On rebuilding

I read an article on general borschevsky’s Maple Leafs blog the other day that contained the following text at the bottom:

Brian Burke believes Mats Sundin is not interested in returning to Toronto. No one seems to mind. Despite the obvious need for a top line centre, despite the need for veteran leadership, despite the fact that this team is already better then last year’s team and that the playoffs are just a short win-streak away,…

As soon as I saw the line about “the playoffs are just a short win-streak away“, I cringed. I immediately commented on the article, saying that this is why many people think that Leafs fans are stupid. No matter how bad the team is, these die-hards always seem to think that if we just make the playoffs, the Cup is ours. Or that making the playoffs, even if you get swept in the first round, makes the season a success. I wrote a little while ago about delusional Leafs fans who think that every year is the year. I, on the other hand, have accepted the fact that this year’s Leafs are not a contending team, and are likely not even a playoff team. In the long run, this is probably good, in that they will get a higher draft choice, and Our Saviour will pick the next Sidney Crosby.

For the record, general borschevsky is neither delusional nor stupid. He responded to my comment, saying that making the playoffs may not mean a Cup victory, but it does mean that we’ll be watching the Leafs in the playoffs, and it’ll be exciting and entertaining. And for those of us not employed in the sports industry, that’s what sports is, isn’t it? Entertainment? This is a good point — neither Toronto nor Pittsburgh won the Cup last year, but I am quite sure that Pittsburgh fans enjoyed last year’s playoffs a lot more than Leafs fans did.

There are three reasons a team misses the playoffs:

  1. Your team sucks because you are rebuilding, and after a few years, you will be a contender.
  2. Your team sucks because you are rebuilding, but after a few years, you will still suck.
  3. Your team just sucks.

Of course, the difference between groups 1 and 2 can only be seen through hindsight. The Leafs have missed the playoffs three years in a row, and I think they were squarely in group 3 during that span. They were not rebuilding — you don’t trade away a prospect and a draft pick for Yanic Perrault if you’re rebuilding. But the Leafs are clearly rebuilding now, so if they miss the playoffs this year, it will be because they have moved to either group 1 or group 2 — only time will tell which one.

I have been a Leafs fan my whole life. In that time, I have never watched a Leaf game hoping that they lose. So why is it that I cringe when someone suggests the possibility that the Leafs might make the playoffs this year? Because I have managed to convince myself that in order to get good, the Leafs will have to suck for a while. I mean really suck. It’ll be a tough couple of years (or more), but if Our Saviour does what everyone seems to think he will do, the Leafs will be a really good team in four or five years. I know that there’s no guarantee (losing is a necessary but not sufficient condition for building a winning team), but I have some confidence, so I’m willing to put up with the sucky years, mainly because the only other option is stay mediocre-at-best for the rest of whatever. So I’ve convinced myself that the Leafs will suck for a few years but in the long run, this is a good thing. I’ve braced myself for the pain. Then someone says “the Leafs could make the playoffs!” and I realize that if that happens, the pain will likely still come, it’s just been postponed.

I love analogies. I’m not always good at coming up with them, but I love them. So here’s my analogy. Sorry if you’re reading this over lunch.

You went for dinner at the local greasy spoon and had the monster chili burger with onion rings and big piece of coconut cream pie. And a Diet Coke. Man, was that good. But a couple of hours later as you’re sitting down to watch the Leaf game, you realize that the Diet Coke just isn’t sitting well. Damn, shoulda had the chocolate shake. The discomfort turns to pain, and a few minutes later, you start to wonder if your dinner might, ahem, come back. Twenty agonizing minutes later, you’re now hoping it will come back, since that will likely make the pain stop. You make your way to the bathroom not looking forward to what’s about to happen, but ready for it. But when you get there, the bathroom door is locked — your roommate, who went for dinner with you, is in there already with similar issues. Do you bang on the door and thank your roommate for allowing you to put off the inevitable upchucking? No, because as unpleasant as it’s going to be, you know it’s necessary, and you’ve braced yourself for it.

Dumb analogy? Well, sure it is. Dinner is likely coming back up anyway, whether the bathroom door is locked or not, whereas the pain of not making the playoffs but not getting any better either can continue indefinitely. So here’s another one:

You’re in the dentist’s office getting a filling. The dentist is about to stick that four-foot needle in your mouth (and then wiggle it around just in case you can’t feel it). You grip the armrests, leaving visible dents that patients that use that chair the next day can still feel, bracing yourself for the most unpleasant part of any dentist visit. (Aside: I’ve had many fillings and four or five root canals and crowns, and for me, the needles are always the worst part.) Just before the dentist gives you the needle, he remembers something. “Oh, hold on” he says, puts the needle down, and starts fiddling with some other equipment. You breathe out, having been given a little reprieve. A minute later he picks the needle up again and says, “OK, I’m ready now”. You grip again, and again he says “Oh, wait a sec” and puts the needle down. Now say he keeps doing this, several times. First off, you might want to find a less forgetful dentist. Secondly, by the seventh time he does this, you’re ready to yell “Just give me the damn needle, will you?” Do you want the needle? No, but you know it’s necessary and you’ve braced yourself for it.

So when someone suggests that the Leafs might make the playoffs this year, I say no. Not because I want them to lose, but because they are rebuilding and they need to lose for a while in order to get better. It’s necessary, and I’ve braced myself for it.


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