Why the Leafs stink
It's not bad luck. It's not bad karma. What it takes to build a chronic loser.
STEVE MAICH | April 2, 2008 |
Also at Macleans.ca:
- The numbers game | Breaking down 41 years of Maple Leafs futility
- Tallying it all up | From ill-advised draft picks to bad coaches, Macleans.ca breaks down the reasons the Maple Leafs stink
- On second thought... | Maple Leafs' general managers have authored some of the most disastrous trades in NHL history
It would be comforting to believe that the Toronto Maple Leafs are cursed. After 41 years of failure, supernatural explanations start to seem pretty attractive, especially when hard facts are just too painful to face.
It's not like there's any shortage of evidence for those inclined to see paranormal forces at work. These are the Leafs, where one can't-miss prospect after another disappears into minor-league obscurity. Remember Drake Berehowsky, Brandon Convery, Scott Pearson, Luca Cereda, Peter Ing, and Jeff Ware? They all, at one time or another, represented a future that never arrived. What about poor Jason Blake? A 40-goal scorer who gets diagnosed with cancer just months after his celebrated arrival in town. Then there's Mats Sundin. One of the game's true stars, he played 13 years surrounded by one of the best-paid supporting casts in the NHL, never once making the Stanley Cup finals, let alone winning it.
The list of disappointments could fill volumes, and now this. For the first time in Leafs' history, eliminated from the playoffs for a third consecutive season. It'd be tempting to say the team has hit rock bottom, but it's not clear they're done digging.
God hates the blue and white — it's that belief which binds together all those who call themselves citizens of Leafs Nation. On talk radio, in chat rooms, and in sports bars across the country (but mainly in southern Ontario) they share the misery of loving a team that does not give back. Not ever. Their bond is galvanized by the common struggle against forces beyond their control, and by the knowledge that they are hated (vehemently) by fans in Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver and beyond. It's that sense of grievance and isolation that, in the absence of anything real to celebrate, holds them all together.
The only problem with all this talk of curses is that there are perfectly logical reasons for the Leafs' legacy of failure. The fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs are a bad hockey club is the inevitable by-product of the laws of economics. Their mediocrity is a design flaw, and it comes down to this: for any business to thrive, it must be obsessively focused on victory. Success must yield powerful benefits and failure must unleash harsh consequences. In the world's greatest market for pro hockey, that cost/benefit equation doesn't exist. A gusher of wealth, regardless of performance, has begat 40 years of infighting, a culture of laxity, and a refusal to admit the problem. The Leafs are a monopoly business that has been corrupted by its own market power.
It's not a curse. It's far, far worse.
In 2002, just a few years before he died, the world-renowned economist Peter Drucker was asked what he thought of the U.S. government's obsession with breaking up monopoly businesses (in all industries except sports). Drucker saw no sense in it. Like the dinosaurs, he said, monopolies were all marked for extinction anyway. "I am not afraid of monopolies because they eventually collapse," he said. "Thucydides wrote years ago that hegemony kills itself. A power that has hegemony always becomes arrogant. Always becomes overweened . . . It becomes defensive, arrogant, and a defender of yesterday. It destroys itself."
Arrogant, overweened, defensive, obsessed with history, and doomed. Could there be a better description of the Maple Leafs?
To be precise, however, the Leafs wield what economists call "monopolistic market power" — not quite the same as being a monopoly, but similar. Colin Jones, professor emeritus at the University of Victoria, has spent much of his career studying the economics of pro hockey. "Pretty much any study you look at, you'll find a very strong correlation between attendance and winning." But the Leafs, he says, are different. "They can do whatever the hell they like and the attendance and merchandise sales go up, and TV and radio contracts hold up. In terms of competitive performance, this monopolistic power is a very bad thing."