It’s been grim in Toronto before — this is a city that lived through Harold Ballard’s maniacal illogic — but you can argue it has never been grimmer. Witness the latest edition of ESPN’s Ultimate Standings, in which the U.S. sports-media giant ranks franchises, not only on their ability to build a winner, but on the priority they put on providing fans with affordable tickets and a pleasant stadium experience. The Blue Jays, class of the shallow local talent pool, came in 92nd of the 122 major North American sports franchises. The Raptors ranked 113th — or, to spin it positively, first among the bottom 10. The Leafs? They placed 121st out of 122, ahead of only the woefully mismanaged Los Angeles Clippers. (Dave Feschuk, Toronto Star, July 7, 2010)
And with Feschuk, as a life-long Toronto Maple Leaf fan, and more recently also a Blue Jay and a Raptor fan, I too have watched the slight flicker of hope with the arrival of a few better-than-average players in all teams, but not since the World Series of 1992 and 1993, and the Maple Leaf run at the cup in '93 has the Toronto sports scene been worth cheering about.
Obviously, at least to this non-professional observer, no team can win consistently without a group of players, above average at least, and willing to put it all on the line to win, as were Gilmour and company for Pat Burns, and as were the Blue Jays for Cito Gaston, now the re-tread manager of the somewhat woeful team.
But, as a re-reading of Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater will demonstrate, there is a culture in Montreal that supports the "team" and every kid growing up in that province knows what it means to watch, support and swim in the melieu of Les Habitants. And it is not about money!
It is about history, and about tradition and the generating of a culture that holds the picture in the frame.
Someone tried to emulate the Carrier book in Toronto, and ended up re-telling the story of Daryl Sittler's ten points in a single game. And the little boy was indeed happy to have the sweater...but comparisons with the Carrier hymn, and it is a kind of hymn, make it seem like black and white snapshot, compared to the Habs 'Kodachrome' movie that spans generations.
And there is pride, and dignity and honour and deep humility among the Montreal team community, from top to bottom, whereas in Toronto, the 'star' mentality, and the absolute conviction that people will pay to continue the sell-outs for the Maple Leafs until Hell freezes over, dominate.
And, George Steinbruner to the contrary, good teams need a healthy balance sheet but they also need a healthy balance of creativity, humility, pride, honour, tradition, culture and community of commitment from top to bottom, and the individuals, including Ballard and others have changed the culture from that of Hap Day, and Ted Kennedy, and profit is all that matters.
No manager can succeed with that formula, because it is simply a formula, and the team(s) need more than a strategic formula. They need poetry, and drama, and imagination and even meditation and a sense of their own signature history...on which to build...and that will never happen in the current culture in Toronto sports.
I wonder if Ken Dryden would quietly agree, having toiled in both Montreal as star goalie and in Toronto as President of the Maple Leafs.