Toronto Maple Leafs: The Many Sides to Sympathy

OTTAWA, ON - FEBRUARY 1: Erik Karlsson #65 of the Ottawa Senators leaves the ice after warmup prior to a game against the Anaheim Ducks at Canadian Tire Centre on February 1, 2018 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
OTTAWA, ON - FEBRUARY 1: Erik Karlsson #65 of the Ottawa Senators leaves the ice after warmup prior to a game against the Anaheim Ducks at Canadian Tire Centre on February 1, 2018 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967.

Their next closest shot in the years to come, the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, was ripped from their grasp thanks to a blatantly missed high sticking call from referee/hair model, Kerry Fraser.

In 2013, “the Laffs”, as rival fanbases continue to deem them, blew a 4-1 third period lead to the Boston Bruins in game seven of their first-round playoff series, the team’s first in nearly a decade.

In 2008, long-time captain and face of the franchise, Mats Sundin, held out for the first two months of the regular season before ultimately signing with the Vancouver Canucks, and then returned to Toronto in his new threads months later to defeat his former club by scoring the game’s shootout-winning goal.

These are all facts.

At precisely 2:23 PM EST yesterday, the Ottawa Senators officially traded their captain and best player in franchise history, Erik Karlsson, to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a package of 6 assets. None of those assets came in the form of a first-round pick.

This is also a fact.

Dumpster Fire

Few trades in recent years have felt more inevitable than what took place Thursday afternoon.

The Senators, at this current juncture, are unquestionably the worst run organization in professional hockey, and not simply in a hockey ops capacity, but in practically every facet an organization can be judged upon as well. They’re a dumpster fire, a moniker so overwhelmingly fitting that even their owner can’t help but publicly acknowledge it.

Which then begs the question; did we expect anything less?

Every star player the Senators have managed to luck into following their franchise rebirth in 1992 has gone on to conclude their tenure in Ottawa on less-than-ideal terms.

Daniel Alfredsson cut ties with the team not once, but twice, as a player in free agency and as a Senior Advisor in the front office. Danny Heatley found himself so fed up with the direction of the club that he asked to be traded out of town. Ditto for Jason Spezza, ditto for Alexi Yashin.

Zdeno Chara, perhaps Ottawa’s all-time second-best defenceman after Karlsson, was reportedly “very disappointed” with Sens management in 2009 after jumping to Boston as a free agent because he, quote, “thought Ottawa would be really aggressive and they would really show it. In the last 9 days before July 1st, we never received a call”.

The list goes on and on.

In fact, of the Senators’ top-10 point getters in franchise history, none remain with the team to this day in an on-ice capacity, and a whopping 7 of them departed in either free agency or via a formally requested trade.

Why would Karlsson be any different?

Moral Conundrum

This is an indefensible trade in any context, even when confined to a reality where Karlsson is nothing other than the game-breaking, elite, borderline-generational talent he is.

Only, that’s not the reality we live in, regardless of what Eugene Melnyk tells himself at night.

Simply put, Erik Karlsson the human being bests Erik Karlsson the hockey player every day of the week, this pertaining to a man whose mantle is adorned by a pair of Norris Trophies.

From the moment then-GM Bryan Murray called his name at the 2008 entry draft, Karlsson embodied essentially all the aspects sought after in both a captain and a role model. Wasting no effort or expense in order to impact the community around him, he established numerous charitable efforts throughout his decade-long tenure as a Sen, including his “EK #65 Blend” in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa, and an anti-cyberbullying initiative co-founded with his wife, Monika, whose fundraising walk this past weekend raised an estimated $50,000 to benefit schools in the Ottawa area.

Naturally, the underlying sentiment amongst outsiders in the aftermath of yesterday’s news has pointed overwhelmingly in one direction; you can’t help but feel bad for Senators fans.

Or, can you?

Two Sides

On the one hand, Sens fans have been put through the ringer for the entirety of the last 18 months, the nightmare beginning immediately after their 2017 postseason run ended a single goal from the Stanley Cup Finals. All that has since come to follow is nothing short of pure embarrassment, to which the fans have shouldered the brunt of.

They can’t be blamed for the rotting carcass lying motionless before them.

It’s not the fan’s fault that the owner is a borderline sociopath with an unprecedented lack of self-awareness. It’s not their fault that the Senators play home games in a building nearly an hour drive away from the city it represents. And it’s certainly not their fault that the team manufactured Sens-branded onesies only to immediately recall them for reportedly choking out the babies who wore them. 

And yet, peering over at the other hand, Leafs fans weren’t at fault for the cavalcade of aforementioned horrors they unwillingly endured either.

As their Ontario neighbours embarked upon a descent to the annals of hockey respectability spanning practically an entire generation, the only sympathy offered by the Ottawa faithful came by way of “lol 1967” jokes and ever so classy “Toronto Maple Queefs” jabs.

Remind me again, why can’t we help but feel bad for Sens fans?

From the perspective of a Leafs fan, this should all be hilarious, emitting the immortal words of Michael Scott who once famously said, “Well, well, well. How the turntables…”.

They’re the laughing stock now. They’re the embarrassment. Not us. For once, it’s not us.

This is where the conflict emerges, which I’m still grappling with when forming my own reaction.

The Leafs and Senators are a rivalry, and even with the lack of recent success from the latter, almost nothing butters my biscuit quite like watching a rival combust from the inside.

Well, nothing except conquering said rival at the height of their powers.

Making the trek to Kanata and packing Ottawa’s building with Leafs jerseys proved never more fun than when the Senators at least resembled something along the lines of a competent opponent. They are, uh, not that right now, and seem likely to only get worse in the years to come.

Where’s the fun in that? I may be wrong, but the current temperature among Sens fans, even before management unceremoniously punted the NHL’s best defenceman out the door, appears to be one of apathy.

Their building will be barren next year. Empty. And after some initial ribbing, will it truly be a fulfilling experience to dominate such a moribund franchise in front of a fanbase who no longer has the capacity to feel pain?

I doubt it.

So, Leafs fans, this is the conclusion I’ve settled upon.

Get your licks in, purge your frustrations, heck, even point and laugh. But don’t forget: until that ship is righted, no team can beat the Sens worse than the Sens are currently beating themselves.

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