Growing up in the peaceful green and blue sphere of Vancouver before the whole real estate thing went nuts, one was taught several things. One, respect the environment. Two, love your neighbour, though this apparently changed when the whole real estate thing went nuts. Three -- and perhaps most importantly -- hate the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This was not hard to learn, and it was probably not unique to those of us in the west. Whether you grew up as a fan of the Vancouver Canucks, the Calgary Flames, the Edmonton Oilers, the Winnipeg Jets, or in later years the Ottawa Senators, you had one thing in common: Your team was probably not getting onto the first game of Hockey Night in Canada unless they were playing against the guys in blue and white.
If you grew up as a fan of the Montreal Canadiens or the Quebec Nordiques, of course, you had your own CBC, and therefore your team was less likely to be pre-empted by anybody other than the other Quebec team. You did, however, have your own distinct set of reasons to hate the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That dislike is so profound, such a shared experience, that it has become a part of the Canadian identity, bleeding seamlessly into the national dislike of Toronto. Every time Bob Cole could rhyme off all kinds of facts about some fourth-line Leaf but was unable to name your team's starting goalie -- "It's saved by the goalie!" -- the hatred was fed. Every time Don Cherry bellowed how much he loved Doug Gilmour or Tie Domi or whomever, the hatred grew. Every time you saw wide swaths of blue and white in your team's home arena, the hatred boiled.
Sure, the railroad bound us together as a nation. But hatred of the Leafs, as much as the love of the Leafs, is one of the ties that has kept us together.
And so, in a roundabout way, we bring ourselves to Brian Burke, and his inaugural stab at the National Hockey League draft as the Leafs general manager. He is in the early stages of the restoration; tonight, therefore, is rather important.
In fairness, the love of the Toronto Maple Leafs is as strong as the loathing. As Burke puts it, only slightly hyperbolically, "this is the most popular sports team in North America."
This cross-country adoration is demonstrated by the presence in other buildings of Leafs Nation wherever Toronto is in town.
"When I was with Anaheim and we played the Los Angeles Kings in London, [England], there must have been 60 or 70 Leafs jerseys in the crowd," Burke says. "It was awesome."
To those of us born outside the faith, of course, those people are either a) transplanted Ontarians, or b) the children of transplanted Ontarians. Or they are simply sad lost souls, brainwashed throughout their childhood by the CBC's insistence that the Leafs lead Hockey Night in Canada whether or not Dan Daoust or Tom Fergus or Jonas Hoglund--or god help us, Domi-- was playing on the top line.
But in the post-lockout era, the Leafs have not been worth hating. Or loving, for that matter. They have instead been a steady parade of the mediocre and overblown, of teams both forgettable and forgotten. They were not even pitiable. They were nothing.
Well, that's not going to last. Whether Burke trades all the way up and grabs goal-scorer John Tavares, or trades part of the way up and nabs forward Brayden Schenn, or whether he sits tight at No. 7 and takes some other gifted and perhaps ornery young man, it will be one more step in his transformation of a team from awful to dangerous, and from soft to thorny, like his 2007 Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks. Which, if you've been paying attention, should not be a surprise:
-"We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence." --Burke, Nov. 30, 2008
-"I don't give a rat's ass what they do in Pittsburgh or Detroit. There have been four Cups won since the [lockout] ended, and I got one of them, and it was a fighting team. So, we are playing it that way regardless, and if other teams don't, I don't give a s---." -- Burke, three days ago.
-"We are going to be bigger and tougher. No matter what it costs us, we are going to be bigger and tougher. This is how my teams play, like it or not." --Burke, yesterday.
In other words, the Leafs are eventually going to be relevant, and they will skate into your building and punch your prettiest players in the face. Burke will happily employ guys whom he refers to as "the beef," and they won't be out there to be liked. Unless, of course, you are one of the people wearing Doug Gilmour jerseys. Then, your cheers will drown out the locals on a good night.
"I think Toronto is the most important hockey market in the NHL," Burke said yesterday.
Love him or hate him, he is right. And once he has transformed the Toronto Maple Leafs into a contender and into a bully, he will be proven even more correct. The love will be stronger, and the hate will be stronger, and our proud nation, beset by small-minded politics and wide-ranging apathy, will be stronger in its collective purpose again.
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