By my teen years, I had fallen for another, the New York Rangers. They caught my eye after seeing goalie Gilles Villemure's mask. It was cat-like and kind of cool. When you include players like Ed Giacomin, Vic Hadfield, Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle, I was hooked. I still remain a Rangers fan, but I never gave up my love for the Leafs. No wait, that's not right. I never gave up my hate for the Leafs.
Ask yourself, has any team caused so much frustration for its fans?
Which makes me wonder. Are the Leafs meant to lose?
Let's look at a few things.
Once again this year, the Leafs have the highest average ticket price ($446 U.S.) in the league. They are followed by Edmonton, ($328), Vancouver ($297) and Chicago ($279). So, Leaf fans will pay top dollar for a crappy team, crappy management and crappy results.
On top of ridiculous ticket prices, is their ability to blow the big game.
What was more painful than the 1993 Stanley Cup Playoffs? It was the Campbell Conference Final. Toronto versus Los Angeles. The Leafs were leading the series three games to two. With the score tied 4-4, Doug Gilmour is cut on the chin and requires eight stitches. The culprit? Wayne Gretzky. But instead of getting a five-minute penalty for high sticking, Gretzky remains on the ice and scores the winning goal. The Kings then go on to win game seven. Referee Kerry Fraser said the non-call on Gretzky was the worst mistake of his 2,100 game career.
But probably the worst moment for Leafs fans happened two seasons ago. Game 7 against the Boston Bruins. The Leafs were leading 4-1 midway through the third period. I was watching the game at a friend's house and we couldn't even look at each other. We didn't want to jinx it.
I didn't dare assume a win, but for the first time in a very long time, I actually thought that maybe the Leafs could possibly, perhaps, conceivably make it through to the next round. And for a split second, I already started determining where my allegiance would be. The next round would see the Leafs play my Rangers. But I wasn't ready to make that jump. First the Leafs had to win. Suddenly, it was 4-2. No need to panic. Then 4-3. It's OK, we can still do this. 4-4. That ache in my stomach (Toronto Maple Leafs indigestion) was now making its scheduled appearance. And then it happened. Patrice Bergeron scored at 6:05 of overtime to win. What made it even worse was that Boston made it to the Stanley Cup finals before losing to Chicago. That could have been Toronto. That should have been Toronto.
And, let's not forget the media. The reporters who cover Toronto are ruthless, unforgiving and inflexible. If the Leafs win, it's probably due to a weakness in their opponent. If the Leafs lose, the coach should be fired, and the players sent down.
No other team is treated as poorly by the media and no team receives as much negative press as the Leafs. It doesn't help the cause. Motivation can be a powerful force. Constant ridicule can destroy.
So what are we left with?
Maple Leafs fans are diehard, dedicated and loyal to a fault. But, they don't believe. To be a Leafs fan is to hope for the best, but not really expect it. Last week's 6-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, the worst team in the league, goes along with the madness of being a Leafs fan. The Leafs are the most infuriating team in hockey.
If you love the Leafs, you also gotta hate them. It's an unwritten rule that they will mess you up. And every year, fans believe that their team won't disappoint them. And they don't, because being a Leafs fan means keeping expectations low. That way every goal is a high, every win is a marvel, and once in a while, just for a moment, you can believe that miracles do happen.