Feb 6, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer (34) during their game against the Edmonton Oilers at the Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Oilers 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

ESPN Names Maple Leafs The Worst Franchise In Professional Sports

Feb 28, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel (81) listens to instructions from assistant coach Scott Gordon against the Florida Panthers at the Air Canada Centre. The Panthers beat the Maple Leafs 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

In a largely uneventful summer for Leafs Nation, the dynamic has taken a sharp turn.  It’s no secret the Leafs have not seen much in the way of  success over the better half of a decade, but on Thursday, ESPN Magazine declared the Toronto Maple Leafs the “worst” franchise in all of pro sports.  Needless to say, this article has sparked a colourful debate.

Since 2003, ESPN Magazine has released annual editions of their “ultimate standings.”  These rankings are based on their vantage point of the following criteria: affordability, bang for the buck, coaching, players, ownership, fan relations, stadium experience, and title track.  Okay, let’s be honest, our ownership has been one of the bigger question marks in professional hockey.. and our coaching has been lack-luster at best.  When you couple that with the fact that the Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment charges the highest ticket price to see a non-playoff team, it certainly warrants an unimpressive ranking.  But what about the other half of the ranking criteria?

Player-fan relations in Toronto took a huge hit in this article, with the player effort and likeability ranked at 121 out of 122.  The team-fan relation was ranked a flattering 119.  Torontonian twitter accounts exploded in response to the release of the ESPN article, saying that players and members have always made a tradition of local outreach.  Whether it’s current Maple Leaf players or Leaf alumni, the players have always made it a point to visit sick kids and to be involved in all kinds of local charity programs.

There are two dynamics to review when referring to ‘stadium experience,’ the building itself and the game atmosphere.  Considering the ACC is used by both the Raptors and Leafs, it should be enough to credit the building as more than adequate.  The game atmosphere is a direct reflection of the fanbase that surrounds the fan.  It’s hardly a debate whether Leafs Nation is one of the most loyal and passionate fanbases in sports.  Shouldn’t the fact that we pay the highest ticket price to see an underachieving team, prove the atmosphere to be more than just typical fans, thereby making the stadium experience better than average?

It’s also important to note that the players and coaching staff may be taking a greater blow than they should.  There’s no question they’ve failed to get it done since the lockout, but in what context is this conclusion drawn?  The Leafs have had either the youngest or second youngest team over the past three or four seasons.  And in the case of 2012, have one of the most impressive developmental programs.  The Toronto Marlies made a remarkable Calder Cup run, despite the countless injuries that plagued their playoff campaign; eventually falling in the Final to the greatest AHL ever assembled.  The Marlie coaching staff has also been high in regard among the entire American Hockey League over the last few years.

Perhaps the Maple Leafs are at opposite ends of the spectrum from the Marlies in terms of success, but the fact is they are signed employees of the Leafs, thus part of the franchise.  That doesn’t likely hold much validity, but the point is, not in this aspect nor the above mentioned, should the Leafs be ranked at the bottom.  Out of the 122 professional franchises, the Leafs failed to crack the top 100 in any field.  In fact, not a single Canadian market eclipsed the top 20.

The Phoenix Coyotes topped the NHL franchises at number six.  Yes, you read that correctly.. the top ranked NHL franchise.  Despite the Coyotes being owned by the league and struggle to sell seats over the years, raises an immediate red flag.  Because of the ongoing ownership dispute, the very future of the team is in question.  As a result, players are beginning to look and sign elsewhere.  Shane Doan and Keith Yandle are currently exploring their options on the market, with rumours of goaltender, Mike Smith, also seeking other employment.  Also worthy of note, they ranked 37th in stadium experience and 68th in title track record, which also refers to the possibility of their fans seeing a championship.  The Coyotes have never won a title and their very existence is in jeopardy.  With players seeking out other teams and the shaky fanbase struggling to keep the franchise in Phoenix, the future does not seem to be bright in the desert.

Here is the “Ultimate Standings” article, posted by ESPN Magazine: http://espn.go.com/sportsnation/teamrankings

Perhaps, if the Leafs were not the center of hockey media, this ranking would be very different.  So take heart Leafs Nation, there will always be positives as well as negatives when you’re part of the most loyal fanbase in hockey.

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