I’m going to go ahead and say it – fuck “Leafs Nation”. Strange words to hear from a lifelong Leafs fan and recent contributor to the Maple Leafs Annual? Maybe. Hear me out.
Kim Jorn, Godd Till and mf37, the Three Amigos of the Barilkosphere, have combined their considerable forces to launch a new blog called Zambonic Youth. Armed with a somewhat confusing but nevetheless distinctly unsettling manifesto that takes time out from hockey issues to warn against the coming cyptozoological war, the electronic Zambonic goes sardonic on the Leafs Abomination lexiconic – yo they be riffin’ supersonic’ like the London Philharmonic¹ – on the recent Random House offering by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange, Leafs Abomination.
Mf37 concludes his review thusly:
One last message: whatever you do, don’t buy this book.
One of the authors’ central arguments about the Leafs is that fans have supported crap for far too long and that support is partially responsible for perpetuating a four-decade string of mediocrity.
If you shovel $20 at product like this, there’s a real danger that it’s only going to encourage more publishers to hire basketball writers to pen a half-baked book about your favourite hockey team. And no matter what franchise you’re a fan of (and there are plenty of them that have gone 30+ years without a Cup to chose from) no good can come from that.
I believe the appropriate phrase would be “hoist by their own petard.” Nicely played.
I have to say that this book does seem to be the lexical equivalent of a Howard Berger blog post, squarely raising the issue of why it wasn’t released in November, when things matter. Others have rightly pointed out the hackneyed resort to cheap tricks like the upside down Leaf on the cover, the supposed selling price of $19.67, the guy on the cover with the bag on his head and so on. I don’t know whether Feschuk and/or Grange were involved in making those design choices, but it doesn’t sound as though these features of the book’s exterior are thematically inconsistent with the actual content of the tome. At the very least, Feschuk and Grange would seem by inference to be implicated as being complicit in this lazy and blatantly obvious resort to familiar cliches. The whole idea (of both cover and book), presumably, is to attempt inflame those who retain the capacity to be astonished by such nakedly calculated shit-disturbing and thereby gain publicity for the publication (remember the Maclean’s issue purportedly dedicated to exploring “Why the Leafs Stink“? Bet that issue, sporting the Leaf-bashing cover story sold a shitload of copies too.) All in all, shame on Messrs. Feschuk and Grange for falling victim to the sporting world’s equivalent of populist demagoguery.
For my own part, I am going to take the opportunity presented by the release of this book and the consequent recent focus on these tired memes to make a declaration. I am going to formally and officially express my discomfort with the term “Leafs Nation”, a (hilariously witty, no doubt) perversion of which phrase serves as the title for the Feschuk/Grange offering.
First, a disclaimer: I’ve used the term myself in the past. It may even have found its way into my article in the Maple Leafs Annual, I can’t recall. I’m not saying I haven’t sinned in the past. What I am saying is that I’ve never been comfortable with the term, and I am taking this opportunity to expressly disavow it. I am also urging my fellow Leafs fans to do the same and refer to themselves nevermore as “Leafs Nation.”
Why? Though the true genesis of the “fanbase as Nation” concept is somewhat obscure (or at least “not readily surrendered to me by the Internet using mediocre Google skillz and ten minutes to spare), so far as I am aware this idea originated in the early 1980s with fans of the Oakland Los Angeles Oakland Raiders of the NFL. Whatever the exact circumstances surrounding the origin of this practice, it is clear to me that the idea of “Leafs Nation” is no more innovative a concept than a “Kyle Wellwood is fat” joke – and it’s considerably less entertaining to boot.
There are almost literally Leagues of Nations – and we know how well that turned out last time. It seems like every pro team in football – from the USC Trojans (see what I did there?) on through the New York Giants, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots – has its own “Nation.” In baseball too, the Red Sox, the Cubs and the Blue Jays each apparently aspire to nationhood. Turning to other sports, the Lakers, Knicks and even the execrable L.A. Clippers ( ! ) each have fanbases boasting of their jurisdictional sovereignty. There are a plethora of “Tiger Nations” in a variety of sports, Lions Nations littered (tee hee!) across the continent, and both East and West Rangers Nations. Confusingly, there is even a Nationals Nation, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the sporting world has indeed become a Byzantine and ridiculous network of balkanized Fan Republics totally bereft of imagination.
The point is that this terminology, when combined with the name of the team – any team – has become a straight synonym for “fans”. It gets used generically, indiscriminately and without regard to whether there actually are any identifying characteristics at all that distinguish supporters of the team in question from fans of their rivals, or indeed from, say, “model train enthusiasts” for that matter (Lionel Nation represent!). Ultimately, usage of this repetitive, unoriginal and jingoistic nomenclature to describe Maple Leafs fans does a disservice to them; by painting them with the same brush as fans of virtually every other team in every other league at every other level in every other sport, it fails to adequately describe the undoubtedly unique culture that cheering for the Leafs involves.
It eviscerates from the notion of Leaf fandom, by force of its own banality, the burning and passionate hatred for everything Habs-related; the Blue & White’s traditional affinity for defense, rugged play and workmanlike efforts, which have historically been preferred and celebrated even more than more flashy offense-oriented talent; the fondness for the Maple Leaf Rag and Paul Morris’ dispassionate goal announcements; the love for Wendel Clark, King Clancy and Johnny Bower; the hatred of Harold Ballard; the sense of pride that warms the Leaf fan’s heart when the chants of Go Leafs Go can clearly be heard on a Saturday night telecast from the other team’s building, or hearing a cross-provincial rival’s Captain booed robustly in his own barn by fans of Mr. Smythe’s team just happy to get the chance to get to a game in person for a change; or the sense of identity that comes with having fiercely supported a team so publicly derided for so long, even while fans of its sworn enemy (once the Habs, more recently the Red Wings) have gloated over Cup victory after Cup victory.
This “Nation” thing similarly obscures the sense of injustice that those of us in the Barilkosphere feel when we hear the tired memes trotted out by the working media to sell papers, increase viewership or otherwise boost the bottom line; those of us who have followed the team closely over the years know that those who say these tired and unoriginal things – Grange, Feschuk, Berger, your cousin Jerry, that loudmouth at the end of the bar – they’re not only working with tired material, they’re also just plain wrong. We know they’re talking shit, and we know they’re doing it either because they’re motivated to stir up the pot for their own selfish purposes (usually related to the fact that there’s a hell of a lot of us) or they just plain don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, and it gets us angry.
This “Nation” thing eviscerates, elides and obliterates all of that and more, more than eight decades of proud history, everything that makes a Leafs fan unlike a fan of any other team in any other sport. And Feschuk and Grange write a book in which the very term is included in the title. My God, they couldn’t even pun a Maple Leafs-specific insult into the title of their book, the book that is destined to succeed precisely because of the special nature of the Maple Leafs fanbase. Ask yourself what other pro sports team in North America could possibly be the subject of a whole book about the degree to which it supposedly sucks and realistically hope to sell any copies whatsoever? That list probably only includes a handful of other teams – the Cubs, probably, and perhaps the Clippers for the sheer scale of horror involved. As Mf37 has convincingly argued in the Maple Leafs Annual, though, there is only one team whose fans actually get blamed for the supposed failures of their heroes: the Leafs.
Thus, referring to us as Leafs Nation, just like any other fanbase, trivializes the very real fact that the people and organizations who are trying to sell you this book – relying upon you to buy it, in fact – are the same ones who have pilloried you for supporting the team in the first place. They’ve incorrectly told you that the team has been a spectacular failure; they’ve continuously falsely and illogically claimed that you alone among all sports fans are to blame for that supposed failure; now they want to rob you of your unique identity by foisting upon you a generic label. Feschuk and Grange – and any other person who uses the term “Leafs Nation” – homogenizes us and equates us (by implication) with the sorry dozens that have been straggling by Tampa Bay Lightning games for the last few years.
Well no more. Join me in rejecting the term “Leafs Nation.” Let us instead follow the example of the Cheeseheads² (preferably without the foam replica dairy products on our head). Supporters of the Green Bay Packers have it right – lovers of the small town team located on the frozen tundra and steeped in tradition and myth have set themselves apart from the fans of other teams- as it should be. There’s a difference between the guy who lives a couple of miles from Lambeau Field with a Cheesehead wife, three Cheesehead kids and a dog named Lombardi, whose family’s tickets have been handed down like heirlooms through generations – and some fucking guy with a “Houston Texans” logo stuck to the bumper of his truck.
Have I convinced you? Good. Now comes the next, more difficult question – what term should we use instead? Suggestions in the comments, people…
¹Sorry, I think I may have briefly channeled Tupac for a moment there.
²Inexplicably, even Packers fans have fallen victim to the pernicious evil of this “Nation” thing. Consider, for example, this site.