Former NFL coach Buddy Ryan once famously said, ‘If you listen to the fans, you’ll be sitting up there with them.’
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, it means that, as a GM or coach of a pro franchise, your job is to do what is best for the team regardless of what the fans believe. Thus, when a person is commenting on the Leafs and says, “Toronto isn’t patient enough to let the Leafs rebuild,” I can’t help but wonder what the hell they are talking about, and why it would even matter.
Let’s start with the facts, which suggest this isn’t even true to begin with.
The Leafs have sucked, or at best been mediocre on the whole, since the lockout of 2004-05 passed (side note, having to distinguish between lockouts now is absolutely embarrassing; thanks, NHL). Yet what do you see when you watch, or go to, Leafs games? Fans. Has merchandise magically stopped selling in Leafs-land? No. Have people stopped tuning into HNIC to watch the Leafs? Not that I’m aware of (frankly, I wouldn’t mind if people did, because then CBC wouldn’t assign their “number one” announcer Jim Hughson to announce Leafs games).
Here are some figures courtesy of Forbes to consider. The Leafs average ticket price is $120, the next highest is $96 (Habs). Even with that obscenely high ticket price, and lacklustre play, the Leafs rank fifth in average attendance according to ESPN , and the only reason they aren’t higher is because they don’t have as many seats to sell as the teams ahead of them. In terms of percentage of the arena filled, the Leafs rank third, behind only Philadelphia and Chicago, who are pretty well perennial contenders.
The Leafs also, according to Forbes, are the highest revenue grossing team at $200M. The next four teams are the Rangers, Canadiens, Canucks and Bruins. All four of those teams have gone to at least the Conference Finals within the last three seasons. Whereas the Leafs, in the last seven seasons, have finished accordingly: 18th, 18th, 24th, 24th, 29th, 22nd, and 26th.
Standings wise, the Leafs have more or less been trending toward a rebuild. The irony, of course, is that they’ve been conducting business as if they are doing anything but.
Don’t forget, either, that Forbes recently reported that the Leafs are the NHL’s first billion dollar franchise.
So those are facts. They basically read that the Leafs are as profitable ever, fill their arena as much as they ever have, and have sucked throughout the process.
Now for the second part of the equation, which is, actually listening to the fans versus doing what is best for the team.
The bottom line reads that, if any franchise is listening to their fans compared to the guys that they give millions of dollars to to make decisions, then there is a problem.
The irony of fans getting mad at ownership for dictating what a GM does, while also getting mad when that same GM doesn’t do what they want him to do, is almost too rich for words.
I mean, if the Leafs aren’t going to rebuild because the fans wouldn’t tolerate it, then they might as well put a poll up on Leafs.com right before they are about to make any and every transaction.
What’s the worst thing that would even happen should the Leafs ever decide to just tear it all down and literally start from scratch with top draft picks? The fans stop coming? If the above stats didn’t convince you that fans would clearly not stop coming, then nothing will.
What’s the other drawback? Fan backlash? The only reason fans have been so pissed off over the last few years is because the Leafs repeatedly stated that they won’t rebuild traditionally, yet were doing terribly regardless. They brought the pressure on themselves. Whether you agree or not with that isn’t the point, the point is that the average fan got genuinely excited when Burke came to town and appeared ready to turn the franchise around right away, then didn’t. It’s the comment I personally receive most from most people, that he “hyped everyone up, then didn’t produce ****. “
If someone in charge of the Leafs frankly states, “This is going to be a slow rebuild, but we will use the draft to accumulate elite talent over a few years and then rise,” are there fans that will seriously be mad throughout those seasons? Frustrated, no doubt; it sucks watching your team lose. But when a guy is clear with you about the direction he’s taking, and you begin to see elite players in the system coming up – I haven’t spoken with one Leafs fan in three months who isn’t tickled pink about Morgan Rielly – then what is anyone seriously going to get mad about? Yeah, Leafs fans are extremely passionate, but if it’s laid out for them like that and it’s easy to see the actual plan coming together, only the special kind of Leafs fans would actually be mad about that.
The Leafs have come to a point, as a team, where they are one of the punch-lines of the league. It is sad, but it is true. They are right up there with the Islanders and Blue Jackets, and man does it pain me to say that. While I do personally believe they are somewhat on the rise – especially if they get a certain goalie – there actually isn’t much further they could have sunk in the past few years.
Yet here we are, even after another ridiculous lockout, clamouring for them.
So let’s not turn this into a “THIS is why the Leafs never win, because fans always come!” debate, or even discuss whether the Leafs should just completely tear it down and rebuild right this second (that wouldn’t make sense at this point). This isn’t even really a discussion on the state of the current team; it’s purely about whether the Leafs could do a slow rebuild in Toronto.
Let’s also not pretend we would stop watching if the Leafs tanked, or if we actually did stop watching for a bit because they sucked, that we would not return after they’ve accumulated more than a few elite young talents and started morphing into a Cup contender ala Chicago, Pittsburgh, etc.
Let’s call this exactly the two things that it is: One: the fans can clearly be patient enough for a rebuild, and two: whoever is in charge of the team has to do whatever he thinks is best for the team regardless of what the fans believe, the Leafs winning (eventually) is what is most important.
The Leafs most likely aren’t going to rebuild anytime soon, so all of this is generally speaking moot. That said, it’s time to stop listening to the dribble that says “Toronto would neither tolerate, nor have the patience for, a true rebuild.” That’s just not true.