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COLUMN: Maple Leafs' collapse in Game 7 means more agony, anger

The Leafs are a mess and the emotional capital spent remains about the same, Peter Robinson writes

Of all the story lines being batted about after the Maple Leafs' Game 7 exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens on Monday night, I think mine is unique.

Monday was my birthday.

How fitting for a Leafs fan to mark another trip around the sun by enduring a metaphorical stake being driven through your heart.

Again.

There is another aspect of my agony. I shouldn’t give a hashtag about how the Leafs make out every spring, because I make my living as a sports journalist.

Generally, covering the game beats out the fan in you. And it has for me as well – despite growing up in Barrie, I have no vested interested whatsoever whether the Colts win or lose each season. Aside from Canada at the Olympics, or individual sport athletes I’ve come to admire, I (usually) cheer for good games, interesting stories and nothing else.

The Leafs are different. Aside from some arm’s-length assignments over the years, I’ve never covered the NHL club on a regular basis. As a result, my childhood allegiance has grown with me into middle age.

Darryl Sittler’s or Wendel Clark’s or Doug Gilmour’s or Darcy Tucker’s or Mitch Marner’s or Auston Matthews’ forlorn faces every spring should just be a recurring visual instead of a never-ending epitaph.

"But I’ve always thought you were a smart person," said one of my colleagues, who does cover the Leafs, about a decade ago when he discovered I was writing a book about being a Leafs fan.

The gestation period for my book took place before social media was a thing; the writing of it came when Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al, were not nearly what they are now.

Back in 2012, I thought I could channel my experience covering hockey into a fun, light, part self-help, part how-to book on being stricken by a disease that won’t kill you, but makes you feel like you die a bit every hockey season.

People consume information and express themselves much easier these days. The familiar anxiety, foreboding, dread, frustration and, ultimately, anger that I took months writing about, flowed freely all day and night Monday.

The world has changed dramatically and yet nothing has changed: the Leafs are a mess.

The anger still lingers, but acceptance is already setting in. Why do this to yourself, year after year?

I don’t have any answers, much less a solution, though I’ve tried, as I get older, to take a still-want-it-but-care-less attitude, if that makes sense.

That approach has helped. A little.

So has distance. I grew up in Barrie, lived abroad in Toronto, and I’m now back in Barrie. The 75-minute drive/subway journey that now separates me from Scotiabank Arena has curtailed how much money I part with at that facility before the pandemic shut its doors.

The emotional capital spent remains about the same.

Late Monday night, as the gnawing emptiness took hold, I was struck by a memory from almost exactly 20 years ago that I wrote about in my book.

Back then, I was in Germany covering the 2001 IIHF world championship, trying desperately to find the score of a Leafs playoff game. A kindly German man pointed me to a cyber-cafe, but to get there I had to cut through a portion of Hanover’s red-light district.

It was middle-of-the-night dark and my eyes had adjusted enough to the red glow to make out the figure of a leather-clad man standing in a back-lit storefront. Most of that leather was in the form of a blindfold and gag in his mouth, with just enough to cover certain other body parts. Standing beside him, a dominatrix was at the ready to deliver another humiliating blow.

"Why on Earth would someone do that do themselves?" I remember thinking at the time.

Only then did it dawn on me that the extent I was going through to follow a team that had done almost nothing to love me back over the years.

Two decades later, as I sat alone in my darkened basement processing yet another humiliating playoff exit, that feeling was back.

It has never really left.

Barrie resident Peter Robinson is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto: Life as a Maple Leafs Fan.