When playoff hockey returned to Toronto, the rust showed, here and there, somewhere between the fans and the game.
The fans were ready. What used to be normal, and was for nine years starkly absent, all of a sudden returned. That feeling of palpable excitement, formerly a spring rite of passage in a city that loves its hockey team, consumed the outdoor plaza at Maple Leaf Square before the game. Even the traditionally staid crowd inside the arena found its cheering legs, now and again. The fans weren’t the problem. They never forgot what a playoff goal looks like, how it sounds, and all the revelry that briefly follows.
The team was, more or less, ready. A few nights ago, they’d shown that they belong—or can belong—on the same ice as a Boston Bruins squad that’s chock full of Stanley Cup champions. Last night, with the first round series of the 2013 NHL playoffs knotted at a game apiece, they never managed enough momentum to discourage the powerful Bruins. They were rarely awful, and mostly just mediocre. Phil Kessel, the man everyone will watch for however long this series lasts, had sad moments—he coughed up the puck in his own zone and watched as winger Daniel Paille deposited it in the net—and happier moments, including a goal to call his own less than a minute into the third period. But, all told, despite demonstrating a rare ability to outshoot their opponents, the blue and white fell 5-2.
None of that, however, accounted for that lingering rusty feeling in the building.
Do you remember Jeff Douglas? Joe, of “I am Canadian” fame? He who was a small celebrity in Canada when, by coincidence, the Leafs used to make the playoffs on a regular basis? The Leafs brought him back last night, in between plays, to proclaim his love for the home team. “I wear blue and white, not black and yellow,” he proclaimed. “I cheer for Sundin, not Alfredsson.” There was only one problem with the scene: Joe wasn’t wearing blue and white. He was wearing the same black and red—in a checkered pattern—that Daniel Alfredsson’s Senators don on a nightly basis. Oops.
During an earlier stoppage, Leafs announcer Andy Frost alluded to one man in the crowd who was celebrating his 105th playoff series as a Leaf fan. The camera panned to a private box where an 88-year-old Johnny Bower, a legend if ever one graced the arena’s halls, stood and blew kisses to the crowd. In so doing, Bower continued that fine modern tradition in Toronto: celebrate a glorious, fading past while you still can. Johnny Bower, Joe Carter, you fill in the blanks. It’s something to cheer in between whistles.
With fewer than 10 minutes left in the game, that other great tradition took hold of the ACC’s speakers: The Hockey Song. The Leafs had narrowed the score to 4-2, and were pushing in fits and starts to further close the gap, and Stompin’ Tom’s classic tune whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Only the song was cut off by the resumption of play—by a few seconds, but nevertheless.
Before last night, I’d never really listened to Carry On My Wayward Son, the hockey-rink staple that Kansas pumped out in 1976. But when it took over the arena at some point in the third period, the second verse—meant to energize the crowd, remember—struck me.
Masquerading as a man with a reason
My charade is the event of the season
And if I claim to be a wise man, well
It surely means that I don’t know
A cynic would say those four lines define what it means to be a fan of the Maple Leafs or Blue Jays or Raptors, or—credit where it’s due—any team that doesn’t play lacrosse (the Rock) or football (the Argonauts), since those teams occasionally win when it counts.
Leafs fans harbour a perennial obsession with their team unlike any other in Toronto’s sports universe. When the Jays are in last place, the Rogers Centre’s sea of empty blue seats serves as punishment. When the Raptors are determined to lose, their fan base remains intact—but who talks about them, anyway? Everyone’s stopped noticing Toronto FC altogether. Few non-diehards ever noticed the Argonauts, even if they were Canadian football’s best team last year.
Somehow, Leaf Nation forges ahead. Forget the Cup drought, they say. Forget the playoff drought. Our guys are back, aren’t they? It’s all worth it, even in an ultimately losing cause, if the Senators or Bruins or Canadiens suffer just a little bit. Does it even matter that most of the team’s fans weren’t born when the Stanley Cup paraded around town? Does winning matter anymore? Leaf fans are masquerading as people with a reason. Period.
Before the puck dropped at the ACC, the CN Tower lit up in blue. As fans filed out of the arena, the tower’s lights had gone purple. The game was over. The page already turned.
Now, the city does it all over again on Wednesday, when the series moves to its fourth game. And, once again, the fans hope everything clicks: their peers yelling, their players excelling, the Johnny Bower and Joe Canadian moments finely tuned. If that doesn’t work, there’s always Game 5.