Ouch. The Toronto Maple Leafs have fallen out of the NHL playoff race again, marking 112 straight years without playing a postseason game. Okay, it's not quite that bad, it just feels like it -- especially for Leafs fans.
The Leafs last saw playoff action in 2004, and the last time their players' names were engraved on Lord Stanley's Cup was 1967 -- which isn't the longest drought in NHL history, but probably causes more pain to more fans than any other losing streak, if only because of the Tragically Hip song about Bill Barilko.
As a hockey lover who was born and raised in Vancouver -- heck, as a Canadian who isn't from Toronto -- I know it's my moral if not legal obligation to hate the Leafs, but I've never quite managed to pull it off. I got the idea of hating the Canadiens back when the Cup seemed to belong in Montreal by divine right. It was no problem hating the Oilers when Gretzky was lighting up the red bulb behind Canucks' goalie Kirk McLean like it was Rudolph's nose on a foggy Christmas night.
It was easy hating the Flyers for their thuggery. And I will always loathe any team coached by Jacques Lemaire, or any Lemaire wannabe, for turning hockey into a slower version of soccer on skates. But the Leafs? What did the Leafs ever do to me?
I got hating their longtime owner, Harold Ballard. Ballard was a xenophobic cartoon capitalist and pompous "patriot" of a breed rarely seen in Canada. He had a nasty streak that would have made the pre-Christmas Grinch cringe. The ugliest Ballard story I know isn't about his scorn for the Soviets, or his self-defeating disdain for players from outside North America. The nastiest Ballard stories aren't about how he treated his "enemies," but his friends.
Ballard waged his own personal cold war with Captain Dave Keon -- a guy who gave his heart, soul, and all working body parts to the Leafs. Ballard preferred torturing Keon to trading him. Legend has it that Keon had the chance to join the New York Islanders -- sorry that should read THE New York Islanders -- the Cup-owning Islanders of Bossy and Potvin, where Keon would have fit like a hockey glove. Instead, Ballard practically put his captain on the bus to the short-lived World Hockey Association. Keon was so bitter he refused to attend Leafs events until after Ballard died. When I heard this I wondered if the biggest Leafs hater in history was Ballard or Keon.
I quizzed my Facebook friends to find out if/why they hated the Leafs and discovered it's possible that after watching hockey and complaining about the weather Canada's third most popular pastime is hating the Leafs.
Why hate the Leafs? One professional comedienne answered, "because they're from Toronto."
And while that's good enough for a lot of Canadians a few friends dug a bit deeper.
B.C.-raised, Toronto-based comedian Harry Doupe says he hates the Leafs "because I had them rammed down my throat every Saturday of my early life. The rare exception we got to see the Canucks in those early days resulted in Brian Spencer's father dead in a Prince George TV station and a s****y Atom Egoyan TV movie. There's also an arrogance among their fans and the media that surround them that is similar to that of those that support the Yankees, but without winning. Also, from the early days of TSN where anyone from any other team could put forth a play-of-the-year effort only to see a Leafs icing be, 'Highlight of the Night.'"
This season Hockey Night in Canada broadcast 26 games featuring the Toronto team that hasn't made the playoffs since before the invention of the iPhone -- nine more games than they devoted to the Stanley Cup finalist Vancouver Canucks. The exciting young Oilers scored only half the airtime Toronto did and the Calgary Flames, who are always contenders for a playoff spot, merited one game less than that. And even when the Leafs aren't the featured team on the show, they're often the featured topic in the intermission segments.
While I didn't hate the Leafs I used to hate Hockey Night in Canada for always showcasing them instead of my beloved Canucks -- or at least the Canadian teams that, you know, won. One friend who was born and raised in B.C., but now makes T.V. and movies in Toronto, says he puts all the blame for the national Leafs-loathing on the media. Here were his thoughts Friday morning: "TSN SportsCentre just started. They spent the first 10 minutes of the show talking about the Leafs. We're a week away from the playoffs and they lead with a team that imploded months ago. They're not talking about the Canucks who are near the top of the league, Ottawa who is clinging to a playoff spot, the new Jets who are making a last ditch effort to make the real show or the Flames who are in a tight playoff race. Of course, lead your newscast with 10 minutes on the changes the Leafs need to make for next year. "
So why do most Canadians hate the Leafs? Because even when they're not a factor in the playoff race except, maybe, as a speed bump for teams racing for position, the damn media won't stop talking about... oops.