I’m not really interested in doing a detailed analysis of the Leafs/Lightning series. This post is mostly going to be about where I’m at as a fan of the team, not a break-down of the roster or the way the team plays. I’ll say this bit up front and then be done with the hockey analysis:
The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning are two of the best teams in the NHL. The Leafs just finished the best regular season in franchise history. The first round match-up was astonishingly close, with virtually no difference between the two teams in goals, shots, or expected goals. This was not at all comparable to the blown 3-1 lead to Montreal last year. Toronto’s top forwards all showed up, and the defence largely shut down Tampa’s best players at even strength (special teams is a different story). Two great teams played a coin flip, and one team had to lose. Rationally, I know this. But you can only lose coin flips so many times before it starts to feel like the coin is loaded.
It was fun until it wasn’t
Watching the regular season was tremendously fun. I had a great time watching the Leafs put up the best regular season in franchise history. I had a great time watching Auston Matthews chase 60 goals, and as anyone who heard the “MVP!” chants towards the end of the season can attest, the rest of the fan base did too. All those moments mattered. We really did have fun and that still counts. If you assume roughly 2.5 hours per game, watching every Leafs game this season took a little over 200 hours of our lives. And I think, as disappointing as the ending is, most of us did enjoy those 200 hours.
But allow me to draw an analogy. In 2012 Mass Effect 3, the conclusion to one of the most popular role playing games of all-time, was released. It was a great game, with a score of 93 on Metacritic. But it also had a terrible ending, an ending so bad that, 10 years after the game was released, it’s still primarily remembered for the botched ending and not for the first 95% of the game that was really well done. Ultimately, the way that a story concludes matters, because that’s how our brains make sense of a sequence of events.
[As an aside, I am too lazy to look up the exact reference, but I remember reading years ago in the book Thinking Fast and Slow that psychology experiments have shown that people only remember their most intense feelings from an sequence of events, not an average of their feelings throughout. For example, if you expose people to a cold environment, and on average they rate the degree of coldness as 4/10, but at one point the temperature was spiked to a 9/10, people will remember the experience as being exceptionally cold rather than mildly cold. So this seems to be something that’s hard-wired into our brains.]
I think I was having fun at the start of the playoffs. I thought the Leafs were the (slightly) better team, and they had a (slightly) better chance of winning, and no team loses forever, right? But at some point in the series things stopped being fun and it started really negatively affecting me. I finally realised this watching overtime in game 6. Playoff overtime should be the most exciting thing in hockey, but I found it agonising. I spent the entire overtime physically tensed up, not enjoying any of it. If the Leafs had scored I don’t think I would have been happy, just relieved. And I went into game 7 feeling the same way. On paper it was an excellent game, a tense battle that was always close between two great teams. But it didn’t feel that way watching it. It mostly just made me feel bad. And that is not a good way to spend your leisure time.
I think I’ve realised that, if I’m smart, I should take some time away from hockey. Not just the playoffs, but the regular season too. Now, I’ve cheered for the Leafs for more than 30 years, so arguably I am not very smart, but there is a part of my brain that recognises that I shouldn’t be voluntarily putting myself through the kind of anxiety that this year’s playoffs caused. I have no idea if I actually will; I intended to take a long break from thinking about hockey after the game 7 loss, and that lasted one day. And it may very well be the case that by the time the fall rolls around, I’ll be excited to watch again. But I do feel like I had a moment of clarity after the game 6 overtime that it just isn’t good to do this to myself.
But the interesting thing is that, as soon as I decided I should take a break, I immediately felt better. Whether I follow through or not is almost immaterial at this point. The realisation that I could say “This doesn’t matter, I don’t have to worry about it” was like lifting a giant weight off my chest. I don’t have to spend all day thinking about roster construction, or salary cap management, or whether the Leafs ultimately can’t win because I am actually the star of a bizarre version of The Truman Show where the producers construct increasingly elaborate ways to disappoint me. I can just say “I’m done with this” and think about other things instead.
This wouldn’t be the first time I stepped away from the Leafs for a bit because it stopped being fun. After getting angry when the Leafs bought out Mikhail Grabovski and signed David Clarkson, I didn’t watch any of the 2013-14 Leafs season, and I skipped a good portion of the following season too. With all that time freed up, I wrote a novel and a short story prequel. I don’t think the novel was very good and I wouldn’t recommend reading it, but the point is that I used that time to accomplish something that I had always wanted to do. No matter what, I can always say that I finished a novel, which is something I had struggled to do for years.
And there are tons of things that I can do with my time now, too. I built a music studio in my basement a couple of years ago, and I’ve got a whole collection of instruments, but I’ve only managed to record and release two songs since then. I’d love to spend some more time honing my craft and put together a full EP, or even an album, not to make any money or launch a new career, but because I find it tremendously enjoyable to do.
I also now run a small video game company called Pykrete Games, and our first ever game Championship Wrestling Promoter is on track to be finished by the end of this year. In fact, given the current time line I’m working towards with the game (a public demo in October and a final release in November or December) it’s extremely unlikely I’ll have any time to watch hockey this fall anyway.
But I honestly don’t know. The Leafs are still a very good team, and they currently have one of, if not the best players in franchise history in Auston Matthews, and watching the regular season was a lot of fun. And I enjoy the community, sharing the joys and the defeats with the huge number of other Leafs fans that I’ve met over the years. But taking a step back and shutting off that part of my brain has been really helpful over the past couple of days, so maybe I’ll keep doing it for a while yet.