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Down Goes Brown: Why Leafs Fans Aren't Miserable for Once

Watching Leafs fans be miserable has pretty much become an end-of-season tradition. But that's not the case this time. Sorry, everyone. There's always next year.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In the sports world, there's nothing sadder than seeing someone struggle at the one thing that they used to be the best in the world at.

Michael Jordan clanging jumpers in a Wizards uniform. Tiger Woods limping his way to missed cuts. Brett Favre throwing pick-sixes for the Vikings. It can be uncomfortable to watch, bordering on outright tragic.

So you can be forgiven for wanting to avert your eyes at the sight of Toronto Maple Leafs fans this week, because we're failing badly at the one thing you could always count on us for: Being miserable.


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This is supposed to be our thing. Other fans do parades and celebrations and enjoy happiness and hope. Not us. We watch our team lose, we internalize it, and we suffer. We remember the worst moments forever; they're scarred directly into our identity as fans. Kerry Fraser. Jeremy Roenick. It was 4-1. This is what we do. Often publicly, often in uncomfortably over-the-top ways, and almost always with the rest of the hockey world pointing and laughing.

This week, we watched the Maple Leafs lose a playoff series that they absolutely could have won. They had a 2-1 series lead, five of the games went into overtime, and all the underlying numbers were essentially equal. The series was there for the taking. But the Leafs lost, in six games to the Washington Capitals, and now their season is over.

And as Maple Leafs fans, we're… kind of fine with it, actually.

Matthews, Marner, and the rooks consistently gave Leaf fans reasons to smile. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I know that comes as a disappointment to a lot of you out there. For fans of other teams, watching Leafs fans be miserable has pretty much become an end-of-season tradition. It's almost therapeutic, because you know that no matter how bad things get with your own team, at least you're not us. And let's be honest, some portions of the Toronto fan base could stand to be knocked down a peg or two. The tears of Toronto Maple Leafs fans water the tree of hockey liberty, or something like that.


But not this year. There's not much misery to be found around Leafs Nation. We're doing good, thanks for asking.

That's not to say that we're happy about the Leafs' first-round loss. Obviously, an upset win over the Capitals would have been something special, right up there some of the most memorable Maple Leaf wins of a generation. They might have even given the Penguins a run for their money. Heck, maybe they could have gone on a deep run, bringing back memories of the 1992-93 Leafs team that Toronto fans will never shut up about.

But it didn't happen. Marcus Johansson silenced a Toronto crowd with Sunday night's OT winner, and the Leafs season is over. One more lost playoff series to throw on the pile. Yet another year without a Stanley Cup. So where's all the misery?

Sorry. This year, that tank is all but empty. We're trying out something new: Optimism.

This year's Leafs weren't exactly great, but they were far better than just about anybody expected. Last year, they finished dead last in the NHL for the first time in three decades. There were plenty of reasons to think they'd be better this year, including an influx of talented rookies, improved goaltending, and the steady hand of the highest-paid coach in league history, Mike Babcock. Add that all up, and it wasn't unreasonable to think that they could move up five or ten spots in the standings. Maybe they're even still in the playoff mix until, let's say, February.


When you watch your kids grow up on the fly. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Instead, the Leafs overcame a bumpy start to post one of the league's better records from November on. That influx of rookies turned out to be one of the very best in NHL history, and the Leafs morphed into one of hockey's most entertaining teams. Despite leaving plenty of points on the ice thanks to blown leads and a terrible shootout record, they stayed in the playoff hunt all the way to the final week, then sealed their spot with a dramatic win over the Penguins on the season's penultimate night.

Just like that, they were in. And then they gave the heavily favored Capitals everything they could handle.

Should we have seen it coming? Maybe. A small group of more analytically inclined fans did, pointing to the decent underlying numbers that last year's edition of the club put up. That team was well-coached and played a solid system, but just didn't have any good players. With that incoming young talent, the argument went, a playoff berth wasn't completely out of the question. Maybe the Leafs were actually good.

So no, it wouldn't be quite true to say that this year caught absolutely everyone by surprise. But as even those few optimistic fans would admit, their confidence didn't spread especially far. Virtually none of the mainstream experts picked the Leafs to make the playoffs, and more than a few had them in the mix for dead last, yet again.

So when it was six months later and the young Leafs were going toe-to-toe with the Presidents' Trophy winner in the playoffs, well, it's hard to muster up too much disappointment over a six-game loss. There are better days ahead.


At least, there should be. If there's any nagging doubt hanging over Leaf fans, it's that this whole rebuild project has almost gone a little too well. They went into last year's lottery with 20 percent odds, and won. They came into the season with three elite young players, and all three turned out to be better than expected. They went from not having enough prospects to not having enough roster spots for all the young players who've earned one. And now a 26-point improvement and a playoff spot in Year 1 of the turnaround.

All of those things are good. But to hear some tell it, a Leafs championship is starting to look inevitable. The gold standard for a rebuild in the modern NHL belongs to the Chicago Blackhawks, who went from drafting high in 2006 and 2007 to winning the first of three Cups in 2010. When the Leafs faced the Blackhawks a month ago, there was some talk about how the Leafs' rebuild actually seemed to be a few steps ahead of where Chicago's had been.

The Leafs lost to the best in a surprise season that was only the beginning. Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

And as a Leafs fan, that's where the old instinct kicks in. Slow down, you want to tell people, perhaps while grabbing them by the lapels and shaking them just a little bit. Being ahead of the Blackhawks in Year 1 is like being ahead of Usain Bolt at the 20-meter mark. It's impressive, but you've got a long way to go, and you haven't won anything yet. There's still plenty of time for this to go bad.

But it hasn't. At least not yet. If and when it does, believe me, Maple Leafs fans will be ready to bring the pain. When Auston Matthews rolls his ankle accepting the Calder Trophy and a training camp collision with William Nylander leaves Mitch Marner's knee ligaments dangling from the ACC rafters next to the Cup banners, we'll be ready. That misery that's been gnawing at us for five decades isn't dead, but merely dormant. We'll be able to summon it when we need it.

But we don't need it right now. This season may have ended earlier than we'd hoped, but it was fun as hell, and the future looks bright. This is new territory for a lot of us, and we're not quite sure how to handle it. But for once, we're not miserable, no matter how much you might have hoped we would be.

Sorry, everyone. There's always next year.