I’ve been a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs ever since my bedtime was the end of the first period – 8pm. Before going to sleep, I made sure to tape the rest of the game on VHS and write out a label that read, “Hockey”, so no one would tape over it. If I was using a different VHS tape, the label I wrote would read, “Hockey 2”, and so on.
A lot has changed since then.
I can’t tell you how happy I am that I was able to become a sports fan before the social media era. My thoughts and emotions toward sports – especially hockey – were so raw and so pure, there was nothing that could ruin them.
Reading the sports section of the newspaper was a daily occurrence for me when I was a kid. I loved the smell of newsprint. I loved how it felt in my hands. I loved reading about the players I had watched the night before. I loved looking at the box scores and standings.
I loved it all.
I was the kid who wore a jersey to school at least once a week. I still remember the first time I wore my brand new Leafs jersey to school in Grade 5. People wanted to see it before the morning bell even rang – I had to stop one kid from unzipping my jacket.
So if you were to tell me back then that I would grow up and there would be a time in my life that I didn’t like the Toronto Maple Leafs, there was no way I would’ve believed you.
And yet, that’s exactly what happened in March 2014.
The team was terrible. The media was annoying. The fans were throwing waffles and jerseys on the ice. Everything was a disaster.
I unfollowed the team on social media. I stopped watching their games. I stopped caring.
I just wanted an escape. I wanted to hold on to the raw emotion and passion I had for the Leafs when I was a kid, but everywhere I turned it was getting sucked out of me. I couldn’t turn on the TV or radio, nor could I read the newspaper.
I used to fall asleep listening to the Leafs post game show on the radio, or some other sports talk show. I stopped doing that. For the first time in my life, I had to figure out how to fall asleep without the radio on.
You don’t know how hard that was for me.
The Leafs were my life, yet there I was, sick of them.
Deep down, I always knew I was still a fan and that I’d eventually be back supporting them eventually, but I needed a break.
Last year was the worst of it. I only watched one game from start to finish and it’s because I was there in person, with free tickets. Even then, the seats had an obstructed view, so I didn’t catch everything.
And then something happened, the Leafs finished in last place and received the first overall pick in the draft. Finally. Something to catch my attention. Something to bring me back.
For the first time in two years, I had hope. Before that, there was just resentment.
The word “rebuild” has been thrown around this team since 2006, but the management team has never fully committed to it because they didn’t think the fans could stomach it.
Boy, were they ever clueless. All we wanted were young players we could look at and say, “Yeah, I could see him being here in a few years when we make the playoffs.” But they wouldn’t give it to us.
They were too concerned with filling the arena and taking hundreds of dollars out of our pocket.
“Come watch the Leafs, we suck, but we’re the Leafs! Use our hashtag, don’t cheer too loudly, and buy our merchandise! Woo.”
This year is different. They finally went with a bunch of rookies – I believe there are about nine on the roster right now – and lo and behold, we’re in a playoff spot halfway through the season.
A PLAYOFF SPOT.
I finally got my joy back. This team is exciting. There are players I actually want to cheer for. There is a future that is so bright that I need two pairs of sunglasses.
Whether we make the playoffs this year or not, I don’t care. It’s just good to see hope again. I forgot what it looked like.
You can call me a bandwagon fan, and say that I only cheer for this team when they’re good. You can say that a “real fan” sticks with their team during the good and bad.
And I’d tell you to shut up.
You’d be wrong. Dead wrong.
I’ve paid my dues. I used to justify every move this team made and convince myself that “this is the year” and “these are the players we’ve needed”.
Even in the two years I couldn’t stand this team, I still knew the moves they were making. I never stopped being a fan. I just needed to step back from being the fan that I always was.
It’s like not seeing or talking to a friend for a few years. Then you reunite and it’s just like old times.
That’s what the Leafs and I have done. We’ve reunited and it feels so good.
I still limit what I read about the team on social media, though. Once every few weeks I’ll put myself through the torture of reading Facebook comments on their page, just to see what the discourse is.
It’s still the same as it’s always been, even though every Leaf fan has something to legitimately cheer about.
Fans are still complaining about the small things and calling certain players a joke. The bitterness and negativity is still there, floating around social media like an undesirable in the shallow end of a pool.
I do my best to ignore it. I don’t need social media to love the Leafs. I don’t need a special hashtag. I don’t need an ongoing debate in a Facebook thread with three strangers just looking for “likes”. I don’t need any of it.
I have my small group of friends who I talk to about hockey, and that’s good enough for me.
Falling asleep in silence isn’t hard anymore. I still avoid sports radio shows and disgruntled callers who have nothing better to do at 11pm than criticize a 21-year-old kid for not skating fast enough.
I’m trying to be the fan I was when I was a kid. And though I may never be able to duplicate the raw emotions of my 7-year-old self, at least I’m still be able to fall asleep after the first period.
So, that’s something.
Go Leafs Go.