Friday, July 18, 2008

Cheering for Laundry

It's my understanding that Stephen Brunt is a Cleveland Browns fan.

Think about this for a minute.

The man that is, arguably, the best sports writer in Canada cheers for a team that won its last Championship in 1964 and hasn’t won its division since 1989.

A 40+ year drought, bad ownership and no short-term success on the horizon.

Sound familiar?

Yet, up to 16 times a year, Brunt cheers on a team that didn’t even exist from 1996 to 1999; a club the NFL actually “deactivated.”

Now, I don’t know if he collects jerseys, if he wears a dog-mask in his living room on Sunday afternoons or if he gets misty at dinner parties when the topic turns to the death of Jim Brown’s character at the end of the Dirty Dozen.

But this is where his heart resides.

While I have no sense of the depth of Brunt’s fanaticism for the Browns, it does lead me to a larger question: Can you extract the team from the ownership and general idiocy that surrounds it? Can you separate the action on the ice, diamond, pitch or field from the suits/idiots in the corridors of power?

Or is fandom more like a marriage – you fall in love with the team, but you marry the whole family?

As a Leaf fan, it’s pretty obvious why this question is of interest to me.

On the Origins of Fandom: Geography, Patricide and Cheap Souvenirs

I likely became a Leaf fan simply because I was born in Toronto. Geography was destiny. Had I been born in my mum’s home town of Kingston, I’d give even odds that I’d have been a Habs fan (as half of my dirt-eating Ottawa valley family seem to be).

Geography aside, I can remember arguing with my Grandfather in his tiny home in Inverary, Ontario about Ian Turnbull (I was for, he was against). It may have been the first time I stood up to an adult. I remember begging my father to buy me a newspaper so I could look at the pictures of the Leafs eliminating the Islanders in ’78. I remember listening to Leafs on the radio as they went up against the mighty Flyers in ’79 and the elation of waking up to find out Mike Palmateer somehow led the team to a tie.

My first inkling that something was rotten with Leafs ownership didn’t come until Lanny MacDonald was traded and Sittler stripped off the C. I was eight, maybe nine, years old. I still had hope. Clearly I didn’t know any better.

Sometime around 1980-'81 my father came home from a business trip to St. Louis and gave me a Cardinals batting practice jersey. This simple off-white cotton-poly blend with three-quarter length red sleeves has led to nearly three decades of supporting a National League team some 1,200 kilometers away.

My pops liked Joe Theismann because of his days with the Argos (Joe’s, not my Dad’s). When Theismann went to the Washington Redskins, the New York Giants became my team. There’s nothing quite like being a contrarian 12 year old l'il bastard who picks a team simply to cheer against one's father.

A Poll of Sorts

I’d like to know why you cheer for your favourite team.

Was it the smell of the grass in the old Tiger Stadium? A trip to Buffalo to see the Bills back in the days of Kelly, Thomas and Reed? An especially delicious hot fudge sundae from Dairy Queen served in a Mariners cap? Or maybe it was just to spite a certain someone who insisted on cheering for the Yankees, Cowboys, Lakers or Habs?

Please post a comment and tell your story.

I think it's time we shared these stories as a rejoinder to those who question why people cheer for a team with history of failure and mismanagement.

I think it's time for the media to stop and reflect before they call fans stupid for supporting teams with venal owners or teams that don't appear to have a championship on even the most distant horizon.

I'm guessing (and sort of hoping) that the lesson from all of these personal stories is that no fan ever fell in love with a team, player or sport because of an ownership structure, player development policies, salary cap discipline or management style.

We'll see...


  1. Looks like I'm first up. Here goes: Can you be born a Leaf fan? When you've been cheering for them since yoe were 4 years old, that's what it feels like. I was more familiar with Darryl Sittler, Bill Derlego, and John Anderson then Pierre Trudeau. When Tiger Williams got traded I cried 'cause he was my favorite player and I'd just named my new cat "Tiger" after him. Then, when Rick Vaive moved into the house across the street (not kidding) the world seemed as if it had returned to normal. Vaive eventually scored 50 and became the Captain and I landed the paper route so that I could deliver the newspaper to him each day after school. It all seemed very natural. I never questioned my love for the Leafs.

  2. Anonymous8:09 am

    I became a Leaf fan because the Jets left Winnipeg, and I sure wasn't going to cheer for a team from the desert. The Leafs were not only on TV every Saturday night, but their play reminded me of the Jets. They had the potential to win, but seemed happy to find new and inventive ways to lose.

  3. Anonymous12:35 pm

    Oilers and Eskies because I was born and raised in Edmonton.

    Celtics because all my school buddies were/are Lakers fans.

    Dodgers because all the old men in my family are for the Yankees.

  4. Anonymous12:41 pm

    Well none of my direct family are in love with the Leafs, but my extended family is full of stories about my grandfather's love for them. Many stories are recounted about his passion for the team, and how every Saturday night he would sit next to the radio, listening to the game, and reacting to the announcer as if he was the goalie.

    My family is located in Newfoundland, so their love affair continued with the St. John's Maple Leafs, and seasons tickets to them. I was infected by this love, but didn't fall in love with the Leafs until Dougie Gilmour arrived, and my hatred for Hasek has burned in my heart since those years. No matter how bad the Leafs screw up, I love them, and even though I'm now in Vancouver and cheer for the Canucks at times, it's all to apparent when I watch the Leafs game that my heart is with them, and I'm just a bandwagoner for the Canucks (I mean really, who couldn't love Trevor Linden?)

  5. Anonymous12:59 pm

    As an American born in a fairly non-hockey-minded South, I've had an unusual affair with the game (one which probably would give Gary Bettman a wet dream, come to think of it).

    The first time I ever laid eyes on the sport of hockey I was in a little vacation cabin in the Appalachian mountains -- the only signal our TV received was showing Game 7 of the '94 Finals. Needless to say I watched every second, because you could feel the importance of the event exuding right out of the screen.

    Shortly thereafter I discovered minor-league hockey in my hometown of Charlotte. Little did I know that my family had attended games as far back as the 1950s, and had season tickets in the 60s. Somehow I cajoled them to pick up season passes and I got my first taste of the real thing. Obsession followed almost instantly, partially because of the beauty of the game and partially because there's nothing like low-minor-leauge hockey to spark the imagination of an adolescent.

    As it turned out, the Checkers were affiliated with the Boston Bruins. When our guys did well, we'd follow their progress up to Providence and then to Boston. The first time I ever saw a former Checker in the big leagues (Rob Tallas, a short-lived goalie experiment for the B's), it sealed the deal for me to be a lifelong Bruins fan.

    Today I live about 90 minutes south of Nashville and about 3 hours north of Atlanta, having recently moved from Canes territory. I've tried to get cozy with those teams, but it always feels very artificial, like a blind date with someone you don't really like very much. My loyalty to the Bruins has grown to the point that they are my "home" team -- and I've never dealt with the ownership complications that Boston residents associate with the Bruins.

  6. Anonymous1:43 pm

    My family (and indeed, my region of the country) had no great love of hockey when I was growing up. So whenever I did happen to catch any on television, it always seemed a bit exotic. It seemed way more interesting than, say, football or basketball.

    In college I met people from places with an actual hockey culture and I got more an more hooked. A college roommate was from Buffalo, so I mostly followed them, but wasn't dedicated.

    Then I moved to New England and found more hockey friends, including players. I knew I liked hockey, and eventually I'd need to commit to a team. I started following the Leafs only because my friend is a rabid fan himself, and the first three games I ever went to were Leafs games. Since I didn't have a team before, the Leafs filled the vacuum.

    Is it odd to decide to be a fan of a perennially under-performing team? Maybe, but I'm also a lifelong Cubs fan, and if that's not a sign that I was born to be a masochist, I don't know what is.

  7. excellent post, as per the usual, MF37.

    i grew up loving baseball. i wasn't able to play hockey as a youngster, as it was a bit too expensive. baseball was cheaper, so that's what my parents got me into. i loved the jays. until cliff fletcher traded for doug gilmour.

    the end of the 91/92 season was when i fell in love with the leafs, and 92/93 was the greatest leafs team i've ever seen. 50 goals from andreychuk, 127 points from dougie. it was magical. that's when i really became a hockey and leafs fan. then in 94 we got sundin, and the rest is history. it's been a pleasure watching him and the team over the years, through good times and bad.

    i think geography plays a huge part of it. at least it did for me. i cheer for the home team. toronto's home, and it would be wrong to cheer for another team while living in this great city. i'm leafs, raptors and blue jays fan. for life.

  8. These are such great stories, it's especially fascinating to me, as a hockey-mad/ hockey saturated Canadian, to hear from people in other markets about how they came to be a fan of hockey.

    Great stuff, thanks to everyone who's shared their story so far.

    I'm enjoying these so much, I'm hoping there's more to come...

  9. Hey MF, great article. I was going to comment here but my response got pretty long, so:

  10. Anonymous3:50 pm

    My fandom is a mix of the usual (geography, father's influence, television options) but the biggest reason was my family's desire to get to know Canadian culture as much as possible.

    My dad and his brothers moved to Mississauga in the late 60s/70s and since hockey was the sport of choice they started learning about it (and it turned out that they chose 'the hard way') in order to acclimatise themselves to the country.

    Now we're a huge (in numbers and passion) Leafs family and God help anyone that tries to join that isn't on-side. Actually, we help out by bypassing them and getting the kids on board.

  11. I hate to do the shameless plug thing, but I already put my response on my spot and cross posted it to PPP's so link goes here.

  12. I follow 5 teams in earnest.. the Leafs, the Colts, Arsenal FC, the Raptors and the Jays.

    I will save the Leafs for last so i will work backwards.... Geographically speaking the Raptors and Jays are no brainers... if i want to watch basketball or baseball and cheer for a specific team, seems reasonable to cheer for the home team. Tho i do understand the idea of liberated fandom....

    Arsenal came about because of France and the way they played the beautiful game during the late 90's and on into today... and so, Henry and Veira where there... Wenger orchestrates the game the way i like to see it... EPL is the only league we could watch games on a regular basis up until recently... so i choose them.

    The Colts came about because of two reasons... the main being the Bill's emotionally draining habit of losing Super Bowls... and a defensive tackle out of Washington by the name of Steve Emtman. My parents had a sat dish at the time, i was playing football and so i could watch all the college games i wanted. Emtman was a beast... and so i followed him to the Colts, and have been there ever since.

    The Leafs... well, i hated the Leafs early on... i followed player's teams, rather then team's players... maybe that is a trend, looking at my post as a whole. Ric Middleton and later the Best.. Cam Neely with the Bruins... and as i played RW growing up... Mike Bossy and the Islanders. (that was really a reaction to hating the Oilers i think... never liked Gretzky... prefered Bossy).

    Wendal drew me closer to the home town team... then Gilmour and Potvin. the reality is tho... i really just think it became a case of it being a group activity to go and watch the games with my friends... and being overwelmed with coverage of the team. When all you can really read in the paper is Leafs, Leafs, Leafs... i think you tend to become more involved. Re-reading that last bit it sounds like i was soft and brainwashed... i am ok with that. Oh well.

  13. Anonymous6:18 am

    In order I support Arsenal and the Leafs (because of a girl. I'll explain later).

    Arsenal is an easy one. My family (Dad's side) is from Islington. My Dad hates football so my granddad (an Arsenal fan) got me hooked when I was little. This may seem to be a blessing now (especially considering that we play the best football and are a treat to watch) but you try going to a school with 1,000 other boys, none of whom like Arsenal. At a time when we were known as Boring Boring Arsenal. (Man U, Liverpool and Saints were the big three at my school).
    Fun times. But at least it's all good now!

    The Leafs are a little less easy. And weirder. I'm not Canadian nor have I ever lived in Canada. But my wife is and has. I met here in Toronto in 2005 and my love affair (with both my wife and the Leafs) started then. Because of a girl!

    Now I spend far too much time on the internet reading Leaf blogs and wondering if we'll ever win a Cup sometime in my lifetime.

  14. Anonymous12:22 am

    I'm a 4th generation Leaf fan. My great-grandparents and grandparents came over from Scotland in the 1920s, and my great-grandfather and grandfather fell in love with hockey pretty quickly. They, along with a family friend scrounged together enough money to get 2 season tickets near the very top of the Gardens.

    They took my dad to lots of games when he was a boy and through exposure (and a healthy dose of winning hockey), he became a Leaf fan too.

    I got turned on to hockey as a 7 year old boy. My maternal grandparents were also Leaf fans, and we would watch games together when I went to stay with them on the occasional weekend. However, my first allegiance was to Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers.

    In January 1982, the Oilers came to Toronto for a Saturday night game, and my dad made a bet with me - 25 cents that the Leafs would beat the Oilers. I happily accepted, waiting with anticipation for that shiny quarter that I would take down to the corner for a new pack of O-Pee-Chee hockey cards.

    The Leafs won 7-1. I lost a quarter, but I was instantly converted. I don't know what it was, but I was suddenly swept up in the genetic adoration for the blue and white.

    Two months later, my dad took me to see the Leafs and Quebec Nordiques - St. Patrick's Day, 1982. We sat way up in the greys (likely not far from where my grandfather's seats were). Mirko Frycer's first game with the Leafs (he got a hat-trick). Wally Weir and Jim Korn fought in the penalty box. Leafs won 6-3. The Leafs were terrible that year, but in those two performances (likely their best of the year), they hooked me. The smell of the Gardens, the colours of the seats, my family history, Vaive, Salming, Larocque, Frycer...I've never looked back.

  15. Anonymous2:36 pm

    I love the Leafs for a number of reasons similar to those already posted. I grew up in Brampton so the geographical connection was there. My father, and grandfather, were Leaf fans so the generational dimension was also present. All of my childhood friends were Leaf fans, so peer influence also played a part.

    The funny thing is, I can't remember ever not loving the Leafs so I can't pinpoint when I actually chose to accept them as my team or what particular element of the Leafs led me to their ranks. It really does feel like something I was born with.

    With other sports it's easier to pinpoint. I'm a Steeler fan because the Steelers were the best team in the NFL at exactly the time when I started paying attention to the NFL. It's always easy to cheer for a team that wins, and 4 Super Bowls was pretty impressive. Later, I've realized that I like Steelers' fans, their devotion to their team rivals that of Leaf fans.

    I'm a Laker fan because of one man, Magic Johnson. Those no-look passes had me hooked as soon as I saw them.

    I'm a Jays and Argo fan basically because they were the home team growing up.

  16. Not to sound like a broken record (scratched cd?) but these are all great stories.

    I think Paul really nailed it for me when he said he can't recall the moment he became a Leafs fan.

    I can't either. My memories of the Leafs are just entwined with my memories of childhood. There isn't a time when I don't recall cheering for the Blue and White.

    Really interesting stuff, I hope there's still more to come...

  17. My first memory of hockey as a child was sitting in front of the TV for the first game of the Leaf season, the year after they had last won the cup. I remember my older brother telling me how great this team was since they had just won the cup, and a couple more before that. I was immediately entranced by the game in general and the expectation of greatness from my new favorite team. Well its 40 years on and I still love the game and my team.
    I guess the greatness will still have to wait. Go Leafs.