A lifelong zealot considers the possibility that a Stanley Cup win might wreck the cult of the Leafs

I often imagine the moments after a Maple Leafs Stanley Cup win. Sometimes there’s a dam-breaking overtime goal, others the seconds tick down toward the end of a rout. Either way, at the moment the game ends, Leafs announcer Joe Bowen chokes back tears, his cracking voice over-pronouncing the syllables, “Holy Mackinaw! The! Toronto! Maple! Leafs! Have! Won! The! Stanley! Cup!”

In that instant, the rapture is upon us. My brothers and I and everyone else in the bar pile into each other. There is fist-pumping and flag-waving. There are tears. There are hours, days of running through the streets, hugging strangers and yelling as 35 years of heartache is replaced by ecstasy; Leafs fans have been delivered into heaven in a golden chariot and nothing will ever be the same again.

There is nothing I have wanted more and longer and yet, I’m apprehensive about seeing it happen. The Leafs are a religion in Toronto, and the theological ramifications of seeing the face of God are unknowable.

“What if we won?” is a question that gets its extreme subjunctivity not only from how long it’s been since the Leafs’ last Championship (1967), but from the fact that in my gut, I don’t believe they’ll ever win again. There’s an agnosticism that comes from following a losing team for a lifetime. Having spent years of white-knuckled hours watching Hockey Night in Canada, decades studying stats, a lifetime of psychic energy devoted to willing them to put the puck into the net, I’ve come to accept that my prayers will not be answered, or that they have been and the answer is “no.”

Most comparisons of sport to religion are jokes targeted at the rituals that characterize the fan: the saints in the Hall of Fame, my sister-in-law’s insistence that to mention the word “shutout” before the final horn is blasphemy. But there is a truth in the metaphor that speaks profoundly to our post-existential secularized society.

My adherence to the Church of Latter Day Leafs puts me in communion with a large group of others who share my devotion to the team. Together we have placed our collective hope in the gloves of something larger than ourselves, to which we can contribute nothing except the strength of our faith. Though we’re rewarded with beautiful moments along the way (Sittler’s 10-point game in 1976, Gary Valk’s overtime goal to oust the Penguins in 1999), what usually comes of our devotion is frustration and disappointment.

Only once have I believed paradise was at hand. Of the five trips to the semi-final series that Toronto has made since last winning the Cup, the 1993 series remains the proudest and most painful: the Leafs squeak into the playoffs for the first time in three years; they perform miraculous upsets in marathon overtime-laden series against Detroit and St. Louis; the city behaves as if the second coming is here. Before and after games, fans crowd the streets around Maple Leaf Gardens (a hockey Cathedral, now deconsecrated), people climb lampposts waving tin-foil Stanley Cups, street parties carry on all night.We’re one goal away from a Stanley Cup final against the Montreal Canadiens when game six of our series against the Kings goes into overtime. In the first minute, Wayne Gretzky (the greatest player ever to play the game, never to be forgiven) cuts Doug Gilmour’s face with a high stick that should draw a four-minute penalty, but doesn’t. A minute later, while Gilmore is receiving stitches on the bench, Gretzky scores to even the series. Gretzky gets three goals and one assist in game seven and the Leafs, fighting to the last second, lose 5-4.

At a cottage in Wasaga Beach, five of my adult male friends and I weep. I can count on my hands the number of times in my adult life that I have cried (not teared-up, but actually wept, sobbing and wailing): once when I was arrested (a story for another time), three times when close relatives died, once over a failed romance and four times over Leafs’ losses.

The shared grief is part of what separates Leafs supporters from those of other teams, in the way that centuries of suffering are part of the foundation of Jewish identity. According to Paul Quarrington, who has written or edited five books about hockey, “the fact that they’ve been losing for so long has given them a mythic status. You can really cheer for them as you would cheer for David against Goliath.”

Mythology breathes life into the history of all religions, and the Maple Leafs are not without theirs. The most powerful, immortalized in the Tragically Hip song “Fifty Mission Cap,” is the story of Bill Barilko’s ghost.

Barilko was a good but unspectacular Leafs defenceman who in the last game of the greatest final in Stanley Cup history, in 1951, scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime against the Canadiens. That summer, his plane crashed during a fishing trip and search parties were unable to find his body. The Toronto Maple Leafs did not win another Cup until 1962, the year Barilko’s remains were discovered.

I wish a curse were hanging over the Leafs now, a ghost that could be exorcised, something lost that could be found. Maybe Harold Ballard, the pit boss behind our years of incompetence, might be resurrected and killed to extinguish the curse. Or something.

“If they were in the finals and they lost I don’t know how I’d be able to take it,” Quarrington says of this year’s Leafs, who have a good chance to do very well, “but I don’t know how I’d be able to take it if they won, either…. It’s a bit like God giving us evidence of his concrete existence. What are the implications about faith then?”

Our years of unwavering loyalty, our status as the Jobs of the NHL’s bible, indeed our faith, would be simultaneously rewarded and cheapened by a Leafs Cup win. What’s the value of faith in the face of proof? The magic and nobility would be gone. Suddenly the Leafs would be a respectable, competitive team; a normal team.

And of course they’d lose again. I wonder if, having sipped from the grail, we’d be content drinking from the cheap crystal of moral victory that fills the cupboards of the perpetual loser. It’s doubtful we’d see street parades for first-round victories again. I doubt I’d be brought to tears by an early exit.

The hearts of Leafs fans are like a steam furnace in which the pressure of hope and desire and expectation has been building for 35 years, only occasionally relieved in small bursts. A victory would throw the valve wide open and empty the tank.

Still, though my relationship with the team might fade, though the rest of my life might pale in comparison, I’d take it. I need, just once, to experience that moment, lived so often in my imagination, in which the trumpets sound and The! Toronto! Maple! Leafs! Have! Won!

It’ll never happen, of course. The Leafs never win, and I love them for it. And the strength of my hope and the quality of my faith will only grow.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on April 10, 2003.

Advertisements