Peter Robinson hasn't felt this stress-free at this time of the year since, well, the last time the NHL season didn't raise its curtain on time because of a lockout eight years ago.
Usually in early October, Robinson is a bundle of nerves. Oh sure, he tries to hide his uneasiness with optimism and anticipation of a new hockey season. But don't let his outside demeanour fool you. There is a good deal of tumult inside his tummy.
You see, poor old Pete is a fanatic of the floundering Toronto Maple Leafs. He has suffered for four decades with his beloved team. There were good runs to the final four in 1978, 1993, 1994, 1999 and 2002, but there hasn't been an appearance in the Stanley Cup final since the Leafs were victorious in 1967, five years before the 40-year-old Robinson was born.
He's not bitter. In fact, after so many seasons of disappointment Robinson has become curious as to why he and scores of others continue to cheer for a franchise that has achieved so little. So he set out to find out and attempts to answer that question in his recently released book Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto: Life as a Maple Leafs fan.
You may recognize the name Peter Robinson from another section on this website. He writes an intermittent golf column for CBCsports.ca. But as much as the native of Barrie, Ont. likes golf, his main obsession has been the Maple Leafs, and we wondered this week whether the lockout is a good or bad development for his kind.
"First of all, it's a good thing monetarily," said Robinson, who has attended more than 100 Maple Leafs games and pays for most of the trips to the Air Canada Centre out of his own pocket. "That's the biggest thing I will notice.
"But I'm surprised about how much of a relief and escape it has been from the drudgery every year. I do know that if this lockout lasts a year, including me, hundreds of thousands of others will be back just as excited as we were before when this lockout ends.
"But there is something about them doing this twice in eight years that is going to give some pause, including myself. At some point, you have to see a return on your investment. It's an emotional investment for sure."
In his book, published by Dundurn, Robinson employs various trips to the ACC to discuss his obsession. The high point was when Bryan McCabe and Kyle Wellwood scored power-play goals early in the third period to beat Montreal in the 2006-07 season finale against the Montreal Canadiens.
The two points pushed the Maple Leafs into the playoffs, only to have it taken away the following afternoon when the improbable happened. New York Islanders third-string goalie Wade Dubielewicz beat the New Jersey Devils in a shootout to leapfrog the Islanders over Toronto into eighth place.
Still, Robinson fondly remembers that season. He liked the way the Maple Leafs performed and deduces that poor goaltending was the reason why they didn't make the playoffs.
The low point was last winter. Robinson remembers leaving the ACC on Feb. 6 after an impressive 6-3 win by the Maple Leafs over the Edmonton Oilers. The victory propelled Toronto into seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings, but just four points back of the fourth-place Philadelphia Flyers.
There was little doubt in his mind that the Maple Leafs finally were going to make an appearance in the post-season for the first time since 2004. In fact, Robinson had hopes of maybe a fourth-place finish. But you know what happened. The Maple Leafs slipped away and out of the playoff race with a 7-18-4 finish.
So I asked Mr. Robinson, why not just support another team?
"That would be a bit like cheating," he said. "Part of the reason why the Leafs keep their loyalty, in a twisted sort of way, has been because they haven't won. There have been a few teases in 1993 and 1994 and the other times they have made it to the semis.
"In Toronto, there is a message there with the Blue Jays. We can remember how popular they were in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then they won back-to-back World Series and there wasn't the desire to come back. Now granted that is baseball versus hockey in a Canadian market and that is a difference as well. But to a certain extent the Leafs have benefited from their own incompetence with those spells of competence that has given us false optimism."
'A bit cathartic'
You can see his point. But isn't it embarrassing enough simply to be a Maple Leafs fan? Why did you have to bare your soul in a book (a very worthwhile read by the way)?
"Probably because it's a bit cathartic," Robinson said. "I just have become fascinated why we do it? Why do we go to the ACC night after night and it's packed? Admittedly, sometimes there isn't much of an atmosphere there. But we all have our reasons.
"At the risk of sounding over dramatic, I'm coming to grips with being a middle-aged man. Literally, since I was born they haven't won a Stanley Cup. There only have been a handful of times that they have been a good team since I've been alive.
"I've almost come to terms that I've wasted all this time. If that's what you want to call it - wasting. I guess that's a bigger question, is it wasting your time? Every year, at this time of the year, optimism abounds for the Leafs fan. There have been snippets of improvement even during the [Brian] Burke era. It's the folly of professional team sports. Every year brings some renewal."
But has cheering for the Maple Leafs and all the frustrations that come with it been worth it?
"Certainly, the lockout has given me pause to consider," said Robinson, editor of Prospects Hockey, the official magazine of the Canadian Hockey League. "I have been struck by how little I have missed it. Having said that I will jump right back in when the NHL comes back. It blows me away quite frankly, now that it's gone you find other ways to fill your life. It happened in 2004. There's a message in there, but I'm not sure what. It's just a testament, I think, how much we are creatures of habit."
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