Randy Carlyle fired. A truly great day. Finally, the Maple Leafs, and its corporate ownership at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) are showing that change is possible.
Despite his 91-78-19 win-loss record as coach through his nearly three-year tenure, including the Leafs only playoff berth in the last 10 seasons, and a 21-16-3 record so far this season, Carlyle had drawn the ire of many Leafs fans who lamented his dated approach to the game. And reluctance to bench noted one-dimensional enforcers such as Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren.
While some Leafs fans believed the writing had been on the wall for months, Carlyle continued to garner respect from many in the mainstream media.
This summer, after another season out of the playoffs and the hiring of former Detroit Red Wings Brendan Shanahan as MLSE’s president of Hockey Operations, Carlyle’s two assistant coaches were let go. Yet inexplicably, Carlyle was not only kept but given a contract extension. It was a maddening sign of faith. Or was it an act of defiance?
The Maple Leafs have long been regarded as one of the more conservative-minded teams in the NHL, and while analytics experts such as Daryl Metcalf and stats-friendly blogger Cam Charron were hired by the team, Carlyle’s contract renewal was a reminder that in the centre of the hockey universe, change comes at a snail’s pace.
Carlyle was the man whose harebrained theories on concussions, a growing epidemic in terms of player safety in the NHL, as well as his cringe-worthy attempts to fix a toaster when featured on HBO’s 24/7, made him an outdated laughing stock. And yet he survived as coach.
Carlyle was spared taunting chants from the Air Canada Centre crowd that rained down on his predecessor Ron Wilson in the days before he was fired. But there has been a different level of hostility in Leafsland this year and it’s been impossible to ignore for brand-conscious MLSE.
After a few blowout losses earlier this season, fans took to throwing Leafs jerseys on the ice. MLSE responded by threatening to ban those caught throwing jerseys in future from not only hockey games, but all MLSE events and facilities for up to 12 months.
It looked as if the old guard was here to stay, especially after the team went on a bit of a winning streak – and management played along after players got together and decided not to salute fans as has been their custom after wins in the much-publicized “salute-gate.”
But despite promises of change, and flashes of potential, on the ice things got worse with the Leafs winning just two of their last nine games.
It’s easy to dismiss any concerns about the Leafs not being the top dog in a hockey-mad town, no matter how bad the product on the ice.
Leafs games consistently sell out and any tickets that can be found are exorbitantly priced. According to a report published by TiqIq, a leading resale ticket market aggregator, the Leafs have the most expensive tickets in the NHL.
But there is an underlying feeling of frustration building with Leafs fans that hasn’t been seen before and that, on any given night, threatens to boil over.
Given the billion-dollar company that owns the Leafs – and confusion and anger at the team’s oft-poor performance and reliable late season meltdowns – it was only a matter of time before fans stopped throwing waffles onto the Air Canada Centre ice (a relatively humorous thing to do, in retrospect) and chose instead to throw Leafs jerseys purchased for hundreds of dollars.
Leafs Nation lead writer Jeff Veillette believes fans’ frustration can’t be ignored anymore. “The Leafs are an entertainment product,” he says. “They can’t be successful without their fans. If fans don’t like what they’re seeing, they won’t pay for it anymore.”
Leafs fans are smarter than they’ve ever been, even though throwing a $150 jersey on the ice as a sign of frustration might not seem like the work of a rocket scientist. And therein lies the writing on the wall.
The Leafs aren’t the only game in town. The Toronto Raptors, who’ve patiently built a competitive and balanced roster and who have rewarded fans for being loyal and patient, are threatening to supplant the Leafs as MLSE’s golden goose.
While professional hockey in Toronto is steeped in tradition, the Raptors command a flashy, youthful audience and A-listers are regularly spotted court side at games.
Doubting that the Leafs would one day relinquish their title as Toronto’s most popular sports franchise is to overlook the recent insanity of doing the same thing repeatedly while hoping for different results. And in the case of the blue-and-white, doing things differently means not just staying the course and throwing a few more fresh coats of paint on the wall hoping few will notice.
There’s a joke in hockey circles: there are three things you can count on in life-death, taxes and the Toronto Maple Leafs not living up to expectations. If Carlyle’s firing, less than halfway through the season proves anything it’s that another year without a playoff berth will lead to changes that will be much more swift.
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