Between the nights of May 29, 1993 [the Toronto Maple Leafs lose in Game 7 of the semi-finals to Gretzky’s L.A. Kings] and October 23, 1993 [the Toronto Blue Jays win their second of two consecutive championships] I bet zero Toronto sports fans would have predicted just how terrible the collective legacy of this city's teams would become. Back then, things were certainly looking up. These moments spurred on hope; little did we know it was all down hill from there.
I can be pretty torn when it comes to clichés. When misused they can sour mightily. So it goes. But when a cliché rings true, it can stir such mixed emotions, the most dangerous being acceptance or truth. Bob Dylan and the Walkmen have made pretty stellar musical careers of doing just this.
“I love sports, but sports don’t love me” has been a go to cliché to explain my love of Toronto team sports for a very long time. It all dates back to those two separate nights with my childhood best friend, Paul Boudreau. In the course of a few months, two sporting events were viewed in his basement rec-room that would forever establish my tormented love of Toronto-based sports.
To give you a little background, the late 80's and early 90's were arguably some of, if not the, best years to be a Toronto sports fan post Leave it to Beaver era. Mind you, this window was comparatively small to many other markets [read: essentially EVERY other market, excluding Cleveland], but this all hit me at a very impressionable, young age. What a dangerous thing.
Now cross-fade to the Boudreau family basement. It was a pretty special place for 3rd graders. My bud Paul only lived a few blocks away, making it a perfect locale for our parents to dump us for entire afternoons/weekends. There were some serious piles of Lego, an N.E.S., multiple couches, a crawl space under the stairs wherein we were permitted to colour on the dry-wall. This crawl space also doubled as the first place we eve oggled the shiny pages of pornography. Needless to say, it was a memorable spot for an 8 year old boy.
Enter my first memory of watching a Leafs game. And just to clarify, I was not indoctrinated into the Hockey Night in Canada ritual (Editor's Note: RIP) until that night. This was not normal. As many infant Canadians have experienced, the hockey game is simply on every Saturday at 7 and on all through the playoffs [which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful clichés that Canadianna has to offer]. I, on the other hand, was not instantly hard-wired from birth for this. To be honest hockey culture intimidated me back then. It was from all the little fuckwads at school bragging on about whether they made the “Rep-A’ team or the “Rep-B’ team [surprisingly, these same kids ALL grew up to value Affliction t-shirts above most things, so I was right], therefore, the much more tame sport of baseball landed as my first love. Like I was saying, it was in that basement where I was introduced to the ceremony of watching HNIC, playoff edition. I distinctly recall Paul saying he wanted to, and couldn’t miss, seeing the Leafs game that night. What a game to be baptized into my tormented fantasy of Leafs hockey. It was game 7 of the 1993 Campbell Conference semifinal. Winner got to face the tour-de-force Montreal Canadiens for the cup. I knew, even as a relative virgin to this all, that a Stanley Cup final between the Leafs and Habs was a massive opportunity. If you are not versed in the folklore of this entire semi-final series and the Game 7, it won’t take much effort searching the internet to see the myriad of things that went right for Gretzky’s Kings, and the amount of shit that amounted to, well, shit for the Leafs. With the Leafs finding themselves playing catch-up all night behind the heels of Gretzky’s all-time most dominant game [his words]: 3 goals and an assist. Of course, the Leafs were able to score with the goalie pulled, but were still left trailing by one. As the clock expired, and all of Toronto collectively wept again, I turned to my friend Paul who was also crying the big fat tears that only a little kid can.
I distinctly remember saying to Paul something like, “They will get back there next year…” as my consoling hand reached for his skinny-girl shoulder. A cliché I was too young to even know I using. The crazy thing is, Paul Boudreau’s 3rd grade self already knew what I have been learning time-and-again ever since. Slapping my hand away, he replied with vengeance [ahem; please make sure you read this next line with a trembly, voice cracked falsetto]: “No they WONT! No they WONT! No they WONT! You just don’t get it!” Side note: Paul had the penchant to be a whiny drama-queen at times, but in hindsight he had every right to knock some of my teeth out.
Only a few months later the Blue Jays were in the World Series for the second straight year. Sitting on the same couches, watching the same TV, we saw Joe Carter do the unthinkable. It was a fairytale. It was that moment that the Leafs couldn’t pull off 6 months earlier. It was validation. Winners. Champions. To cap it all off, our respective fathers let us sip whiskey as we all celebrated. The next day they drove us into the city for the parade. The next season my destiny was sealed. My dad started landing tickets to Leafs games through work. I was vested.
“Touch ‘em all, Joe! You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life”. The echo of Tom Cheeks poetry resounded all over this special time. Having heard this call, arguably more than any other call in my sport-loving life [I played those commemorative VHS cassettes a-ton], it has always been met with a glowing nostalgia, found somewhere deep in my heart. It truly is that fairytale shit that is etched into my soul. Makes me believe that comebacks against horrible odds are surmountable. It’s the reason we all keep watching/cheering regardless of your city's respective woes. But the more I think about it in this context, the more it is starting to sound like a curse. 'Cause when you think about it, essentially, Toronto hasn’t hit a homerun, literally or metaphorically, of any significance since Joe’s moment.
In the years since those epic highs, the Leafs have played a grand total of 16 games in the Conference semi-finals, of which they have won a total of 4 FOUR GAMES! The Jays have played in ZERO playoff games since Joe touched ‘em all. And the Raptors? Insert whatever laughable comment you want here. We all know how the Leafs performed during Game 7 of the most recent playoffs and how ESPN ranks the city considering all of this. And, our last glimmer of hope and joy all transpired 20 years ago.
If the winners get to write history, what can be said of all this? Did Toronto simply want to stop writing post-1993? Of course, the list of factors, including blown draft picks, botched trades, bad management, chocking in the clutch, and any other long-list of excuses has helped Toronto land where it is today. My question is, when are they gonna pick up the pen and start writing again?
So [exhale] at this point, what solace can I turn to other than clichés? What reconciliation can be squandered from the countless hours, on countless couches, spent watching and cheering, all for nothing:
It is what it is?
Hope can be a dangerous thing?
There’s always next year?
No. Even better:
Take what you can get.
Clichés. Clichés. Clichés.