The end of Darcy Tucker's best season is near and he hates that fact.
He hates that he has numbers -- more goals than ever before -- but almost certainly no playoffs to be part of.
He hates that he has found a certain respectability this deep into his career and yet there is no Stanley Cup to hope for.
He hates that the only maple leaf he can wear next month will come in a colour other than blue and white, if he chooses to play for Canada at the world hockey championship.
"I'm getting too old to care about how many goals I get or how many points I score," Tucker said, sitting at his locker in the Maple Leafs dressing room, typically wearing a bruise under his left eye and a welt with stitches just beside it. "When you're a kid, you think a lot about your own goals. You count them. They mean something.
"I don't imagine I ever got into this game for personal success. It's great to score some goals. But you don't get remembered for scoring 150 goals as a player. Mediocrity isn't anything.
"There are a lot of players who haven't done well in their careers and end up winning a Stanley Cup and they're remembered a lot more than guys who have above average careers. You never see yourself being in this position (out of the playoffs). We've had some great teams here in Toronto. We've had some pretty good playoff teams, teams that were this close."
Just not now. Not this year. Who knows when again?
When you're like Darcy Tucker, and you always seem to find a way, sometimes the wrong way, you remain optimistic when there is little to believe in with five games to play. You remain optimistic that the kids are going to be all right and the team that you love was beaten this season more by circumstance than by design.
When you're like Tucker, and you know only one speed -- full throttle -- you don't stop to recognize that while you're out there busting your butt some of your friends and teammates aren't doing the same.
This hockey season has been Tucker's personal coming out party, a jump from Sideshow Bob, or The Pest as Pat Quinn called him yesterday in retrospect, to something no one ever thought possible before.
"He has shown, basically in my mind, the signs of leadership," Quinn said. Quinn said it with a straight face. He didn't ask for Lindy Ruff's opinion.
Quinn said it because it's true. "It has been a continued growth for him," the coach said. "He's a more mature player. He's in better control and makes good decisions. He's gone from The Pest to a good, solid player."
At 31 going on 21, depending on the day, Darcy Tucker is growing up. You see it in his deportment, his play, but even more than that in his popularity. He is, in a town that forever adores the banger and the crasher, suddenly the most popular Maple Leaf. Tie Domi has moved into the love him or hate him phase of his career. Mats Sundin always has left fans wanting more no matter what he has accomplished. Ed Belfour was never warm and fuzzy enough to be adored.
All that opened the door of favourite to the unlikely Tucker. Popular with fans. Immensely popular with female fans.
"It's weird, eh," he said of his admirers, especially women. "They must need glasses or something. I mean, look at me. I look really good right now, don't I?
"I think I have a pretty good graph of (my popularity). I'm a big hockey fan, too. I enjoy the community. I enjoy being around the people of Toronto. This is my home now, I'm going to live here after my career is over. You meet a lot of people along the way who are huge fans and seem to appreciate what you do."
In Tucker's case, they appreciate not only what he does, but how he does it. The National Hockey League guide has him listed as being 5-foot-11 and weighing 178 pounds.
"Maybe 5-10, maybe 170 pounds." And then he pauses: "Soaking wet."
Never mind the angst in Leaf Nation over an April without playoffs in Toronto. Imagine the nerves right now in either Edmonton or Vancouver, where one of the Canucks or Oilers will seemingly miss the playoffs. These are highly skilled teams far deeper and more talented than the Leafs. For them, not qualifying for the post-season is disgraceful.
By both necessity and performance, the Maple Leafs have needed to use six rookie defenceman this NHL season. For this, some fans credit general manager John Ferguson Jr. for having his eye on development. Truth is, only one of the six kids, Andy Wozniewski, was acquired by Ferguson. The other five were drafted when Pat Quinn was GM.
No matter what the question happens to be, Jean-Sebastien Aubin is not the answer. He just happens to be the flavour of the month for the streaking Maple Leafs. He is not their goaltender of the future. For the Leafs to be taken seriously next year, they must upgrade their netminding and that doesn't mean pairing Aubin and Mikael Tellqvist and standing pat.