Life, economics, politics, psychology, sociology, racism and other isms, law, history, journalism/media…all through the lens of sport.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Mecca of...something or other

Let's talk about the Toronto Maple Leafs. I'm not a fan, and I hate the notion that some attempt to call Toronto "the mecca of hockey."

Let's recap the last 43 years. No finals appearances. None. Natta. Mecca of hockey? What a joke.

Original Six and expansion performance

Q. How many Original Six teams have been to a finals since 1967? 
A. Five - Black Hawks, Red Wings, Rangers, Bruins, and Canadiens. 

Q. How many Original Six teams have won a Stanley Cup since 1967? 
A. Four  Five - Red Wings, Rangers, Bruins, Canadiens and Black Hawks

Absent from both lists - the Toronto Maple Leafs.

How many expansion teams have won a Stanley Cup since 1967? Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, New Jersey Devils, Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins. (edit: and Anaheim Mighty Ducks).

How many have won more than one? Islanders, Oilers, Avalanche, Devils, Penguins.
Leadership on the ice

Aside from team ineptitude, how about individual achievements? I'll cite some observations from a MacLean' article The numbers game: breaking down 41 years of Maple Leafs futility:
  • 15 — Times a Maple Leaf finished among the NHL's top-10 scorers since '67
  • 11 — Scoring titles won by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux
  • 127 — Most points by a Maple Leaf in a single season since '67 (Doug Gilmour, 1992-93)
  • 132 — Points scored by rookie Teemu Selanne that same season
  • 2 — Maple Leafs scoring 100+ points in a season since '67 (Doug Gilmour, Darryl Sittler)
  • 4 — 100-point scorers on the 1985-86 Edmonton Oilers
  • 0 — Major awards (Hart, Vezina, Norris or Calder trophy) won by a Maple Leaf since '67
  • 25 — Major awards won by a Boston Bruin over the same time span
  • 4 — number of awards Alexander Ovechkin won in 07-08 (Rockard Richard, Art Ross, Lester B. Pearson and Hart). In other words, one player won more awards in one season than the entire Maple Leafs franchise has been able to win over the last 40 years. Mecca of hockey? Are you kidding me?
Yes, I have the memory of Ian Turnbull scoring 5 goals in one game...on 5 shots, no less. That will likely never, ever, happen again. I wore #2 on my jersey all my hockey-playing years in recognition of him. And yes, I have the memory of Darryl Sittler scoring 10 points in one game, a record that may also stand forever. Wonderful, and I'll cherish those 30 year old memories forever because that's probably all I'll get from this franchise.

And how do the fans stack up? Again, I quote from MacLean's:
  • 54.9 — Best season in last 15 years, as a percentage of games won (1999-00)
  • 96.8 — Average home attendance that season, as a percentage of arena capacity
  • 36.6— Worst season in last 15 years, as a percentage of games won (1997-98)
  • 99.2 — Average home attendance that season, as a percentage of arena capacity
So, the more we lose, the more people pay good money to watch? What kind of fans are we if we reward losing with attendance? One of the greatest oddities in sport is Maple Leaf fans' willingness to watch mediocre hockey. The Blue Jays can be in first place in the division (which they are in April more often than not...if the World Series was played in April, we'd win every year), but the stands are empty. The Marlies can play great hockey, but nobody's paying attention accept the scouts...from other franchises.

Old Harold Ballard was quoted as saying "I can't sell any more tickets, so why spend any more money?" and he famously gutted the scouting staff, which is why leading talent has gone elsewhere for the last 30 years. No disrespect to the great players the Maple Leafs have had, but they were always re-treads who'd previously achieved success elsewhere (Calgary, Dallas, Chicago, etc.) and used Toronto as their last stop before retirement. Even the great Mats Sundin was a star commodity on the Quebec Nordiques before being traded away to Toronto, after which the Nordiques, upon improving themselves with that trade, won two Stanley Cups, but in Colorado as the Avalanche.

While Quebec must have made the trade as an upgrade move, it's not a discredit to Sundin, who set some records in his Hall of Fame career; the first European-born player in NHL history taken first in the draft, he would go on to be the highest scoring Leaf in the franchise's long history, as well as the longest serving non-North American-born captain in NHL history. Sundin was no slouch, but he wasn't a Leaf draft pick, nor did the Leafs build around him the way other championship teams build around their star. Sundin was well-known for the skills he could display when he had some really skilled help around him, as evidenced by his international play. Back home on the Leafs, however, it was a lonely road for him, with all due respect to his teammates through the years. Perhaps the most gifted talent he had at any time was that of Alexander Mogilny - again, a guy who had come to Toronto after his best years were behind him in Buffalo.

Other sports meccas

How in the world can we - even remotely - consider ourselves "the mecca" of a sport in which we perennially fail to be the standard against which success is measured? Mecca of baseball? That's easy, the New York Yankees, the single winning-est franchise in North American sport. Mecca of basketball? Just as easy, the Los Angeles Lakers - they've won or been a factor in every decade, and have had era-defining players we can recall by just one name, including Kareem, Magic, Shaq and Kobe.

Toronto Maple Leafs? Please. Forty years after the Canadiens' Rocket Richard etched his name in an award by setting the bar of excellence in scoring 50 goals in 50 games, the Maple Leafs had their first 50 goal scorer ever in Rick Vaive.

Speaking of the Montreal Canadiens, this is the franchise most worthy of the title for hockey. In fact, they are the 2nd winning-est franchise in North American sport, after the Yankees.

What does it take to win? There are plenty of franchises who know the answer to that question, and have done it. Some several times. Evidently, winning is something the mecca of hockey knows nothing about. Sure, the Maple Leafs are second in the NHL in total Stanley Cups won, they've got 15. Fine. But none in a generation, and that's just not good enough for the title of "mecca".

Other teams have gone on longer championship droughts...but then, they don't masquarade as the mecca of anything. And the discussion of many of them has come about by their winning and ending the drought.

There is some historic merit to the mantle, although it's more political than performance-based

Back in Original Six hockey, there were two teams in Canada: Montreal in the east, and Toronto in the west. Upwards of 80% of the players were born in Canada, and the great majority of them were Anglo-phones. So, for all the times that Montreal and Toronto ended up in the Stanley Cup finals, it was literally "us vs them", Anglo-phones vs Francophones, and the entire Anglo-phone hockey world related more culturally with the Anglos than the Francs. In this respect, then, the Toronto Maple Leafs were most often the national heroes, winning Stanley Cups for Anglo-Canada and for the Canadian-born players on the US teams, after being eliminated, watching the finals as fans.

Okay, I get that. However, there are too many ways to slice and dice it that just don't support that mantle anymore. Conjuring that title is really just living in the past, while the rest of the hockey world has moved on and, since the Leafs religned into the Eastern Conference in 1993 these two former rivals haven't even met in the Eastern Conference finals. That rivalry is long dead, and so is the notion that Toronto is the centre of the hockey world.

Besides all we've discussed above, let's look at three more ideas.

Let's talk money

This team is perennially the most highly valued franchise in the NHL. They have the highest ticket prices in the NHL. All that money for a loser? That's such an insult to the fans. Other cities manage to put a winning team on the ice for less. Why can't the mecca of hockey? They have had enough money to pay for talent, and they never did. Now that we're in a salary cap era, they have a built-in excuse not to spend money, so the system guarantees that they can't be blamed for not spending money to win, because they can only spend so much.

Let's talk goodwill

Wayne Gretzky wanted to play in Toronto. If we had no designs on winning a Stanley Cup, why not let the greatest scorer the game has ever known suit up in Blue & White for a season? It's not as though the Maple Leafs couldn't afford it. But who ever said the Maple Leafs top priorities include either being a winner or being entertaining? Gretzky only played in Toronto from the visitor's bench.

Let's talk insecurity

Confident winners are not afraid of competition. Do the Yankees lose sleep with the Mets across the Triborough Bridge? Do the White Sox lose gate revenues because the Cubbies are at the other end of town? How many baseball teams are in the Los Angeles area? New Jersey Devils, Rangers and Islanders could all have a home game within a 1hr drive of each other, no big deal to any of them. 

Yet, the thought of another NHL team anywhere in southern Ontario is supposed to be so unimaginable that everything possible has been done to stifle the opportunity. It's certainly not as though the Maple Leafs would no longer be able to sell tickets, with a waiting list that could line the highway from Ottawa to Buffalo. A franchise that was secure and confident would welcome the chance for a hometown rivalry, a "subway series" right here in Toronto. For a league begging for interest in areas that simply aren't interested in hockey, a franchise in a hockey hotbed like southern Ontario would be great for the league, great for the fans who can't afford to go see the Maple Leafs, and wouldn't it be great for TV ratings? Sure it would.

But no, the Maple Leafs are too small to see a bigger picture.

And let's not use the NHL's battle with Jim Balsillie as an excuse. The NHL had nothing to do with stipulations to potential buyers of Maple Leaf Gardens that hockey could not be played in it. Another franchise could have gotten started on Carlton Street with the greatest of ease and would have posed no threat to the coffers of the Maple Leafs.

Here's the kicker, folks - there are two hockey teams in Los Angeles, California. Ever been to southern California? It's half desert, half tropical - the only place to see ice is in drinks...yet they manage to support two pro hockey teams. They can, and Toronto can't? This city has no hockey pride at all.

2010 Stanley Cup

Finally, I'd just like to say, if the Chicago Black Hawks win the Stanley Cup this year, they will leave the Maple Leafs behind as the only Original Six team not to win a Stanley Cup since 1967....having said that, even the Black Hawks have been to a finals series three times in that time span.

There you have it, folks: the Toronto Maple Leafs, absolutely positively not the mecca of hockey.


  1. This just in: Chicago Black Hawks sweep the San Jose Sharks en route to their 4th Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1967. They will likely face the Eastern Conference's 7th seed Philadelphia Flyers who will be uncalibrated having beaten up on the 8th seed... Black Hawks are one series away from leaving the Leafs as the only Original Six team not to win a Stanley Cup since 1967 as well as the only team not to appear in a Finals series in that same period of time.

  2. "My kind of..." (everybody) "My kind of town...Chicago is!"

    Black Hawks in six!

  3. I bet your shitty website just spiked 567% more in hits/traffic becuase you mentioned the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club.

    Can you feel the "mecca" when you get swept up in the shit storm that is the biggest fan base/ media consortium for hockey anywhere in the world?

    enjoy the brief blip of an otherwise incredibly lame internet career

  4. "Career?" Please, I have no delusions of any so-called "internet career".

    There will be no storm to be swept up in. Most Leaf fans will ignore history and keep on believin'.

    I'm surprised you've got so much vitriol - oh, wait, you must be a frustrated Leafs fan. I understand your pain. Perhaps you should direct it at the management that keeps sucking money out of the fans' pockets while putting a loser team on the ice year after year after year.

  5. The Toronto Make-Believes: Avoiding postseason glory since 1967

    1. Nice! It astounds me that the Make-Believes are not only the only Original 6 team not to win a Stanley Cup since expansion, but they are the only Original 6 team to not even make a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. I started the article with this, because it will remain the quintessential example of this franchise's utter failure, a failure so deeply intrinsic to the identity - or lack thereof - of the franchise that it cannot be assuaged with any "playoff run" that has no hopes of a legitimate Cup contention.