Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Blue & White Rose of Toronto

The Toronto Maple Leafs' 2012 regular season campaign is winding down, and the reality of missing the playoffs for the eighth straight year can now can be deduced to nothing more than a simple mathematical law of inevitability. That’s why it is so soul destroying when you see it in the Toronto papers, usually around mid-March, the sports columnists all start wheel-barrowing out the math stats. In particular, the grotesque, all encompassing, dream crushing, boil-a-season-down-to-a-sentence summation, “There are X amount of games left, and the TML’s have to win X amount to make it into the 8th place.”

This is always the beginning of the end…

It isn’t as if we’re informed of this statistical gem at the twenty eighth game mark because, well, it isn’t cogent; there would be no perspective from which to make a sound judgement, too many variables at play. But when the Leaf’s are almost surely destined to miss out on the dance, when there is nary a niggling shadow of fear of cancelling mid-April tee times, the ride takes the next exit off Faith Freeway and onto Reality Road.

Such a shame, really, considering that only a little more than a month ago the TML’s were right there, reaching as high as sixth in the Eastern Conference, before inexplicably spiralling into oblivion. It’s not like the team was wiped out by a plane crash, yet they have crashed and burned nonetheless.

How cruel and unusual the punishment is to a faltering team in the realm of professional sports when there is no hope of post season drama, but a significant smattering of regular season games still left on the schedule. Essentially, there are two options: (1) Collectively tank so as to end up at the bottom of the standings and draft a potentially very good player, or (2) Keep on truckin’ and playing like it’s all on the line because, after all, isn’t that what’s owed to the sponsors and the fans? To play your best at all times? The goal of the GM or coach, always, and without fail, is to espouse the latter while subtlety implementing the former. You can’t just go ahead and take out the starting goalie and put in a rookie like Joe Shakeyknees now can you?

What makes this season all the more woeful is that this was not a rebuilding season. Burke and Co. have ostensibly iced a team that was supposed to make the playoffs. Note the lack of action taken during the recent trade deadline. On top of this failure, the Leaf’s have a nasty habit of foregoing rules number 1 & 2 altogether and winning like it’s going out of style when it can only do them harm because by finishing 9th and 10th the team will not acquire high draft picks. It’s an ironic quirk to the competitive rules of hockey where winning is not really winning, it’s, in fact, losing. It’s like Charlie Sheen circa 2011.

My gosh! To be a fly on the wall as the travel worn and sleep deprived Tim Connolly arrives at the Tampa airport and he gathers up his suitcase from the carousel and is whisked away in the team bus with his fellow sad sack team-mates to the local Hilton, before the utterly meaningless April 5th tilt against the Lightning, where he will get paid what you make in four months to almost surely score 0.0 goals and end up minus 2. The Horror…The Horror…

Of course I’ll be there to watch that game just like most of the others, if only to see if the Leaf’s can play the spoiler role and ruin some other teams chance at the playoffs. Misery loves company.

This futile end to the regular season calls to mind the analogy of match play in golf. One full point is awarded to the winner of a hole, and half a point if they tie. The end of the match is merciful…If Player A is winning by more holes than there are holes left to play for Player B to catch Player A, then the match is over, and Players A & B shake hands and go their separate ways. If only it were that simple in the NHL--the Leaf’s could be golfing already! In hockey all the hand shaking comes at the end of a best-of-seven playoff series, bearded and bloodied warriors lining up at centre ice and squelching series’ long beefs that have festered for the last six games. The only hand shaking the Leaf’s will be doing this spring are when they’re introduced to the girlfriend’s parents.

Mathematics renders a team’s quest for glory so starkly as if it was written in our favourite players’ blood on the wall in front of us. It is a requiem for a dream. Sports like hockey are the longest running reality shows that t.v. has to offer. What is served up to fans is the hope, the illusion, no matter how improbable, that their team can achieve greatness in any given season, any given game.

As I write this, the TML’s are at a this crucial threshold where they have to gobble up all the remaining points, like a blue whale feasting on plankton, to make it into the last available playoff spot. The tipping point where meaning becomes nonsense. Win every game and nothing less. Such is their insurmountable task. It’s somewhat odd that 8th place is deified as the holy grail in Toronto. Or rather, it’s quite telling about how low our expectations have become of the team over recent years. It’s Psych 101: Don’t get our hopes up too much because the disappointment and damage to our self-worth will be too severe when the hammer falls. If we keep reasonable goals we have a better chance of meeting them and therefore be satisfied with our lot. In this regard, 8th place is the goal, our lot. And Lord knows I would stick a Molotov cocktail inside a cop car’s gas tank if the Leaf’s made 8th. Yonge and Bloor would look like downtown Syria. And the Lord also knows that as I sat in a jail cell awaiting my face time with a judge because some jerk off with a smart phone posted my picture on Facebook, I’d read in the jail copy of the Sun that Boston beat the ever-living shit out of them. Swept. Four and done. Tee it high and let it fly, boys.

As a die hard Leaf fan who bleeds blue and white (oh how I bleed!) my only recourse is to smile fondly on the ghosts of past glories. My televisual memories of Wendel Clark and Dougie Gilmour are too remote to recall at will with any clarity, I was too young, and didn’t watch many games. I was more interested in playing rather than watching, so my warm and fuzzy Leaf memories reside mainly in the Sundin years when I really started to develop a serious interest in the fortune‘s of the team. Plus I could legally drink in bars.

Sundin doesn’t get enough credit in Toronto for his achievements. I will always be able to warm my hands in the glow of Sundin’s Swedish smile. Can you recall any man in recent NHL history that seemed more genuinely happy than Mats Sundin when he put the puck in the back of the net and raised his arms to the rafters where his banner now hangs? It was like he won Lotto 649 every time he potted a goal. The man didn’t have much to work with during his tenure, in terms of fire-power to play off of, so it makes it all the more poignant that he holds the most points, goals, etc., of any Leaf. Ever. If he was from Dundalk he would almost certainly be the most revered Leaf of all time; Don Cherry would surely agree with that. Or perhaps it was Mats’ demeanour that prevents him from being remembered as the best. He wasn’t really suited for the fishbowl that is pro hockey in Toronto. He was a simple guy, not in an unintelligent sense but a man who wasn’t prone to hyperbolic rants. Sundin was a classy, polite to a fault, not a great sound-bite, offering the most standard of sports clich├ęs in interviews, but you could kind of tell that he was an honest and good man who preferred to leave his statements on the ice. You wouldn’t catch Sundin at an L.A. nightclub after playing the Kings, at some Hollywood hot spot, dancing provocatively with some unidentified blonde then allegedly punching her in the face.

You want an important stat: Most overtime goals: Mats is tied with Sergei Fedorov, Patrick Elias, and another childhood hero of mine, Jaromir Jagr, at fifteen. When the pressure of success is at a fever pitch, these men deliver, like winning a crucial immunity challenge on Survivor. There’s just no denying that Mats is a true sports hero in the purest sense.

Aside from his deft hockey skills, I greatly admire him because he’s bald. As a man with a growing forehead myself, it always bolsters my spirit a notch or two when a bald man is extremely successful. Makes the rest of us look good. It’s a pleasant reminder that bald men are not athletically inferior to fully haired ones. Agassi, anyone (post hairpiece, of course)? One only has to look at perhaps Sundin’s most heroic accomplishment as a Leaf to be convinced of his superior prowess: Those playoff series against Ottawa in the early aught’s, when it really counted, and without fail, Sundin carried the vastly inferior Leaf’s to victory. I mean, during the regular season the Sens would beat up on them like they were the Marlies. The kinds of games where you turn it off half way through because the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The death of a hockey game. But come playoff time it was like the captain was out to lunch and the sailors had taken over the ship. Under the direction of Sundin the script was rewritten. Those were some glorious series and they’ll have to serve as the zenith of my Leafdom memories.

After the Leaf’s beat the Sens in game seven of the ’02 playoffs there was an impromptu parade down Main St. in Brampton. I walked out of the bar, fully loaded, with a carload of friends into the clear warm night. I was consumed by the energy of the crowd the way one is when alcohol and adrenalin are doing a dry cycle inside the gut. The hum of incessant honking and chanting--Go Leaf’s Go! Go Leaf’s Go!--was all around us. People stopped speaking a language…communication was reduced to an easy, repetitive rhythm. Policemen were directing traffic. It was a peaceful gathering, no matter how rowdy, but the police didn’t seem prepared for it, didn’t expect the eruption of passione that swelled like a tsunami wave from Toronto and crashed into the suburbs. If the situation got just a little more out of hand, if storefronts were smashed, the police would have been ill-equipped to deal with the madness. In a dream it would have been a mini G20 debacle…with one small difference: The Leaf’s, all sweaty and heroic, would arrive on Main St. riding white horses, the clompity-clomp of the beasts shaking the ashphalt below us. The galloping Leaf's, led by Sundin, still wearing their game jerseys, would lance all the cops with the butt end of their hockey sticks and join in on the looting. And the crowd goes wild!

But it was a celebration that was content in and of itself, and somehow all the booze and energy didn’t spill over into violence. All it takes is a spark and this could have become post 7th game Vancouver. But I suppose that would be too embarrassing for us, for Brampton as a city to riot that exuberantly, after all, it was only the quarter-finals. And this was only Brampton, the City of Flowers.

I was quite drunk, with a mind for adventure, and as we crawled along in a jam on Main St. I decided to exit out of the passenger door and run down the white line, in between the two stalled lanes of southbound traffic, and high five all willing participants, like I was the Ultimate Warrior running up the ramp towards the ring, arms outstretched to slap the palms of fans on both sides of the partition. I was impenetrable. Immortal. This is what the Gods must feel like when their team wins the Eastern Conference Quarter Finals. Brampton was unified. Most cops joined in with a pumping fist when a gaggle of people walked by mid-chant. Differences of class and race were briefly cast aside. White, Black, and Indian people were all White and Blue on this night. After at least one hundred high fives I doubled back and re-entered the car, which had barely moved since I did my whole price-is-right-contestant routine. Madeleine, the driver had a look of dismay that was wholly contemptuous of the male species. Mouth agape in horror, witnessing behaviour she thought previously impossible. She must have went home and reorganized her whole outlook on the capabilities of men. I could already see the textbook behind her eyes beginning to hastily incorporate new facts for a revised edition.

Now I don’t want to get caught up sentimentalizing the past, but the future hasn’t offered up much. Hey, I enjoy watching Phil Kessel race down the wing, using his other-worldly speed and snap a wrister in off the post--ding!--top cheese, as much as the next fan, but the heart is slow to catch up. Maybe it’s just an overall lack of grit, or truculence as Burke would put it, that the current team lacks. It’s like they don’t want it badly enough, and it’s puzzling. Dougie Gilmour could have been stranded on a desert island in the Pacific for a week after a plane crash, eating washed up first class dog food to survive, and then after being rescued he would definitely suit up for Hockey Night in Canada. He would shit out the dog food and get a steak and potatoes meal, a fresh shave, and tie up his skates. I can’t see Kessel doing that…maybe Schenn would, but he has to. I know he’s not paid to score goals but, man, it’s like he’s allergic to putting the puck into the net. Schenn even gets this annoying, goofy look on his face after he scores, like “Huh-huh, that wasn’t ‘pposed to happen.” Not a good look, kid.

Never mind that the once tall and mighty TML’s haven’t won a Stanley Cup in the average lifespan of a Haitian grandfather. Since the lockout in 2004 the leafs, along with the high-flying Florida Panthers have been the only two teams to be locked out of the playoffs. By the way, there’s only three people in Florida who even know that. Can you imagine if that was the Yankees? Or the Dodgers? Or the Bruins? Or Tiger Woods (okay, he has an excuse for losing because he power-tooled a bunch of whores, and the fallout has been distracting for him) or the Red Wings? There would be bloody mayhem in the streets. Hordes of miscreants with balaclavas wrapped around their faces shattering storefronts and tipping cars. Has the current roster of the Leaf’s forgotten that this is war? The lack of urgency on the ice and the smugness of the players off of it is abhorrent. They should be embarrassed to show their faces on the streets, but since none of them are from Ontario their faces will surely be on other, faraway streets come this off season. They’re safe at last!

It is an abusive marriage, my fandom for the Leaf’s, and I’m stuck with them for better or worse, until death do us part. As a fan I cannot simply transfer allegiance to another team. Perhaps in social situations, on the most visible of surfaces, I could feign a love for another team, to stop an unwanted conversation before it starts, but it‘s not true romance. In my heart I would know. One longs for the safety of the arms of the familiar lover even though they pimp slap you repeatedly for over-cooking the roast. And the TML’s have beaten me silly over and over after promising to never do it again. But I won’t press charges. I’ll tell the cops that I ran into a door.

You’re not reading the notes of some fair-weather fan here. I stand up for my man. Come October I’ll be right there, ass firmly planted in my seat for the first game of the 2013-14 campaign, waiting with bated breath for the first puck drop of a gleaming new season, fresh with unlimited possibilities, and I’ll say, please, please, please, let me get what I want, Lord knows it would be the first time.

The blood of my rose will forever be blue and white. The team is rooted so deep into my subconscious that there is no untangling the knot. There is nothing to satiate the undying love I have for the team and I’ll continue to haphazardly cling to the hope for a brighter tomorrow until the day my life is extinguished, and my soul dissipates into the ether, and I become a translucent shadow of my former self, doing shots at the 4th Period Bar & Grill with Bill Barilko and Punch Imlach. Until that day I will keep company with these ghosts who are always babbling at the edge of our future dreams of glory. The bar, I’m told, doesn’t have Leafs TV.

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