His Excellency, the Ambassador of Leafs Nation

Obligatory disclaimers: The following contains expressions of sarcasm, hyperbole, and moderate levels of partisan trash-talk. If you are one of those extremely literal people who is likely to misunderstand or be offended by any of those things, I advise you to just skip on down the page to Cam Charron’s lovely discussion of the Panthers’ incompetence (or, as I like to think of it, “the one subject we should all be able to agree on”). Also, to fans of the 28 other franchises in the NHL, who might be feeling the need to leave comments to the effect of, “Hey, there’s other teams in the League too, ya know.”: yes, I know. That must be so nice for you. Now shhhhh, Mommy and Daddy need to talk.

Dear Leafists,

I can remember the exact moment I started to hate you. It was April 7th, much like it will be tomorrow, but in 2007, and you (the Maple Leafs) eliminated us (the Canadiens) from the playoffs in the very last game of the regular season.

Back then, we thought Mike Komisarek was awesome, you thought Tomas Kaberle was awesome, and neither of us thought anything much whatsoever about Mikhail Grabovski. We both had stolid Scandanavian captains who we adored/tortured at irregular intervals. Brian Burke was still dropping his untied ties like shedded reptile skins across the parched desert of southern California, the Blackhawks were still terrible, and Ottawa was the fashionable team for everyone in Canada to hate on. It was a different time, but then as now and probably forever, we played each other in the first and last games of the regular season.

You broke our hearts that night. You broke my heart, personally. I spent that night wandering on the mountain in a daze, fending off tears and drug dealers, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. That hurt so bad, man, that absolutely killed. Until this year, that was the worst pain I’ve felt in hockey.

Do you appreciate that? I thought you might appreciate that. It feels sort of good, yeah? To remember times you hurt us? I thought so. Schadenfreude etc etc. And honestly, although it was awful, it doesn’t bother me to much to recount the tale because you got your hearts broken the next day. It all evened up, as so many things seem to between us. It’s weird how that goes, isn’t it? We’re like two sides of the same coin, yin and yang, a marriage made in hell. Whither thou goest, we shall go, in order to ruin all your fun. It’s honestly sort of disturbing, how neatly things seem to balance out between Toronto and Montreal.

Except for the Cups. Those will never even out.

Anyway, my point is, that was kind of awful, but it was also kind of awesome. Because when you are a chronically mediocre team, like us, or a chronically terrible team, like you, there just aren’t a lot of occasions for big games. We’re not the sort of teams that get deep playoff runs these days (well, not often anyway), we’re not getting to face off for the big shiny anytime soon. So being able to face off against each other for the privilege of a post-season was a pretty nice thing to have. It was intense. It was dramatic. We need that.

And now, five years later, once again we come up against each other in the last game of the season, and once again, something is on the line. Except instead of the playoffs, it’s a lottery pick, and instead of desperately hoping to win, we’re both faintly hoping to lose. See, while your boys have done an incredible job of high-speed, thorough tankery over the past month or so, they’re still sitting right on the far edge of the lottery bubble. Win this game and you could easily be one or two spaces out of it entirely. Because (hooray?) the Habs only picked up one point in last night’s game and the Islanders picked up two, we’re pretty well locked into third-worst team in the League, so fortunately we don’t absolutely need to lose this one… but, well, if we want to screw you guys, then… yeah, we kind of want to lose too.

This is the Bizarro world version of 2007: last game of the season, the chance for a major prize on the line, but now, instead of rooting for ourselves, it is in our interest to root for each other. In order to fulfill my natural desire to see you guys suffer, I have to hope for you to win. If you want the best possible chance for the best possible pick, if you want the kind of player who could potentially yank your team into playoff contention within the next couple seasons- and I know you want this because y’all haven’t seen any kind of postseason in a small-mammal lifetime- you want the Leafs to lose this hockey game. To the Canadiens.

Look, we don’t like you and you don’t like us. It’s tradition, and more than tradition, it’s fun. It’s the kind of half-real, half-theatrical hate that makes for good rivalries, that makes for competition with teeth. Under normal circumstances, we should not agree on ANYTHING.

But one thing we have to agree on is that this situation is just f*#king wrong. WRONG. Not wrong in the sense of “painful” or “disadvantageous” or “annoying”, but really wrong, deeply wrong. Quite possibly the wrongest of all the wrong things that have ever happened in the entire history of the NHL, barring incidents that required hospitalization. A situation that pressures Habs fans to root for the Leafs and Leafs fans to root for the Habs, even mildly, even for only one single night, is the kind of world-obliterating contradiction that would give Kant a seizure. It’s the kind of paradox that should unravel the fabric of space-time. The entire concept of tanking undermines our natural loyalties and relationships to our team, and that’s pretty bad, but this, my archnemeses, this is an abomination against the hockey gods. It is a perversion of the commandments. It is madness.

A system of draft-pick allocation that leads to this kind of self-contradicting horror is irredeemably broken. I love parity, hell, I love parity to the point of hockey socialism, and I love the whole Christian charity, the-last-will-be-first aspect of giving picks to the struggling, but in practice, the current draft lottery system is a disaster. It allows utterly incompetent management teams to clothe their total lack of hockey-smarts under the veil of endless ‘rebuilding’ schemes. It strands gifted young players on dire franchises where years of their genius are frittered away out of the playoffs and beneath the notice of the rest of the League. It gives players and coaches an excuse- an inducement even- to stop caring and stop competing as soon as elimination looms. It turns fans against teams, sometimes as early as January. And if you aren’t careful, kittens, it’s going to have you OLE OLE OLEING the Bell Centre rafters down over your own team’s smiling corpse. Everything about the current draft pick system is stupid and dirty and evil and wrong. It is contrary to the motherf*#cking spirit of hockey. It needs to go.

I’ve said before that fans can’t effect change in their teams, and by and large that’s true, but there is one power that fans have that occasionally works, and that is the power to drive a conversation. This goes double for you, O Centres of the Universe, who have most of the hockey media on your doorstep, sharing your daily papers, your radio waves, your airtime. Nobody listens to Habistan- they don’t like the accent, I guess- but when you guys talk about shit, the media talks about it, and when the media talks about it, the League talks about it. Nobody can force their hand, but we can sure as hell force their mouths. Maybe that will be enough.

These latter years have not been kind to either of us. Evolution and expansion and internationalization have enriched the game but they’ve also siphoned off much of what was once made us special: our dynasties, or primacy, our power and influence. Neither of us is of that strength which in ancient times moved heaven and earth. We’ve lost a lot, and had a lot taken also. But this rivalry, this hate, this deep-seated need to kick each other’s asses and revel in each others losses, this is the one thing we have always had. This is the one thing no one- no new dominant franchise, no CBA, no League policy- could take away. And now they’ve taken it. F*#K THAT. There’s a lot of losses and degradations we can’t do anything about, it’s just time and progress and economics and blah blah blah. But this broken draft system? This is fixable. This we can fix.

There are already ideas out there, different plans and theories about how to redesign the draft lottery so that it doesn’t reward deliberate failure and create horrific situations like the one now looming before us. I don’t know which one is right, but I defy any of them to be worse than the current structure. The essential thing right now is not to pick a new system, it’s to recognize that the current system is a disaster and start talking about the variant options. We need to make this an issue. Please, please, Leafists: make this an issue. Lend your braying, self-centered, increasingly irrelevant voices to our braying, self-centered, increasingly irrelevant voices, and with our powers of whining combined, we shall move mountains. Or at least irritate the Board of Governors.
Thank you,
Ellen of Habistan

P.S. You do realize that Burke deliberately screwed you by not getting at least a cheap, replacement-level goalie at the deadline, right?