Exiled in Abu Dhabi, Rob McKenzie misses his beloved ice hockey. But watching the suffering of a Sunderland-daft colleague who can catch every kick live on TV offers a sharp reminder of sporting under-achievement back home
Fans of Sunderland AFC and the Toronto Maple Leafs are twins separated at birth, cheering through thin and thinner for teams whose glories are tinted sepia. The Leafs last captured the Stanley Cup in 1967. Sunderland supporters chortle still over a match from 1908.
If by some fluke these kindred spirits were to meet, the crux of their conversation might go:
“Oh, so you’re a loser. Whaddaya know, I’m a loser too …………….”
At time of writing, the Maple Leafs are 19-8-22 in league play this season, Sunderland 5-5-13. The Leafs are coasting to a third consecutive year of missing the playoffs, an impressive feat given that 16 of the National Hockey League’s 30 teams qualify. Sunderland are romancing relegation, more exclusive territory as only three in 20 may attain it.
Perhaps the Leafs would be better off if they possessed Sunderland’s more miserable record. Their mediocrity undermines their future, because it is the NHL’s truly abysmal teams that get first crack at young talent in the annual player turnover. So they’re bad enough to be bad, but not bad enough to get better.
The Leafs and Mackems are part of a global web of defeat. Surely the planet is spotted with teams that adhere to a code not of glorious defeat, but of defeat, plain and simple. Teams like Toronto and Sunderland are, as Paul Fisher wonderfully spewed in More 24 Hour SAFC People, “a disappointment factory”.
The Chicago Cubs are another prime example. And no doubt there is some sadsack French pétanque team that inhabits another suburb of this cold lost Atlantis, and some hard-done-by Hungarian handball franchise, some almost-good Australian rugby squad and more. But to find their names would require research and my wife wants to use the computer in a bit.
So let us confine ourselves to the Toronto v. Sunderland case study.
Sunderland partisans lash themselves to the mast of A Love Supreme. Leaf fans adhere to “the passion that unites us all”. Both teams moved into shiny new stadiums in the late ’90s, to no great effect other than the generation of income for owners.
Sunderland now have the Stadium of Light; Toronto has the Air Canada Centre, which I suppose you could call the Stadium of Air. Parking’s a bugger either way.
As a denizen of Canada until my recent move to Abu Dhabi – (that’s Rob relaxing with a quick drag of shisha) – I am more familiar with Maple Leaf history than Sunderland history, so instead of attempting further direct comparisons I will offer samples of Leaf life on the premise that SAFC partisans will readily hear the echoes of their own experiences, good and bad.
One Saturday night in 1976, on a nationally televised game, Darryl Sittler, the Leafs’ captain, who years later would be traded to Philadelphia due to quarrels with the team’s cretinous owner, set a league record by scoring ten points against the Bruins. (In ice hockey, goals and assists each count for a point in the scoring tables, and a goal can have up to two assists.)
Sittler’s feat was tantamount to a
soccer football player scoring four or even five goals in a game. The Toronto-based newspaper that was my previous employer ran a big article on the 30th anniversary of the ten-point night.
Leaf coaches exist to be fired. Paul Maurice, who took his last team to the Cup final, is unlikely to survive beyond his second season in Toronto.
As for the treatment of players, a Leaf fan’s internal monologue currently runs something like: “Tucker – superpest or major whiner? Should we trade Sundin while he still has some value? And Raycroft – we’re paying the man $6-million and he can’t keep a f—ing beach ball out of the net. Course it’d be nice if the defence could actually defend. And now they expect me to shell out to watch this crud on pay-TV.”
When the Maple Leafs are in the playoffs, and doing well, the city is in fever. Boys and girls wave pennants from their schoolbuses and shriek. Everyone is excited.
The Leafs’ prized acquisition during the past off-season was Jason Blake, who in ’06-07 scored an impressive 40 goals for the New York Islanders. He has eight for Toronto so far this season and cannot afford to break stride if he is to reach 15.
Recent Toronto Star headlines: Leafs’ agony of defeat continues. Leafs reeling after collapse. Leafs sink closer to rock bottom. Leafs have a pulse after all. Sharks rally past woeful Leafs.
I lived in or near Toronto for 15 years. I followed the team, but your favourite team is always the one from your boyhood, and I am bound by birth to the Winnipeg Jets, who treasonously decamped in 1996 for the Arizona desert, and are now the Phoenix Coyotes.*
The Leafs? I am interested but not passionate. And they’re not on TV in Abu Dhabi, at least not on the channels I get.
The Premiership is far bigger here and is drawing my interest. But like a Sunderland or Leaf fan, I would never adopt a winner as my team. To start cheering for Man U or Chelsea — what’s the point of that? Only an idiot joins a parade after it’s started.
In the end, what unites Sunderland and Leaf supporters is a tension between self-loathing and sympathy. They bear crosses of their own making and hope for a glimpse of heaven in return.
* Potted history: The Jets began play in ’72 in the World Hockey Association, a rebel league that within a decade would merge into the National Hockey League, with four of its teams surviving. For a while it looked like the Jets might not be one of those teams, but then every man, woman, child and dog in Winnipeg vowed to forever boycott the brewery that owned the Montreal team unless it voted to let the Jets in, and that made all the difference. As a child I had bought shares in the Jets, or rather my dad did. This was part of a drive to either bring the team to Winnipeg or keep it there. The newspapers ran lists of everyone who bought shares, and there my brother and I were. Years later I discovered these shares were, of course, worthless. Fancy receipts, nothing more.