Let me start off by stating that I don’t hate Toronto. There are things I don’t like about it (our crack smoking mayor, the transit system, transportation in general), but overall it’s a pretty great place to live. Barring a major job offer (what’s that, you want me to move to LA to host a sports show with Magic? Done.), I will likely spend the rest of my life here.
My relationship with the sports teams of the city is a bit more complicated. I’m partial to the Raptors, but their continued inability to establish an identity or any measurable level of talent makes them hard to love; I’m still holding out hope on that front. Like many Toronto natives, I was in love with the Blue Jays in the early 90’s, but the lockout soured me a bit on baseball. I still go to a few games a year, and I was hopeful they would field a competitive team this year, but no luck. My life moves on. I’ve actually been to an Argonauts game and I’m aware they won the Grey Cup last year, which pretty much makes me a fanatic for this B-league football team in a city that yearns to get the Bills.
Where things get sticky is for the team that really matters in Toronto: the Maple Leafs. For some reason, the Leafs have never clicked with me. Unlike my peers, the early 90’s Gilmour glory days didn’t persuade me to jump on that bandwagon. Perhaps it’s because my Dad was a Montreal fan. I can’t prove it, but he may have been brainwashing me at an early age to dislike the Leafs.
The first jersey I owned was a Penguins jersey in honour of Mario Lemieux. I can’t say I really remember watching him play at his absolute peak, but I knew enough to know he was great. I was interested in the Detroit Red Wings for a while, mostly due to Steve Yzerman, but the late 1990’s Cup runs didn’t turn me into a die-hard Wings fan. As I said, I remember the Leafs losing to Los Angeles in the 1993 conference finals, and I remember knowing it was a big deal. But I don’t remember caring that much.
The team that I really connected with at a time that mattered in my life was the Edmonton Oilers. It started when watching them play the Dallas Stars in the playoffs for what felt like 10 straight years. An early round upset over the Joe Sakic-Peter Forsberg-Patrick Roy Colorado Avalanche helped. I started playing exclusively with Edmonton on my NHL 98 computer game.
I loved the speed with which they played. I loved Ryan Smyth, Doug Weight, Jason Smith, Bill Guerin and Anson Carter. I put up with Tommy Salo. But I think what I really loved was that this was a lovable, underdog team that was halfway across the continent. A team that wasn’t saturating the local media market. A team that my contrarian teenage self could be smug about knowing and enjoying, similar to the feeling I got from being the first kid in my high school to listen to The Strokes.
At the same time, the Pat Quinn-era Leafs made it to a few conference finals. They had routine battles with Ottawa in the playoffs. They had a colossal payroll, and brought in high-priced veterans every year. In the Toronto media, and among my Leafs-loving friends, every single star player, coach, GM, and mascot was rumoured to be coming to Toronto. Every year there were sky-high expectation, headlines stating “This is the year”, and every year the Leafs disappointed. Edmonton wasn’t necessarily better, but I could be a fan of them without that sour taste of Leafs omnipresence in my mouth.
I love sports, but on the whole I tend not to love sports teams. I love watching and following the NFL, but I don’t bleed a particular colour. I’ve been partial to Tom Brady and the Patriots over the years, but it is more a case of taking the time to enjoy one of the best playing at a sustained level of excellence. Same goes for the NBA; if the Raptors are ever competitive, I’m all in. For now, I love following the exploits of LeBron in South Beach. In general, my interest in sports is in watching the best athletes do incredible things, over sustained periods of time. I love dynasties, even if it involves the New York Yankees.
In the case of hockey, things are different. I imagine this is true for all die-hard sports fans of any team, in any league, but in Canada once you have declared yourself a “fan” of a team, that’s it. It’s not like having favourite bands. I used to love Wilco; I started with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and quickly devoured their back catalogue. Their recent albums have been listenable but not world changing, so I’ve moved on. And that’s OK, nobody judges me for that. Moreover, I don’t feel like I’m Judas, betraying everything I once stood for.
That being said, I can never cheer for the Leafs. I just can’t. I don’t actively hate them anymore as I did when I was a teenager. I’ve come to understand that actually hating another team must be reserved for the arch-rivals of your favourite team (ie. The Yankees-Red Sox thing) or for teams with huge assholes (the Jeremy Roenick-era Phoenix Coyotes come to mind). Other than that, it’s just petty.
In reality, I mostly feel pity for Leafs fans right now. It’s been 46 years since they won the Stanley Cup. They made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 last year, and had a monumental collapse in Game 7. That game cemented the sea change in my feelings for the Leafs. I don’t want them to win the Cup or even make it to the Stanley Cup final, because win or lose, Canadians tend to destroy their downtowns when that happens and I’m not really down for that. Mostly I want the anguish to stop; I have a lot of friends and family who are Leafs fans through-and-through, and they have been through a lot of misery.
Furthermore, my inability to connect with the Leafs has robbed me of the collective experience of watching and rooting for a team that everyone loves. The Edmonton Oilers went on a magical, unexpected run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2006. It was one of the best two month stretches of my life (I started dating my wife at the time, so don’t think that I’m that shallow). But it was an experience that I, mostly, enjoyed alone.
The closest I’ve come to what I imagine Leafs fans feel when they do make the playoffs, or even on a Saturday night, is the Olympic gold medals Canada has won over the last 12 years. The Sidney Crosby gold medal goal is one of the best collective experience memories of my life; a group of 10-12 good friends in a small cabin in Northern Ontario, we were mostly standing for the third period and overtime. As a group, we exploded in glory and beer when the goal went it. We stood on tables and sang along to The Hold Steady’s “Stay Positive”, almost as if Craig Finn wrote the scene himself. It was a massive night.
I will never have that experience with the Oilers, unless the unexpected happens and I end up moving to Northern Alberta, which I kind of hope to avoid. There have been times over the last few years when I have actually wished I could be a Leafs fan, to share in the highs and commiserate in the lows (really, it’s mostly commiserating). But I can’t. I just can’t do it. There is something fundamentally hard wired in me after all these years that won’t let me cheer for the Leafs. Though I’m sure there would be a lot good-natured heckling, I have no doubt that my family and friends in Leafs Nation would heartily welcome me to the club. But I have made my choice, even if I don’t believe it was a conscious one, and I’m an Edmonton Oilers fan until I die.
So what does that mean? Well, for now I’m stuck checking the scores of yet another Oilers loss on ESPN every morning. I occasionally watch the late game on Saturday night. I get updates from the Edmonton Journal, documenting the continued inability of the Oilers to turn all that young talent into a competent professional hockey team. But above all, I do it alone.
I’m not asking for pity, and I’m not having an existential crisis about my place in the city and the sports universe. I imagine that being separated by 3000 km from the team that I’m chained to makes life generally more pleasant as I don’t have to deal with the day-by-day body blows of an underachieving club. I just find the nature of sports team allegiance to be one of the more interesting dynamics we as sports fans create for ourselves.
So, don’t cry for me; at least I’m not a Leafs fan.