Thursday, February 19, 2009

The agony of being a Toronto Maple Leaf fan

It’s not easy being a Maple Leaf fan. We are loathed and ridiculed right across Canada. Each season we hope the team exceeds expectations but most years they disappoint us by underachieving. Some years it’s like a car crash – horrible to watch but you can’t seem to stop looking.

The organization has rarely provided fans with value for their money – or their loyalty. Let’s face it Harold Ballard sucked dollars out of the pockets of fans without putting a cent into the product on the ice. This practice has been continued by subsequent owners though not quite as blatantly. In recent years the organization has been much more aware of their image and concerned that future fans may gravitate to other sports. This year’s Fans First Game was an attempt to repay fans loyalty. The Maple Leafs have the highest ticket prices in the NHL and have had operating profits as high as 40%. No wonder the rest of the country laughs at us.

And let’s not forget the darker moments that Leaf fans have had to put up with. The Gardens sex scandal where star-struck boys were molested by Gardens employees. There have been ticket-scalping scandals. The circumstances that surrounded the departure of former captains Dave Keon and Darryl Sittler stung fans as much as the players. And how about the history of hiring incompetent managers and coaches. We have had to put up with a lot.

There are three groups of Leaf fans: Purple Koolaid Fans, Broken Ankle Fans and the Leaf Hating Fans. It’s hard to estimate the size of each group or which is the largest. The first group is the loudest but the second group may be larger.

Purple Koolaid Fans

These fans have never met anyone wearing blue and white that they didn’t like. They will find positive in every player and can elevate marginal players to star status (eg., Tie Domi). They call into radio call-in shows to debate the future of the team on a daily basis. They will form impromptu parades on Yonge Street following each Leaf playoff win (yeah there hasn’t been one of these in a while). Every dark cloud has a silver lining. Early this season following a modest win streak I heard one of them declare on the radio that the Leafs had turned the corner and would not only make the playoffs but be a Cup contender. This despite the fact that management had advised fans to be patient and that a rebuild would take several years.

Broken Ankle Fans

As the name suggests this is the group of fans that tend to jump on and off the bandwagon. Every sports team has them. They support the team when it is doing well and disappear when things go bad. The Maple Leaf version can reappear even after one big win. Though most of this season they have remained below the radar for obvious reasons. They can be confused with the Purple Koolaid group when the Leafs are doing well and are inclined to join those victory parades during the playoffs. But when things are not going well they may not just disappear but can be quite vocal. The fans who booed and razzed rookie goalie, Justin Pogge after giving up some soft goals this week are Broken Ankle Fans. When they turn on a player (Andrew Raycroft) they can be tough on them but they also can be won back (Nik Antropov). They were the first to support a rebuild a year ago but now are complaining about how bad the team is.

Leaf Hating Fans

This interesting group of fans claim to hate the Toronto Maple Leafs. They will also claim to enjoy watching the Leafs lose and that they support other teams. Most are in denial but who can blame them. They carry around 42 years of frustration and disappointment. Now I know people who have been Hab fans or Flyer fans their entire life. They do not fall into this group because they actually aren’t Leaf fans. Because the Leafs have had so little success over the past few decades, many people are convinced that these fans actually do not like the Leafs. However, during those few seasons when the Leafs appear to be contenders (eg., 1992-93 season) they eventually come around. The problem is that the Leafs eventually slip back into mediocrity and they go back to “hating” the team.