Picture it, Air Canada Centre, 1998-1999.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have moved into their new digs on Bay Street. It's the first season for head coach Pat Quinn and goalie Curtis Joseph. Mats Sundin is in his sophomore season as captain. That year, the team made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The 1998-1999 season marked my first official one as a Leafs fan. It was a religious awakening of sorts -- I saw the (blue and white) light, and became a fan. All thanks to my dad.
Or, rather, like Jerry Seinfeld trying to return a jacket to a department store, spite was the motivating factor.
My dad hates the Leafs. Probably more than anyone else I know. It's even more infuriating to me because he grew up in Toronto. He recalls the other kids in his neighbourhood who cheered for the Leafs, while he was decidedly against them.
Later, in his teens, my grandpa acquired one of Dave Keon's hockey sticks. In a rare lapse of judgement, he gave it to my dad. Disgusted at the thought of having to play with a Toronto Maple Leafs-branded hockey stick, my dad sawed off the top of the stick, and along with it, the autographs of the entire 1967 Stanley Cup-winning team so he could use it for road hockey.
Each season, he finds new and creative ways to put down the Leafs. A few years ago, he gave me a Kleenex box with the Leafs logo printed on it, with a note that read: "Try and save these for April, but you'll probably need them in October."
Armed with his encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, my dad calls the plays before the TV announcers do. He firmly argues that his hockey doctrine is "I like players, not teams," when really this is his code for "Anybody but the Leafs."
This motto would be more appropriate as a campaign slogan stuck to a podium at a political rally. His hatred for the Leafs is so inexplicably head-scratching, so incredibly baseless, and yet, so familiar. It dawned on me that my dad had unknowingly highlighted my own bias -- he was my real-life Shakespearean foil.
As supporters, we are blind to the controversial changes implemented by the organization at hand, and refuse to acknowledge criticism from outside the bubble.
And then something tangible began to take shape: I realized that partisanship is as widespread in politics as it is intrinsic to our nation's favourite sport.
Mind you, hockey and politics aren't exactly strangers. Don Cherry's oft-incomprehensible rants about "left-wing pinkos" have been fixtures on Coach's Corner for as long as his obnoxious suits. (Meanwhile, Ron MacLean is all of us -- befuddled as to how we wound up babysitting our small-minded uncle for the night.)
Arenas (ice-hockey or political) are the epicentres for unapologetic tributes. Accolades from the glory days are are embellished and exalted in a pursuit to replicate that power. As supporters, we are blind to the controversial changes implemented by the organization at hand, and refuse to acknowledge criticism from outside the bubble (myself included).
For example, take agitator Nazem Kadri. He's my dad's latest love-to-hate fixation on a post-Tucker Leafs team. Kadri, for the most part, is well-liked by fans and his teammates but hated by other fans and the opposing bench. I justified some of Kadri's more dubious hits against Ovechkin and others because, well, they started it. But what if Ovechkin had been a Leafs player, and Kadri on the Capitals roster -- would I still feel the same the way?
Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri (43) and Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) come together in front of the Leafs net. April 19, 2017. (Photo: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
A more appropriate allegory would be the constant back and forth between the Liberals and the Conservatives during Question Period. The Conservatives criticize the Liberals for their staff's moving expenses, or the prime minister's lavish vacation. Meanwhile, Liberals fire back and reminisce on the Harper government's missteps of a gazebo with a $100,000 price tag, or the $16 spent on an outrageously expensive glass of orange juice. The hooting and hollering dies down for a while, but it's not long before the gloves come off again, and both benches dish out the cheap shots. (As for the NDP, they are an under-performing NHL expansion team in this metaphor, and the Stanley Cup is but a pipe dream.)
When a play doesn't go as planned, fans of any team admonish the system and the referees for awarding penalties against them. ("That ref has it out for us -- he must be Habs fan!") Journalists, like referees, are pummeled in the public sphere for bringing transgressions to light, when so often, they are just doing their job. (Fake referee -- sad!)
And what of those fair-weather fans and bandwagon jumpers? This apathetic bunch is swept-up in the excitement of the brightly-coloured signs and a promise of victory, but after all is said and done, they are nowhere to be found. It doesn't help matters either that the NHL and federal political parties cater to an elitist crowd, no matter what team you're on. Either way, the seats closest to the action will cost you a bundle.
It's a guarantee that my dad and I will watch the Leafs in the playoffs in the coming years. (I can hear him reading this out loud, saying "If they make the playoffs.") He will rejoice when they go to the penalty box, and sulk when they score, let alone if they win. As per my traditions, I'll hang my Toronto Maple Leafs flag from the car, and don my Kyle Wellwood jersey for good luck. (I still mourn Wellwood's premature exodus -- a truly talented stick handler who became a martyr during the organization's Dark Ages.)
And as for my dad and me, stubbornness is a dominant gene in our family, so for the moment, we have no choice but to agree to disagree. Looking on the bright side though, things could be worse.
He could be a Sens fan.
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