No Leafs, no fun

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 1:36 PM ET

The best part of the hockey season begins tonight -- yet we are on the outside looking in.

It is a most unfortunate place to be.

It didn't hit me, really, until last spring, after a year without hockey, how much I loved the Stanley Cup playoffs and how much the absence of the Maple Leafs affected my regular playoff emotions.

It must be different in a place such as Columbus, where there have been no playoffs, and hockey isn't all over your television, and you don't have a fantasy playoff draft, and you have to never think about what game is being shown on any given night.

But this is Hockey Country -- and this is a market that lives, dies and emotes on a far too personal basis about everything that is Maple Leafs. And by not being good enough to make the playoffs, it isn't only that Leafs fans aren't always certain where to turn, it's that they have been essentially robbed of the opportunity to be part of hockey at its very best.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are not like any other championship run in sports and I haven't always understood why. In baseball, you expect the World Series to be better than the divisional championships and better than the League Championships Series.

In the CFL and the NFL, the Grey Cup and the Super Bowl are the games that are expected to outshine any other.

But from this view, there is an inverse effect to the Stanley Cup playoffs. The first round tends to be the best round of the playoffs. The players are still fresh. The possibilities are endless.

By the time the third and fourth rounds come around, it is often like the television show Survivor. The last men standing win.

Which is how the Maple Leafs have robbed all of you.

They stole your opening round. They stole your unbridled optimism. They stole the great hockey belief -- and Mats Sundin was talking about this the other day -- that any team can win just by making it to the playoffs.

That may not be necessarily true, but fans and players love that talk and who are we to stomp all over anyone's dreams?

Just no dreams, this year. The Maple Leafs made certain of that. In their flimsy apology, printed in ad form in yesterday's Toronto Sun, they glossed over how low the goals of this hockey team really are.

"We share your disappointment," the ad read. "However, we accomplished much along the way that puts us in a great position moving forward to pick up those few points in the standings needed to reach that next level."

Some teams begin seasons in search of championships. The Leafs begin them in search of eighth place. And when they don't get there, the most intense NHL market in the business finds itself having to scatter and try to find enough to care about in other cities and other places.

It can't be good for hockey when the Leafs miss the playoffs. It can't be good for hockey when Edmonton is out and Montreal is out. These cities are the lifeblood of the game.

So, now we watch, not certain where to turn. Can we get passionate about watching San Jose play Nashville without an emotional attachment in a first-round series that should be good enough for a Cup final.

PASSIONATE

Can we get passionate about watching the hated Ottawa Senators -- listen, we all have to hate somebody -- against the charming Pittsburgh Penguins (who, by the way, were 32 points behind the Leafs last season)? If you can't find it in your hearts to cheer for Sidney Crosby and Gary Roberts, you may have no heart.

I'm vaguely interested in Vancouver-Dallas because this is Roberto Luongo's playoff debut. Same goes for Calgary-Detroit, mostly to see if the annual Red Wings collapse is upon us.

Can't get excited about Devils versus anyone. Don't care about the Thrashers and Rangers. Will watch Buffalo beat the Islanders just to see what Wade Dubielewicz really is.

But it's not the same when there are no flags on cars, no horns honking, no non-stop analysis taking place on every radio station, in every coffee shop, on any of the hundred or so panels on sports television.

A playoffs without Toronto won't seem very much like playoffs at all.


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