In a move that was both equal parts pathetic and a sign of my hockey fandom, Puck Paddy purchased a single ticket to go see his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs home opener in the Air Canada Center on Wednesday October 8, all whilst describing the situation in his blog in the third person. Why did I purchase a single ticket and go alone I hear you ask? For two simple reasons: 1) the tickets are ridiculously expensive and so most seasoned Leafs fans I know wouldn’t dare be so foolish to pay it and 2) even if they were foolish enough to pay it, the odds of finding two cost price tickets side-by-side were more or less impossible. Personally, I had made my peace with the decision to sit alone and enjoy the game surrounded by 22,000 of my new friends as I cheered on Hogtown against, as they say in French, Les Enemy.
This game was not my first jaunt to the Air Canada Center to watch the Leafs. In fact, I was fortunate enough to go three prior times over the course of the last four seasons. Unfortunately for me, the three previous occasions were all damp squib of games as the buds’ season outcome had already been played out. You guessed it, no playoffs. But this time would be different! Home Opener! First game of the season! Renewed Optimism! Analytics! Puck Possession! Brendan Shanahan! Culture Change!
For some reason, the atmosphere outside and around the Air Canada Center is often a lot better than in the actual arena itself. Because it’s attached to Toronto’s Union Station and right beside the main downtown highway, it’s already a hive of activity at 7pm at the best of times. As I entered the arena at 6:30pm and began my long ascent to the 300’s where my $150 solitary seat awaited, I was excited by the buzz around the kiosks as people lined up for beer and snacks. Feck it, I’ve already dropped a boat load on my seat, why not top it off with an overpriced beer to supplement the two I pounded before entering? This was me getting in to the spirit and getting ready to be rowdy for puck drop.
A favoured technique of mine is to get to my place early and start soaking in the atmosphere, and let the excitement build. So a full thirty minutes before the start of the game, I took my place where I was happy to see a white Maple Leafs towel waiting for me. Ok, it had a couple of Scotiabank logos on it too, but still I was pretty pleased with this gesture. I envisioned one of the great sites of my sporting lifetime, swirling my scarf proudly as the game began as Tyler Bozak wins the face-off and begins a long rally of Leaf possession in Montreal’s zone resulting in a Kessel wrister to beat Carey Price. What a moment!
Unfortunately my scarf remained shackled to my neck for most of the game.
So here’s the deal about the Hockey Mecca that is Toronto, and specifically going to a Leafs game: the atmosphere is practically non-existent for the most part. It’s Toronto’s dirty little secret, except that it’s not a secret to anyone. If you watch a game on TV, the sounds of the players cutting the ice and sticks swiping at each other kind of over-shadows generally how dull it can be in there. Once the game starts, that’s the end of it. There’s a hum of people talking amongst themselves, and general movement of fans to and from their seats, but the only time you’re likely to hear any sort of fan reaction to anything is when there’s a shot, a hit or a goal. Otherwise, that’s it. Nothing. No encouraging chants, no pre-faceoff cheering. Nothing.
What’s the problem then? Well, as far as I can tell, there are a few. First and foremost, the games are generally a corporate sporting event rather than the true sporting occasion. That’s the reason why the Leafs have so much money, their corporate sponsorship is unrivalled. I am very sure that a very significant portion of the fans in attendance (probably more than half) did not actually pay for their tickets. They were corporate tickets and they were invited by clients or colleagues or whomever. This results in, for example, the Montreal fans that I ended up sitting beside who were both drinking WINE AT A HOCKEY GAME! (damn French) Not only that, but they had no more interest on what was happening on the ice than they did texting their friends who were sitting in the lower bowl, also presumably drinking wine. My point is that they didn’t care about the game, they weren’t emotionally invested and they clearly just turned up because they could. I have no doubt that this can be said of a lot of people at that, and every Leaf game.
Which brings me to my second problem. Because Monseuir and Madame Vino had two corporate tickets instead of four, it meant that they couldn’t be beside their friends in the lower bowl to maybe talk a little bit more about the game, or maybe feel a little bit more excited about cheering on Montreal, or even anything remotely more interactive than how they were with each other. Their problem was that there was just two of them, side by side. That’s it. And that’s because the tickets are ludicrously expensive, and the corporate entity that forked out for these season tickets could only justify two for the season. That’s ok though, because there’s 41 home games, that’s plenty to dish out to clients! Two tickets is better than nothing! But the problem with everyone turning up in pairs is that it’s just that bit harder to build a group camaraderie. When you’re cheering on your team and you’re getting excited, there can a safety in numbers. If you can generate a cheer or a chant or celebration with seven of your closest friends, instead of just the one person beside you and not the weirdo Irish dude sitting by himself on your other side, then that can be infectious. That is just a lot harder in groups of two, or in my case, one.
And lastly…and possibly most importantly…is that the team just isn’t that good. And they haven’t been for a pretty long time. The product that is presented to Leafs fans has not only been sub-par from a hockey standpoint, it’s actually leaving fans bitter because they’re paying such exorbitant sums to watch such mediocre performances night-after-night. The town is bitter. They want to see their team work hard and perform like a Chicago or LA, but they just can’t. They’ve specialized in collapses, in folding, in fizzling out, in meekness, in excuses. The Leafs can’t be accused of not trying to fix the problem, but they just can’t get it right because ultimately the market makes too much money to actually tank for a couple of seasons. The Leafs try to rebuild without knocking down the terrible foundations year after year. Never the worst team, but never good enough. These years of sub-par performances have left everyone wondering why they should bother forking out ludicrous sums.
And really, who can blame them?
The game itself was none-the-less enjoyable. 7 goals, a late equalizer followed by a late Montreal winner. Toronto nearly did enough to just about escape with the minimal acceptable standard before falling short at the end. Again. As for my solo run to the Air Canada Center, my scarf didn’t wave for any other time except for the three goals, and the despite the crowd being relatively hyped by the late equalizing goal, the experience was more eye-opening than it was memorable.
Until this team gets better, spend your money elsewhere.