The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Jake Gardiner and Maple Leafs fans were in the news this week for boos that rained down on the defenceman every time he touched the puck Monday night. Gardiner had a bad giveaway Saturday that led to a goal for the Boston Bruins and lost a physical battle with Carl Soderberg on Monday that led to the game-winning goal while Toronto was on the power play. A section of fans had enough and made their voices heard.
With the Leafs having a poor two-week stretch and Boston on the verge of overtaking them for second in the division, perhaps some recalled Gardiner’s miserable minus-5 in Game 7 of last year’s playoff loss to the Bruins. Did that have something to do with it, or are Maple Leafs fans just generally a tough group to please?
“I loved it. I didn’t think it was that hard,” former Leaf Daniel Winnik said on The Good Show Wednesday about the pressures of playing in front of Leafs Nation. “But maybe because of my style of hockey and I wasn’t a guy breaking the bank and being paid one of the highest on the team. I didn’t find it that hard or the fans that difficult. I think the pressure and scrutiny you’re under in Toronto as a high-paid player and someone who’s expected to perform night in and night out at a very high level, then yes it’s tough.”
Winnik played 114 games for Toronto in 2014-15 and 2015-16, a span that marked one of the lower points in years for the team. In full rebuild mode by the end of his tenure, expectations were low and their 29-42-11 record in his final year with the Leafs put them at the very bottom of the league and landed them Auston Matthews in the draft.
In his first season as a Leaf, though, the team was still in transition (or denial). They were just a year removed from making the playoffs and though that was followed up with a miss, the base of the roster was still intact, so there was at least some belief a rebound season could be in the cards. A slow start numbed that optimism and tossing jerseys on the ice became a sport — even Carey Price poked fun at the team. An embarrassing 9-2 loss to Nashville in November formally flung the 18-wheeler off the cliff. Instead of saluting the fans with their sticks following that loss, the Leafs just skated off the ice.
“Salute-gate” took on a life of its own and is still talked about today, in hushed tones.
“I just remember us being really pissed off at what the fans had been doing over the last week or so with the jerseys coming on the ice and all that stuff,” Winnik recalled. “It just happened. That’s all I remember. I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal to what it was. I never thought ‘this is going to be a huge media story and we’re going to be in a lot of trouble for this.’ I’m sure if anybody knew that would happen we wouldn’t have done it.”
Video of the non-salute and the lead-up to it has been combed over and analyzed as much as the Zapruder film, though all the Leafs of the time denied it was a planned snub, and Winnik backed that up. What’s similar about salute-gate, the jersey-tossers of 2014 and the boos for Jake Gardiner is a fan base struggling to come to terms with a bad stretch. The Leafs are in a vastly different place today, but the fan reactions aren’t that different from what you’d see in other hockey-mad markets. In fact, Winnik said he experienced worse elsewhere.
“I don’t think the fans are unfair,” he said. “It’s no different than other cities I’ve played in. To me the hardest place to play, I was only there for 20-something games, was Pittsburgh. They were tough. Those were some die-hard fans that really freaking cared and if you played bad…I was getting so ridiculed on Twitter when I was there.”
In Gardiner’s case, it was especially strange to hear fans boo one of the better 5-on-5 offensive blueliners in the entire NHL, on a team that’s widely regarded as a Stanley Cup contender. But winning cures all and, thankfully for Gardiner, this edition of the Leafs should be hitting the win column regularly again soon. This 18-wheeler won’t be steering off any cliffs.
“I just remember being a kid who grew up in Toronto and being a Leaf fan,” Winnik said. “And then you’re on the ice and you see jerseys coming over because people are ashamed to wear it, people had bags on their heads coming to games. It was crazy. And then you win and all is forgotten. It’s so bizarre.”