April 5, 2012
Are fans to blame for Leafs' mess?The 'What are you guys doing' series: Part IX
By Lance Hornby, QMI AGENCY
Let’s begin this delineation of Leafs Nation with a curveball.
Grant DePorter, president of the Chicago Cubs fan club, the West Side Rooters, says Toronto hockey fans have yet to endure the ultimate test of unrequited loyalty, even without a Stanley Cup since 1967.
“Forty-five years? That’s nothing,” DePorter deadpans on the phone from Harry Caray’s Restaurant. “We eat that for breakfast in Chicago. Fans here would be so happy if it was only 45 years for the Cubs.”
DePorter revived the West Side Rooters in 2008, the 100th anniversary of the Cubs’ last World Series win. But despite his group’s best efforts, including the detonation of the infamous Bartman Ball, the Cubs and the great-, great-grandkids of Wrigley’s Bleacher Bums are still pining.
The major difference is the Cubs’ diaspora, which still tugs at heartstrings right across the continent. People from the North Side to North Carolina are conditioned to embrace them, whether as a competitive team or their lovable loser persona.
For the Leafs, as playoff failures stretch to seven years — four under Brian Burke — there’s little love, only the losses. “Canada’s team” is a harder sell, even in Ontario, and there’s growing fan militancy inside and outside the Air Canada Centre.
The faithful stuck it out through the Harold Ballard years, convinced the eccentric owner was solely to blame. But he’s been gone 22 years, and the two owners, six general managers and eight coaches who followed have had ample time and money to get it right.
Burke does have a point that this edition of the Leafs can’t be blamed for everything mucked up since 1967, when 17 other teams won the Cup and seven others made it as far as the final. However, the fifth year of the promised fast-track recovery is here, with Toronto trying to avoid being last in the Eastern Conference.
The paying public has made it known their patience is worn thin. They spoke as one when they chanted for coach Ron Wilson’s dismissal — and Burke listened.
Now his name will be next if things don’t start improving next autumn.
But should Leaf fans be looking in the mirror instead of the executive suite? They’d never consider themselves part of the problem, but they’re hardly forcing dramatic change upon MLSE. They populate the most expensive seats in the NHL 41 nights a year and fill the Leafs’ coffers with purchase of team gear. There are long lineups at the subscribers entrance at the ACC — and it isn’t because they want to return tickets or seat licenses.
“If I gave them back, they’d just go to corporations,” one subscriber told the Sun a few years ago. “There are so few of us (individual subscribers) now that I wouldn’t want to see that drop anymore.”
Another client with 40 years’ attendance at the Gardens and ACC summed up his conundrum: “The Leafs are the Leafs. I might go to one or two games a year, but they’re still the No. 1 sport in town. I can give the tickets to my family or sell them.”
But the winds of change, you might even say the perfect storm, could be brewing to compel full notice of fan discontent. MLSE’s trio of major sports properties have missed league playoffs all but two years since the Leafs’ drought began after 2004 and the TFC arrived in 2007.
The incoming Bell-Rogers ownership will be taking stock as they move in this summer and unlike the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, the telecom giants have a bigger stake in giving millions of existing and potential customers an improving product.
While it’s great the Leafs have a world-class arena, a huge practice facility, a decorated hockey staff and an active community/charity arm, the priority should be a first-line centre and a No. 1 goaltender. That would make those $10 beers go down smoother and should lead to more progress.
When he hired Burke, MLSE boss Richard Peddie was true to his word to the fans, hiring a Stanley Cup winner as GM and ending his meddlesome ways. And Burke has honestly attempted to turn the ship around with his “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” approach.
But Burke’s conflicting messages about the timetable for playoffs has led to many jaded fans unsure of what they want. Pushing for the big trade for a final roster piece will cost more draft picks and lead to more lament about the lack of farm prospects. Now that the Leafs have built up a few reserves, many antsy folk want players such as Nazem Kadri called up before they’re NHL-ready.
Sometimes there’s no pleasing those who complain about a dearth of talent, yet never warmed to Mats Sundin, the highest scorer in club history. Or they don’t like Phil Kessel, who is already in the 40-goal range without a top centre. Bryan McCabe, the only all-star defenceman on the club the past 30 years, was booed out of town, ironically because he wanted to stay. Rogues, rebels and fourth-liners such as Eddie Shack, (Motor City) Smitty, Tie Domi and Wade Belak got the star treatment, while Hall of Famer Larry Murphy was reviled.
While on the subject of fickle fans, how disorienting it must be for the Leafs to face a half-empty lower bowl at the start of each period while the high-rollers schmooze. The ACC is already one of the most reserved rinks in the NHL and can be as quiet as a graveyard. Yet when the Leafs play anywhere else within driving distance, or in Western Canada, they’re in for a rollicking blue-and-white gospel revival.
It’s certainly a chicken and egg quandary, whether the Leafs will play better in a noisier house or must make the playoffs before their jilted fans will come back.
“The fans always ask me, ‘What’s wrong with the Leafs?’ ” chuckles 87-year-old Hall of Fame goalie Johnny Bower. “I say, ‘They’re young, give ’em time. But they say, ‘Time? Johnny, it’s been 40 something years!’ ”
The Leafs will soon be looking at a half-century for the NHL’s longest championship drought, while next season marks 20 years since Doug Gilmour and the late Pat Burns fronted the last strong Cup run.
“The long wait can become multi-generational and part of popular culture,” DePorter said of the Cubs-Leafs’ karma. “But teams do win and it does end (happily) for the fans.”
After his $114,000 US purchase of the ball that Cubs fan Steve Bartman snatched from outfielder Moises Alou in a 2003 playoff game, DePorter invited fan reps from the long-suffering Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox to see its destruction. A Hollywood special effects man reduced the Bartman ball to a pile of string.
“It was cathartic for me, but within a couple of years the Red Sox and the White Sox both won the Series, back-to-back,” DePorter said. “Unfortunately, I must have done it in the wrong order. The Cubs should have won first.
“What were the odds of that? It shows things that aren’t supposed to happen can happen.
“The Cubs haven’t won yet, but since the ball was blown up, they’ve won enough games (97 in 2008) that they would have qualified under the 1908 format to be in the Series.”
DePorter, a managing partner at Harry Caray’s, was researching why Cubs owner Charles Murphy disbanded the Rooters after the ’08 Series when he found another possible link to the curse. He discovered the disliked Murphy had been excluded from a dinner in the team’s honour thrown by entertainer George M. Cohan and, as legend has it, hexed his own team from ever winning again.
In 2006, DePorter set about finding relatives and namesakes of all the players and guests that night, including Murphy and Cohan. He invited them all to Harry’s for the “Murphy’s Law Dinner,” using the same 1908 menu. There was a toast from a great nephew of Murphy’s, forgiving Cohan and the players for their 98-year-old slight and the curse was thus “lifted.”
Perhaps DePorter will have better success with hockey. His diner catered the Blackhawks’ team plane during its 2010 Cup run, including Game 6 in Philadelphia. The 3 a.m. victory party was also at Harry’s when the team flew home.
“The Hawks were 6-0 when they ate our food on the plane before their games,” DePorter said. “Maybe the Leafs should consider having us cater their flights next year.”
Team av. home attendancecapacity %
Chicago 21,533 105%
Montreal 21,273 100%
Philadelphia 20,447 107.5%
Detroit 20,117 100.7%
Toronto 19,510 103.7%