What the Puck? Another Hollow Spring for the Toronto Maple Leafs

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Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Mason Raymond, right, skates with the puck in front of Ottawa Senators center Kyle Turris Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Ice pellets, freezing rain and even snow strafed the city of Toronto on Tuesday, wreaking havoc on the highways. Winds gusted up to 37 miles, per hour, while temperatures dipped below freezing. With the trees in High Park still barren, the most vivid reminder for citizens of Canada’s largest metropolis that spring had actually arrived is that their Maple Leafs are no longer playing.

The National Hockey League playoffs begin this evening, and for the eighth time in the past nine seasons the Maple Leafs will not be among the 16 franchises vying for the Stanley Cup. Thus the longest championship drought in the NHL will continue for at least another year, as the Leafs have not hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup since 1967, a span of 47 years.

Mayor Rob Ford? A minor embarrassment. The Maple Leafs’ extended era of ineptness, however, is a font of civic shame. “It’s terribly disappointing,” said head coach Randy Carlyle after Toronto dropped 12 of its final 14 games to miss the postseason. “It’s almost like a state of depression because it’s such a negative on your life.”

The Maple Leafs have become the Chicago Cubs of hockey, and while the Cubs’ championship famine has run for more than twice the duration (105 years, dating back to 1908), Toronto’s desultory performance over nearly half a century is more inexcusable.

To begin with, the Maple Leafs have every built-in advantage. They are the New York Yankees on ice: They play in the largest city in the country that invented their sport, are the most valuable franchise according to Forbes ($1.15 billion) and have the highest average ticket price ($120). They are the Green Bay Packers of fandom, as the waiting list for season tickets at Air Canada Centre has approximately 2,500 names on it and is estimated to be 10 years long.

Finally, the Maple Leafs are the Los Angeles Lakers of banners, having won, like the Lakers, the second-most championships in their sport’s history. Toronto’s neighbors to the north and east, the Montreal Canadiens, have won 24 Stanley Cups while the Leafs have won 13. The Canadiens have raised the Stanley Cup 10 times since Toronto defeated them in 1967 to claim its last championship.

A rich tradition, bottomless pockets and a passionate fan base. Three traits that every professional sports franchise yearns for, and the Maple Leafs light the lamp on all three. They just cannot win.

Two years ago Lawrence Tanenbaum, the chairman of the board of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, even wrote an open letter of apology to the team’s fans (as everyone knows, Canadians are nothing if not polite). “We have fallen short of everyone’s expectations, and for that we are sorry,” wrote Tanenbaum. “The way this year ended was unacceptable. Results are the only measure of success in sports, and the results speak for themselves.”

Two years later the Leafs were in third place in the Eastern Conference on the Ides of March only to find themselves four weeks later in ninth, out of the playoffs. The team could have just reprinted that letter. Instead, earlier this week they instituted a shift change, demoting general manager Dave Nonis while hiring former Detroit Red Wing Brendan Shanahan, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and Hall of Famer, to run the team.

“I’m not here today for big speeches, big words, big proclamations,” said Shanahan, 45, a suburban Toronto native (although proclamation does have four syllables). “None of that matters. Wins do.”

Last year, before Shanahan arrived, may have been even crueler. The Maple Leafs made the playoffs after an eight-season absence and, in Game 7 of a first-round series against the Boston Bruins, led 4–1. As Torontonians watched outdoors on large screens, their beloved blue-and-whites surrendered three goals in the final 9:18. The Bruins won in overtime, and you wouldn’t have blamed most Maple Leaf fans for behaving like their libertine mayor.

The malaise extends beyond the city of Toronto and the shores of Lake Ontario. While Canada won the gold medal at the Sochi Olympics two months ago, and has in fact won three of the past four, it has been 21 years since any Canadian NHL franchise (again, the Canadiens), lifted the Cup. And while seven of the 30 NHL franchises exist north of the border, only one—once more, Les Habs—will partake in the postseason that begins this evening. That’s the fewest number of Canadian franchises to qualify for the playoffs since 1973.

What the puck?

It may be just an anomaly. It may be that because the NHL does have a salary cap that cash-rich (is there any other kind of rich?) franchises such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver (Nos. 1, 3 and 4 in valuation, per Forbes) cannot exploit their financial advantage. It may be that fans remain so zealous for the national sport in those precincts that team owners feel less pressure to win: The arenas will be filled regardless of outcome.

It may be part of all that. Whatever the reason, hockey fans in Toronto are used to it. They folded their Maple Leaf sweaters days ago. They might humor themselves by noting that the Raptors made the NBA playoffs. Or they could cheer for the Canadiens. In a spring that still feels like winter, however, either option is cold comfort.

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