As long as I’ve lived in Toronto, there’s been a clear divide among young kids. Hockey fans were formatted into three main groups: Leafs fans, non-Leafs fans*, and indifferent Leafs fans.
The majority of Leafs fans never dreamt of supporting another team. We might have the odd shirsey pulled out for a playoff run, but there was always a special place reserved for the blue-and-white. Even through the darkest years, every October, somehow brought a new sense of hope for the season to come. But from 2004-2013, there was no reward for this.
A loud enough contingent of non-Leafs fans began propping up in Toronto around 2005-06, coincidentally. Instead of seeing a Tucker or a Sundin shirt on the playground, you’d start seeing CROSBY 87 or OVECHKIN 8. Of course, being the hockey-crazy city that this is, people liking star players was nothing new. But the sentiments coming out of their mouths, oh, they were something else. “My new favourite team” is a sentence no one should ever utter in Toronto unless you’re talking about the Wolfpack, or, in that time, the birth of Toronto FC, but more and more children began to step away from the TML in the mid-late 2000’s.
(*The thing is, the Leafs didn’t really lose the fan base who picked another team. “Of course I still like the Leafs,” they’d usually say. “But they’re just not doing it for me right now.” There was the odd kid who would straight up show no loyalties to the Leafs (I’m looking at you, Colin), but for the most part, it was just a mixture of disinterest and apathy from a group of kids who just wanted to see a more competitive hockey team.)
And then there was a third group, the Leafs fans who just really didn’t care. Why get yourself all worked up over a Jason Blake signing when your goaltending unit started Vesa Toskala most nights? Why stress over Matt Stajan leaving when one of your best offensive talents is Kyle Wellwood? Instead of watching 70+ Leafs games a year they’d be relegated to maybe Saturdays only. A trade for a big name like Phil Kessel or Dion Phaneuf would bring some excitement back here or there, but for the most part, it was a whole lot of disinterest.
But thankfully, it looks like the second and third groups are quickly going to fade away. In 2017-18, for the first time in almost fifteen years, it’ll be okay for Toronto’s youth to fully buy into the biggest hockey team in the world.
The Toronto Penguins (no, not the GTHL team)
For whatever reason, Pittsburgh always was the go-to “other” team in Toronto. It’s easy to see why. Any roster with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby is still a Stanley Cup contender, even if the rest of their team literally looks like an AHL roster. Crosby’s missed the playoffs just once, in his rookie season, while Malkin never has. And so it seemed every GTHL game would feature opposing centres rocking #87 jerseys. Here’s Mitch Marner wearing one. There’s an old, inactive Connor McDavid Facebook account where one of his first profile pictures was, yes, Sidney Crosby.
While watching the Penguins in these playoffs, it’s hard not to ask the toughest of questions: Is it the last go for this team? For one team to have arguably two of the top three talents in a generation is asinine, but all good things must come to an end, eventually.
They’re two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup. They’re also two losses away from an offseason of big decisions and a long look at their team’s future.
On one hand, you’d think they’re getting close to the end. Since 2012-13, just one player at or over the age of 30 (36-year-old Joe Thornton in 2015-16) has hit 80 points in a season. Granted, Malkin had 72 in 62 games this season at 30, while Ryan Getzlaf had 74 in 73. But while they may be able to push the needle a little bit, ageing curves are real and they will come to affect both Crosby and Malkin. The difference between your superstar putting up 75 points instead of 90 might not be the difference between making the playoffs and missing them, but it’ll certainly make things a little bit tougher.
On the other hand, Evgeni Malkin looks and plays like he’s still 25, Sidney Crosby, who’s “not a goal scorer” just won the Rocket Richard Trophy, and they’ve got a whole career still to come from Matt Murray. Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel aren’t elite talents or anything, but they’ve both worked as great supplementary pieces, they’ve got more than competent management and coaching, and their third best forward is Phil freakin’ Kessel.
But the bottom line is, how much longer can they keep this up for? Five years? 10? Two? Whatever the case, the light at the end of the tunnel is visible enough even if it’s not blinding yet. There are no guarantees in the NHL. If a psychic told you they saw the future and Pittsburgh never made another final with this core of players, you’d probably believe them.
Toronto, on the contrary, is just hitting their stride. I’m not going to speculate how successful this roster will turn out to be or if they’ll measure up to this Penguins group, but their best days are yet to come. If they replicate anything nearly as good as Pittsburgh’s success over the past 10 years, we’re in for one heck of a ride.
When does the torch get passed?
Every few seasons, the questions around the league’s next great powerhouse get asked.
Right now, you’ll hear the same few names pop up. Is it the Oilers? Will the Sabres get their act together and ice a playoff team? Do the Jets finally get some competent goaltending and string together some playoff success? Is John Chayka going to money puck everyone and bring the Cup to Arizona? Or are the Leafs the league’s next contenders and is it time to start acting as such?
For all the talk, it’s really not that crazy to see the Leafs in the Stanley Cup Final within the next three seasons. On a similar note, it’s not all that hard to see Pittsburgh, Chicago, and LA, the three teams with recent multiple championship appearances, sitting on the outside looking in.
The Leafs, in a lot of ways, are either quickly becoming or already are one of the most-hated teams in the league. While few have bad things to say about their on-ice product other than maybe, “shaky defence”, it’s the aura and mindset surrounding the team that puts most outsiders off.
In Canada, it’s quite obvious why. The largest city with the largest, most vocal fanbase, disproportionate media coverage relative to team success and a host of other factors make Toronto easily the country’s most disliked team. Mix that all in with mostly untrue stereotypes of the people who live in this beautiful city and you’ve got yourself a perfect villain.
The “Toronto vs. Everybody” model, whether you like it or not, is here to stay. And as the team gets better, it’s only going to get worse.For young kids growing up in or around Toronto, there has to be an added incentive to the “rep the 6”. After years and years of being hated for being bad, it’s finally time to be hated for being good.
The Leafs today obviously have a different feel to their last competitive roster, in the 2013 season. Shot differentials would see them continuously hemmed, yet they made things work well enough to make it to seven playoff games and were tantalizingly close to seeing more.
But whatever way you spin it, from 2005-2017, the Leafs hold a playoff record of… 5-8.
Entering the 2013-14 season off arguably the biggest non-championship heartbreak in the history of this organization, there was, like this year, a renewed sense of hope. They were close to winning the series right? “Surely, they’ve got to make an even bigger splash next season,” was the opinion of many.
The biggest difference? One of those teams deserved to be in the playoffs and played competitive, sustainable(ish) hockey over the course of a full season. The other team signed a guy named David and traded for a Dave, crashed out of a playoff spot the following season, created an entire segment of the fanbase based on firing the team’s head coach, and were just generally bad. What little hope there was in 2013 soon turned to despair. The analytics crowd said they’d seen it coming all along, while others said it was the biggest shock of their life. Wherever you stood, the Leafs were in disarray, the fan base was divided and there was a lot of uncertainty as to the team’s future.
Today, the doubters, for the most part, are gone. There’s still questions about the team’s defence, their bottom six, and their backup goaltending, but the team is a lot closer to complete than they are incomplete.
New generation is closer to home
In the words of Kanye West, “Young and we alive.” The NHL is more and more becoming a youth-driven league, and much of it has to do with teams with a direct relation to Toronto.
If you’re trying to the “next four” big superstars, you’ll probably point to four names: Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Patrik Laine, in some order. There’s a very good possibility McDavid is already the best player on the planet, you already know how special Matthews is, Jack Eichel put up a near point per game pace and Patrik Laine is looking like the next world-class sniper if he isn’t already.
Without getting ahead of ourselves, it’s very easy to see Mitch Marner and William Nylander both blossoming into top-15 forwards as well. Both finished within the top 35 in league scoring in their first full year in the league, both were within the top few talents of their draft classes and both still have just about their entire careers ahead of them.
So why would you be the kid who’s wearing the Jack Eichel jersey when you’d just have to take it off in April? Why would you be celebrating the Oilers playoff drought being over when you could do the same with the Leaf on your chest? Why would you pretend to be Laine when you’re playing ball hockey when Auston Matthews scored 40? With the exception of McDavid, the Leafs have a U-21 player (or three) as good or better as any team in the league can offer. When you’ve got that happening in Toronto, it makes no sense to want to support a team in Buffalo, Edmonton or Winnipeg.
Though it’s probably one of the most expansive (and expensive), the Leafs have arguably the most unnecessary marketing team in the NHL. If the Leafs shut down their social media channels tomorrow, stopped running TV and print advertisements, and never once advertised how to get tickets available for games, they’d still have the building full every night.
The worst promotional material I’ve ever seen from a Toronto sports team came in the form of last year’s Centennial Classic. In a now-infamous image, the Leafs marketed the matchup with the Detroit Red Wings by showcasing the team’s four alternate captains: Matt Hunwick, Morgan Rielly, Tyler Bozak, and Leo Komarov. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this model for most teams, except for the fact that it featured none of the team’s top 5 scorers, or their #1 goalie, or their top-pairing defenceman in Jake Gardiner.
Get Mitch Marner at a McDonald’s or an IKEA ball pit. Put Auston Matthews’ name attached to the back of a plane encircling the ACC 24 hours a day. Get William Nylander at a spa giving hair tips. Do something fun, and the kids will love it.
That’s a lot of words to say, the Leafs’ kids are alright and the future looks good. You know this already, but, honestly, it’s nice to see the Leafs’ kids, i.e., their fanbase, return to normal and support their hometown team.
The Maple Leafs brief successes of 2016-17 have the most dedicated fans looking forward to a new season more so than any in recent memory. But perhaps more importantly, they enter 2017-18 with a youth support unlike any they’ve seen this generation. And since it’s looking like the team’s going to be competitive for a while yet, it looks like the lost generation of Leafs fans will finally become a thing of the past.