"Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?" - Confucius
This year's Leaf season has been very confusing. Sometimes the Leaf family acted like men, and other times, like beasts.
There were good times, as an example in October, 2011, when Leafs were 7-3-1 and sat atop the North East division. Leaf fans and the media embraced the team. Phil Kessel was our town's poster boy having been chosen the player of the month. The 30 guys on the roster were respected and the Leafs expressed the same back to us through their solid play. Coach Ron Wilson seemed happy to be back and the snarkiness he was known for in interviews was somewhat muted. The black-and-white overview Canadians often have of life was sitting comfortably in the white zone and respect was mutual.
The month of November reflected a positive 7-6-1 record and our love affair grew with the new Leafs. Brian Burke was touted by sports writer Danny Gray as the "'Head of State" and "Head of Government" of the most storied franchise in the NHL. Romance was flowing and so many of us went to sleep with dreams of a Stanley Cup. It was then we were more men than beasts. Respect was abound and Lupul bobble heads could be seen everywhere. We were proud of the Leaf's annual visit to Sick Kids Hospital and the "Luke's Troops'" program responsible for inviting over 200 Canadian Forces soldiers to our games.
This year came with a win against Tampa Bay and the Leafs record was a respectable 19-15-5. Brian Burke's plan seemed good and the squad worked arduously and skated proudly. January's win-loss was 7-5 and overall we were 25-19-6, on the road to the playoffs.
February means purification but it was far from that for the Leafs. One after another we lost, finishing the month with ten losses and four wins. Wilson was unraveling and who would be in net that night was a guessing game. Gustafson or Reimer? Who knew?
The Leafs were lethargic and so was Leaf Nation. The ACC had grown quiet. My five-year-old son cried when Florida beat us 5-3. We lost 10 games and won 4, a debacle. We were 29-28-7 and then the curse set in -- the old Leafs were back.
March was a mess. Four wins and ten losses and four goalies (including the Marlie's Ben Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas) between the pipes. Wilson was deflated. You could see it. The Leaf's fans were taking the flags off their cars and loud public chants at the ACC called for Wilson's ouster. They were heeded. Wilson was out. Randy Carlyle was in.
It was here, at this exact time when the separation occurred, when we walked out on the Leafs and they abandoned us. Once again the Leafs, smack in the middle of the biggest hockey market in the world, wouldn't make the playoffs. Dion Phaneuf looked like he was suffering on the ice and media pundits began to question his leadership more intensely. Did he deserve to be captain? Where was his shot? Why didn't he drop his gloves more often?
Like a teenager who loves his Dad today but is critical of every move he makes tomorrow after not getting what he needed: Leaf's Nation lost total respect for the city's hockey team. The fact that Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul had been the top forwards in the NHL a few months prior, made no difference to the guys sitting in the green seats or downing a burrito at a Firkin.
Fans wore paper bags on their heads at the game mocking the players as the crowd belted out "Let's go Blue Jays," as if spitting on the ice. And there was Kessel hanging around the blue line while the puck was bouncing around Scriven's pads. He was waiting for the kill, but not too concerned with protecting the nest.
Disfunctionality had set in once again. We had become beasts again. Respect was gone.
How unique sports is that way. We pay for the right to witness the joy, sorrow, weakness and courage of a 30-team squad and management. They, the players, get paid and watch us, as they skate around the ice pretending not to catch the writing on a cardboard sign stating, "Tyler, I love you." In reality we're both watching each other hoping to be seen, that is until the gauntlet falls. And it did.
With a few games left in the season the heartbreak is back. The question we have to wonder about now is, will we, the Leaf fans, and the 30-man roster of Leaf players recapture the mutual respect we once had, or will the beast emerge again sentencing us to another year of scraped knees crawling around in the bushes of hockey despair?