I inherited Maple Leafs fandom. Many of us do.
It’s a pretty mean thing for your loved ones to do to you, especially as a child. Because being a Maple Leafs fan isn’t fun. It’s not fun at all.
Except for the time Tie Domi fought a fan while in the penalty box in Philly. That was a high point.
I was introduced to Maple Leafs fandom at age 11 when my family moved to Toronto. I got hooked right away. The pace, the atmosphere, the very high likelihood of blood—it all married well with my already-in-progress obsession with professional wrestling. Except this was something I could talk with Canadians about (not a shot at Bret Hart, please don’t hurt me Hitman).
I learned everything I could about the sport as fast as I could. My major purchase as a young adult was a Darcy Tucker jersey. Even then, I couldn’t wrap my head how a franchise this popular, in a city this hockey crazy hadn’t hoisted the Stanley Cup since 1967—back when the NHL was still only comprised of the Original Six franchises.
Yes, that’s two years before The Beatles released Abbey Road. It’s before the invention of the pocket calculator and cable TV. It’s long enough ago that anyone who once recalled it vividly is probably having memory issues by now.
Seriously, just take a look at how the past five seasons alone have ended, multiply the suck by 11, and you have some sense of what the past half-century plus has been like for Leafs fans.
The irony is I learned about hockey to find a common ground with the citizens of the country I’d moved to. But the Leafs are not a fun topic of conversation. When you talk about the Maple Leafs with a longtime fan, it always ends up sounding more like a group therapy session.
But here’s the other thing, besides the losing, I’ve always found so interesting about the Leafs: Traditionally losers are supposed to be, you know, lovable.
The Cubs, the Lions, most TikToks—things that are all objectively awful, but it’s their awfulness that make them great. Usually, when a franchise is so historically inept, they eventually get adopted as a sort of universal underdog for their respective sport.
For starters, the Leafs have always had every conceivable advantage a team could hope for. More than 40% of the NHL players are Canadian, (which is actually the lowest it's ever been—it bordered on 80% in the 1980s). Many of those players grew up Leafs fans. But, interestingly, it’s because of that fandom that Canadian-born players often shy away from signing with the franchise. Nobody is stopping you in the grocery store to roast you about missing an open net when you play in Dallas.
That pressure is because hockey is connected to Canada’s identity as much as beavers, health care, and Celine Dion. The sport is literally featured on the $5 bill. Toronto is the location of the Hockey Hall of Fame. They have a huge fanbase located in the biggest city, in the biggest hockey country in the world. Even in the seasons when they’re awful, getting a ticket to a Leafs game is nearly impossible.
And when the team is good—even great, arguably—and fans have to take on a second mortgage just to get into the arena, that’s when the team has historically hurt them the most.
There’s a reason the team’s writers like to create power rankings of the disappointing losses from this century alone—it’s easy to lose track of all of them. Blown three goal leads in playoff games (plural), big name players choking when it matters most, and a series of devastating Game 7 losses.
In short, it’s a franchise that’s had the general trajectory and success of Sideshow Bob navigating rakes.
As a fan of the team, it’s frankly been devastating to watch… but as a fan of metaphorical trainwrecks, you honestly really can’t do better than following the Leafs.
The pain that the fanbase feels on a continual basis is greatly surpassed by the joy opposing fanbases get from the very same futility. I think that’s ultimately a good thing for everyone involved. Sports are more fun when there’s a villain—even (especially?) if that villain is a bumbling idiot. Because the best way to consume hockey as a Leafs fan at this point is to just view it as a comedy.
But… and I say this knowing full well how disturbing the notion is to some, the Leafs really could win the Stanley Cup this year. Their youth now has the experience (and painful lessons) needed and it’s plausible with a few crazy bounces (which the playoffs are known for), they could beat anybody.
There’s a reason they have the third-best odds to win the Stanley Cup on FanDuel at +900 (bet $10 to win $90). Their biggest obstacle, of course, is the historically great Bruins, who have served as a very painful thorn in the side of the Leafs for, well, basically forever. But especially recently.
The Leafs upsetting the best Bruins team ever? That would be a pretty dramatic twist.
But even if it doesn’t happen, that’s cool too. We all came here to watch a comedy anyway.
Game 1: April 18, time TBD, vs. Tampa Bay Lightning