To The Citizens of Leafs Nation:
Your ardour has sometimes moved me past words. You help pay my mortgage. When you cheer so earnestly as your team beats Tampa in the last home date of the season there isn’t much good in human nature I would not ascribe to you.
I love the fact that the parking lot attendant and the guys in the dressing room for Sunday night hockey have pithy jabs and exasperated complaints at the ready.
Sometimes I wonder if you are a congregation of blue and white volunteers tested by the almighty; Abraham without the merch. If true it would make me admire you even more.
But I have spent my professional life in the media and I can tell you the tough questions being asked of Brian Burke and Randy Carlyle were posed so the reporters could tell their friends how they interrogated the men at the top of the Leafs’ organization they so covertly love.
You are owed the best, for you are incomparably loyal, but you are not entitled. Blue and White Disease, from my desk at least, speaks not just to the team but to a fan base that somehow feels disadvantaged because their team hasn’t made the playoffs since the lockout.
You are owed a team that spends every penny to get better and does not spend when it will do no good.
You are owed a team that builds a lavish practice facility to better prepare players and prospects. You are owed a team that surrounds decision-makers with the best possible advisers, that uses pro scouts and video and sports psychologists and dietary experts.
You are owed a hard-working scouting organization.
You are owed the best efforts of everyone in the building, from the person who takes your ticket to the guy who, if you so desire, sells you sushi.
How much you pay for these things does not speak to how much you are entitled to them. You deserve them if you pay the league’s highest ticket price or the lowest. You are no more deserving of victory than the fans in Edmonton or Calgary or Vancouver or New York for that matter.
You love the Maple Leafs because your mom or your dad did. Maybe you love them because they didn’t. Perhaps you can trace your allegiance to the pre-expansion days or even back to Foster Hewitt.
You love them because sometimes sports is the one language that bridges father and son, daughter and mom. The Leafs are spoken here as often as Mandarin.
You love them because they give you a reason to get up and read the paper or hang on for the highlight show. You love them because you recognize effort and doubt. You love them in spite of yourself and because they are a habit you can’t shake. You love them just because you want to see how it turns out or you need one more thing to drag you through the crush of winter. Maybe you just like the colors.
You love them because they make life, if not better, more interesting. Nothing connects us to living like disappointment interspersed with joy and by that measure you are the most alive citizens of the hockey ecosystem.
Everyone is welcome in the tent but you walked in with an open heart and a boatload of hope and in this you are not alone.
Here is what you can’t know. Far from being inured to defeat, people in the sports business fight to avoid being gutted by it. Losing is much heavier a burden than winning is a release. The drug in sports isn’t the elation of victory but instead the crushing burden of defeat.
No one wants success more than the men you saw on television today.
I’ll put my money on the guy who, as Teddy Roosevelt memorably wrote, stands battered in the arena rather than the person who sits on the sidelines in a white suit unspeckled by blood and effort.
I have been on sides, the media and the team. I can say this in a way no one else can: don’t tell me what you think. Tell me what you built, or, barring that, what you did your best to make happen.