ANOTHER LOST SEASON
The bottom has fallen out again on a regular season once full of promise, breathing new life into Toronto?s firmly entrenched ineptitude meme
Mercifully, January has come to a screeching halt, but not many Leaf fans should be celebrating that fact because when they survey the damage wrought over the 31 days that came and went in that dreadful month, they?ll see that the lights have effectively gone out on yet another season. After losing 12 of 13 games in January, any flicker of hope has surely been extinguished and the best the team can do now is look forward to next season.
But the 2015 flame-out is hardly unique and after witnessing a litany of comparable debacles over the years, it has dawned on me that you have to look deeper to find the true source of the problem. Whether it?s a structural problem caused by organizational dysfunction or something perhaps rooted in superstition, Toronto teams seem to have an inexplicable habit of letting their seasons sputter out of control before going full-bore FUBAR in a short span of time.
The Leafs have demonstrated on repeated occasions in recent years how a season can unravel in short order and how a team can go from the league?s elite ranks to taking itself out of contention altogether. In March of last year, the Leafs dropped 9 of 10 games to fall out of the race and in February 2012 they played their way out of the playoffs by losing 10 of 11. It takes a lot of skill to be that bad. And of course, as mentioned above, the 2014-2015 campaign is deader than the career of Seinfeld?s Kramer. Not even a prolonged winning streak by the Leafs combined with an extended losing streak by every team in the Eastern Conference could salvage this lost season. Any positives that emerge at this point will be chalked up as just a Pyrrhic victory as the playoffs will start in April predictably enough without the league?s wealthiest franchise.
Much is said and written about the Leafs? penchant for failing so miserably and so spectacularly, but I feel that pundits have been drawing the wrong conclusions: it?s not that the Leafs suck; it?s that there are forces at work beyond the on-ice product which have combined to make the prospects of seeing winning hockey in Toronto futile. The Leafs have obviously had their problems trying to put together a winning team, but to a lesser degree, so have the Raptors and even the Blue Jays, who produced this city?s last championship 22 years ago. But the problem as it appears today is that the Leafs have fallen so far, that just getting back to respectability ? let alone achieving glory ? poses Herculean challenges. Winning a Cup is indeed a lot to ask for in a league composed of 30 teams, but playing hockey in April more than once a decade should not be. Yet it remains a mission akin to squaring a circle in Toronto town. Missing the playoffs has become a staple of not just the Leafs? fortunes but indeed the entire Toronto sports scene of late. A losing culture is now so firmly entrenched that fixing the current mess ? or more precisely, an accumulation of many decades of messes ? would require the front-office equivalent of splitting the atom.
To do so, the Leafs would have to overcome a history of futility and the curse that has beset this franchise. If more evidence were needed that a curse hangs over the Toronto Maple Leafs, consider the curious case of Brandon Kozun. His is just one example that a curse might well be afoot in T.O. or, at the very least, should not be dismissed when attempting to explain the Leafs? half-century dryspell. A rookie player, Kozun made the team out of camp for the start of the 2014-2015 season and made the ballsy decision to don #67 on his jersey. In Toronto hockey circles, the number ?67? has weighty overtones ? it is the year the Leafs last captured the holy grail ? and is invoked derisively by detractors to draw attention to the longest Stanley Cup drought in NHL history. Unfazed by history, Kozun remained defiant and would skate with ?67? on his back. In only his fifth game as a Leaf, the rookie suffered a serious ankle injury when he went into the end boards quite hard and went straight to the IR. Since then, he has played just 5:48 of hockey and, after a promising start, has registered only one point this season.
Granted, we should be above discussing superstitions as the explanation for a team?s success or lack thereof. Any acknowledgement of such carries with it a slight whiff of bending to unenlightened times, recalling a dark time when reading the entrails of sacrificed animals trumped reason. As people get more desperate, people get less rational and Leaf fans are both desperate and increasingly and justifiably losing their minds. So the superstition angle might be worth examining. How else can the Leafs? third period collapse in Game 7 against the Bruins in 2013 be explained ? Or Jonathan Bernier?s flub on a harmless shot against the Coyotes from the opposite blue line which turned the game and prolonged the losing streak.
Let me distill this down to its bare essence: the Leafs are hardly a paragon of sports greatness, to be polite. As they approach their 100th anniversary season, everyone knows that a Cupless half century has blotted a once-proud history, making the Leafs so hapless that drawing parallels with the Chicago Cubs ? baseball?s perennial losers ? cannot be far behind. Falling dramatically short of the ultimate goal for this long will have that kind of effect. It behooves me and gives me great comfort to point out that the Cubs? record over the last 100+ years is actually more abominable than the Leafs?, as their World Series drought has continued since 1908 with no end in sight. This nugget may offer safe haven to some Leaf fans, but hardly absolves the Leafs? performance over the last five decades.
Some other troubling factors have contributed to making the climate around not just the Leafs but all Toronto sports teams difficult to say the least, if not an outright minefield. One is the fans and the other the media. Fans have not helped in the least. They are an odd lot to peg. They run the gamut from unhinged to overexuberant to comfy and well off to detached. Often they exhibit the maturity of 16-year old girls at a Backstreet Boys concert. Tie Domi sold a lot of jerseys, but the fan favourite did not help the Leafs win very many hockey games. The swells fill the silver seats at the ACC, that is, when they?re not at the sushi bars downstairs kibitzing and exchanging business cards. To them, an evening spent at a hockey game is a pleasant experience win or lose. And that?s part of the problem. Too many fans are happy to just sit there and look on without registering their displeasure and just end up tolerating losing.
The predatory media is another good reason why Toronto sports teams, particularly the Leafs, are destined to fail year after year. Controversy is sought by writers who love picking fights, exploiting any differences between teammates or between players and coaches. We see reports where conjecture and disputed citations are taken and treated as fact, where very specific hockey-related criticism is being dished out in vivid detail by people who have never played the game, where every move and non-move in a game is questioned and micro-scrutinized, where nonsense narratives flourish, and where reporters eager to make a name for themselves constantly hound and bait players into saying something unmeasured or reacting in a way that could only spawn more coverage of the reaction.
The rancor directed at players on teams good and bad is a reflection of a sinister strain of reporting that takes pride in tearing players down and concocting controversies that are non-existent. This phenomenon is obviously not unique to Toronto as it surely exists in other cities and markets too, but it strikes me that few places have as many media-manufactured crises, nontroversies if you will, than right here in Toronto. Overanalyzing players? ice times, line demotions, minutes elapsed since their last goal, etc., can make for an uphill climb for those trying to do more than merely persevere but indeed thrive in the fish bowl.
If you need more proof that this city eats its own, consider some of the talking heads who make grand pronouncements when the Leafs are surging only to forget they ever made them in true drive-by fashion as they start singing a completely different tune when the team hits the skids. I can remember hearing FAN590?s Andrew Walker?s cocksure delivery on the radio as he explained just a month ago that the Leafs are a shoo-in to at least make the playoffs because they?re rolling four quality lines night after night, pointing to a recent game when all four lines tallied at least one goal. Unfamiliar with shame, the peaks and valleys that all teams experience, and most importantly, the Leafs? history, Walker conveniently forgot he made these assertions when the Leafs started to self-implode only a couple of weeks later. Walker is from Alberta so it?s not surprising that he doesn?t understand the Toronto sports landscape as well as he should.
In fact, his flawed predictions reveal how pointless sports predictions are and how few people are prescient and forward-looking enough to see around a corner before an event actually happens. Pundits are often pompous blowhards and notoriously wrong, but in this city there are so many of them and their megaphones are so loud that they are difficult to ignore. Media turncoats are not in short supply especially in Toronto as they exalt a team when it rises in the standings and spew doomsday prophecies when the team is no longer winning. When their predictions fall apart, they just move on and act as though they never made them and go digging after the next story. Today, Walker and others have joined the long chorus of talking heads who giddily partake in the satisfaction derived from piling on a losing team.
None of this bodes particularly well for real fans who don?t have too many more years to devote to cheering in vain.