Lunchbucket Leafs are harder to despise

I can’t believe I’m writing this: I hate the Toronto Maple Leafs less than, presumably, I ever have before.
That’s not to say the Leafs and I have become best friends forever (or BFFs, as I’m told the young ones say). Far from it.
But this collection of characters, cast-offs and misfits (to steal from San Francisco Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy) is, at the very least, hard to hate.
It was sad watching CBC try to cram a washed-up Alexander Mogilny down our throats (well, in 2003-04, anyway), I never had the same respect for Tie Domi outside of a Jets’ jersey, and Darcy Tucker is just a straight-up, umm, expletive, no matter what he wears.
Add in that I never quite got the aura of Mats Sundin, I still haven’t forgiven Curtis Joseph for bailing on the Oilers (I was young and didn’t quite have a great grasp of free agency, but still), and Eddie Belfour was tainted by the Dallas Stars by the time he ended up on the Leafs’ doorstep.
I had plenty of reasons to hate the players in the blue and white, or at least magnify some flaw to make it much easier to yell curse words at the television or start a petty argument with a Leaf-loving acquaintance.
Those days, at least for now, seem to be on hiatus.
Maybe it’s that I’ve come to accept that Toronto owns the 6 p.m. HNIC time slot (although there already has been, gasp, one Saturday night where the “Buds” weren’t in the nationally-broadcast game), and the fact I don’t have much of a fondness for either Ottawa or Montreal (though if I was forced at gunpoint to pick one of the three, go Habs).
Maybe part of it is that the Senators seem to be on when I want to watch post-season baseball, not the Leafs, and so they are bearing the brunt of my sports-watching dissatisfaction.
And, indeed, part of it is the Leafs’ roster. Sundin is one thing, but how can you have any hate towards Clarke MacArthur?
How many Leaf fans, let alone Leaf haters, even knew who MacArthur was before this year?
I can get behind a guy who was an afterthought with the Atlanta Thrashers (of all teams) and was released after receiving an admittedly large arbitration award.
Here’s a guy who had 88 points in parts of four seasons with Buffalo and Atlanta, and presently is on pace to beat that out this year.
Granted, a pace through just a 10th of the season is hard to keep up, but hopefully MacArthur can cement himself into a position as a solid NHL’er this season at the very least.
Of course, I have to respect former Manitoba Moose player Mike Brown, who has been known to sport an absolute beauty of a moustache.
I’ve pulled for Colby Armstrong to make something of himself ever since he broke in with the Penguins, but then again, I also was kinda, sorta pulling for Vesa Toskala until it just became more fun to laugh at his follies in net.
I became a Jean-Sebastien Giguere fan all the way back in 2003 when he helped the Mighty Ducks to within one win of the Stanley Cup, and was hoping he’d get back on his feet after losing the starting gig in Anaheim to Jonas Hiller.
In fact, perusing the Leafs’ roster, it’s just amusing that this is the band of merry men that’s supposed to be Canada’s Team.
It’s arguably the worst NHL roster in Canada, at least on paper, but for the first few games of the season, they have found ways to win (current three-game losing streak excluded).
I mean, the only player it’s really easy to despise is Dion Phaneuf (some might nominate Mike Komisarek, too, but he’s okay by me). But his mediocre start to the year has taken the fun out of that.
Add into that a couple of intriguing prospects like Nazem Kadri and Jerry D’Amigo coming up through the pipe, and last year’s Phil Kessel debacle aside, the Leafs seem to be doing an okay job of building through the draft—something I’ve always respected.
I’ve tended to make a point of respecting a team for the guys on its roster rather than its location (well, except for the Oilers, which I’ve followed blindly for years, save for a crisis of faith following the Ryan Smyth trade).
For instance, I’ve been a strong supporter of the Nashville Predators for several years. Nashville should not have an NHL team, but have been blessed with savvy management, an outstanding coach, and a scrappy roster.
As well, though I was disappointed by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, I could accept defeat at their hands more easily because the lineup was filled with a great mix of young talent (Eric Staal and Cam Ward), useful veterans (Rod Brind’Amour and Ray Whitney), and unsung guys (Erik Cole, Glen Wesley, and Frantisek Kaberle).
The state of North Carolina should not have a Stanley Cup, but that group sure deserved one.
My point? Even though I have a long and raging hatred for Hogtown, the right group of players coming together and being successful could garner my respect.
I absolutely never, ever thought the Leafs could do it, but dump Phaneuf, and if the Leafs pull out their first Stanley Cup since 1967, I may offer my Leaf-loving fans a begrudging handshake instead of an earful of profanity.

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