No Such Nonsense

A little of this, that and... what was I talking about again? It's TV, sports, pop culture and politics - all the stuff that really matters in life.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

On Thin Ice

I used to be a full-on hockey girl.

Watched it.

Loved it.

Bled blue and white for my beloved Leafs.

Could have pontificated at length on the various fortunes of the players, owners, teams and rivalries. Lately, though, not so much. I'm not sure I could even name 5 of the current batch of Buds. Let's see - Sundin, Kaberle, McCabe... Tucker.... um... give me a minute.... the crap goalie - what's his name again? Raycroft. So that's 5. And that was painful.

As a kid, I watched hockey every single Saturday. There was no question about it - though we often did miss the second period to achieve household detente. You see, Love Boat was on Saturday night too, and we only had one TV (and no remote control either - so flipping involved actually getting up. Flipping was not an option). So, some Saturdays it was just the first and third periods, with some b-list celebrity cruising in between.

But, how I loved the game. I still remember getting a Rick Vaive t-shirt for Christmas one year - and wearing it for days in a row. My brother usually refused to play house - too girlie - but would sometimes play if he could be Daryl Sittler. We were just a Leaf household, through and through. Through the horrible, lean Harold Ballard years, when Leafs just sucked and sucked for most of the 1980s. Through to the resurgence of the early 1990s, on the shoulders of first Wendel Clark and then, oh then, on the teeny tiny shoulders of one Doug 'Killer' Gilmore. The early 1990s were just a grand time to be a Leaf fan. Under the management of Cliff Fletcher and the stern eye of coach Pat Burns, Dougie and the lads went deep into the playoffs in 1993 and 1994, only to see their dreams dashed by a Wayne Gretzky clip one year and the freaking Canucks the next.

The Stanley Cup dreams weren't to last. The Leafs traded Gilmore away, and much of the magic seemed to go with him. Sure, the Leafs made a run of it in 1998 with Pat Quinn and Curtis Joseph, but by then the clutch-and-grab, neutral-zone-trap style of hockey had spread from New Jersey across the league. Play was slower and duller. So were the Leafs.

Part of it, I think, was Sundin. Yes, yes, I know he's talented. Possibly the most purely talented Leafs captain in a generation. But I've never warmed to him. No matter how many hits he took, no matter how bruised and battered he looked, I just couldn't love him like I loved Dougie. And I'm not alone. Sundin has never gotten the fan props that his predecessors did. On some level, I think it has to do with our conception of Toronto. For all the Toronto-bashing, centre-of-the-universe crankiness that emerges from across the rest of Canada, on a world stage Toronto is really just the kid brother who wants to impress his big brother's friends. We're small, we're scrappy, we're over-eager and quite dorky. We have to be home before the streetlights come on. New York would never feel like the underdog, pushing and pushing to be seen as world class. They just are. But Toronto isn't, so we have to try harder. Like Dougie did. What was he, 5'8"? He pushed and tried and scrapped and dove and bled and did whatever it took. He was Toronto, reflected back to ourselves. He was, in Don Cherry's words, a good Canadian kid. Sundin - what does he reflect of Toronto? He's massive, preternaturally gifted, fast and fluid. It's all just a little too easy for Mats. So we'll never really love him.

But it isn't just the captain. The team, the league, the game, became less lovable at the turn of the century. Canada's great Olympic moment in 2002 in Salt Lake City was a joy to watch - reminding me of how fast and exciting the game could be. But the NHL just couldn't measure up. And when the lock-out cancelled a whole season, I have to say I didn't miss it all that much. I found other things to do with my Saturday nights. And I've never quite made it back.

Friends tell me I should - that the new rules have made the game better and faster, that Sidney Crosby is the new Gretzky, that there is more to the league than the Leafs. One can only hope. Because with the front office and ownership in place now, the Leafs are as far from the Cup as they've been in 40 years.

Maybe I should start watching the Senators, then. It couldn't be worse, could it?


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