly. Being able to write this well despite having Spanish as a first language is enough of an anomaly (I'm occasionally biased).
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