Obviously, there isn’t anything the Toronto Maple Leafs can teach other franchises about doing sports. But when it comes to snake-charming a city, the Leafs should do TED Talks.
Before we fall backward into a dissection of what constitutes progress for a perennial loser – the Leafs’ end-of-season spécialité de la maison – let’s focus on a larger truism. Every city gets the sports team it deserves.
If the Yankees got bounced in the deciding game of the opening round five years in a row, they wouldn’t have just fired everyone. They’d have fired everyone and then rehired them all so that they could fire them again, but much worse.
If the Yankees had not won a playoff round for 18 years, Yankee Stadium would be a smoking ruin. They’d have scorched so much ground in the Bronx they’d be halfway to China. That’s why the Yankees win (and it’s also why the Knicks fire a coach every 15 minutes).
In New York, no excuse is good enough.
In Toronto, no excuse isn’t good enough. Every excuse is amazing. This is why Leafs president Brendan Shanahan starts out all of his postseason wakes with a line about “not making excuses.”
In New York, everything you say after the word “excuse” is an excuse.
In Toronto, saying “no excuses” makes excuses impossible. Like magic. This is just one part of what we might call the Leafs Method.
First, they promise to be better, but they don’t actually promise anything.
They say things like, “I know there’s a lot of talk about winning a playoff round or bust, or winning a Stanley Cup or bust, but I think those can be very day-to-day-type endeavours and I think especially in this role that it has to be more long term and …”
That was Leafs GM Kyle Dubas last year after the Leafs got ambushed from in front by the Montreal Canadiens.
Is that a promise to do better? Actually, it sounds like the opposite.
What does it mean precisely? Who knows?
All Dubas knows for sure is that he woke up a week later and he still had a job. Which proves this sort of thing works.
So this year, everyone on the Leafs has learned to talk this way.
Leafs locker clear-out day has never been a barrel of laughs (well, as long as I’ve been alive). But for a franchise that so often disappoints, they are masters at taking the edge off. A few people may show up prepared to rage at them. But by the time the fourth guy is rolled out, everyone’s nodding off.
As usual, they started with franchise brand manager Morgan Rielly.
Rielly: “I think the belief is that this group does have it.”
John Tavares: “We’re right there.”
Jake Muzzin: “It starts now.”
So you’re going straight from here to the gym or …?
Sheldon Keefe: “The work has begun and the belief in our group is as strong as it’s ever been.”
As it’s ever been. On a team that hasn’t won anything since shortly after the Kennedy assassination.
You’re feeling woozy, so maybe you’ve got it wrong. We are talking about a group that can’t get out of the first round, aren’t we?
These people talk like they were 10 feet from the peak of Everest when there was a rock slide.
That’s not what happened. This team has never made it out of base camp. This team is still trying to figure out how to pack up a tent.
Falling four rounds short for the fifth consecutive year is not being “right there.” It doesn’t reach the barest minimum to call yourself a contender.
But all this losing has taught the Leafs they don’t need to do hockey well to flourish in Toronto. What they need to get right is hockey communications.
Three hours after the first man is rolled out, they move you from a freezing rink into an overheated conference room. They keep you waiting a half-hour. When the Keefe/Shanahan/Dubas headliner begins, everyone is catatonic.
Then they start hitting you with the big-line items.
What’s the view on the street?
Keefe: “The biggest thing is – our players know we’re close, but they know we’re not there.”
What happens now?
Shanahan: “We will not be making changes just simply for the sake of saying that we made changes.”
But just for the sake of argument, maybe some changes might …?
Dubas: “It’s easy to say that you believe at the beginning of the year. It’s easy to say you believe when you’ve won. I think in these moments, where you have not reached the potential that everyone knows that you have … that’s when true belief is measured.”
Now you see where you erred. You thought you were watching a sports team be bad. Wrong. You were having a religious experience.
Since the Leafs have done their job (losing), it’s time for you to do your job (believing).
Despite a fair bit of evidence to the contrary, how long do you have to keep believing? Forever. Weren’t you listening? That’s how true belief is measured.
In New York, this Eckhart Tolle-adjacent gobbledygook would cause a riot. That might not work out in the end, but it would at least create some sense of urgency. You’d think urgency is fairly crucial in a business in which your stars play like stars for just a few years.
But this is Toronto, where urgency equals panic. Why panic when you could do nothing? Doesn’t doing nothing sound cool to you?
It clearly works with Toronto’s legions of the gullible. It makes them wild. More waiting means more progress and more belief and oh boy, if we’re lucky, more waiting.
The Leafs are right there. They all just said so. You can practically hear the people calling for an encore. Which is why they keep getting one.