The Maple Leafs—or more specifically, their fans and their media—have a talent. Every controversy seems to immediately skip a stage and go directly to the meta. It's been 12 hours, and it's no longer about whether the Leafs deliberately snubbed their fans by skipping the customary stick salute after last night's win. It's already about whether anyone should care if they did, and if caring makes you a good fan or a bad fan. It must be fucking exhausting to follow this team on a daily basis.
Let's get you caught up, because you're lucky enough not to have to care. In the last few years, the Leafs, like nearly every other NHL team, have been offering their fans a salute after home wins, skating to center ice and raising their sticks to thank the crowd for its support.
But so far this season, which is about a quarter of the way through, the Leafs haven't exactly received unqualified support. There has been booing at recent games, and shit hit the fan on Tuesday in a 9-2 home loss that saw multiple fans throw their Leafs jerseys into the ice. "Disappointing," captain Dion Phaneuf called it. Phil Kessel went one further, calling it "disrespectful" and "classless."
Keep an eye on the bottom of the screen in the video below, in the moments after the Leafs closed out a 5-2 win over Tampa Bay last night. Kessel skates to Phaneuf and says something to him. Kessel then skates up the handshake line and—maybe—urges a few players to leave the ice without doing the stick salute.
You can see Cody Franson, No. 4, skating into the neutral zone before coming back, perhaps looking a little confused about why no one's skating with him (via @myregularface):
It's tempting to Zapruder the heck out of this, but we already know that was a last-minute audible on the part of the Leafs players:
The obvious question is: why? One unnamed Leaf told Sportsnet that no disrespect to the fans was intended, and the team was just "looking to change things up" after breaking a three-game losing streak. But even if that was 100 percent true, it'd be credibility-straining to believe the players were so naïve they didn't know how the decision would be interpreted.
Remember what I said about the Leafs skipping straight to the second-level controversy? Intention barely matters here—and I don't think anyone would be too upset or surprised if the Leafs are a little pissy with their more vocal detractors. Instead, the controversy lies in whether the Leafs should known better than to poke this dumb hornet's nest.
You know what? I think that's a legitimate grief. You can say this is stupid (it is!) and that the media members seizing on it just love to drum up controversy (we do!) and that any fans who are genuinely scandalized are probably kind of dim (they are!). But setting aside all value judgments, there was no way they could skip the salute and not have it become a thing. Now, if the Leafs don't care that it's a thing, fine, more power to them. But if they're going to complain about getting asked about it by the media—a relationship that's already turned more combative than usual—too bad, because this whole sequence was inevitable from the moment they left the ice.
The undercurrent here—and this discussion is decidedly not stupid—is the long-running debate over if and what athletes and spectators owe each other. Everyone agrees that the team-fan relationship is symbiotic, but the specifics are foggier. Do fans owe players their support, or is it gifted? Are paying customers obligated to cheer, even if they feel like they're being served an inferior product? Are those fans entitled to boo or otherwise demonstrate discontent? Are targeted players, human beings all, required to pretend they're not affected by the boos? Are those players obligated to honor the fans if they feel they're not being honored back?
I don't have answers—there are no right answers—but I do have opinions that are probably best summed up as "fans and players can do whatever they like as long as it doesn't actively interfere with the others' experience." Booing is fine; chucking shit onto the ice is not; leaving the ice without saluting the fans is absolutely acceptable.
Maybe it's time to end the stick salute. It's a neat thing, though it was neater when it was newer, but it feels watered down now. Just about every team has adopted it, probably through some combination of peer pressure and urging from the ticket sales department. The fact that it's happening in every arena after every win saps it of its poignancy—it's simply not special because it's standard. But that ubiquity has led to an unexpected consequence: the power of disrupting expectations. The stick salute is a fairly empty gesture, but its sudden absence—especially given the context in Toronto—absolutely does have meaning.