Brunt: Let’s talk about our feelings

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The past two seasons have ended in the same place for MLSE’s signature teams. So why are the vibes so different?

A lesson in the peculiar psychology of the sports fan, or how nearly the same thing in the same place in the same city at the same time of year can seem so different.

Last spring, the Toronto Maple Leafs advanced to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in eight years, ending the most prolonged post-season drought in the franchise’s long history. They qualified, just barely, as the eighth and final seed in the East, and as a result drew the first-place Boston Bruins in the opening round, heading into the series as decided underdogs.

This spring, the Toronto Raptors made the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2008, a pleasant surprise for the fans of a team that had only made it that far six times since entering the league in 1995. Almost no one anticipated such a happy turn of events at the beginning of the basketball year, and on the day the Raps traded away Rudy Gay—and were contemplating trading away Kyle Lowry—cock-eyed optimists were even harder to find. But over the course of an oddball season, in which a large chunk of the NBA East seemed more interested in losing to gain draft position than winning, the Raps wound up third in the conference, and—by seeding at least—were favourites entering their series against the Brooklyn Nets.

Both springs, in addition to the packed houses inside, large crowds of mostly young fans gathered outside the Air Canada Centre to watch the games on a giant screen, creating a festive atmosphere previously unheard of in the Big Smoke (or unheard of at least since the days when any Leafs playoff win would inspire all kinds of spontaneous parading on Yonge Street).

And both springs, the faithful were left to mourn close, game-seven losses that certainly could have gone the other way.

So why didn’t it feel at all the same?

The Leafs’ third-period collapse against the Bruins inspired only despair. Fingers were immediately pointed at the alleged culprits—yes, you, Dion Phaneuf—and accusations levelled at the collective character of the group. The tone was funereal.

But though the Raptors had blown a series lead, though they had failed with the ball in their hands in the dying seconds of the final game when a field goal or a couple of foul shots could have won it, there were far more smiles than tears. The crowd didn’t want to go home, and kept right on cheering their vanquished heroes.

Way back in 1973 there was a similar scene when the Buffalo Sabres concluded the first playoff series in their history—losing to one of those Montreal Canadiens teams-for-the-ages. During the decisive game, rather than booing, the crowd at the old Aud stood and chanted “Thank you Sabres” over and over again, as pure and beautiful a moment as you’re going to find in professional sport.

It’s all about context, isn’t it?

The weight of the Leafs’ nearly half-century championship drought is so oppressive that it doesn’t allow for qualified joy. Even the relative glory years in the early 1990s seem a lifetime away, and so the team’s narrative has become entirely about past failure, current failure, and failure surely to come. In the (relative) best of times, Leafs fans are still waiting for that cartoon anvil to drop, and when it does, enjoy a perverse pleasure in saying “I told you so.” To do otherwise, to see last spring’s temporary happiness as anything other than an aberration, is to be played for a sucker—and look what happened in 2014…

Though there is no assurance that this was the beginning of a golden age, though it’s entirely possible the Raps, with their young core, could take a step backwards next year, that ray of sunshine was reward enough. And when it was announced that coach Dwane Casey had signed a contract extension—earlier in the season, it had seemed he might simply be a placeholder until a big name replacement became available—there was nary a dissenting voice. This was reward for a job well done, but also a way to prolong that feeling, to keep the magical gang intact at least until the trading and free-agent jockeying begins. And anyone who suggested that Casey, even in the smallest way, might have had a hand in letting the Nets series slip away was the worst kind of party-pooper.

The Leafs extended their coach this spring as well, but has it ever been done more grudgingly? Left twisting following the hiring of Brendan Shanahan, Randy Carlyle was told to fire his assistant coaches, and then offered a deal that looked more like a future golden handshake than an endorsement. A modest and grim debate ensued, with one side certain that Carlyle absolutely should have been gone, and the other arguing for stability and continuity with precious little enthusiasm. Either way, Leafs fans know what’s going to happen. They can feel it in their bones.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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