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I CAN REMEMBER my dad taking me to my first game at Maple Leaf Gardens -- the blinding gleam of the ice, and the stark classism of the seats, all those rows of coveted golds, and the roar of the crowd, the same crowd, only gone corporate and mute, that now fills the Air Canada Centre night after sold-out night. Today I would never dream of taking my boys to their own first game in Toronto, of paying a single cent for any of those seats no matter the color, because while my father raised me to love the Leafs, he also taught me that love is currency and we shouldn't be careless with it.
I knew the instant it was over between us. In 1999, when I was a young sports writer in Toronto, I was assigned to cover the first practice at the almost-finished Air Canada Centre. It was a low-key christening. The construction workers who had poured months of their lives into that building were given a few minutes off to watch the players skate. They settled into the best seats in the house -- now platinum rather than gold, because Toronto is one of those blessed, cursed cities in which everything appreciates -- and their eyes were shining like the ice when they watched the team they loved in the arena they had built.
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Then somebody started hollering down from one of the luxury boxes. Steve Stavro, the grocery magnate and owner of the Leafs, was waving his arms, yelling for those lowly workers to get out of his precious platinums and onto the concrete steps. The electricians and pipe fitters scrambled to their harder perches, and even now, all these years later, I can still see the hurt on their faces. That moment said everything about the Leafs and their priorities and their betrayals. I haven't paid to step foot in that building since.
Neither have many of those workers, I'd wager. For the privilege of watching one of the worst teams in hockey -- now owned largely by BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications, two giant media companies -- Toronto's more wealthy and forgetful fans pay the highest average ticket price in the NHL: $122.20. That compares with $37.28 to see the Stars, the 1999 Stanley Cup champions, one of 18 different franchises to hoist that sacred trophy since 1967, when the Leafs last did. According to polling done for these Ultimate Standings, only the Minnesota Timberwolves are less poised to win a championship in the eyes of their fans. I think that's an insult to the Timberwolves.
After the 2004-05 lockout, the Leafs went seven years without making the playoffs. When they finally did, in 2013 -- an achievement that felt worthy of a spot memory, like man landing on the moon -- they choked against the Bruins, becoming the first team to lose a three-goal lead in the third period of a Game 7. Last season they followed up that historic bed-wetting by losing 12 of their last 14 regular-season games to miss the playoffs again. Their coach, Randy Carlyle, was rewarded with a contract extension.
Not that swapping out Carlyle would make much difference. He has been handed a gutless collection of players who gave up nearly two shots for every one they took in 2013-14. Season after miserable season, they have been assembled and coached by great hockey men -- Ken Dryden, Brian Burke, Pats Quinn and Burns -- winners turned losers by their doomed Toronto tenures, as though they had joined some cold-weather version of the Cubs without the charm or helmet nachos. Whether that's because of incompetence or insincerity is up for debate, but it has to be one or the other. Nobody's luck is this bad.
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Now Leafs fans are supposed to believe that Brendan Shanahan, hired in April as the team's president, will repair generations of damage. His most notable move so far, other than retaining Carlyle, is the creation of an analytics department. That's how desperate Toronto has become: Hiring hockey bloggers feels like a great leap forward. It's forever been the hope that, like the Blackhawks' ascent, Toronto's decades of mediocrity are somehow an investment and the return will be a different brand of dynasty, made all the sweeter for this suffering.
For a long time, I blamed Leafs fans and their blind loyalty for their team's failings. They rewarded sin with virtue, and that made them both enablers and dumb consumers. I'm sorry for thinking that way. That's like believing an absence of heart can be remedied with a growing heartlessness. Some long-buried part of me has even learned to admire Toronto's unshakable faith. I see no reason to think the Leafs will ever be great again, but heading into this winter, for the first time since I was a boy, I find myself wishing they might be.
That's not because any part of me still loves them. But I love so many people who do, and if there is anything I hate more than the Maple Leafs, it's seeing that much love in last place.