I am at a crossroads, considering making one of the most critical decisions of my life. Do I stay the course, continuing something I’ve done for many years and that I’m comfortable with, or have I had enough of the status quo? Am I ready to make the life-altering decision that will have lifelong consequences for me and my children?
I’m talking, of course, about my allegiance with the Toronto Maple Leafs and my position of “lifelong fan”. I’ve been a Leafs fan as long as I can remember, having been brought up in Toronto. I remember watching Leaf games as a kid with my dad and saying dumb things like “Wow, if that guy was a Maple Leaf, we would have scored!” when the opposing goalie passed the puck to one of his defensemen. I weathered the storm in the 70’s when the team sucked, though I don’t remember most of it. I was there in the 80’s when the team sucked; I even coloured my hair blue during the playoffs one year (when all my friends said they were going to do it too and then chickened out — not that I’m still bitter about that). I was there in the 90’s and 2000’s when the team didn’t suck as bad most of the time, and I’ve been there the last two years when the team sucked. But over the last couple of years, as I pay more and more attention to the team (thanks to listening to sports radio during my commute every day), I grow more and more frustrated with the way the team is run:
- John Ferguson has done a lousy job of building the team into a winner, and they just resigned him to a long-term contract.
- Nik Antropov was supposed to be a top prospect, but has been a total bust. After six full seasons and part of another, he’s certainly had enough time to make the most of his supposed potential, but simply hasn’t, and yet they just resigned him as well.
- They signed Bryan McCabe to an insanely large contract, with a no-trade clause — he’s a good offensive defenseman, but is not that great defensively, and certainly doesn’t deserve to be paid as if he is among the upper echelon of
- For years, the Leafs would sign past-their-prime players and pay them as if they were still in their prime. (One notable exception is Eric Lindros, who was definitely past his prime, but they didn’t pay him a ton.) The only reason they don’t still do this is the salary cap. Even if they didn’t pay them big bucks, they’d trade away prospects and draft picks to get them. They are still doing this (see Yanic Perreault last year).
MLSE is making money hand over fist on the Leafs, and it has been projected in the media a number of times that if the Leafs ever did win the Stanley Cup, public interest in the team might actually drop in subsequent years (I’ve heard the same thing about the Chicago Cubs, though it didn’t seem to happen when the Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series). So MLSE has no real incentive to put in the effort to win the Cup, and it’s been painfully obvious that they have no particular interest in doing so. Hence the hiring of a inexperienced (i.e. cheap) GM that they can control. This would explain the signing of popular players to rich contracts, rather than trying to sign players that might actually help the team win. Tie Domi and the aforementioned McCabe come immediately to mind. (Though the Antropov signing puzzles me, since he’s neither useful nor popular.)
They just resigned the very popular Mats Sundin to a one-year deal, which I don’t have a huge problem with. I wouldn’t have been too disappointed, however, if they had decided not to resign him, as long as they used that money to sign young players with some upside, rather than doing something stupid like signing Alexei Yashin. I’ve heard rumours on the radio that the Leafs are interested in signing Yashin, and I cannot imagine a dumber move for the Leafs than signing him, unless they get him for some bargain-basement price and have the ability to trade him or send him to the minors at any time.
Anyway, back to MLSE, which also owns the Toronto Raptors. However, the way they handle that team is vastly different than the way they handle the Leafs. MLSE paid big bucks to hire a stud GM for the Raptors, and make that team into a winner. This makes sense — the Raptors have been around for less than 15 years and to a large extent, they’re still trying to create a long-term fan base. If the Raps suck for years and years, it’s logical to think that interest will decrease, so they want to make that team into a winner to keep the fans interested. MLSE is a business, attempting to make a profit, nothing more. If winning a Stanley Cup will significantly increase that profit, then that’s what they’ll try to do, but it won’t. But Toronto fans have shown for 40 years that they will pay to watch the Leafs and buy jerseys and stuff even if the team doesn’t win, so why bother paying for a stud GM or putting in any significant work to help the team win when there’s no significant financial advantage to doing so?
I lived in Ottawa in 1993 when Ottawa was awarded an expansion franchise, and I’ve had a soft spot for the Senators ever since. But Senators coverage on the local TV and radio stations is minimal unless they’re playing the Leafs (or in the Cup finals), so I’d have to work pretty hard at being a die-hard Sens fan. Now, along comes Jim Balsillie, attempting to be my saviour.
If Balsillie moves the Nashville Predators to Hamilton or Kitchener-Waterloo, my prayers are answered. Balsillie isn’t buying the team to make money — he’s a hockey fan, so he (presumably) wants to win a Cup, which means he might be willing to do whatever is necessary to accomplish that goal, which MLSE is not. I’ll have a local team to cheer for that might actually be interested in winning, and actually has the talent to do so. Tickets for games might be easier (i.e. possible) to get, and I won’t have to take out a second mortgage to go to a couple of games. Copps Coliseum is less than 15km from my house, so if they play there for a year or two while they build an arena in Waterloo (where I work), that would be perfect.
I’m sure I will always be a Leaf fan to some extent, especially if the Predators don’t move to southern Ontario. But until Leaf ownership changes their tune and actually tries to put a winning team on the ice, my passion for the Leafs will wane.
Update: Just thought of a cool song lyric that I should have used as the title of this post: “We said our love would last forever, so how did it come to this bitter end?” from “Kayleigh” by Marillion.