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NHL Hell is Toronto

Mike Spry (@mdspry) Jun. 10, 2014 3:14 PM
Toronto Maple Leafs fans Photo: BarDown
San Jose Sharks centre Joe Thornton's name surfaced in trade rumours this week, so of course the Leafs were mentioned as a possible destination. This according to a Toronto-centric hockey media, who quite often ignore logic and reason, all to the delight of Leafs Nation. Not a free agent, tradeable asset, or draft eligible player can enter hockey's consciousness without being linked to Toronto. Before long, kids in The Junction were dreaming of Thornton's pure passing skills and Phil Kessel's scoring prowess, Jumbo Joe sweaters under the Christmas tree, and parade routes up Yonge Street. But would Thornton, who has a full no-trade clause and as such controls his destiny, want to play in Toronto? I would argue no, and here's why: Toronto is the most difficult place in the world to play hockey. It is the NHL's Hell.



The challenges of playing hockey in a Canadian market are well documented: higher taxes, over abundant media coverage, lack of anonymity, an unrelenting and vicious winter, way too much Rush in rotation on FM radio. What makes Canada such a great place to be a hockey fan makes it a difficult environment to play in. Canada is indisputably the centre of the hockey universe, and at that universe's core is Toronto. The Greater Toronto Hockey League is over a hundred years old and the largest minor hockey league in the world. Despite their futility, the Leafs could sell out Rogers Centre for home games charging $1000 and first-born children for upper deck seats. The Marlies are flourishing in the AHL. Next year's World Junior Hockey Championships (co-hosted with Montreal) are sure to be the most successfully attended and celebrated ever. And yet, as a player, what would entice you to ply your trade in the Big Smoke?



The crowds at the ACC for Leafs game are an embarrassment to hockey's most important market. The stories of the suits in the expensive seats, absent for starts of periods and reticent to loosen their ties even as Brian Burke undid his, are well known. The arena is eerily quiet compared to its contemporaries, a conservative and reserved audience in a sport and city renowned for its maniacal fandom. And this is not indicative of Toronto crowds, as we witnessed during the Raptors playoff appearance this year, rowdy afternoons at Jays games at Rogers Centre, and the masses that turned out this year and last in Maple Leaf/Raptors Square. But those involved fans (who make up the vast majority of Leafs Nation) enthusiasms are negatively tempered by the lower bowl's reservations, reservations bred by alternately flawed and complacent approaches to building a competitive team and the absence of a winning presence. As a player who is passionate about his vocation, why would you want to commit to an environment that doesn't match that passion, especially when the home ice advantage can be such an important component of the game?

Often in pieces that claim players like Thornton are interested in playing for the Leafs, the prospect of coming "home" is cited as a key factor. The very notion of "home" is a flawed premise in this lazy argument. Even if you call "home" somewhere in Southern Ontario, as a hockey player you probably haven't lived there since you were 16. Thornton has lived in San Jose for nearly a decade, is a naturalized US citizen, has a wife, a mortgage, perhaps a few pets, maybe a café he really likes to go to, a favourite pizza place, a butcher who cuts his ribeyes to just the perfect thickness. But the Toronto Sun is going to tell him where his home is.



For many players, one might suspect that playing at home in front of an overbearing hockey dad, mum and her new husband, and sycophantic high school acquaintances just a few blocks from where that girl broke your heart is the very definition of hell. And is working in your hometown really all that enticing? How many of you work in your hometowns? Hardly any. You've all moved to Toronto.



Thornton is from St. Thomas, Ontario, which would place his NHL "hometown" in Detroit or Buffalo as much as in Toronto, and yet those markets' media don't seem to be making the "coming home" argument. Toronto's hockey media is the most intense in all of professional sports. Maybe Montreal's is equal, but half of the vitriol and conjecture there is in French, and only a fraction of NHLers understand it. (Reasonably, even those of us who are bilingual don't really understand it.) In Toronto, there is endless speculation, much of it even based in fact. Each flaw, each mistake (on and off the ice) is dissected and disseminated ad nauseum. Trade rumours are fabricated on a daily basis, the ubiquitous "NHL executive" noted as an unimpeachable source. The discussion of hockey in Toronto has become an insufferable wall of noise for an uninvested observer, so imagine if the discourse directly affected your family, your income, and your life.

It seems a lot to ask of a player to endure such amplified attention, especially given the fact the Leafs have not been a competitive team since 2004. And that is final circle of the NHL's Hell: irrelevance. Toronto is still recovering from the John Ferguson Jr. era. They have some formidable pieces in Kessel, Morgan Reilly, and Jonathan Bernier; a young skilled forward, puck moving defenseman, and promising goaltender around which to build. They have a top-ten pick in the coming draft, some interesting if not spectacular prospects (Stuart Percy, Matt Finn), and some movable pieces (Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner). Brendan Shanahan emanates stability and hubris. But they're still saddled with bad contracts (Dion Phaneuf, David Clarkson), a suspect coaching philosophy, and a lack of depth. And to watch the Kings, Blackhawks, and Rangers this spring is to know the Leafs are far removed from that level of hockey.



So if you were an unrestricted free agent, or a player on the trading block with some say in his future, why would you come to Toronto? Consider Thornton: You're in your mid-30s, never won a Cup, live in the perfection of Northern California, in a market that sustains you but doesn't invade you, and you'd chose to move to Toronto, with it's high taxes, magnified attention, and with as much of a chance of winning a Cup in the next five years as Quebec City?

Toronto is a world-class city, cultured and cosmopolitan, a great place to live and make a life. The Joe Thorntons of the world should want to play home games at the ACC. The challenges of the market need to be offset by a tradition of winning and the only way for Toronto to do that is to build a stable and competitive franchise through hoarding draft picks and young controllable players, and eschewing the temptation of quick expensive fixes like Clarkson, or Thornton. The best thing for a successful NHL would be a dominant Toronto Maple Leafs team. Given the team's last decade, however, it seems like that won't happen until Hell freezes over. Fortunately for Toronto, most of it freezes over every January, so the wait may not be that long.