As the Maple Leafs hit the playoffs for the first time since 2004, their fans are feeling a strange mix of excitement, anticipation, and dread. Inside Toronto’s longest-running soap opera, through the eyes of some of its most fervent, nail-biting devotees.
If you’re a hockey fan in Toronto searching for the true heart and soul of Leafs Nation, you’ll find it on a small street just off the main thoroughfare of Weston Village.
Peter’s Barber Shop is a long way from the quiet, corporate-owned seats of the Air Canada Centre’s platinum section, but it’s known to a certain hardcore group of Leafs enthusiasts as “Toronto’s other Hockey Hall of Fame.” On the front door, before you can even reach for the skate blade–shaped handle, you encounter a sign that reads, “Sorry…Ottawa Senators fans will NOT be served here.”
After you stride through the vintage Maple Leaf Gardens turnstile by the door, your eyes are drawn to the regulation-size hockey net along the back wall, the blue and red lines painted on the floor, and the long rows of pucks and photos autographed by the many NHL legends who’ve stopped in over the years. Lining the ceiling are pennants from every team in the NHL’s modern era, both current and defunct (with the exception of those hated Senators, of course).
It’s a Saturday afternoon, and owner Peter Kalamaris is in his element, discussing the matchup later that night against the Montreal Canadiens, not only with the customer in the big red barber’s chair, but with the guys waiting their turn in the arena-style seats a few feet away.
The 41-year-old was indoctrinated into Leafs fandom by his late father, a Greek immigrant who officially licensed the shop in 1961. Kalamaris says his dad took to the game as a means of assimilation. “You’re in the barbershop, and everyone else is talking hockey,” he says. “Montreal was heavily favoured to win in 1967, and when the Leafs won, my uncle and father were smashing plates all over the place in the Old World, Greek style. My mother thought they were going crazy—they were just embracing the new tradition of following hockey.”
1967. That’s 46 years ago, for those millions of us counting: the longest current championship drought in the NHL. Combine that with the team’s just-ended nine-year exile from the playoffs—when we were forced to sit back and watch fans from places like Carolina and Anaheim celebrate Cup wins—and it’s no wonder Leafs fans get a bit irrational. A half-century of failure will do that to you.
The Leafs’ wretched track-record has led Kalamaris and his loved ones to indulge in numerous superstitions over the years. “Someone called in to my father in 1968 and asked him what the haircut price was. Any time someone phones and asks us how much the haircut price is, we say, ‘We’re sorry, but we did that in 1968 and the Leafs never won the Stanley Cup again.’ So we never quote a price over the phone.”
The first and only NHL team to be valued by Forbes at a billion dollars, the Maple Leafs are at the centre of the world’s biggest hockey market. In a just world, the team’s fortunes would mirror that of the New York Yankees or Manchester United: running out of space in the rafters to hang championship banners while continuing to rake in the cash.
After their last Stanley Cup win, the Maple Leafs had 37 years to put that financial clout to their advantage, until the NHL salary cap levelled the fiscal playing field in the 2005-06 season. That’s exactly when the Leafs went into freefall.
As Kalamaris recounts his personal Leaf-watching history, you realize that he’s wrestling with the quintessential internal conflict faced by every true, blue, Toronto hockey devotee. He’s well-versed in the game, and knowledgeable enough to astutely express his endless frustrations with the team’s poor decisions. But he’s also unflinchingly loyal, almost against his will. This innate inability to separate reason from emotion is the grief that unites fans everywhere.
While plying his craft on the tresses of Leafs Nation, Kalamaris spends every day trying to reconcile the opposing sides of this collective sob story. On one hand, the logical understanding that the current squad likely lacks what it takes to win it all, and on the other, the inescapable temptation that this might just be the year Leafs fans get what they so sorely deserve. Head versus heart. Reason versus passion. He’s trapped in the vortex of inflated expectations.
“This is the funny thing about Leafs Nation,” he says. “When we’re out of the playoffs, just get us in the first round and we’re happy. But when we’re actually in, we want more. We want the Stanley Cup.”
With the team having started its first-round playoff series this week against the feared Boston Bruins, Leafs fans’ psyches are being put to the test once again. Given the team’s near-decade at the bottom of the standings, this year’s post-season odyssey is far more loaded than usual. Across Leafs Nation, the die-hards are bracing themselves for drama, increased blood pressure, and, of course, the crushing heartache that comes with the team’s almost-inevitable defeat.
Kalamaris says his customers are so excited they can hardly contain themselves. “We haven’t been in the playoffs for nine years. The buzz is there. Everyone is excited. They’re waiting, impatiently, trying to think of how they’re gonna afford the tickets from scalpers, because they’ll be so expensive.”
But what about the pain, the inevitable trauma? “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” he says. Spoken like a true obsessive.
Infinitely more important to our self-image than condo construction, City Hall squabbles, or transit debates, the Maple Leafs are unquestionably Toronto’s longest-running and foremost civic psychodrama. What was once a matter of municipal pride has become a deep-rooted shame to fans of a team that, prior to this recent drought, had never spent more than two straight years out of the playoff dance since they ditched the St. Patricks moniker and became the Maple Leafs back in 1927.
Leafs Nation hasn’t had a whiff of the post-season since May 4, 2004, when Jeremy Roenick’s goal at 7:39 of game-six overtime sent their heroes crashing out of the second round. What we’ve endured since then has been a well-documented revolving door of patchwork solutions: two sets of corporate owners, four general managers (one interim), four head coaches, 16 goalies, and a regrettable stretch where the roster was so thin, they couldn’t even decide upon a captain.
Sports fandom is meant to be a joyful pursuit, so it’s only natural that supporters of sad-sack franchises are left to wonder why they put themselves through it. With their beloved team languishing in mediocrity, Leafs fans have been afforded nearly a decade of soul searching. Yet hope springs, if not eternally, then intermittently.
If Peter’s Barber Shop resembles the ultimate public shrine to obsessive Leafs fandom, Steve Dangle’s bedroom looks like the idealized, teen-movie version: four blue walls littered with signed jerseys and player figurines. This sacred space in his parents’ East Scarborough home is where the character of Steve Dangle (his real last name is Glynn) has spent the past six years affirming his Leafs affection and airing his online grievances on a nightly basis.
A dedicated Leafs booster since the team’s magical run to the semi-finals in 1993, Dangle started a video blog on YouTube immediately after the first game of the Leafs’ 2007–08 season. He did it simply because he wanted to weigh in on the result, a 4–3 loss to the Senators. Since then, he’s filmed a post-game wrap-up after each regular-season match. In doing so, he’s chronicled some of the most frustrating years in Maple Leafs history.
“I’ve been doing videos for almost the whole playoff-less streak, but the end of last season was definitely a low,” he says. “I wondered, Who is this team? What are they? They suck, and they’re just gonna suck again.”
Along the way, the 25-year-old has fashioned himself into the Don Cherry of the YouTube generation, racking up nearly three million views on the strength of his animated, blustery style and trademark rapid-fire editing.
Having waited six years for the chance to post a playoff game post-mortem, Dangle’s sign off in the final video of the regular season included three quick cuts and a stern warning to all potential adversaries.
“You can’t tell ’cause my camera sucks, but I’m literally vibrating with excitement. And to whoever the Leafs play in the first round…”
Dangle pauses, then punctuates his sentence by slapping himself across the face.
The brash formula has done wonders for Dangle’s media career. (He currently works at CBC Sports, the NHL network, and also manages a video blog for Russia’s KHL.) But even as a rising internet celebrity, Dangle still bears all the obvious attributes of the scarred Leafs fan.
“There’s a running gag in my videos this year that I’m a jinx, because I absolutely am,” he says. “Every time I mention the word ‘playoffs’—which I hope you censor in your article—they’ve lost. The first time I mentioned it, they immediately went on to lose five in a row. What broke the curse was that I proposed to my girlfriend.”
Dangle’s trenchant criticisms reflect the love-hate tone of another of the Leafs’ significant supporter voices on the internet—Julian Sanchez, who founded his popular Leafs blog, Pension Plan Puppets (a cheeky nod to the team’s former owners, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan), in 2006.
The 29-year-old Sanchez is notable in fan circles for nabbing his Twitter handle, @mlse, before the team’s owners, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, could get their hands on it. The account’s bio lists Pension Plan Puppets as “a Toronto Maple Leafs Blog and Group Therapy Site,” but it’s also an exceedingly informed and frequently profane take on every element of the team’s existence. When the Leafs finally clinched their long-awaited playoff berth on April 20, Sanchez’s response to the team’s haters was gleeful: “ROSES ARE RED, VIOLETS ARE BLUE, IF YOU’RE BEING A JERK TONIGHT THEN FUCK YOU #PLAYOFFS!!1” [sic]
Sanchez balances his own opinions with those of other fans, tweeting and retweeting different points of view hundreds of times a day (he’s published over 155,000 tweets). As a result, his feed has become both a prime aggregator for hyper-specific analysis (the kind that’s often glossed-over by TV talking heads) and a pesky irritant to fans of opposing teams.
When this year’s playoff schedule was set, Sanchez referenced the Leafs’ famous victories over the Senators in the first half of the 2000s by pointing out that two of their former franchise players, Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden, now play for Boston. “The Bruins have Chara and Redden eh?” he wrote. “I think there may be something in the Leafs DNA that knows how to beat teams that feature them.”
Much like Kalamaris, Sanchez was introduced to Leafs fandom by his immigrant father. “My parents came from Colombia in the ’70s,” he says. “What’s the easiest way to fit in? In Toronto, it’s the Leafs. So I grew up watching them from as young as I can remember. I’ve been a fan from birth, through all the ups and downs.”
Like most devotees, Sanchez has a huge list of things that frustrate him about the Maple Leafs, but he’s able to sum them all up quite neatly. “It all boils down to this: They do so many things that make it so they don’t win enough.”
In scouring the Twitterverse for the most positive and negative Leafs-related opinions, Sanchez gets an accurate take on Leafs Nation’s collective psyche. As he sees it, the fans are “really happy the Leafs are back in the playoffs, really bothered by some of the things they’re doing, and maybe cautiously optimistic about the future.”
Sanchez recalls the fans’ mental state as being very different before this recent drought. Thinking back to the heyday of those Leafs teams that repeatedly eliminated the Senators with gusto, he notes, “Back then, we’d be [talking] about which team we’re going to roll over in the first round. We’ve gotten out of practice dealing with the playoffs—we’ve lost some of that confidence. I think everyone’s waiting to see when the trap door will open.”
Apart from a streak of uninspired play in mid-April, the 2012-13 season has been one of renewed hope for the Maple Leafs. It began in January, with the end of the NHL lockout and the sudden dismissal of GM Brian Burke, who had by then become the principal emblem of the team’s failure to rebuild. Throughout the lockout—and even up until the trade deadline—a franchise-altering swap for Vancouver netminder Roberto Luongo seemed inevitable. It never happened.
But over this shortened, 48-game season, the Maple Leafs have stayed the course, and managed to summon the skill and determination they’ve lacked for so long. Between the increased offensive firepower from recently acquired forward James van Riemsdyk, the long-awaited emergence of scorer Nazem Kadri, and flashes of brilliance in the net from James Reimer, the Leafs have clawed their way back to respectability. Oh, and they’ve finally demonstrated a fair amount of the truculence that Burke always ranted about.
The fans have been watching this transformation in a state of subdued euphoria. Make no mistake: In some sections of Leafs Nation, the sombre tide is beginning to turn.
If the six blue-and-white jerseys hanging in the closet of Barrie native Paige Chwojka aren’t enough to prove her dedication, she’ll gladly tell you about the semester she spent in Ireland, routinely staying up past 3 a.m. to catch every minute of her favourite team’s on-ice action.
Like so many others, she comes from a family that bleeds blue. “I was born into it, and I’m probably gonna die with it,” she says. “My father and uncle are crazy Leafs fans. Completely psychotic. My uncle once broke drywall over his head when they were losing—that’s how crazy they are.”
But having just turned 21, she can’t clearly remember a time when the team was really good. Her playoff memories are vague at best: “Everyone would get together, they’d all be swearing at the TV. But I had to go to bed at 8 p.m.”
Consequently, Chwojka’s all-time favourite Leafs moments seem a tad anti-climactic, not least because most of them revolve around underachieving stay-at-home defenseman Luke Schenn, who was traded to the Flyers last year. “I’ll always remember his first goal,” she says. “February 7, 2009 at the Bell Centre, first period, first goal of the game. I went wild and started crying…which is kind of embarrassing to admit.”
Chwojka recently celebrated her birthday by spending hundreds of dollars on a pair of Leafs tickets. The view was spectacular, but she says she was taken aback by the famously muted reaction of the fans in the expensive seats. Not that they did anything to quell her optimism.
“This city is pretty cruel to that team when they’re not doing so well,” Chwojka says. “But it’ll make it that much better when they win the Stanley Cup one day. Gotta get through the hard times to celebrate the good times.”
Chwojka’s perspective might seem unusual, but it reveals a new, growing side of Leafs Nation: a generation of fans who are actually too young to have been scarred by the team’s history of playoff disasters. This demographic is so accustomed to failure they can hardly be faulted for thinking the team has nowhere to go but up. And with this return to the post-season, expectations are running high.
“The [Eastern Conference] is wide open, and the Leafs thrive on being underdogs,” she says. “So I was [initially] expecting a first-round exit, but anything’s possible—they might surprise everybody.”
Fans like Chwojka are living proof that even in a city where the best hockey tickets set you back a week’s wages, dreaming is still free. With the Leafs back in contention, she’s certain the team’s fretful faithful will be out in droves.
“This is my team, but the bandwagon is going to get full again.”
Back at the barbershop, five o’clock has come and gone. Kalamaris’s customers have finished breaking down how the Leafs’ hoped-for victory against Montreal will happen later that night, and Hockey Night in Canada is gearing up for its pre-game show. Game time is imminent, which means it’s closing time.
But before I can get back through the turnstile and head for the door, Kalamaris says he has one more element of his Maple Leafs obsession that he’s willing to share: his passion for table hockey.
Within seconds, he’s wheeled an old-school table-hockey game out from the barbershop’s back room and set the standard five minutes on an egg-timer that functions as the official game clock.
I’m forced to rep the Canadiens, because unsurprisingly, Kalamaris always plays as the Leafs. He’s skilled enough to confidently vow that he’ll provide a free haircut to anyone who can beat him.
Our brief game is a whirlwind of action, with Kalamaris putting on his best Bob Cole impression to provide the play-by-play.
When the buzzer sounds, the Leafs have scored a decisive 8-1 victory. All seems right in Leafs Nation, for the moment, at least.
THE FLAG GUYS FLY AGAIN
“If you bought a Leafs car flag in 2004 at any gas station in Toronto, it came from The Flag Guys,” boasts Andrew Applebaum. During the 2004 NHL playoffs—the last time the Leafs made the postseason—Applebaum and his college buddy Paul Arbus began selling 12-by-18-inch car flags emblazoned with the Toronto Maple Leafs logo at the Esso gas station that Applebaum owned at Don Mills and Finch. They initially bought a box of 100 flags from a local manufacturer, but as the flags flew off the shelves, they started selling them wholesale to gas stations and convenience stores across the GTA under the company name The Flag Guys. Applebaum estimates they sold 10,000 flags during that playoff period.
Then came May 4, 2004, the last night of the Leafs’ series against the Philadelphia Flyers. Because the flags came to the manufacturer from overseas, Applebaum and Arbus either had to order 1,000 flags in advance, or delay the decision until they knew the outcome of the game and wait weeks for the shipment to arrive. They took a chance and put in the order. “I was on my honeymoon in Germany,” Applebaum says. “Because of the time difference, it must have been four in the morning, and I’m watching this Leafs game on satellite.” You know what happened next: Jeremy Roenick of the Flyers scored the final goal, eliminating the Leafs from the playoffs. “We thought, No problem,” says Applebaum. “It’s the Toronto Maple Leafs. They’re not going to change their logo. We’ll put them in my basement and sell them next year.”
Nine years later, the Leafs are finally back in the playoffs, and Applebaum and Arbus (the former now owns a moving-box rental company called CityBoxes; the latter is a Toronto police officer) are back in business, selling the flags at wholesale price through Craigslist and Kijiji. But they’ve learned their lesson. “I can safely tell you I will not advance order any more. My wife will kick me out of the house.”—Lara Zarum
LES MISERABLES: RECENT LOW POINTS IN LEAF FANDOM
Click here for a close-up version of the timeline below