I remember when the Toronto Maple Leafs acquired Owen Nolan from the San Jose Sharks at the trade deadline in 2003. Man, I was so excited. The next day at school, I went right to my best friend, Chris, and we were both like, “Oh my God, we got Owen Nolan!”
Those were the days.
At that age (11), I wasn’t looking at stats, or trying to figure out where a player fit into the lineup. You don’t realize it at the time, but childhood innocence is the best thing a sports fan can have. It’s a shame we outgrow it.
The early 2000s are my favourite era of Maple Leafs Hockey. It felt like the team could sign anyone they wanted. It felt like they could trade for anyone, too, all they had to do was give up draft picks.
Fine, do it! Draft shmaft, right?
It was like a video game. Any trade and/or signing was possible.
Curtis Joseph. Alexander Mogilny. Gary Roberts. Joe Nieuwendyk. Owen Nolan. Brian Leetch. Ron Francis. Phil Housley.
If they were a future Hall of Famer, the Leafs were interested. And they could do it because they had the money. There was no salary cap. Throw the money bags at them.
It was so much fun. Sure, they never won the Stanley Cup, but I promise you, that never mitigated my excitement.
Again, the bliss of childhood innocence.
I think the mindset of, “We can get anyone. We’re Toronto. Who wouldn’t want to play here?” is, for better or for worse, built into the fabric of most Leaf fans. I don’t even think we notice it, at this point.
We are the Dallas Cowboys. We are the New York Yankees.
In the world of professional wrestling, we would be a heel. The kind of heel that cannot fathom why their actions are not accepted by the fans. Don’t you love me? Eventually, we’d cut an, “All you people made me this way” promo on the audience and embrace our inner bully.
After the NHL implemented a salary cap in 2006, the Leafs couldn’t bring in everyone anymore. It took them a while to realize that. It took them a while to figure out that mortgaging the future, just to finish 9th, wasn’t going to work.
Fast-forward a bunch of painful years and we finally have young, talented players to call our own. Literally, we called them out of the stands at the Draft, gave them a jersey, and claimed them as ours.
Auston Matthews. Mitch Marner. William Nylander.
But we’re Toronto. The good feelings could never last. No one hates us more than we can hate us.
It’s the old Kate Bush lyric…”so much hate for the ones we love.”
These three players aren’t even 25-years-old. They’re too young to have a quarter-life crisis, yet here we are – the fanbase – criticizing them for being unable to win a playoff series. For taking too much money. For being too small. For not being physical enough. Anything and everything.
What a terrible, toxic environment we create. Imagine being 22-years-old, doing the thing you love, and having thousands of people criticize you for not being who they want you to be.
As a fanbase, we don’t know what it’s like to win a playoff series in the salary cap era. We last won a playoff series 16 years ago.
Those teams were big. They were tough. They had grit. Tie Domi fought a fan in the penalty box in Philadelphia. Darcy Tucker charged the Ottawa Senators’ bench and started fighting. Curtis Joseph tackled a referee…okay, it was an accident, but I’m trying to make a point here.
Those are the Leaf teams a lot of (modern) fans correlate with playoff success. We don’t know any other blueprint. They haven’t worked.
Last season, the team was built around the idea of puck possession and skill. It became obvious that that wasn’t going to be enough. They needed to acquire players who could provide toughness.
So, here we are. The NHL off-season, smack dab in the middle of October. What a world.
Wayne Simmonds, come on down.
T.J. Brodie, come on down.
Zach Bogosian, come on down.
Jimmy Vesey, come on down.
You are the first four contestants on, The Leafs get Tougher.
And then there was a bit of a lull because the team is over the salary cap, with a couple of restricted free agents still to sign.
Alright, we’re going to have to move someone out. We need to free up cap space.
Let’s go get future Hall of Famer, Joe Thornton, because we are the Toronto Maple Leafs.
I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it.
And when that news came out just before 5PM, Friday night, I was transported back to the early 2000s and my childhood innocence kicked in.
I do not care how old he is. I do not care that his best years are behind him. I do not care if we’re even more over the cap than yesterday. I do not care if we have too many forwards. I do not care if he’s taking someone’s spot. I do not care if he’s not what we needed. I do not care that we already had veterans in the room.
Read my lips, via these four words and ten letters:
I DO NOT CARE.
Joe Thornton is a Toronto Maple Leaf.
This is glorious. If you can’t enjoy this moment…if you can’t put a smile on your face and have fun with this, then someone needs to get a fishing rod and pull you back in by the nostril because you are too far gone as a fan.
It is not my job to figure out how the Leafs can make this work. It is not my job to come up with line combinations. It is not my job to think of trade scenarios.
Will I still do all of those things? Yeah, probably. But I don’t have to go to bed every night with the pressure of actually coming to a resolution.
It is not my job. If they want to make it my job, I will gladly accept, but I think they’re fine without me.
*whispers* call me.
In this moment, I am merely a fan, who is beyond thrilled by this acquisition.
What does Joe Thornton bring to the team? Everything. Final answer.
People will say, “We already had veteran leadership on the team.” Okay, but if the question is, “Do you want Joe Thornton on your team?” You say yes, every day of the week and twice on Fridays.
Thornton’s addition to this team is akin to when you’d play soccer at recess and three minutes in, your friend comes running outside (they were held up; homework problems) and before they even get to the field, you’re already screaming, “He’s on our team!!”
And then all the players on your team are like, “Yeah! We got ___!” And you immediately say to each other, “Go up, I’ll get it to you.”
It’s just a big boost to everyone.
That is the human element of sport we don’t talk about enough. It isn’t all about goals or assists, it’s about confidence and how you feel when surrounded by certain people.
Joe Thornton is a legend in this game, and there are a lot of young players on this team who have had to carry the hopes and dreams of every fan on their shoulders, probably before they were mature enough to do so.
Perhaps Thornton’s presence will allow some players to stand up a little taller, and grow into who they were always meant to be.
So, if some fans want to give up on certain players because their production doesn’t match their salary, they can have that opinion.
At the same time, I don’t know how wise it would be to ship out a core player, right before you actually make a push as a franchise. Not a “we’re just happy to be here” push. A real push.
It feels like this off-season is the impetus of that real push. You always want to see a team build from within, and then bring in outside pieces to supplement the talent you’ve developed.
Through all the pain of the early playoff exits, that is what the Leafs have done. That is what the Leafs are doing.
And, now, Jumbo Joe is a part of it.
No need to overthink it, just let your blue heart show.
Go Leafs Go.