Game Day: How to deal with the haters
Be strong, Leafs Nation. Brace yourselves for the onslaught of mocking, jeering, laughing and taunting that crops up at this time of year.
On Monday night, before the 6-2 loss to Tampa was even 10 minutes old, my inbox started beeping like a big rig stuck in reverse.
There were jokes ("Q: Why doesn't Hamilton have an NHL team? A: Because then Toronto would want one!"). There were insults and magic numbers. There were referrals to psychiatrists and local golf courses.
There were even pictures:
This morning before work, I went to the corner store to buy some milk. I was wearing my Leafs cap, as per usual. After paying, as I turned to leave, I thought the nice man behind the counter blurted out, "Aki Berg."
"Pardon me?" I asked, feeling my blood pressure rise.
What he actually said, while pointing at my back was, "Girl bird."
It seems one of my daughters had, once again, affixed an Ariel sticker to my coat. This poor guy may not know the difference between a winged creature and a mermaid but he wasn't taking a shot at the Leafs. He was just giving me a friendly heads-up.
The point is: We don't have time for this.
There are still a dozen games to play and a lot hangs in the balance. We don't have time for point-of-sale misunderstandings and we certainly don't have time to be dragged down by those who take perverse pleasure from our late-season pain.
So in advance of tonight's big game against Carolina – Jersey won again last night and are now perched ahead of Toronto in the standings – here is a guide to identifying and dealing with the four main antagonists that multiply like bacteria in March.
This is the easiest group to identify. The Haters smile on the inside and pump their angry fists after every loss: "Yes!"
They bookmark novelty websites and spend money on anti-Leaf merchandise. They crack lame jokes about parades and 1967. They refer to the Leafs as "the Laffs" and believe Leafs Nation is third-world country populated by deluded fools.
When encountering a Hater, it's best not to make any sudden movements. The Hater is just waiting to pounce. "You know why the Leafs suck?" they will ask, before answering their own question.
If cornered by a Hater, do not panic. Let them finish ranting about why Dion Phaneuf is the anti-Christ or how Phil Kessel drinks kitten blood to break out of slumps. Then when there's a pause, smile and calmly say, "Go Leafs Go" before beating a hasty retreat.
This group is equally obsessed with the Leafs. But unlike The Haters, they do not openly despise the blue-and-white. Instead, their contempt manifests in passive-aggressive small talk and feigned empathy.
"I saw the highlights from last night," they will say at work the next morning. "Wow. I really feel sorry for Reimer. It seems like the book is out on him."
They don't feel sorry for Reimer. They love when the kid is beaten high and on the glove side. The Faux Sympathizers want the Leafs to fail because they are addicted to the Schadenfreude.
The best way to deal with these people is to pretend you are not on to them while reinforcing your faith at every turn.
"Yeah, thanks for your support. That was a tough loss, no question. But these guys will bounce back. This is a really exciting time to be a fan. The future has never looked brighter."
For whatever reason, certain members of other fan bases yearn to reach out and show us the light. Like missionaries in a faraway land, these people ask things like, "Why don't you follow a real team already?" and "Don't you want to experience the joy and salvation of winning?"
The Converters don't hate the Leafs. They don't even care about the Leafs. What they care about is our loyalty and devotion. They want to harness this spirit, co-opt it for their own team.
They want us to be a part of their conversations.
It's flattering. Nevertheless, it's best to avoid all hockey discussions with The Converters. There is no point, no upside for us or for them because it's never going to happen.
My wife's driving scares the hell out of me. Does that mean I'm going to leave her and shack up with the woman across the street who can parallel park like nobody's business?
When The Converters discuss their Canucks or their Canadiens, change the subject to the weather. When they make playoff predictions involving their Wings or their Flyers, mention the last movie you've seen.
Eventually, they will see the light and our cross-team friendships will survive.
This is the most difficult group to handle. They once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with us in the trenches, which warrants a measure of respect. But now they have abandoned us, they have "escaped the cult," as they often say without blinking or exhaling.
The Ex-Believers claim they want the Leafs to do well. But they refuse to waste any more time on this godforsaken team. Ask an Ex-Believer a theoretical question about power plays or defensive coverage and you will instead be subjected to an extended rant about how MLSE is run by a shadowy cabal of greedy jackasses who have no interest in the on-ice product.
"Until they get serious about winning," The Ex-Believers say, "they will never get me back. Never! I'm done with them."
But here's the truth: The Ex-Believers are not done with the Leafs. They never really left Leafs Nation. They may not watch all of the games anymore. They may not know a Lebda from a Lupul. But they are still emotionally invested, which is why they can't stop talking about why they left in the first place.
When approached by an Ex-Believer, just nod silently and listen. Let them vent, let them blow off historical steam. But stay positive and make something clear: When they are ready to return, the door will always be open.
Once a Leaf fan, always a Leaf fan...
Okay, on to Carolina. Let's do this thing.
MAIN PHOTO: TARA WALTON/TORONTO STAR