The Agony of an NHL Fan

There are ads floating around the internet hawking t-shirts and hoodies aimed at long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fans. One was emblazoned with “Just Give Me One”, followed by “Waiting Since 1967”. I’ve also seen shirts with the statement “One Before I Die”, also aimed at Leafs fans.

I mentioned this during a recent lunch with a friend of mine, who’s also a Leafs fan. We both chuckled then the conversation turned to the Leafs up-and-down performance this season, as well as the club’s long history of futility. Last season, with the Leafs coming off seven straight seasons without a playoff berth, my friend’s motto was, “Just make the playoffs this season, and I’ll be happy”.

Being a hockey fan means more agony than joy.

Being a hockey fan means more agony than joy.

For Leafs fans of a certain age, it’s painful to recall their club’s long decline from a one-time league powerhouse, winners of four Stanley Cups in six seasons in the 1960s, to the point where just making the playoffs is cause for celebration.

As a Montreal Canadiens fan, I have the same feeling. I was spoiled growing up in the 1970s, as the Canadiens won six Stanley Cups in that decade, including four-in-a-row in the late-70s. The Habs had few serious challengers back then, certainly none which worried me. They were such a powerful team that I knew they were going to win the Cup every year. It was a great time to be a Habs fan.

Islanders fans from the the early 1980s and Oilers fans of the mid-to-late ’80s also knew that feeling. Unfortunately, it’s now ancient history. The Canadiens’ glory years are now nearly 40 years in the past, the Isles and Oilers 30 years and counting. A couple of generations have been born and raised never knowing those clubs were once the most dominant in the NHL. They can’t relate to the stories about the glory years.

Based on what the Leafs, Habs, Isles and Oilers have provided their fans in recent years, there’s precious little performance-wise to motivate a young fan into cheering for them. They must find other reasons to support those teams. Locale plays a large part. A talented player (Phil Kessel, P.K. Subban, John Tavares, Taylor Hall) is another. Maybe it was passed down from their parents or older siblings, or possibly peer pressure among friends.

The same goes for fans of teams which years ago won a championship or two but have since struggled to return to glory. It’s been forty years since the Philadelphia Flyers won the first of their only two Stanley Cup titles. It’s been 25 years since the Calgary Flames won their only title. Judging by their recent struggles, it’ll be a while before either team gets that close again.

The New York Rangers are part of the fabled “Original Six” yet they went through a 54 year Cup drought until winning another championship in 1994. This year marks the 20th anniversary of that Cup win. An entire generation of Rangers fans have grown up without witnessing another. They have more in common with those old-timer Ranger fans who waited decades between titles.

From 1996 to 2001 the Colorado Avalanche were among the class of the NHL, winning two championships. They also had an earlier incarnation as the Quebec Nordiques, whose rabid fan base went through the heartbreak of watching their team, on the cusp of greatness, relocated to a city where their new fans were spoiled by the seemingly instant success of their new team. It’s been 13 years since the Avs’ last championship and a significant number of their young fans have no memory of their glory years.

Like the Avalanche, the Dallas Stars were once among the league’s elite, winning the Cup in 1999. Well before that, they used to be the Minnesota North Stars, whose fans suffered through many years of futility before the team was moved. It’s been fifteen years since the Stars were champions, and in recent years they haven’t given fans much worth cheering for.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks were Cup winners in 2004, 2006 and 2007. The Hurricanes were once the Hartford Whalers, and left behind a devoted fan base in 1997 for the sunnier climes of Carolina. Since their championship year, they’ve only returned in the playoffs once. At least the Lightning and Ducks,which are relatively new franchises, aren’t far removed from their championship years and seem poised for contention this year.

There are young fans of the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins who only know the recent success of these teams.

This is a glorious time to be a young Blackhawks fan. Your team won two championships in four years. While the NHL salary cap and the 30-team league has all but ensured championship dynasties are a thing of the past, the Blackhawks remain poised for serious contention for at least the next five years, perhaps more.

Youthful Bruins fans witnessed their club reach the Cup Final two of the past three years, winning a championship in 2011. Red Wings fans have enjoyed their club’s two decades of dominance among the NHL’s elite franchises, reaching the Final six times and winning the big mug in four of them.

Older fans of those clubs, however, remember much harder times. How the Blackhawks spent 49 years between championships. How their former owner turned the club into a laughingstock for a decade with his tight-fisted ways. How the Bruins spent 39 years between titles and at times wallowed near the bottom of the standings. How the Red Wings suffered through 42 years between championships, including over two decades of indifferent ownership and poor management.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have also had their share of ups and downs. Younger fans only know of the Sidney Crosby years. Older ones fondly recall Mario Lemieux and the consecutive championship years followed by several lean years before their turnaround since 2006-07. Much older Penguin followers recall nearly 25 years of disappointment and futility before the Lemieux and Crosby eras.

New Jersey Devils fans, particularly those who started following the team in the mid-1990s, remember their decade of dominance from 1995 to 2004 and their three Cup championships. Their older fans remember how they were once, in Wayne Gretzky’s description, a “Mickey Mouse franchise”. For kids who follow the Devils now, their fondest memory is an underdog team marching to the 2012 Cup Final before falling to the Los Angeles Kings.

Until recently the biggest highlight of the Kings’ history was the Gretzky years of the late-80s and early-90s. Young Kings fans look back on that era as a historical curiosity bearing no resemblance to the elite team they follow today.

At least fans of these aforementioned teams have championship history. Try being a follower of a team which hasn’t won a championship yet. For fans of the St. Louis Blues, Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Phoenix Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets, they’ve got nothing to either really look fondly back on or to currently crow about. The Ottawa Senators, whose last championships go back almost 100 years from their earlier incarnation, also fall among this group.

Sure, the Blues went to the Final three straight years early in their history. The Canucks went to three Finals, the Sabres two and the Capitals, Senators and Panthers once. Doesn’t really measure up well compared to those with championships. For those who’ve never yet experienced that meager honor, there’s even less to boast about.

I’m not putting down fans of those teams.  I just find it fascinating how they can stay loyal to teams which haven’t  given much worth sticking around for.

It really is funny how sports fans in general, and hockey fans in particular, seize upon one franchise and follow it unquestioningly when the bad years outnumber the successful ones. One would think, after years of heartbreak or frustration they would find a better one worth cheering for, yet most remain steadfastly loyal.

For example, every Leafs fan I’ve ever known would never consider switching allegiance. I’ve never met, say, a Red Wings fan who used to be a Leafs fan but got fed up and opted to follow a better team.

My wife became a Leafs fan in the early 1990s, falling in love with Doug Gilmour and Felix Potvin and Wendel Clark. She later became a fan of Mats Sundin and Tie Domi. Every year the Leafs have frustrated and angered her. She’ll cry, “Why do I cheer for this goddamn team?” when they’ve broken her heart again, yet we both know she’ll never switch allegiance to another team.

I’ve stayed loyal to the Canadiens because of their rich history but also the hope they’ll one day return to glory. I’ve been luckier than most fans. My team won the Stanley Cup 12 times in my lifetime, of which I watched them win eight championships. If I live another 50 years and they never win another, at least I don’t have to consider ordering a damn t-shirt begging them to win one before I die.

In my youth my favorite team brought me more joy than misery. Over the past 20 years, I’ve learned to accept more misery than joy. It’s almost masochistic. An Oilers fan, for example, knows their team is currently horrible and probably doesn’t see any foreseeable end to their suffering. Yet most of them will remain Oilers fans, looking for any bright spot (“A three-game winning streak!” “Taylor Hall’s solid Corsi numbers!” “Our stockpile of young talent!”) to justify their faith.

Every hockey fan does this, regardless of where their team is in the standings, especially if they’re going through a slump or a string of bad luck. Best player struggling to score? He just needs better linemates or more ice time or to not be screwed over by that jerk of a coach. Injuries decimating the skilled veterans? It’s a great opportunity for the kids to get more playing time and show what they can do. A pending free agent star might not re-sign? Screw him, the greedy bastard, we don’t need him, we’ve got depth!

Love of a sports team really is an odd thing. There are people far wiser than I who’ll explain the phenomenon as some kind of tribal-like custom stretching back to man’s earliest years. Throughout our evolution as a species one would think we’d outgrow such behaviour. Then again, I’d have to find another way to make a living, so here’s hoping we don’t leave it behind anytime soon.

Like all of you, I’ll keep cheering for my favorite team, even if it means going through more good times than bad. Ultimately, it’s that one hoped-for championship year which makes all that suffering worthwhile.

3 Comments

  1. Nice article Lyle. It’s kind of funny how fanatical fans are when it comes to hockey. I think it shows just how exciting the game of hockey is compared to other sports, especially when you consider there are 30 teams each one playing different systems; each one having its own identity; each one striving for one goal: to win the championship which which is one, if not the toughest championship to win in all sports, really play into our base emotions.

  2. How can you say Flyers aren’t close? Clearly they aren’t cup favorites right now but ton of young talented forwards and seems like they found their goalie. They need help on blueline but have could prospects to look out for and never count out on them making “the big move” to help bring in a top tier dman. They will be a cup contender in the next 2 years

  3. Great little article. Obviously, experiencing Cup wins early cements the dedication to a team and eases the pain of later loses. I don’t know if I would have stayed a Devils fan had I not had the luck to become one in ’93 and not, say, ’83. I have enormous respect for a fan willing to take heartbreak after heartbreak in the name of the crest on the front of the jersey, but I don’t know how fans in Florida, Columbus, or Buffalo do it. But I do know that it’s what makes our sport special.

    That having been said, Leaf fans are just crazy people.