It’s like a ufo landed in the park and out walked, or in this case skated, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Scrambling up a huge snowbank at Withrow Park on Monday morning (February 11) to catch a glimpse of the Leafs, who are holding an outdoor practice in my neighbourhood rink, I squeeze into a standing-room-only spot. Sure, I’ve brought my kids, the two-year-old decked out in a Leafs jersey, but it’s me who’s really excited. There’s Mats Sundin actually on my home rink, where I play shinny in the winter and ball hockey in the summer, and Andrew Raycroft standing in the very net I so rarely score on.
This is the rink my Leafs-swagged toddler is learning to skate on. Wow.
A couple of hundred students from two local elementary schools are the luckiest kids in the city this bright and freezing morning.
To be honest, I’m surprised by my own animation. After all, I’ve been muttering to my beer-league buddies for years that fans should stage a one- game boycott of this very same team as a modest act of collective self-respect.
After 40 years of dashed hopes, bad trades, poor drafting, uneven play, dysfunctional ownership, rising ticket prices, watered-down beer (did that really cost $8.50?) and no Stanley Cup, you’d think it would be time for a little consumer revolt.
But as I stand in the snow, feet planted strategically to avoid splotches of yellow dog piss, all my cynicism fades. Maybe it’s that they’ve come to our place rather than us going to theirs – the overrated, corporate, gaga Air Canada Centre – and there’s no plexiglass between them and us, no hectoring ads mediating the moment, and very little security.
Even the fact that both Zambonis on hand freeze before the practice begins adds a bit of small-town hoser to these big-city hockey gods here to celbrate their part in funding a program refurbishing this and other rinks in the neighborhood as well as giving a few thousand bucks to two local schools.
Even so, as the players, still in full gear minus their skates, file along a cordoned-off pathway to their bus after the practice, I can feel the warm vibes begin to freeze.
Kids, pressing against the barrier, implore the players, even coach Paul Maurice, to sign their pucks. Begrudgingly, with no outward sign of pleasure and rarely making eye contact, some players sign the odd puck and then resume ambling toward the bus, ignoring the clamour of good will around them. Hell, even the Queen waves at least.
Maybe they’re just shy, or cold, or too rich perhaps, or they take the attention in hocky-mad Toronto too much for granted.
What this little community lovefest underscores is the one-way relationship we’ve had with this team all these years. Yes, I know players visit hospitals, and the organization donates money and equipment to local groups (which prompts a question: why are we using corporate handouts to maintain city-owned rinks anyway?).
But the procession to the bus hints at the growing disconnect, masked by a fawning media, between homespun hockey loyalty and a game controlled by financial ledgers. We all know this frozen country’s dream of speed and guts on ice doesn’t come from boardrooms, but from the kids behind this barricade.
More heritage brand than hockey team, the Leafs have priced themselves out of the reach of most of their fans.
Worse, though, is that the team doesn’t need real fans anyway. The bosses make huge profits off television rights, corporate boxes and season ticket holders, no matter how poorly the team plays.
That’s why, when I was given a ticket to a game recently in one of those fancy-pants private boxes, the first question the server asked me was whether I was a hockey fan. Being a fan is no longer assumed, because being at the game is more important than the game itself.
And that’s a far cry from standing beside a Riverdale rink on the coldest day of the year.