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The Walrus|July/August 2021
On the paradox of being a diehard Indigenous fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs — or any hockey team
WAUBGESHIG RICE

ON SATURDAY nights, as 7 p.m. nears, I pour popcorn into a bowl and a cold beverage into a glass, and I seat myself in my preferred spot on the couch, closest to the television. I change the channel to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs play hockey. Streak or slump, I tune in as I’ve done since I was a child growing up on the reserve. This expression of fandom is more than just a ritual and more complex than just supporting a professional hockey team that is both beloved and reviled. Like those of so many other sports fans, the roots of my devotion are intergenerational.

I grew up in Wasauksing First Nation, an island community on Georgian Bay near Parry Sound, Ontario. I’m of mixed Anishinaabe and Canadian heritage: my dad is from the rez, and my mom is from town. I don’t remember when and how, exactly, I became a Leafs fan as a kid in the 1980s; the team has always been a part of my life and a part of my father’s. We didn’t have hydro in our home until I was about eight years old, so I was introduced to my favourite sports team off the grid. My earliest memories include my dad connecting a small black-and-white TV to a car battery in order to tune in to CBC on the rabbit ears and watch Hockey Night in Canada. We eventually got electricity and a colour TV, and antenna reception improved enough to watch games more regularly. The late ’80s were hardly a glorious era for the Buds, but the period was defined by Wendel Clark, a mustachioed forward whose physicality, grit, and scoring prowess still made the game fun to watch.

Everything changed in the early ’90s. The Leafs became a Stanley Cup contender thanks largely to the addition of Doug Gilmour, a small but speedy center-forward. The team made the conference finals two years in a row — the first time to lose due, arguably, to a non-call on a high stick committed by the most famous hockey player in the world, Wayne Gretzky, on our beloved Gilmour. It’s a moment that will forever live in infamy, but it solidified my love for an immensely skilled team that just couldn’t quite make it to the pinnacle. As the years went on, so did the championship drought, one that dated back to a year burned into our collective psyche: 1967. That was the last time the Leafs hoisted the Stanley Cup, over their rival Montreal Canadiens.

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