With the NHL regular season wrapping up this weekend, we thought we were finished with “predictable digs at Maple Leaf fans in the sports media” for another year. But then along came Pierre LeBrun, who writes for (among other things) ESPN.com, to take one final shot: in his season-ending wrap-up column, LeBrun awarded Leaf fans with his “Suckers United Award.” “Once again, they packed the joint at the Air Canada Centre for a crappy team that missed the playoffs for a fourth straight season,” LaBrun snickered. “Ticket prices are going up, and Leafs fans can’t wait to open their wallets. The Cup drought is 42 years and counting.” (Meanwhile, we could’ve predicted the content of Damien Cox’s riposte to the standing ovation following the Leafs’ season-ending win over the Ottawa Senators before even reading it.) Baiting Leaf fans is, of course, a hallmark of slapdash, second-rate hockey writing—yet while we shouldn’t be letting men like LeBrun or Cox affect us, we’re getting sick of hearing about how stupid we are (“sucker” is ultimately a euphemism for “idiot”) because we happen to cheer for a losing team.
We suspect these men don’t actually like hockey. In a way we don’t blame them: if you spent enough time around professional hockey players you’d probably end up hating the sport, too. But that doesn’t entitle them to belittle Leaf fans—undeniably one of the biggest, most passionate and most loyal fanbases in North American sports—simply because the team hasn’t won a championship in a while (we believe it’s been forty-two years, although we can’t be certain since we haven’t been reminded of that fact every single day this hockey season). They’re missing a very basic point about sports fans in general and about Leaf fans in particular. We don’t cheer because we’re suckers: we cheer because we care. It’s what having a favourite team is all about. So what if the Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967? That doesn’t change the fact that they’re our team.
Photo by gbalogh.
You’d think that sort of devotion would be laudable—but for hockey writers, it’s simply an opportunity to take potshots. We don’t get it. The Chicago Cubs haven’t won a championship in one hundred years, yet you don’t see Cubs fans being called “suckers” for that. On the contrary, last September Sports Illustrated rewarded their devotion with a cover story. Cubs fans get cast as “loveable losers,” their fortunes tied to a team that’s guaranteed to break their hearts. Somehow, Leaf fans are just plain “dumb.” Trust us: we harboured no illusions heading into 2008/09. We knew our team wasn’t very good; in fact, most of us were quite happy sacrificing short-term pain for long-term gain, and for the first time in ages ownership seemed to be on board. If anything, the team exceeded expectations this year (Howard Berger, for instance, had them finishing second-last overall with seventy-three points). We knew this—and yet we kept filling the Air Canada Centre because we love our team, and because having a favourite team is (to echo LeBrun’s ESPN colleague Bill Simmons) like being married: it’s for better, or for worse.
For a lot of us, cheering for the Leafs is an indelible part of who we are. It’s a tradition that stretches back generations; some of us come from families who’ve been Leaf fans since World War I. Again, you’d think that kind of tradition would be a good thing in the context of a league full of insta-franchises on the brink of financial oblivion. Yet it’s conveniently forgotten whenever someone has column space to fill. We’re suckers for caring; we’re too stupid to talk with our feet (like, for instance, Chicago Black Hawks fans, whose fickleness actually imperilled the franchise), while Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is happily pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes in order to fleece us out of our hard-earned money. But maybe, just maybe, people like Pierre LeBrun and Damien Cox are the real suckers—because they’ll never know what it’s like having a favourite team, following it through thick and thin and then experiencing the ultimate payoff. One day, the Maple Leafs will win a Stanley Cup, and when this happens it’ll set off a celebration that’ll make Leafs Nation the envy of the entire sports world. It may not be next year; it may not be for several years. But it’ll happen. And when it does, hockey columnists everywhere will be scrambling for new material.