Wednesday, January 18, 2006


A confession of a Sports Fan

A Confession

I did not think I would ever put this in print, but I have a confession to make: I was once a Leafs fan.

There were a number of reasons for this, the same reasons that most fans support their teams.

The closer one lives to a particular franchise, the more one tends to support that franchise. My God, that language comes right out of a Bryan Helmer
Sociology course. I apologize for that. But you get the point. If you were
brought up in Dorval, chances are greater that you would follow the Habs instead of the Rangers.
Conn Smythe, the architect of the Toronto Maple Leafs, knew a thing or two about marketing and branding before those concepts existed. He gave the old Leaf shirts to the Marlies. When the shirts were too battle weary for the Junior squad, they were turned over to the Weston Dukes, or some other lower ranked team.
The two Canadian entries in the Original six vied for national attention, and not necessarily on a language basis. Montreal had its Junior teams in La Belle province, but also had several farm teams in the west---including the Winnipeg Carruthers Bantam Habs in 1949.
What a struggle it would be for a kid from Hamilton who likes the Argos. I would suggest hiding in a closet from June to December.

If one of your family members, or a close personal friend, or someone you think you know plays for a certain team, you may become a fan of that team. In the early 1950s, we grew up with small radios pressed against our ears, past our bed times, listening to Foster Hewitt broadcasting the Leafs games from the Gondola. We became Leafs fans. We learned their names. We bought their hockey cards. We ordered their Bee Hive pictures. We hung their cigarette calendars. We supported them.
Then along came Bobby Hull. We morphed. Overnight. To the Hawks.
We thought we would be Hawks fans forever. Then Hully left for the WHA to Winnipeg, and we were lost. It was too difficult to muster the old loyalties to root for the Jets.
Rick Meagher was the next local hero to capture the imagination of the Quinte crowd. His first major NHL stint was with the New Jersey Devils. Even though the New York market seemed inundated with teams---Rangers, Islanders, and the Devils---it was not difficult to cheer for the Devils. He then moved on to St. Louis, rekindled his career, and won the Selke trophy. Many of us changed our loyalties to the Blue Note. When Rick retired, we were left in limbo.
Enter the Belleville Bulls. There is now a long legacy of players from the Bulls to the NHL. Great kids, Fine athletes. Many great players to attract our imagination, and our loyalties. Marty Mc Sorley with the Penguins, then the Oilers, and then the Los Angeles Kings. Dan Quinn, one of the first Bulls to make the grade, played for tat least eight NHL teams. Now that is stretching the loyalty thing! There was always a strong contingent of Sabres fans backing Rob Ray. Yet when he jumped to the Senators, the loyalties did not travel well. That other stellar Stirling native has garnered plenty of support for the Canucks, and with Belleville’s Mark Crawford behind the bench, our support has been solidified. Add former Bull Richard Park to that mix as well. Even the Wellington Dukes had former star Brian Helmer in Vancouver for a couple of years.

Logos and Colours
The actual appearance of the players on the field, or on the ice, can affect how a fan feels about a team. When the concept of the Mighty Ducks as a real hockey team arose, most hockey fans were astounded. They did not believe any team, let alone a west coast team, could survive with a goofy looking duck on its jersey. Nor a shark biting a stick on a teal jersey. Wrong on both counts.
There are serious financial implications in this area. Basketball teams reap millions of dollars from sales of their jerseys and other team paraphernalia, as do teams from all sports.

Management and Ownership
Those that run the franchises may influence its fan base. When Horn Chen took over the Ottawa football franchise, it was doomed. Canadian football teams struggle at the best of times. But the absentee owner concept does not sit well with fans. Unfortunately for Ottawa, local ownership is hard to muster, and now they are saddled with the Gliebermans yet again. They have fired the management and coaching staff, and replaced them with their personal cronies. Harry Ornest didn’t help the Argo franchise much when he was there. Players didn’t wait for the ink to dry when they got their cheques. There are even examples of owners from south of the border purchasing teams---so that their own children have a team to play for!
Any interest I had in the Leafs was killed by Harold Ballard. His Quixotic and ruthless style turned off many fans, some leaving the game forever.
Ditto for the New York Yankees’ Steinbrenner. In George’s case, the premise is simply this: I will buy the best team, and they had better win. And if they don’t, heads will roll---Billy Martin’s in particular. What a charade that was!

Team Success
Nothing beats winning. At least that is the message often conveyed by athletes in all areas of sport. For the fan, it is not easy to be supportive over the years of a team that does not win the big one. I met a former Red Sox fan in Maine in the 1980s who quit cheering for the Boston team in 1949 when one of the infielders let a ball go through his legs to the outfield! White Sox fans are still numb following their success in this year’s World Series. Even though the Florida Marlins, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Dallas Stars, and the San Antonio Spurs have recently won titles, they do not carry the same fan base as the following: the Green Bay Packers, the Boston Celtics, the Chicago Black Hawks, and the Boston Bruins. Those teams have not been on the podium for some time---yet their fans remain loyal, for the most part. Winning helps, but so does class.

The Stars
The great players attract fans. Gretzky, Joe Montana, Michael Jordan, The Rocket, Hully, Pinball, The Babe, Mario, Guy Lafleur, “Mean” Joe Green…The list is almost endless. If you close your eyes and hear just one of those names---especially those who are known only by their nicknames---there is instant recognition, and usually in a positive.
On the other hand, many of us can visualize Ben Johnson crossing the finishing line in Tokyo, but not without some distaste. Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Jose Canseco…not exactly poster boys today.
Not all of the stars were saints. But they knew when to keep the dirty laundry in the closet, and survived unscathed, for the most part.

There’s a word that makes an Expos fan damn angry. For them, it was painful, deceitful, and final. There are lies, half truths, and reality---all mixed into one. Or perhaps you might wish to chat with a Winnipeg Jets fan about this.
When the adult Leafs pulled the Baby Buds out of St. John’s, it was a bitter pill to swallow for the Newfoundlanders. It matters not how it happens---dissolution, relocation, starvation. When ownership pulls the plug, it hurts.

There may very well be other reasons why one becomes a fan, and supports a certain team. For now, the list is a good start.

At any rates, it is the game that is important. And that is what keeps us attentive.

James Hurst
13 Hurst Lane
Box A-2 R R # 1
Wellington ON K0K 3L0
613 399-2278

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