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This Isn’t Pain: My Toronto Maple Leafs Fandom

“If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming”

Like many of you, I’ve given a lot of thought to these words, spoken by Mike Babcock in the summer of 2015, shortly after he shocked the hockey world by leaving his post with the Detroit Red Wings to ink a massive deal in Toronto.

Do you ever hear something repeated enough times, and realize that the words themselves start to fade into just sounds? There’s pain coming, pain coming, pain coming.

Maybe it’s not how often it’s reiterated. Maybe it’s just me, calling BS on Mike Babcock, because these words always seemed as if they’d come many years too late.

Tomorrow evening, the Toronto Maple Leafs take to the ice for Game 7 against the Boston Bruins. Today, I’m going to share the story of my Leafs fandom. The real pain. Not what’s happening now.

Flash Backwards

In October of 2006, I fell in love with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In hindsight, that’s probably the equivalent of traveling to another country and falling in love with somebody who, before you know it, will go on to uhh… miss the playoffs for seven consecutive years.

Talk about shitty timing. In hindsight, at least.

The pre-lockout years had come and gone, but the promise of regular playoff appearances still felt fresh, didn’t it? After all, the Leafs had missed by just one point the previous season, and that was after six straight years of qualifying for the playoffs prior to the 2004-05 season that never was.

I was 10 years old, full of a particular type of optimism – that wide-eyed, childlike optimism that could make you believe in Andrew Raycroft, and maybe even convince you to buy a Vesa Toskala poster the following year.

I’m not joking:

This poster hung over my bed for two goddamn years. Maybe it was just having no comparables to realize just how awful this team was. Maybe it was as simple as idolizing the goaltender of my favorite team at a time when I was still strapping on the pads in minor hockey.

At some point, however, we all realize our heroes are mortal. And maybe our childhood heroes aren’t even heroes at all. Nothing says “kill your heroes” like a .904 and .891 save percentage over two seasons, after all.

Shipping Up To Boston

In 2009, things got a little interesting (for me, at least). Three months before the Leafs acquired Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins, I moved out of fairly Leafs-friendly territory in Newfoundland, and into the heart of Bruins Nation, about an hour’s drive from Boston.

What a fun little coincidence.

As we all know, the Leafs continued to shit the bed for a good handful of years from there on out. While I wore my Leafs jersey to school with pride in September of 2009, I certainly tucked it back into my closet after their dreadful 0-7-1 start to the season.

I don’t think I ever wore a jersey again until 2013. There’s pain coming. Yeah, no shit; I watched the Boston Bruins cruise to a 2011 Stanley Cup victory, ending their 39-year drought while the Leafs toiled in the basement year after year. When the 18-wheeler famously went off the cliff in 2011-12, I’m not even sure I had enough energy to care. I needed a break.

Crawling Back

I’m probably in a pretty small minority in saying that the 2012-13 lockout came at an opportune time. I was burnt out and falling out of love with this team.

But, by January 2013, I was actually happy to have hockey back.

I’m pretty sure I watched every single game of the 2013 lockout-shortened season, much of the time watching in disbelief, thinking to myself holy shit, the Leafs are actually good!

I honest-to-god think that there was a part of my brain that couldn’t process the fact that the Leafs could actually qualify for the playoffs. That time after regular season’s end always felt like a different world; a world where other teams went off to extend their season while my Leafs jersey went back into my closet until the fall.

The rush I got from seeing the Leafs play in May was something I will never forget. Even as the clear underdogs, watching the team battle it out against the juggernaut Bruins night after night, watching James Reimer and thinking now there’s a goalie I wish I could have looked up to as a kid.

Seeing Maple Leafs square erupt on TV as the Leafs fought and forced game seven as I sat in enemy territory, attending school after every game proud to be a Leafs fan. I’d never felt that before.

Little did I know, it would be a long time before I felt it again.

I’m not going to ramble on about that game. It’s been overdone. But know this: when the Toronto Maple Leafs went up 4-1 against the Boston Bruins on May 13, 2013, my mom and I laughed and jumped around our living room. We couldn’t believe it.

She went to bed, assuming the deed had surely been done. I went to finish the game in my bedroom.

I recorded my reaction on my laptop webcam.

Yeah, I know. And you know the rest.

There’s pain coming, there’s pain coming.

No, there isn’t. The pain has come and gone. And we’ve sure as hell had our fill. Enough is enough. 2013 has come and gone; the scored-earth teardown and rebuild has come and gone. 2014, 2015 – can we stop going there? Is it really worth our time?

The answer should be a resounding no. Unless we’re talking about this:

Or this:

I can talk about these moments all day. I can talk about the rush of emotion when the lottery balls fell into place in the spring of 2016; about how Auston Matthews and company have stolen the hearts of my closest American friends and converted them to at least partial Leafs fans.

Here and Now

If you want to talk about 2017, I’ll talk your damn ears off. About how I let myself be sad for five minutes, and after that, it was nothing but pride.

No more jersey in the closet. I wore Leafs gear all summer long.

I’m living in the heart of Devils / Flyers territory in New Jersey now. Less than three weeks ago, on April 5th, my partner and I went to the Leafs/Devils game that saw New Jersey qualify for the playoffs.

The Leafs’ on-ice performance was suspect at best. But that hardly mattered to me.

What mattered was just how many Leafs jerseys I saw at the Prudential Center that night, from kids and adults alike.

And I’m not talking Sundin and Gilmour jerseys. Matthews. Marner. Rielly. Now.

I’m on about a week straight of wearing Leafs gear to work, and every single day I’ve gotten compliments and had people start conversations about this damn team. About these players. This season.

This series.

Last night’s game was shown on my University’s giant outdoor television in one of the student courtyards. In New Jersey. After years of jersey-in-the-closet frustration, after the real pain that came before Mike Babcock promised whatever it was he promised, can you comprehend how cool that was to see? 

Onto Game 7 we go. Don’t call it a rematch. Don’t call it revenge. If the Leafs don’t pull through, don’t point to this game as the pain that Mike Babcock promised us nearly three years ago. Those stories have already been told, or they never will be. And they don’t matter.

What matters is how damn good I look in a Leafs shirsey that I haven’t washed in a week. The smell? Call it a mixture of anxiety and unbridled joy.

But not an ounce of pain.

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