Third man in

a/Behind the Bench/Sports by

For university students, May is the month when our exam anxiety evaporates and we veer off to begin our promising summer plans. However, this summer brought with it a new cause for uneasiness and hope. It was NHL playoff hockey, and it had finally returned to Toronto.

To say that the city was itching for the post-season is not dire enough. Toronto sports fandom in general took an unfortunate course over the past decade. Being removed from meaningful sports action for so long changed our ethos. Even in the most hopeful of circumstances when our confidence bordered on irrationality, our teams always seemed to crumble, triggering the regrettably familiar combination of self-loathing and self-deprecation.

In this case, the sentiment was amplified because it was the Leafs—the pantheon of all Toronto sports teams—who finally seemed to have awoken from their decade- long trip of embarrassment.

The feat was that much more personally significant because the once unthinkable decline of the franchise occurred during the decade in which I, along with many of my friends and my peers, were wrestling with the culmination of gawkiness commonly known as adolescence. Our teams should have united us and made us secure, but those blankets left us cold, and that didn’t help our cause or settle my hormones.

However, with an outpouring of enthusiasm and excitement came rational fans that sensibly calmed the tide. The smart bunch argued that we should celebrate postseason qualification, and should be proud no matter how far the team went. Many Leafs fans quickly began to share this feeling, especially once we drew the Boston Bruins—the Debbie Downer of our hockey existence.

What moderate hope we had held onto all but dissipated when the Bruins took a 3-1 series lead into Boston, one win away from closing out the Leafs. Strangely enough, most seemed content with the inevitable—we generally outplayed the Bruins, a few breaks didn’t go our way, but it was overall a quality experience for our young, promising core. We were, dare I say, learning, and ripe with real, tempered optimism, even on the brink of defeat. Perhaps we no longer fell victim to false hope.

Just remember though, it’s not officially over yet, so don’t poke the irrational bear.

Almost unbelievably, the Leafs won Game 5 in Boston and then Game 6 in Toronto. The unfathomable was unfolding in front of our eyes. The series was tied at 3-3 and heading back to Beantown for the final, deciding game.

Please, please don’t poke the bear.

In a blink, Toronto somehow held a 4-1 lead in Game 7 with only 10 minutes remaining in the third period, an almost insurmountable deficit for any hockey team in any normal situation. Leafs Nation could think of only one logical outcome: the Leafs were going to beat Boston against all odds and then win the Cup because they are the team of destiny.

Poked.

Then, in our delirium, it happened again: 4-2 … 4-3 … 4-4… Overtime.

Toronto, the team and the city, internally combusted.

I warned you not to poke the bear.

The collapse was so predictable that it verged on laughable; this was a Toronto sports team, of course. Ridiculously, I was still hopeful, even after enduring 10 minutes of devastation and reassembling my body parts. Maybe, just maybe, the Leafs would calm down in the dressing room, somehow reverse the momentum, and prevail in overtime.

Who was I kidding? This was Toronto and we were the Leafs. With another blink, it was 5-4. Bruins advance. Cue the YouTube reaction montages. I hate myself.

Four months later, it still stings. But hey, we actually might have a chance next year. Right?