As I find myself wrapped up in the success of The Blue Jays so far this playoff, and eagerly awaiting the NBA season, I wonder to myself if I still care about the Maple Leafs, this at a time when there is more legitimate optimism around the team than perhaps there ever has been before in my lifetime. The Leafs were the most important sports team for me from my late teens (I’d say around 1998, when I was 17) till only a few years ago (2013), when the Raptors completely took over my sports fandom. (I was also a childish Leafs fan briefly from about 1992 till 1993.) During that time, I watched every Leafs game I could, I watched every single playoff game (save when I was in Australia in spring 2003) and I thought obsessively about how they could improve. I went from being extremely naive about the sport to knowing a fair amount for a person who has never played, in no small part due to living with former hockey players in university, when my knowledge went from routine fandom to understanding both what players were supposed to do and how. I cared so much I wrote a book about the Leafs. (I should point out, all of this happened well before the “analytics” revolution.) I considered myself a serious, involved and informed fan. And now I am having a real hard time caring.
Auston Matthews may be the best prospect the Leafs have had in the history of the NHL draft. He may not be, but he has a decent chance of accomplishing this as only the second #1 overall pick in franchise history, coming from a much stronger draft than Wendel Clark did. If everything breaks right, he will be better than Doug Jarvis (#5) or Randy Carlyle (#4) and I think many people believe he might be better than Vincent Damphousse (#3), or even Lanny McDonald (#2). (I would just like to point out that I personally feel Damphousse was the better player of those two, but I conceded McDonald in my post because McDonald won “objectively.”) I’m not sure anyone is quite willing to believe he could be better than Sittler (#1), but it appears the sky is the limit. Except for when the Leafs traded for Gilmour and traded for Sundin, there has not been a more optimistic time for the Leafs in my life. (Maybe drafting Wendel was also that optimistic, but I have my doubts.) So why don’t I care?
First, I went to university. While at university, I learned about hockey from people who had played, some at reasonably high levels. I learned by watching the games with them. And I learned analytical thinking from a bachelor degree and then a master’s degree.
At some point, my mind began to apply my analytical thinking skills to hockey management. I don’t remember the first day I realized that the Leafs were not run well, but I suspect it was during the 2004-05 lockout, when I had too much time on my hands without NHL hockey to watch and while I found myself expanding my analytical thinking through graduate school. (I had no doubt thought some decisions were bad before this time, but I can’t say that I was thinking intelligently about hockey prior to the lockout, as I think the depths of my analysis were along the lines of “Quinn needs to play more rookies” or something like that.)
What began as occasional critical thinking about the decisions of Leafs management around an ageing core that couldn’t compete in the younger, faster league turned into an absolute obsession just before Brian Burke was hired to be the new saviour of the franchise. I thought the decision process to hire Burke was flawed but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, until his inaugural press conference let me to believe he would do a bad job. I began to chronicle all of his actions, and eventually wrote a book about what I thought he had done to set back the franchise.
It was the writing of this book that probably did it for me; obsessing over every decision until I decided every decision (or nearly every one) that Burke made was bad. When Nonis was appointed in his stead, I saw the same old same old. When Shanahan was brought in, I did not want to get duped like I initially was with previous hires. And so I remained at an emotional distance. Sometime after that, I stopped watching regular season games with any regularity, catching a period here or a period there. I couldn’t tell you the number of minutes I watched the Leafs play last season, but it was probably less than 30.
And now I’m sad because I want to care. I want to watch Auston Matthews and these other strong prospects, I want to have hope and I want to see the Leafs win a Cup in my lifetime. But I’m not sure I can.
I will be out for dinner the first game of the season. I hope that it is still on when I get home and that I watch at least the end of it, because if I do not, I think I might forget to watch more, and once basketball season starts, there’s little chance I will pick the Leafs over the Raptors. (And there’s zero chance I’m watching a Leafs game instead of Jays playoff baseball.)