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NHL

The Leafs Are The Hockey Knicks, Unless It’s The Other Way Around

1:12 PM EDT on May 9, 2023

TORONTO, ON- MAY 7 - Toronto Maple Leafs fans leave after the Leafs fall 3-2 in Florida for game three in the second round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, Toronto fans gathered at Maple Leaf Square outside Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. May 7, 2023. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs are on the verge of being eradicated from yet another playoff season, and even if they stave off elimination Wednesday night in Game 4 the mood has still been set. They talked it, or more accurately their fans and media talked it, and they couldn't walk it.

But it isn't about the history, which we know all too well because Leafs fans tell us with their body language. It isn't even that they are in danger of being swept by the eighth-seeded Florida Panthers, who were a much sexier team a year ago but retooled themselves from coaches’ room to fourth line to be less effervescent and therefore more playoffable. It's that they are reminding us of the inherent cruelties of unwarranted optimism that we are also seeing in the fan base of the New York Knickerbockers. The Knicks are having basketball explained to them by the equally Floridized Miami Heat just as the Panthers are schooling the Leafs, and their fans are behaving as if this is yet another outrageous miscarriage of justice.

It is in fact part of the eight stages of grief for people who claim to know better only after it is too late. Leafs fans work the same way Knicks fans do, only Knicks fans have missed the playoffs far more often in this century, but the stages are the same and break down the same way.

1. That Sucked, But Next Year Will Be Better

2. We Didn't Draft The Best Player, But The Guy We Got Is Definitely The Future

3. Our Roster Is Better Than I Thought

4. We're A Playoff Team

5. We're Really Good

6. This Is Our Year

7. Damn It

8. We Suck, And I Knew It All Along

9. Fire The Coach

10. Blow Up The Roster

11. Make The Owner Sell Because He Serves Satan

12a. We've Fired The Coach And Blown Up The Roster, We’re Ready To Make Our Move

12b. OK, We Didn't Blow It Up But We Learned From Last Year

13. See 1.

If the team turns out not to be good, fans skip Steps 3 through 6, but otherwise the path is the same, decade-in and decade-out.

Knicks fans are not as good as Leafs fans when it comes to self-pitying resignation. There is more of a "This team OWES me" feel to them, as though they are entitled to the glories of 1970 and 1973 because their parents got to enjoy them, and sporting success is hereditary. Leafs fans seem more fatalistic once the reality sets in that Auston Matthews is no more satisfying than Mats Sundin than Dave Andreychuk than Darryl Sittler—great and even much beloved players who never could even get to the Cup final, let alone win it. They regard those players with more fondness than Knicks fans hold Carmelo Anthony and Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston and John Starks and Mark Jackson because the Knicks have not been as good since their last title since the Leafs have been since theirs. And also because Torontonians tend to be less angry about their lot in life than New Yorkers.

But the feel right now is still the same. They are near the end of a once-invigorating season because all the things they believed were true turned out to be just as false as all the other times (or to be fair, are on the verge of being proven false), and it’s being exposed by a lower seed. Leafs fans have had more galling playoff failures of late and may want general manager Kyle Dubas to fall on all the swords because something must be done to assuage their disappointment, but Knicks fans always want everyone to be fired, starting with the comedy and musical genius that is Jimmy Dolan.

They are both headed toward Stages 9, 10 and 11, and it won't be pretty for either—just familiar. For those of us addicted to the schadenfreude of watching them from afar, it'll be just dandy as always. It takes time and repetition to cultivate an angst like what Leafs and Knicks fans consider their birthright—the same way royal families considered their physical defects caused by centuries of inbreeding.

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