Yesterday was a weird day.
The gamut of emotions that Leafs fans have been run through in the last seven days has been unlike anything I have ever experienced as a sports fan. You all know what happened by now, you don’t need a recap. Hell, I don’t need a recap. Ever. Walking into the office yesterday, seeing five screens all replaying the worst heartache I have ever experienced in sports, I mean…how do you even begin to justify that within your own sphere of reference.
The Toronto Maple Leafs did the unthinkable this year and I’m not referring to pushing the Boston Bruins to seven games. I’m referring to the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs made the goddamn playoffs and there is nothing any heartbreaking loss can do to change that fact. Predictions ran rampant before the truncated 2013 season that the Leafs would finish anywhere from 9th to 15th in the Eastern Conference. The notion of a playoff birth was silly and justifiably so. When I said that the Leafs would finish seventh (I think) in our pre-season prediction podcast, I ridiculed my own choice. It was a homer pick, a fandom pick, a pick based out of the faint hope that there would be something to cheer for come April other than another draft lottery. I was wrong. This was the best wrong I had ever been.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how to keep your sanity during the playoffs. I did my best to frame it in a logical sense and keep in mind that, after all, this is just hockey. In the big picture of life, the world, and everything, this really couldn’t matter less. But we all know how serious we take this game we love so much and we know how much a horrible loss can hurt us like nothing before. In retrospect, a section I should have put in my sanity piece was “expect the unexpected” because if there was ever a tournament in sports that creates the unexpected, it is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
I mean, honestly, who could have really predicted what went down in Boston on May 13th? We’ve seen the math by now, we know how rare and insane this game really was. I give all the credit in the world to the Bruins and I give all the envy that ever existed to the Bruins’ fans. I cannot even fathom the joy that must have been felt when Patrice Bergeron’s shot fluttered past James Reimer. Reimer’s body language said enough for every Leafs fan. Shock, devastation, pain, disbelief…the list goes on. It sucked, is really what I’m getting at.
Apparently, this really shouldn’t have been a surprise. According to a sharp listener of the podcast, on February 11th I said, ”if they’re going to fail and break everyone’s hearts, they’re going to do so spectacularly.” I am the worst.
Much has been written about this game in the last 24 hours. From the sublime to the mindblowing. I won’t pretend to be able to fill this space with anything approaching either but, this is going to turn into one of those “where were you when” games so…here’s where I was.
For the first six games of the series I either watched at a bar or at the office, an even 3-3 split. For the seventh game, my friends and I decided to have a barbeque and watch at a house. After all, when things got too stressed or too crazy or too whatever we assumed would come from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game seven, we could pace or walk around or drink everything in the fridge. We were set.
I watched with the game with two of my best friends in the world. One, a massive Leafs fan, probably a bigger fan of the doomed team than I am and the other a guy who, in the three years I’ve known him, long since said that he despised hockey. I said on many occasions, “watch the playoffs in Toronto, you’ll like hockey.” I was right. We also had a Sens fan watching with us who, bless his heart, rooted for the Leafs in support with all he had. It was awesome and perfect.
Then Nazem Kadri scored to make it 4-1 Leafs.
Holy crap, guys.
The elation that we felt after that goal was really unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a sports fan, save for Crosby’s goal in the 2010 Gold Medal game. Joy watching the Leafs? This was new. I mean, to be fair, I’ve lived in Toronto for 21 of my 25 years on this planet and this city hasn’t exactly given us a lot to cheer for. I was too young to be able to fully experience the Jays’ World Series wins and, from a hockey perspective, was too young to fully grasp the double gut punch of games 6 and 7 of the 1993 Campbell Conference Finals. This series had gone from “man, it would be great to get to Game 7″ to “we’re in Game 7. Let’s win this thing.” At 4-1, there was no way to consider how it was going to end.
Then it did.
I have never felt worse as a sports fan as I did in the intermission between the third period and overtime. Losing the game was nothing compared to that feeling. I felt it in my gut. I didn’t even want to watch overtime. I knew where this was going. It sucked. So, so much.
It was a feeling we’ve all experienced before, to a far greater degree, during those moments in our lives where we’re just like “man…what happened?” You know what I mean, the feeling that happens after a particularly bad breakup that becomes one of those events that changes you you are as a person. In a weird way, last night was like a horrible breakup in a lot of ways. You can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you’re just defeated and deflated, you look to anything to help you believe that you will come out of this not only stronger, but better (this is a personal favorite of mine). Game 7 wasn’t that but it was closer to it than any sporting event had any right to be.
In the grand scheme, I was fine. It was a hockey game. Life goes on. The thing is, though, when it comes to moments like Game 7, or when it comes to a horrible break up that makes you question your very being, condolences don’t help. After any tragedy, no matter how big or small (I call these “personal traumas”), any sympathies directed your way fixes nothing. “It’ll be okay,” “You’ll move on,” “You’ll see this was the right thing.” Meaningless. Things get better eventually, sure, but these are scars and scars just don’t heal that quickly. And, man, Leafs fans have a lot of scars. As any Leafs fan who was told “it’s just hockey, you’ll be okay” will tell you, sympathies were a cold comfort on Monday night. We’re going to be feeling this for a long time. And that’s okay.
There are so many positives for the Leafs and their fans to take out of this series. Jake Gardiner and James Reimer are here to stay, Cody Franson and Gardiner are a legitimate defensive pairing, Mikhail Grabovski is a legitimate crazy person and totally the best, Phil Kessel is definitely the latter. These are good things. Next year’s Leafs team will have a bit of a chip on their shoulder, I’m not convinced they will be good, I’m not convinced that their abnormally high PDO and regression won’t catch up with them come the 2013-14 season. But, know what? Who cares? If this Leafs team can give us anything near the excitement, joy, and inevitable heartbreak they managed this year, I welcome it with open arms.
Yes, this was just another addition to the annals of Leafs misery but, man, it was a fun one. Monday night sucked, yesterday morning sucked, and then Tuesday evening wasn’t nearly as bad. I believe in James Reimer, I believe in the Toronto Maple Leafs (I don’t believe in Randy Carlyle but I can pretend), and I believe in the fact that things can’t be horrible forever. This could be the start of something. Don’t walk away, Leafs fans. Embrace the pain. Embrace the ridicule, the ridiculous, the hate, the love, the losing. If there’s one thing Leafs fans can claim, it’s that we lose well. It makes us stronger. Don’t forget about the coagulation of Leafs fans at Maple Leaf Square. Look at those clips of fans cheering there. They are truly awesome. Keep that going for next year. I can’t say the Leafs will be back in the playoffs nor can I say that they will be able to replicate the excitement they created this year but this fanbase has dealt with their worst case scenario (which is saying something as a Leafs fan). Do not have your faith shaken, do not let the despair overwhelm you. Do not abandon the bandwagon that grew so large and so strong in the last two weeks. This is why we come back. This is why we love this team. This is what we do.
And we do so spectacularly.