TORONTO — Is it possible to hate Mitch Marner?
I mean, look at him: always smiling, always giggling, he’s sort of like the loveable little brother. One minute he’s on the bench singing along to Bon Jovi and the next he’s on the ice dangling the puck through his legs and setting up a ridiculous goal. Despite scoring nine points in four games against the Boston Bruins this season, he represents everything that is good and fun about hockey.
You don’t boo that. You applaud it.
So who are Boston fans, the same ones who happily sang “thank you Kessel” the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs were in the TD Garden for the 2013 playoffs, going to go after for Game 1 on Thursday?
Auston Matthews, the all-star centre who had six minor penalties this season? William Nylander, the smooth-skating winger had just 21 bodychecks? Some guy on the fourth line … just because?
“I would look at Tomas Plekanec, because he’s obviously got history with the Canadiens,” said Pete Blackburn, a Boston-based writer with CBS Sports. “He doesn’t have that stupid goatee anymore, but that turtleneck will still piss people off. He’s a guy that could get a good brunt of the hate.”
In other words, it’s not easy to hate on the Leafs. Not anymore at least.
With Boston, it’s much easier. Brad Marchand and his laundry list of suspendible dirty hits makes him public enemy No. 1 as far as Toronto fans — and fans from 29 other teams — are concerned. But aside from maybe Nazem Kadri, who’s mostly cleaned up his act, and Leo Komarov, who doesn’t quite play the same shift-disturbing role that he used to, the Leafs don’t really have anyone worth spilling beer over.
The days of a Philadelphia fans diving into the penalty box to fight Tie Domi or Ottawa fans putting a bounty on Darcy Tucker are long gone. There’s not even someone on the team who is polarizing in the way that Kessel and Dion Phaneuf were back when even Toronto fans were tossing waffles and jerseys onto home ice.
This is a team that plays hockey the so-called “right way.” It’s fun to watch. The Leafs don’t play heavy or dirty. They don’t trap or try to put you through the boards with glass-rattling hits. They just rely on skill, hard work and creativity to score buckets of goals. As Blackburn said, “It would be hard not to watch that brand of hockey and not enjoy it.”
“It’s tough when you look at it, because there’s not a lot to hate,” he added. “You can maybe not like Matthews, just because of how good he is. But he’s not necessarily unlikeable, so there’s not a lot of ammo there aside from the fact that he’s really good and if anyone’s going to kill the Bruins it’s probably going to him. If you’re a hockey fan, you kind of have to respect it.”
It could be why the Leafs — along with the Jets — might pick up more fans than enemies during these playoffs. For one, they are fast-paced and a lot of fun to watch. And as the only Canadian teams playing for the Stanley Cup, they represent the country’s only opportunity of ending a championship drought that has stretched on since 1993.
Of course, whether that means anything to a hockey fan living in Vancouver or Montreal remains to be seen.
“I don’t think like that,” said Tyler Bozak, who grew up a Canucks fan in Regina. “There’s probably teams in the U.S. with more Canadians on them than us. I would probably cheer for like an underdog U.S. team. That would be mindset.”
“I think everyone’s different,” said Leafs forward Matt Martin, who grew up in Windsor, Ont. “Some people root for their country and for others the blue-and-white just isn’t for them. They might not root for anyone and just watch the hockey and enjoy the game.
“I think we’re a likeable team, for sure. But at the same time, we are the Maple Leafs. It’s like the Yankees — I looked at Twitter yesterday and you’ve got fans from every team just laughing and so happy that they’re losing. It’s like why? That’s just the fun of sports. How do you hate Sidney Crosby? How can you hate Tom Brady? That’s just how it goes. The top guys get hated.”
For what it’s worth, even Marner has been booed before. It happened while playing in the Ontario Hockey League, when the London Knights swept the Erie Otters in the 2016 Western Conference final. “When we were walking off the ice, their fans were pretty ruthless,” he said. “Just a lot of swear words.”
Why? For the same reason opposing fans boo Crosby and Brady: he was causing the other team to lose.
“Obviously, we’d like to be loved by everyone, but the playoffs are a different animal,” Marner said. “If you’re an opposing fan, you usually hate the team you’re playing against. So that’s probably what it’s going to be like.
“I just think the whole team will probably get booed.”
The grisliest Bruins
While the Toronto Maple Leafs might not have a player who instantly conjures up hatred, the Boston Bruins are a much different animal.
If the series turns nasty, expect Marchand to be at the centre of it. Even if he keeps his nose clean, there’s reason to hate the agitating forward, who led the Bruins in scoring with 34 goals and 85 points in just 68 games.
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, Krejci was an offensive beast, leading all scorers with five goals and 13 points in seven games. In Game 7, he picked up the assist on the tying goal.
The two-way centre, who will try to shut down Auston Matthews, has also scored 59 points in 64 career games against the Leafs. In the 2013 playoffs, he had the tying goal and overtime winner in Game 7 against the Leafs.
Though he’s only been in Boston since the recent trade deadline, Nash has a history with the Leafs going back to his Columbus days, when the Brampton native reportedly didn’t have Toronto on the list of teams to which he could be traded.
• Email: email@example.com | Twitter: @Michael_Traikos