Their favorite team may be the butt of plenty of jokes, but the boys at Pension Plan Puppets take the Toronto Maple Leafs' current failures in stride with their own brand of humor. Having been around for almost four years delivering all the news that's fit to print about the Leafs, Pension Plan Puppets has grown into one of the best fan communities in the hockey blogosphere.
Chemmy and PPP are forces behind the Puppets, but the site is rounded out by a bevy of talented contributing writers. Having recently ventured into the podcasting world, the Puppets are slowly becoming kings of all things Leafs media.
Moving on, here are Five Reasons Pension Plan Puppets Love Hockey:1. CHEMMY: Playing pond hockey
I'm not talking about the kind of pond hockey played at the pond hockey championships full of NHL hopefuls (aka ringers). I'm talking about showing up on Saturday morning with a snow shovel and a two-four and clearing a rink on a lake in your hockey skates. Making "nets" out of whatever you can find until someone shows up with the 2x4s.
So many good moments come from such a simple premise: Throwing your sticks in the middle of the pond and playing with strangers. Getting your skate caught in a rut and landing on your face instead of smoothly slipping around the defender like you watched your favorite player do on TV the night before. The sound of pond ice as it groans and occasionally cracks under your feet. The sharp burn of cold air in your nose and lungs as you skate until the sun finally dips behind the trees. Making new friends and making new enemies.
It's true that hockey is a sport mostly reserved for the well to do based on the cost of ice and equipment but all you need to play on a pond is a stick, some hand me down skates and a month of cold weather.
PPP: Bonding With Dad
This is obviously a pretty common one in this series but I wouldn't be a Leafs or hockey fan if it wasn't for my dad. He came to Canada from Colombia in 1974 as a 20 year old and immediately took to the game as a way to acclimate to his new home. When I was born he began to learn to skate so that he could take me out on the ice. For better or worse (usually the latter) he followed the home team Maple Leafs and so I did the same. Saturday night meant watching the buds on Hockey Night in Canada and weekday mornings meant checking out the scores that my dad jotted down for me to read before heading out to school. I went to my first game when I was six years old with my dad at Maple Leaf Gardens. The anticipation was killer but on the day of the game I can still remember my mom packing us a few candies to sneak into the arena before sending us on our way. We walked from College subway station to Carlton Street with the huge crowd of Leafs fans. Once we stepped into MLG the history of the building and the franchise was everywhere from the portrait of the Queen to the Stanley Cup banners to Ballard's Bunker. That night, as they haven't too often lately, the Maple Leafs pulled out the win even while I napped most of the third period away.
I still go to a game or two every year with my dad and the routine mirrors that first time: a hot dog on the street, a program to commemorate the game, and three hours living and dying with out favourite team.
2. CHEMMY: Jersey CollectingAs the proud owner of a Wade Belak(notes) jersey I should confess that I'm a little crazy about buying jerseys. My jersey collection in the closet takes up as much space as my wife's clothing and includes such gems as two of the Whalers jerseys I owned as a child (one a bright green #44 Dave Babych).
I'm not sure what it is about hockey jerseys, but I continually pummel my bank account buying them. Some of them remain treasures like the Sundin third jersey I bought during his last season in Toronto and the Darcy Tucker(notes) jersey that at last count was hit by thrown beers in two stadiums. Some jerseys don't age well at all, like the Kyle Wellwood(notes) jersey I own that always seemed too big around the midsection.
PPP: Trash talk
The beauty of hockey is that just because your team is suffering does not mean that you cannot enjoy hockey. Hollywood Hockey fan Kevin Smith captured the sentiment perfectly in Clerks: There's nothing more exhilarating than pointing out the shortcomings of others, is there? Sure, watching the Leafs' provincial sibling Ottawa Senators make their way to the Stanley Cup Final was nerve-wracking and hearing about it non-stop is a pain, but being able to congratulate the Senators for having a player that has scored a Stanley Cup-winning goal while on their roster almost makes it worth it. The Leafs have been absent for the playoffs since Gary Bettman tried to kill the NHL again, but the pain of missing out has been mitigated by getting to point out just how bad the Montreal Canadiens really are to their blinkered fans. Twice. We are obviously looking forward to completing our hat trick of Habs eulogies after their first four playoff games or less. There's also a little something extra on the line that will make the coming sweep that much more enjoyable. Of course, I'm looking forward to the day that we see the Leafs' season eulogized because it's all about the give and take.
3. CHEMMY: Hockey Fans and Hockey Rivalries
Even in places like Philadelphia, where an old man tried to hit me with his cane because I wasn't cheering for the Flyers, for the most part, hockey fans recognize that we're all brothers (and sisters). As an American Leafs fan living on the East Coast, I go to plenty of my team's away games and I've had tons of amazing conversations with Islanders, Rangers and yes even a Flyers fan. Our rivalries are rivalries on the ice for the most part and there really aren't very many hockey fans below the 49th parallel so we should be sticking together.
Who doesn't love a chance to bust someone's chops over something that means everything and at the same time nothing? Despite the Leafs' awful season, we serenaded visiting Canadiens fans with "Ole" after John Mitchell's(notes) shootout winner last Saturday much to their chagrin. A Habs fan near us blew her stack and shrieked in our faces that we weren't allowed to sing Montreal's song, but I'm willing to bet five minutes later she'd share a beer with us.
I was grocery shopping two years ago wearing my Tucker jersey when a guy walked up to me wearing an Islanders shirt and said "Hey Tucker you suck", a fair point given the history with Peca and that playoff series, and immediately backed it up with "just joking around". We talked puck for a few minutes before going back to the mind numbing tedium of choosing an unbroken carton of eggs. Hockey's fun and hockey fans for the most part know that.
PPP: Fresh Ice
This one's short and pretty simple. During Christmas break my old high school's arena is empty for the majority of the day and students and alumni are free to walk in and use the ice. When I am in town I'll head over early to make sure that I get an untarnished sheet of ice. There's something artistic about seeing and hearing the carving of your strides.
4. CHEMMY: Road Trips
If you like mid-winter road trips in states that get a lot of snow, then hockey's for you. Four years ago, fresh out of college, I planned a road trip with a friend I met in seventh grade. We drove to Toronto from New York City, then through Buffalo (a great place to order cheap beer and eat good wings. Definitely go to Buffalo) and south through a blizzard to Pittsburgh. Driving 15 miles per hour on a highway I'd never been on before as a blizzard raged is an adventure plain and simple.
We've driven from New York to Toronto to Detroit and then back through Ohio, Pittsburgh and Philly. Last year at the spur of the moment my roommate and I grabbed tickets to the Frozen Four, jumped in the car and saw my Boston University Terriers win one of the most exciting comeback victories anyone's ever seen: live and in person. We hit the Draft in Montreal. We hit the World Junior Championships in Ottawa. Every time we get in the car and go on a hockey road trip something unexpected happens and even if you drive 15 hours to see your team get smoked in person I guarantee you'll still be planning another road trip the first chance you get.
Load the car up with the basics, call your hockey pals in the cities you're headed to and hit the road. Don't forget to stop and buy beef jerky and candy bars with ridiculous names (avoid the Zagnut), and make sure to plan your route around open burrito joints.
PPP: Playoff hockeyThe grind to the final is unmatched in North American sports. Baseball players can be felled by blisters; the NFL's playoffs are one-off games; and basketball doesn't matter. Four best-of-seven series that come as close as any frivolous pursuit to deserving hyperbolic terms like "battle" and "war" must be navigated before a team can be proclaimed champions. Doug Gilmour's skeletal visage in 1993 was all you needed to see to understand playoff hockey. Hockey is already one of the toughest sports in the world but the players' pain threshold reach unbelievable levels. From Bobby Baun playing on a broken ankle in the 1964 Stanley Cup Final to Erik Cole(notes) returning from a broken neck, when Lord Stanley's mug is on the line it sometimes seems like nothing short of death will keep players from reaching their goal. The series-ending handshakes, where players that were trying to kill each other just a few minutes before, are something that sets hockey apart. While other sports' champions ignore their vanquished foes hockey teams acknowledge the team that they just defeated. The awarding of the Stanley Cup is also unique. The owners are not the first to get their grimy hands on the trophy. Rather, the players that just gave all that they had for two months are given first rights to celebrate. And how do they do it? With a group lap around the rink, passing the trophy.
5. CHEMMY: The Speed of the Game
I love baseball and football, but they'll never compare to hockey because they're not fast enough. A running back exploding through the o-line is certainly a faster runner than I'll ever dream of being, but that isn't even in the same ballpark as hockey players. The game is blindingly fast and it's awe inspiring to watch two good teams execute plays (pre-emptive Leafs joke rebuttal: I watched the Olympics and saw two good teams play each other then) at breakneck speed.
Tic tac toe passing plays, one timers from the bottom of the faceoff dots and phenoms streaking through the neutral zone are all as beautiful as they are fast. They're a joy to watch and even better when you hear an entire arena let out an amazed "ohhhhhhh" at the same time. As much as a lot of us complain about the direction the game is headed we can all agree that right now some exciting and skilled hockey is being played. Let's hope that continues.
PPP: Sudden death overtime
One month ago, I was lucky enough to be in the upper bowl of Canada Hockey Place. I saw Sidney Crosby(notes) take Jarome Iginla's(notes) touch pass before sliding a shot through Ryan Miller's(notes) legs to give Canada an Olympic record 14th gold medal. The split second that it took to realise that Canada has won was followed by a massive release of joy. The four of us that travelled to Vancouver formed a mini mob as high fives were exchanged with anyone and everyone within the vicinity. Short of the Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup in overtime (don't worry, I'm not holding my breath) there might not be another moment in my lifetime of supporting teams in various sports that will even come close to matching that one. Sudden Death OT is good enough during the regular season but during the playoffs it reaches another level. The tension is ratcheted up as any bounce could end the game or even your team's season. Mention Borschevsky's deflection, Doug Gilmour's wraparound, or Mats Sundin's ping to any Leafs fan and I guarantee that they can tell you just where they were. Hell, mention the name Cory Cross to a Senators fan and chuckle at the reaction. The longer the overtime drags on the greater the sigh of relief. The players, usually so reserved, display child-like joy while the losers, especially when their season is ended, show you just how devastating the instant nature of defeat can be as their faces show their pain. If you don't like overtime, then you don't like hockey.