Why Cheering for the Maple Leafs is… Unnatural

By Bruce Firestone | Sales & Marketing

Sep 25

Years ago, I wrote, Why Cheering for the Maple Leafs is… Unnatural. Essentially, I argue that when your home team does well, whether that is in Van city, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa or now Winnipeg or, for that matter, Montreal, it’s good for the local economy, so cheering for the Leafs anywhere but in Toronto is like puking where you eat.

But how many rotations around the sun must the earth make before a Canadian team wins another Stanley Cup? Since the Canadiens did it at the end of the 1992/93 season (Ottawa’s first in the modern era), no member club north of the 49th parallel has managed the trick. So based on a 27-year run of futility (so far) by 8 teams (when the Quebec Nordiques played in the National League), 6 teams after Quebec and Winnipeg flew the coop, and 7 today, it would appear that it’ll take an infinite amount of time before we see a parade in any Canadian NHL city, sigh.

As Canadian teams currently make up 7/30 or 23.3% of clubs, one would expect 6 Cups in 27-years instead of 0.

One could point to a weak Canadian dollar (for most of that time), higher Canadian income tax rates or the fact that top free agents appear to want to avoid the media circus of Toronto, the french’ness of Montreal, the horribleness of Winnipeg’s and Edmonton’s weather, the left coast’ness of Vancouver or the parochial nature of lackluster Ottawa. Which leaves Calgary, a dynamic city (before the recent oil crash) with its Chinook winds and great nearby skiing. Still the Flames haven’t won much either. No, I believe something else, something more subtle must be afoot.

It’s my view as I said above that sports clubs take on the characteristics of their owners—analytical, racist, incompetent, heartless, gutless, emotional, competitive, intense, crazy, greedy, lazy, bottom-line oriented, tough, wild-spending, unemotional, miserly, ruthless, patriarchal, thorough, misogynist, pitiless, homophobic, calculating, hardworking, stats-driven, diligent, blue collar, you name it. Owners tend to surround themselves with like-minded people and from there, whatever dominant characteristic is apparent in the owner, radiates into every cranny of an organization including its coaches, trainers, managers, scouts, employees and, yes, players.

Americans tend to be tough, driven, competitive, thorough, ruthless, pitiless businessmen immersed in a winner-take-all society, and their clubs reflect that. Winning attracts winners. Yanks like to win. Can’t blame them.

My fervent hope is that the Sens will win a Cup before my last trip around the sun on this planet, and, frankly, my time is running out, so I’m hoping they’ll hurry up.

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Anyway, here’s that article I wrote in 2010:

Why Cheering for the Leafs is… Unnatural

In Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Montreal

Back in 2004, I wrote an essay on how a sports team can positively impact a City’s development. I approached the subject by looking at an unusual phenomenon: The presence of significant numbers of Toronto Maple Leaf fans who are resident in other Canadian NHL cities.

Now as the Sens face off against the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 here in Ottawa tonight, I thought it might be time to revisit the subject and finally get the essay on this blog. This is what I wrote then:

Introduction

On the night of October 8th, 1992, Cyril Leeder, Randy Sexton and I went down to Gate 1 at the Ottawa Civic Centre to greet fans coming to the first Ottawa Senators game of the modern era. We wanted to shake as many hands as we could and thank the fans for their steadfast support in that crazy process: the NHL’s Plan of Sixth Expansion, which had finally ended with that opening night game, the Sens versus the Montreal Canadiens and a 5 to 3 Sens win BTW.

It had been a wild five-year Odyssey: Bringing Back the Senators, a team that hadn’t played in the NHL since 1933. Even on opening day, the everything-that-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong nature of the campaign continued. Rick Anderson, our media and PR guru, was still in Toronto at 3 pm trying to get the Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs to sign our liquor license. Harold Ballard’s mother had told Harold that he should never permit alcohol to be served at Maple Leaf Gardens and so, while there was alcohol at CFL football games and MLB baseball games, hockey games (read MLG) was dry.

We changed that but not until Rick got back to Ottawa and, under police escort from the airport, got our liquor license posted in the Civic Centre by 5:25 pm. The gates opened at 5:30 pm. It seemed that everything about the Bring Back the Senators Campaign required a miracle to make it happen. How it all came together well, to paraphrase Shakespeare in Love: “It’s a mystery.”

Back at Gate 1, I noticed that probably a third of the people we were greeting were wearing their Canadiens jerseys. This wasn’t a surprise: we already knew that we would have to work hard for a long time to convert Montreal fans and fans of the other Original Six teams to become Sens fans. In fact, our plan was to concentrate our efforts on the next generation of fans rather than trying to convert earlier generations of hockey fans.

It was a good plan and I must say it has worked extraordinarily well: those kids who were 8 to 12 in 1992 and are 26 to 30 now are ticket-buying Sens fanatics by and large. I knew this was going to work by 1998 when the Principal at my son, Matthew’s Public School had a Sens Appreciation day and he called to tell me that at the Assembly that morning, they counted 594 out of 597 students in attendance had some kind of Sens memorabilia: a hat, a pin, a t-shirt, a jersey, a flag, whatever.

I asked the Canadien fans that I met on that Opening Night to put aside their fervor for their favorite team for just one day and cheer for Ottawa and I must say that most of them good naturedly agreed (at least to my face).

What prompted me, however, to write this essay was the treatment of Sens star and Captain Daniel Alfredsson a couple of weeks ago (Thursday February 5th versus Toronto) when he was booed in his own hometown at the Corel Centre (now Scotiabank Place) by Leaf fans, many of whom live here in Ottawa. I thought to myself: “This can’t be right? To boo your home team, your good-guy captain, in a place where you live, where you bring up your family, where you earn your living, it’s … unnatural.”

Think about Calder Cup (1995/96) winning Daniel Alfredsson: He played (almost) his whole career in Ottawa. He comes from afar (Goteborg, Sweden) but has always represented our City in a way that can only be described as exemplary. He is the leading scorer on the team. He plays hard every night, he doesn’t hold out on existing contracts.

When Daniel won the Calder as rookie of the year, he said publicly that he was proud to play for the then sad-sack Senators and that he would not be the last Senator to win a major NHL award: now that took guts on a last place (four out of the first five years) team. When the team was in financial trouble in 2003, did the wheels fall off the bus? No, they just won the President’s trophy and came within a goal of going to the Stanley Cup Finals is all. Now that my friends is leadership.

And what was his sin, at least in the eyes of Ottawa-based Leaf fans? Gosh, that he made fun of Leaf Captain Mats Sundin’s stick throwing incident. He didn’t throw his stick, just smiled and pretended to. It was funny for goodness sake. But to Ottawa-based Leaf fans, it was cause for booing Alfie in his own rink. And that makes me sick.

Reasons Why

Does it bother fans in other Canadian cities: in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, even Montreal, that their homegrown Leaf fans come out in such numbers to cheer for the opposition? It must.

So why do they do it? What prompts someone to cheer against their home team? Well, here is my list of why I think they do it:

1. The Stockholm Syndrome
2. The Inferiority Complex
3. Feelings of Inadequacy
4. Money and Power
5. Inability to Learn

In the 1970s, Patricia Hearst was captured in San Francisco by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a rag tag group of largely ineffective terrorists. They kept Patti in a cupboard or closet for weeks; they berated her as a representative of the Running Dog, Imperialist Pig, Military-Industrial Complex, they semi-starved her, they sleep-deprived her. And the result? They got her to believe in their cause, they brainwashed her and she participated in some unsavory things like robbing banks for them.

Now I am not comparing the Toronto Maple Leafs to the SLA but there is no doubt that Toronto is by far the most important city in Canada; every Canadian who wants a loan for their house, their business, whatever, their application goes through Toronto. Toronto is the real deal: it is an important centre on a world-wide basis for investment, finance, manufacturing and much more. It is the only city in Canada that has real American-style wealth.

But they are also the school yard bully we all remember from our childhood. And at least some fans in NHL cities outside of TO have come to identify with them. If someone keeps telling you that they are the best, some of us are going to believe it.

I know that in 1987 when I was trying to decide what Terrace Investments Ltd. (the original parent company of the Sens) might do next, I didn’t have to look very far. I asked myself (this is called cross-sectional analysis), what does Toronto have that we don’t have?

Some of the answers I came up with included: they have a zoo (I am not too interested in animals), they have a FEC (a Family Entertainment Centre, AKA Paramount Canada’s Wonderland, something that is still on my list for Ottawa BTW) and … they have a NHL team. That was my Eureka moment: I thought that the NHL might be getting ready for another round of expansion and that Ottawa might enter into that competition and might win it too.

So at least for me, the feeling that we were somehow ‘inferior’ to TO was put to a productive use. But sometimes when people feel ‘inferior’ or ‘inadequate’, they may prefer to identify with the ‘overlords’ rather than, say, try to make things better for the ‘underlings. It’s predictable but unnatural, at least in my view.

Money is power; TO has lots of money, American-style money. Just look at kilometre after kilometre of incredible houses in places like Oakville and you can get a feel for how much real money and power there are in Toronto. People are attracted to money and power, no doubt about that. It wasn’t too long ago that Sports Writers were saying that maybe the only NHL team in Canada that can survive long term is Toronto’s. With the recent rise in the C$ plus some changes in ownership and the NHL’s way of doing business, they don’t (as Howard Dean would say) say that anymore.

But it is understandable that if your home team is thought to be about to disappear, you might abandon ship or decide not to climb aboard.

Lastly, my feeling is that the Sens have done not only a good job at converting young fans, they have done quite well in converting Ottawa-based Detroit, Boston, Rangers, Canadien and Chicago (Cyril Leeder’s favorite team growing up) fans too. But for some reason, it seems Toronto fans are unrepentant and irredeemable. Now why is that?

I tell my students at Carleton University that what will keep them young, all their lives, is their ability to learn new things. My mother-in-law, Cora MacMillan is a good-looking, hip elder that everyone in her circle of friends looks to for guidance, counsel and assistance. What makes her so young? Her quest to learn new things; her understanding that she doesn’t know everything and there is much still to be learned at any age.

You can be old at 30. Once you say to yourself, “I know everything, no one can teach me anything new” that’s it, you’re old.

Maybe Ottawa-based Leaf fans can’t learn anything new? They certainly are fanatic enough.

In the early days of our team, we claimed, under the terms of our Expansion Agreement with the NHL, exclusive mid-week broadcasting rights in our Franchise Territory (the boundaries of the Corporation of the City of Ottawa plus 50 miles).

Montreal and Toronto were obviously affected by this: they had been broadcasting their games into Ottawa for many years.

We did a deal with Ronald Corey, then President of the Canadiens, to permit reciprocal rights: Montreal could broadcast their mid-week games into Ottawa at no cost but Ottawa could broadcast Sens games into Montreal, again at no cost. This obviously favored the 1992/93 eventual Stanley Cup Champion Canadiens who, you would have to say, would have had a lot more fans in Ottawa than the Sens would have had in Montreal, n’est-ce pas? Whatever.

Well, do you think the Leafs would do the same deal? No way. They not only refused a deal on reciprocal rights, their broadcaster (not to mention any names but I’ll give you a hint: it was a ‘global’ enterprise), backed by the Leafs said they would ignore the Franchise Agreement and continue to broadcast their games into Ottawa, so there. One might say this was a bully tactic. Their broadcaster used the excuse that they couldn’t break their over-the-air broadcast signal, so it was just a little technical glitch but overwhelming in its complexity. Sure.

With the help of the NHL, this tactic amounted to zip: they did have to break their transmission so instead of Leaf fans in Ottawa watching their team, they got The Mating Habits of African Beetles and other such interesting documentaries throughout the Season. You can imagine the furor that caused amongst Ottawa-based Leaf fans.

Of course, we got blamed for it: Toronto-dominated media interests never seemed to be able to point out that Montreal games were still on the air and that hockey fans in general were benefiting by the approach taken by those two clubs.

To give you some idea of why this is still sticking in my craw a dozen years later, we received a call at Terrace offices that greatly upset my colleagues and me: it was from an Ottawa-based Leaf fan who said: “Do you hear this, Mr. Firestone? That’s the sound of me breaking my shotgun. If you don’t put my Leafs back on TV, I am going to come down there and shoot you and any of your staff that get in my way.”

Impact

So, like, why would anyone care whether Ottawa residents cheer for the Leafs? Well, I do and it isn’t just because this is one of the fiercest rivalries in sports. It isn’t just because they pick on my favorite player. It isn’t because the Leafs keep eliminating us from the Playoffs. It isn’t even because I think that the result of any particular NHL game really amounts to much in and of itself.

Remember the passions aroused by the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series? I had an acquaintance, a Canadian, who was cheering for the Ruskies. I couldn’t believe it, but he could see the beauty of their play, their skill with the puck, their incredible teamwork. All I could see was that these representatives of the Evil Empire were putting it to “our guys”. I am somewhat more sympathetic to his view today than I was then although I am darned glad Canada eventually won.

No the real reason why I care and the reason I wrote this, is that at least to me, Ottawa-based Leaf fans are fouling their own nest. And Naturalists will tell you that any species that tends to do that is acting against its own self-interest and that this is an unnatural act.

I learned this when I was 14 in Grade 12: we had a great group of kids that partied together every weekend, every Saturday night for a year. At some point, I got mad at the group and I thought: “I’ll show them; I won’t go to the party this weekend and, boy, will they ever miss me.” All day Monday I waited for someone at School to tell me how lousy the party was because of my absence. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer and I asked how the party went. “Great.” “Did you miss me?” “Huh, I thought you were there. Weren’t you there?”

My absence was so unimportant they didn’t even realize I wasn’t there, for goodness sake. I never did that again; the only person who suffered from my action was me. And as an adult, I have found this behavior surprisingly common: persons who act against their own self-interest in the belief that they can hurt others. It rarely works and, if it does, what did you actually gain? A Pyrrhic victory, at best.

There is no doubt that for most of us, the person who is the biggest impediment to achieving our goals is right there in the mirror. Want to be more successful in life? Start by raising your expectations of yourself.

I consulted for a 50/50 partnership a few years back between two Ottawa women who were in the rapid copy business. The business wasn’t doing well, and the two women couldn’t agree on how to fix it, so one of them, exercising the Wisdom of Solomon, made an offer I thought had promise. She would buy her partner’s interest in the business for $40,000 or she would sell her half for $2. She told me that she didn’t want to be in the business with her partner for even one more day and she felt that if her partner continued to run the business it would go broke anyway, so her half was worth $2 if her partner ran with it and $40,000 if she bet on herself.

The only problem was that the original idea for the business was her partner’s and this person had invested her ego in the business (never a good idea). She rejected both offers; the business went broke and both women lost in excess of $85,000 each because they had to make good on personal guarantees to their Bank and their Landlord.

The other party was prepared to bring down the business, incur huge personal losses because she couldn’t stand the thought of the business succeeding without her and because she couldn’t stand her partner and wanted to hurt her. She ended up hurting herself three times over though: she lost $85,000 plus the $40,000 she could have gotten for her half of the business plus she damaged her credit rating which will make any future endeavors more difficult for her. Is this rational? No. But it happens all the time and humans would be better off if they stopped doing this to themselves and to their acquaintances too.

(I never recommend partnerships but if there is going to be one, someone has to own 51% and have final say over the business. Every business needs one controlling mind to have even a shot at success.)

So, it is my view that Ottawa-based Leaf fans are, in fact, rooting against their own self-interest. This is the City where they work, where they earn a living, where they bring up their kids, which they share with their colleagues and clients and suppliers and employees and fellow human beings.

Do you have any idea how many people rely on the Sens? I realize that coming from the Founder of the team, this is a bit (OK, a lot) self-serving but the number is MUCH bigger than you might think.

Sure, there are the facts that after a Sens win, people are in a better mood (except for Ottawa-based Leaf fans, that is) and that people in a better mood spend more. And yes, there is the fact that pubs, restaurants and bars are way busier game days.

But these are peanuts compared to the real impact of having a NHL team here. A VC friend told me last year that Ottawa is on the radar screen for most US-based funds because we have a great foundation of companies and people here. But he also said that before the Sens came to town, no one in the US had ever heard of us and that VCs look to invest not only in first tier ideas and people but cities that are also top tier. VCs, like any of us I suppose, tend to be a bit lazy; they simply use the criteria that the NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA have established to determine what constitutes a Tier 1 town in NA. And, hey, we’re on that list. It’s a privilege.

Tier 1 cities, the thinking goes, can not only start new ventures with top talent, they can keep and attract a critical mass of top talent.

Ottawa has received billions and billions in VC money and there are thousands of people working here at good quality jobs, as a result.

When Corel Corporation was looking in the mid-1990s at buying the naming rights for the Ottawa Palladium, I am sure that the fact that there were 85 million mentions of the name every year on every major television and radio station in NA and around the world and in every major print publication too was a huge factor. At a CPM (Cost per Thousand) of $20 (per thousand pairs of eyeballs), that alone is worth $1.7 million a year. With the incredible upsurge of the Internet since then, I can only imagine what the naming rights are worth today.

When there was a discussion (at least in the media) about moving the Sens to Portland or some other US destination last year, some commentators said that a NHL team’s economic impact on its community is overstated. I don’t think that is true here.

They mentioned that if someone didn’t spend the $25 or $60 or $150 going to a Sens game, they would spend it anyway on something else in Ottawa, like going to a movie. Well, I hate to mention it but more than half of the admission price for every movie you go to see is immediately exported out of this community and back to the Hollywood studio that produced and distributed that film. And I am sure that most VCs aren’t impressed much by the fact that, yes, Ottawa does, in fact, have a bunch of movies theatres. Every hick town in NA has at least one.

I believe that most Ottawans see themselves as Tier 1; they would rather spend 100s of dollars flying to NYC or, gosh, Toronto to see a first class play than see Monster Trucks or the Rodeo at home. So don’t give me that baloney that if we didn’t spend our money on first rate hockey we would just spend it here on something else that matters just as much. Hooey.

No one loves the Sens more than I do but if I lived in Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Vancouver or even Toronto, I would hope the home team does well because it helps the community which nurtures us.

Prof Bruce

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P.S. Here is a note from Jeffrey Kyle, Vice-President of Marketing for the Sens on the subject of converting Leaf fans:

“Bruce,

I have witnessed this firsthand over the past 13 years. One of the keys that I see is the impact that kids have on their parents. As you know, kids are more influenced by their peers than they are by their parents. I see firsthand that parents who are Leaf fans will try to influence their kids (buy them a Leafs T-shirt) but inevitably the kid becomes a Sens fan because of his or her peers and also other factors like local team coverage in the media. As a result (and I see this first hand from neighbours), it tempers their parents (usually just the father’s) loyalty to the Leafs so much so that many times the parent becomes a fan of both teams (and then, hopefully, at some point he or she decides to make the full switch). It is difficult to try to sway your child with your own personal preferences, and as you know from being a parent, you will do just about anything for your kids.

All this to say, my focus for the past two years has been to ensure we are getting all the young kids to be Senators fans. Through our minor hockey programs (Future Sens, Minor Hockey Month, Bell Skills First Challenge, Senators Hockey Day in the Capital, Coaching Clinics, etc.), School Programs (Read to Succeed, Spelling with Spezza, Show your Sens Spirit during playoffs), we need to ensure the “Generation Sens” are as rabid and loyal as the Leafs fans we don’t like.

In addition, I believe that people in Ottawa are somewhat afraid to show they are behind something. That’s why last playoffs we introduced the car flags as a way for people to see just how many of their fellow Ottawans are Sens supporters. There is comfort in numbers and the more we can show people that it’s alright to be a Sens fan and be proud of it, the better.

By doing this, we’ll impact the fractured adult hockey fans in our community and ensure that future business owners and consumers in our City support the home team for many generations to come.

All the best!

Jeff”

Image source: By Jonathan Milley from Halifax, Canada – DSC_3844, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2718058

Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Toronto_Maple_Leafs_2016_logo.svg

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.

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