What is it With the Leafs?

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Growing up in the 60’s, the Leafs didn’t have a lot of competition for fan appeal. The Toronto Argonauts of the CFL and the Toronto Maple Leaf minor league baseball team were the other choices. The Leaf ball team folded, so the Argos was the only other pro team.

The Argos became the lovable losers of the Toronto sports scene. They hadn’t won a Grey Cup since 1952 yet Exhibition Stadium was full for home games. Never mind they didn’t win; the Argos couldn’t play above 500. It didn’t matter to the fans that would flock to the beer gardens in the stadium and all the surrounding venues for the pre game rituals. Remember the Nobitt Tavern? Keep in mind also Toronto sports venues were still alcohol free. Mind you I think if you didn’t have a mickey of rye or rum hidden in your pants, the security guards wouldn’t let you in.

I wondered for years if the love affair was more with the team or how they would find a way to lose another game. Regardless, it still all added to the electric atmosphere and made an Argo game a tough ticket to get.

The mock cheer “AAAARRRRGGGOOOSSS” became synonymous with a losing team. Often a frustrated fan would scream that out as his team played poorly. It was heard even at Buffalo Bills games and the Leafs as well.

Then something strange happened. They started to win. The love affair grew stronger and finally after losing the 1982 Grey Cup to Edmonton, the Argos won it all in 1983. The city went crazy. Thousands of fans emptied on to Yonge Street and celebrated all night. The victory parade drew hundreds of thousands.

Almost as quickly as the teams fan appeal reached the pinnacle, it has since faded. Yes they have won a few times in between but the Argos are now a struggling franchise with very little interest.

The Toronto Blue Jays became a novelty from inception in 1977. After 5 years the affection faded. 1984 came along and it started again. The Detroit Tigers were the toast of baseball with the 35-5 start. They only had to play 500 the rest of the way to win. Not only did they do that but won the World Series as well. Jay fans will point out that the best team in all of baseball after the 40 game mark was Toronto. The next nine years the Jays could do no wrong. The grand finale was the back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-93. Since that time the team and fan base has shrunk considerably.

The Raptors although still fairly young became the darlings of the town until Vince Carters missed three in Philadelphia. They have struggled as a franchise since.

The Buffalo Bills became the adopted team of Toronto during their Super Bowl run of four consecutive appearances in the early 1990’s.
They too have become an after thought and recent games in Toronto failed miserably.

I know there are a lot of mitigating factors involving all these teams. The Internet, more TV coverage, kids more active, families travel more, etc. I get it.

Why does this not affect the Toronto Maple Leafs then?
From 1930’s through the last championship in 1967, the Leafs were a factor every decade except the 1950’s. Even then, people didn’t love them any less.

Expansion came along after the last Stanley Cup in 1967 and things haven’t been the same since. No longer did the Leafs have exclusive territorial rights. The talent pool became much smaller and the Leafs were exposed for what they had become. This shows that when Conn Symthe sold his interest in the team, they have been a disgrace. Ownership was awful and at times comical. The depth in the organization clearly showed a lack of quality scouting and drafting. The coaching and talent on the ice was below NHL standards. Now is it fair to blame the coaches and players?

Winning and losing starts at the top. We as fans while sympathetic to the coaches and players, should demand more from ownership and they need to be held accountable. We as fans should hurt these guys were it hurts the most. The wallet. But do we?

Not on your life. In fact the Leafs are more popular today in 2014 than they ever have been.

There is now the passing of history from generation to generation, along with the advancement of technology like the Internet, video games (NHL 2014) and easy access to live games. So combine the new young legion of fans with the older and what you have is a huge fan base. Somehow none of these metrics apply to any of the other teams in Toronto. In fact it really should be the opposite.

While on a safari in Africa recently, I came across a young native wearing a Leaf jersey. I’ve spotted the Leaf jersey, t-shirt or hat in the most unusual and far away places over the years. The highlight had to be three years ago in the old city of Jerusalem, Israel. While locating the Stations of the Cross (I’m not religious, just fascinated with the history) I happened across a vendor selling t-shirts. You must understand there are hundreds of these kiosks throughout the city, taking a quick glance I thought I spotted the Leaf crest. Upon further investigation it was in deed the Leaf crest with Toronto Maple Leafs written in Hebrew.

Whenever I wear a Leaf hat or t-shirt, someone will make a comment. They aren’t always kind or friendly but nonetheless.

Leaf tickets still command a premium and the waiting list for season tickets never seems to get smaller.

Something about the colours, the name or the history that give the older fans memories and the new generation hope.

I myself will never boo the team when they play bad. I refuse to listen to a joke or a negative cartoon. I won’t read negative press or listen to criticism about the team.

What really mystifies me is the broad appeal of love for the team, with such little reward the past 40 years.

One thing I do know however, is be prepared for the day they do win. You think “Leaf Nation” is widespread now, as BTO once wrote “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”