SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 1, 2013

Sticking with the Blue and White: A Maple Leaf fan's lament

By Jay Kumar
Special To The News

---- — I’ve lived on the North Shore for nearly 25 years and in New England for 30. This is my home, and I love it here.

But when it comes to my rooting interests in hockey and baseball, I’m still devoted to my hometown: Toronto.

This can lead to some divisions at home, as my wife and daughters all root for Boston teams with varying degrees of interest (although I also root for the Patriots wholeheartedly).

These differing opinions are especially obvious this week, with the Blue Jays hosting the Red Sox in Toronto and more importantly, the Maple Leafs taking on the Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Some folks may wonder why I don’t just switch allegiances to the local teams, since I’ve been here for so long anyway and have no plans of ever leaving. It doesn’t work that way, at least not for me. I’m old school, and I take my sports seriously.

I was born a Maple Leafs fan, which is not an easy cross to bear. As one of the NHL’s “Original Six,” the Leafs were once a mighty franchise and still rank second to Montreal in total championships. But Toronto last won it all in 1967, a few months before I was born, and the team hasn’t had so much as a sniff at the Cup since. They’ve intermittently had good teams that have made it as far as the third round in the playoffs, but haven’t been able to even make it to the finals in the expansion era (1968 to the present). In recent years, the Leafs have been mediocre to awful, with this trip to the postseason their first since 2004.

I’d compare the futility of being a Leafs follower to the plight suffered by Chicago Cubs fans (and Red Sox fans until 2004). Toronto is the most profitable team in the NHL, valued at $1 billion in a recent Forbes ranking, with sold-out games every night no matter how lousy the home team is playing. But the team has rarely been considered a Cup contender in the last 45 years, either saddled by cheapness or mismanagement or both.

Nevertheless, as a hockey fan, I’ve still watched the playoffs with interest even though my team has been absent. I even rooted for the Bruins in 2011 when they broke their long Cup drought (of a mere 39 years).

Technology has certainly made it easier to follow an out-of-market team. I get the Center Ice satellite package so I can watch all the Leafs games, and I can read the Toronto papers and Leafs-centric blogs online. It’s a big difference from 20 years ago, when the Leafs made an incredible playoff run, knocking off heavily-favored opponents in Detroit and St. Louis before losing to the Gretzky-led LA Kings in Game 7 of the conference finals. Most of those games were on ESPN, but the only news or analysis I could get was via the AP wire I had access to from my job as a newspaper reporter. Now, thanks to social media, I’m as dialed in to the team as someone actually living in Toronto.

Thankfully, this year the Leafs were able to put together a decent season and finish fifth in the Eastern Conference, guaranteeing themselves a playoff spot in the lockout-shortened season. Toronto actually had a similar record after 48 games last season, only to plunge into a major freefall and miss the playoffs yet again. Coach Randy Carlyle has a young team that’s tough, can score and has a good goalie in James Reimer; the Leafs have defensive issues, though, and tend to rely on a bend-but-don’t-break style that’s infuriating to watch at times.

When Boston is playing well, they’re a tough opponent for Toronto; indeed, the Bruins have dominated the Leafs the last few years. But this season, the games were closer and the Leafs beefed up with some tougher players to match up to the Bruins’ brawn. Boston struggled in the regular season’s final weeks, so it’ll be interesting to see which Bruins team comes out tonight in Game 1 at the TD Garden. The Leafs also limped through the last several games, but none of it matters when the playoffs begin.

I’m keeping my expectations appropriately low, in keeping with the misery the Leafs have put me through over the years. I’m predicting Boston in 5 games, but hoping the Leafs can pull off a miracle. In reality, just making the playoffs is a big accomplishment for this team — and getting that postseason experience is huge.

Of course, I’m very level-headed about all this now, but as soon as the puck drops, I’ll be tense and shouting at the TV. This will probably result in me getting banished to the back room to watch the game while the wife and kids watch American Idol in the living room, but so be it. It’s my lot in life, and I’m okay with it.

Go Leafs Go!

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Jay Kumar, the running correspondent for The Salem News, is a lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan who grew up in Pickering, Ontario, before eventually settling on the North Shore in 1989.