Ladies and gentlemen your Toronto Maple Leafs….
If you read that in Andy Frost’s voice, you are probably a Leafs fan.
The Leafs, one of the NHL’s oldest and most storied franchises. A team with a history, a culture, a huge fan base and a stupid amount of money. I first became a fan in high school when one of my friends brought me to a game in October; we stood in the nosebleeds and although I only knew a few players’ names, I found myself cheering as loud as anyone. I was hooked pretty quickly and it was then that my fandom was born and from whence it began to evolve.
Because every Leafs’ fan evolves; with the rises and falls of a long loved team, our relationships with that team start to take on different stages as time goes on. You may not have hit all of the stages just yet, but just wait, you’ll get there….and if any group of people knows about waiting…it’s Leafs fans. Maybe this current ‘Shanaplan’ is your first taste of a rebuild, maybe you remember when Wendel had hair or maybe you remember when the 1919 cup was cancelled to Spanish Flu (because unlike soccer, hockey players only sit out when there’s a likely chance of death). They call it ‘the passion that unites us all’, I call it the abusive relationship I’ll never leave, but however you look at it….a Leafs fan is a fan for life, no matter the stage.
Stage 1- Baby Bud
Maybe you’ve just watched your first game or maybe you’ve joined the hockey pool at work on a whim and find yourself getting into it…either way, you’ve just met hockey. It’s fun, exciting and new. There are so many teams to learn, so many rules to try to remember (oh THAT’s what an icing call is…they don’t just stop for cupcakes at random intervals.) You’re eager to learn but you’re still too nervous to identify yourself as a Leafs fan as you don’t want to get quizzed on 100 years of history when you’ve only just learned how to spell Shanahan. You don’t really know about the rest of the league other than knowing instinctively that Ottawa is a shit-hole.
Stage 2- Bud
You’ve been watching a couple of months and know all the players names, positions, numbers and which countries they are from (hockey fandom is a great geography lesson). You still don’t quite understand everybody’s roles…you know who scores and which goalie is the number one. You feel confident enough to say ‘yes’ when someone says ‘did you see that game last night?’, but not confident enough to ask that yourself. You’re familiar with the all-star level players around the league and you are already developing a healthy hatred for Montreal. You listen attentively to the commentators to try to learn what you should be watching for, which nuances and trends to keep an eye on and look at the sport like a pro.
Stage 3- Sprout
You’ve watched a full season. You have seen some streaks, good and bad. You understand your team dynamics a bit better and more or less understand each team member’s role. You watch every single game, you’ll even make your plans around game time. You’ve started looking in to team history a bit, learning the classic names like Clark, Sittler, Bower, Horton, etc. You’re now fully aware that this team hasn’t won since 1967, but that doesn’t really mean anything to you- other sports have had longer droughts. You’ve watched your first All-Star game and already agree that they suck. You know that there’s a draft at the end of the season but you’re not there yet. You know that July 1st is an important day,,,,but you’re not entirely sure what happens. You know which commentators are better than others; you despise Glenn Healey and Strombo but you revere Bob McKenzie.
Stage 4- Leafling
It’s been a couple of seasons, you’ve seen other teams hoist the cup and it’s made you hungry for playoffs. You know all the teams and all the star players and are the first to defend the Leafs no matter what anyone says. Everyone sucks but the Leafs and anyone who cheers from another team is an idiot (if they are a Philly fan, this is justified for eternity). You go to every tail gate party and only miss a game if you really have to (i.e. an inconsiderate family funeral without HD). If you’re lucky enough to see them in the playoffs, you’re up and down Yonge Street honking in a car or waving a flag. At this point, you’re most likely to start eyeing Leaf tattoos. You jump in to every hockey conversation you overhear, you’re eager to prove yourself. You still trust the management.
Stage 5- Leafs Fan
You’re a veteran. You love them…but now you also are cautious of them…like an ex who has hurt you but you took them back anyways. You’ve seen them do nothing on Trade Deadline day (or worse, sign Aki Berg), you’ve been gouged for ticket prices a year after missing the playoffs…and maybe some of your favourites have retired or taken higher paying contracts with other teams (and they say it’s because they want a cup, but did Vancouver give you a cup?? Did it Mats? Did it?!?!) You’re familiar with all the players on every team, you refuse to watch All-Star games and have taken an interest in the minor leagues. You have respect for the other teams and can understand their fans (not Buffalo though). You’re seeing players less as idols, more as commodities, because if you have to lose that much-loved player to get the man who is going to help you win and free-up cap space, so be it. You wear your wounds with pride, and your many jerseys, hats, shirts, etc. You talk about previous seasons like war vets speak of battles (oh, the strike of 2004, that was a cold year, with no hockey to watch for nigh on 12 months…September 15th 2004 shall live in infamy)
Stage 6- Your Dad
It’s the stage everyone fears and vows never to reach…but we all do. You’ve become your father. You’ll catch the odd game here and there, usually not missing them because you’re busy, but you just can’t be bothered to watch those overpaid punks in the ‘new hockey’ because it’s not the game you grew to love. It’s a bunch of millionaires playing for billionaires in a bastardized version of a once-great game. In your day, goalies didn’t wear more armour than a Game of Thrones episode. In your day, people could actually have a fight, and the fighters would shake hands afterwards. In your day, shootout was a bad word. 3-on-3? That was something that happened at bachelor parties, not hockey games! You know you’ve reached this stage when you first say “He’s not as good as (insert retired payer) was”. That tattoo you got as a Leafling maybe has a few little sags in it…you said you’d get the year they won the Cup tattooed beside it….but that space is still blank…isn’t it. You are quick to dismiss any good news, claiming they don’t know what they’re doing or they’ll screw it up. It’s not that you don’t want them to do well, you wish them well…but you just can’t keep letting yourself get hurt.
Stage 7- Your Grandfather
You watch one, maybe two games a year, and usually only if someone else is around and they put it on. There is no joy left in you in the modern day team, you can’t pronounce the player names, not that they would hold a candle to your old time players. Half the teams you grew up with have collapsed or moved to other cities that should never have hockey in them (3 teams in California?! 2 in Florida??). You long for the old days when players had respect, were allowed to play and hockey was hockey. When asked if you’re a hockey fan, you reply ‘I used to be’, but….although you don’t admit it, you still get a little smile during playoff time…you have been hurt for too long to get your hopes up, but you still hold that flame, deep down, to see the Cup come to Toronto. Your jerseys are in the back of the closet or maybe in an old box or bag, they haven’t seen the light of day in a very long time. however you would never dream of getting rid of them. Like Yoda teaching Luke, you have paid your dues and the new generation can spend their energy chasing the dream but you still want to see the Sith defeated (Gary Bettman).
In conclusion, my dear blue bloods, Leaf fans come in many shapes, sizes, genders, nationalities and stages. We may evolve at different rates and times, but we share the love of our team at the core center of it all and our hearts beat to the chant of ‘Go Leafs Go’. No matter what, we can all agree….Kerry Fraser can eat a giant bag of dicks.