Toronto Maple Leafs and the joy of hockey

Brendan Shanahan gets us! He really does. I've been sitting in first row greens for 40 years watching Leafs teams fail. But this year we began talking about switching to Raptors tickets. Brendan Shanahan had given no sign he understood that mood shift since taking over the team. He's been terse and general. Then at Monday's press conference, he did it.

Here's the standard in-game dialogue. Fan One: What we lack is talent. Fan Two: I don't mind that. What I mind is playing like they don't give a crap. Shanahan showed he got that by saying, "What I don't think [fans] can understand is people who go out and give half efforts." Then he went a sublime step beyond: "And people that don't appear to enjoy playing here. You have to at least show a happiness in being a Toronto Maple Leaf and an enthusiasm."

That's not just empathy, it's wisdom. It isn't only about winning, or trying. It's about joy. When you play before thousands or millions who lack the privilege of doing that for a living, you can at minimum let them share your windfall vicariously, not sink them in your own pathetic malaise and pique.

Pro sport is one token of a utopian future, where people don't just get to play but play as if it's life's main activity: where play and work elide.

Ken Dryden, a successful Shanahan predecessor, once said, assessing the early Jays years, that their only joyful player seemed to be David Wells. Then they made the big trade, acquiring Happiest Player Ever Joe Carter, and won two World Series. Brian Burke talked about truculence on his teams but never about joy. Think of great Leafs who kept us going: Sittler, Clark, Gilmour, Sundin. Especially Sundin. Every goal he scored he exulted, as if it was a sign of better days to come. Hope sprang eternal. You were helpless in their presence. You'd never have considered deserting them for mere dearth of Stanley Cups.

Shanahan doesn't burble. Even talking happiness, he was reserved. But he won three Cups and is an all-time leader in scoring and penalties. Dryden was a winner of the same ilk and also not effusive. Evanescent joy can't sub for winning. But it can keep you going. Maybe forever. And it may have to.

Testi-lying and smartphones. At one period in my life, I spent much time in criminal court over charges against me or cases I was involved with, arising from a raucous strike at a small Toronto factory. What amazed middle-class people like me was the way police routinely invented "the facts" about our charges. Even if they had a decent case, they often embroidered wildly. Former New York City cop Frank Serpico (from the film of that name, with Al Pacino) calls it testi-lying, in a Politico piece this week. In our naivete, some of us used to "confront" cops who'd fabricated on the stand and ask how they felt doing it. They non-responded appropriately, as if we didn't exist.

I recently asked a veteran defence lawyer if things had changed. He said not at all, especially since even when cops are caught lying, there's no will to penalize them either by the police board or the attorney-general. I think his conclusion also follows from the small deluge of cops found lying in the U.S. about incidents caught on video: If they continue to brazenly lie about events they know have been or may have been recorded, imagine how free they must have felt when there were no such constraints. It's a potent sense of immunity.

Maybe it's bolstered by awareness of other visuals -- endless fictional and reality cop shows that cut in the opposite direction, where cops are always sympathetic. Being a cop is basically a PR dream any politician could fantasize. You can see how they'd be lulled into feeling invulnerable.

I should add some police creativity and rule-breaking may be necessary and most of us would probably be grateful for it at times. That doesn't just apply to police work. Real life doesn't jibe well with rigid rules. But it's always a question of who or what you're breaking the rules for and how seriously you take the act.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Randy McDonald/flickr

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