A fan, sometimes also called aficionado or supporter, is a person who is enthusiastically devoted to something, such as a band, sports team, a book or entertainer. Collectively, fans of a particular thing or person constitute its’ fan base or fandom. It’s thought to be derived from a shortened version of the word fanatic, introduced into the english language around 1550, meaning “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion.” Well if anything can describe that of a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, that’s certainly it. This also includes the word patience which might be added as well.
Since the year 1967 or post expansion, the failure of the Leafs, have far outweighed the successes. From the bumbling ways of Harold Ballard to the cheap ways of the Teachers Pension Fund it hasn’t been a pleasant ride.
A “Leaf Mad” city like Toronto is not an easy place to play. The pressure to win in a city like Toronto only intensifies as the years of failure continue to mount.
So how much influence does a GM feel from a fan base so starved for a winner? Let’s say for argument sake that the media can have an influence on decisions centered on the hockey club. This being the case, it can only spread to the fan base with the constant coverage allotted to the team. Players like Larry Murphy have been booed out of town, while average “plodders” like Brad Smith receive superstar treatment. Right or wrong, Toronto fans have been called “Leaf Fans” first and not fans of the game. What a crock! You think a Red Sox fan cares if the Yankees or anyone else for that matter wins the World Series if they don’t win it? Would a Steeler fan cheer the Bills to win the Super bowl? Can you imgine a Michigan supporter rooting for the “Irish” to win a National Championship in anything? Not likely.
It’s certainly not a coincidence that “trade rumours” circulate throughout the media on a regular occurance. The reaction of the fans can determine the likelihood of a trade coming to frutition or not. This might seem unlikely but remember a GM is human, he has a family, wants to be successful and most important, wants to remain employed.
Toronto receives unfair criticism as a place to play. It’s a city frustrated by a lack of winning with a team that’s held in such high regard by its legion of followers.
I will be challenged on this, but here goes. The hockey experts refer to Montreal and Detroit as the mecca of hockey fans. Disagree. When Montreal was winning in the 70’s, tickets were still accessible. Detroit during the lean years, played in front of a half filled building. This has never been the case in Toronto. Even when the team has had some mild success, tickets were non-existent. You cannot travel anywhere in the hockey universe and not find supporters donning the blue and white. So as a player it becomes the “half full, half empty” scenario, that if its this crazy with the team not winning, what could it possibly be like if the team ever wins? But I digress, so let’s get back to the influences on the GM.
When a team wins a GM can make a move and never be questioned by the fans or the media. Punch Imlach was very close to the media and was rarely criticized. And why not. The team was winning. During the 65-66 season with both Bower and Sawchuk hurt, he used rookie goalie Al Smith instead of experienced minor league goalie Bob Perreault from the Rochester Americans. It was later learned that Imlach had a financial interest in the AHL club. It has also been suggested that a number of trades Imlach made, benefitted the minor team more than the Leafs.
John Ferguson Jr. trades for Owen Nolan, a former first overall pick, to give the Leafs a much-needed physical presence up front. The cost was high. Alyn McCauley, Brad Boyes and a first round pick. The press and fans were estatic. This was the missing piece to push the Leafs to the next level, The Stanley Cup.
I arrived at the ACC for Nolan’s first game and the rink was buzzing with anticipation. I noticed at least a dozen Nolan jerseys on fans backs. Nolan didn’t disappoint. As advertised, he drove the net, played physical and scored. The two chaps in front of me bought Nolan jerseys between the first intermissions. Injuries and minor setbacks limited Nolans play with the Leafs and in the end it didn’t work out. And guess who took the blame? Was it Fergusons fault Nolan was bad on the ice and in the room as well?
Brian Leetch and Ron Francis both HOFers and Stanley Cup winners, after brief stays in Toronto, couldn’t play under the constant spotlight and moved on. Leetch played most of his career in New York and couldn’t take the pressure in Toronto? Most sports teams, the fans cheer with there wallets. Win and they show up; lose and they stay home.
In a city like Toronto the difference is that the fans continue to show up, but express the frustration of losing through their vocal chords. The media jumps on the shortcomings. Talk radio lines light up with all the solutions, “Whats wrong with this Ferguson, Andy?” “What do you mean Mike from Toronto?” asks Andy Frost the radio talk show host. “Like well umm Andy why doesn’t he trade someone, like why can’t we get a Crosby or Malkin, give em a couple 2nd round picks, a couple guys from Marlies, throw in Mike Eastwood and Jonas Hoglund?”
We can all see that life as a Leaf fan, is not easy. It’s not a surprise that players and management alike become quite prosperous with other organizations after leaving Toronto.
The plight of the Leafs is not lost on all the other teams in the NHL. The pressure or desperation to win is so intense that the phones at the ACC rarely stop ringing. Like vultures ready to pounce on dead prey, GM’s are forever trying to catch the Leafs in a weak moment. Knowing full well a spotting of anyone representing another team will circulate through the media and into the fan-base instantly, that it’s no wonder the ACC always seems to have numerous out of town guests.
The simple explanation for the Leaf problem is a combination of poor management, weak execution, poor player development and lack of organizational patience. This in turn has a domino effect on everyone from the owners, players, media and finally the fans.
We all in our own small way can feel partially responsible for the lack of success. You ask yourself how we as fans can take some of the blame? Well when Cliff Fletcher had Wayne Gretzky lined up to come to Toronto, late in his career but still very capable, Stavros turned him down. Why? “The building is full already, why do I need to spend all that money on Gretzky?”