A Farewell to Losing: Ernest Hemingway Visits the Toronto Maple Leafs

In the early fall of last year there was a terrible hockey team that took the ice a few times a week and their name was the Maple Leafs. They lived in a village known as Maple Leaf Square that looked upon the concrete skyline of Toronto.

In the heart of this square there was an overpriced drinking establishment full of characters detached from reality. Before the puck drop these men and women would march next door to the killing floor. There was fighting on the ice and at night you could hear the goal horn from miles away.

The losses were inevitable, piling up like kindling on a fire. There was much traffic at night following the games and many sheep were on the road glued to their radios, praying that soon their luck would change. It did not.

By the time winter set in the team was in free fall. There was fighting in other places all across the continent but their efforts were in vain. Bandwagons were being abandoned at every street corner amidst the snow. But in the end that mattered not to the Maple Leafs. The arena was still full by nightfall and there was still money to be made and the endless winter of our discontent continued.

The next year there were many losses still. The conference championship was not captured, nor was a playoff berth. Now the fighting was in the press box and in the streets. The town was very nice and its houses rather fine but this mountain of success could not be taken and the collective morale had worn thin. But despite the war the people stayed.

They stayed because they felt they had no choice. The playoffs could not be taken and the conditions had deteriorated, slowing the trade of supplies. Maple Leaf Square was now heavily fortified and at night you could see mortar fire dancing in the sky. The president and general manager had locked himself in his office and outside the mob grew unruly but they were continuously subdued by their own stupidity and the vast security forces.

They wanted his head on a platter but it wouldn’t be that easy, nor did they recognize that they once loved him and that the situation was rich with humour, the irony lost on them. Another winter came and went and the general manager and his men held the line and the square was not taken.

When I returned to the front lines following years focused on the city’s superior team, the Blue Jays, I found a battlefield similar to the one I left, only now it had more weapons. The weapons were full of common sense but the men were unsure how to use them and one by one they were cut down in their attempt to breach the head offices.

I entered the resistance’s command central; there was the smell of broken dreams in the air. Outside a shell struck close by and the building shook. As I headed for the strategy room a lieutenant took notice of my arrival and approached me.

“Greetings!” he said. “Here to join the fight?”

“I am, but on one condition.”

“And what’s that?”

“We do things my way.”

He was caught off guard by my candour but he still managed a smile and explained to me that their commander had grown weary of their losses and that a new strategy would be welcome. Outside another explosion shook the walls and while I could not see the rounds they were evidently aimed directly for us.

The lieutenant led me into the strategy room and standing at the head of a table that doubled for a map of the battleground was the commander, head down, poring over strategy. The commander was a large older man with harsh features and when he sensed our intrusion he barked, “There’s a war on, you know. I don’t have time for this.” The lieutenant, quivering in his boots, replied that I had a plan, and that’s when the commander looked up with a gleam in his eye.

I came back the next afternoon from the forward post and by then the plan had been devised. It was one thing to be armed with common sense but it was another entirely to harness it. I had told them that we had to stop buying tickets and filling up the arena or else nothing would change. If we stopped buying tickets their defences would fall by winter’s end and we could take the square.

Cutting the Leafs’ supply line of money was difficult but we managed to quell the senseless masses and over a period of a few months the square’s defences began to dwindle. And finally, on a rainy morning in the September of the next year, we were ready to launch our final assault.

Armed with our brains we charged the square as the raindrops fell slowly on the concrete. Men were felled, as they always are in war, but we pressed on. Once we made it through their outer defences we split into three groups. The square was long with windows and I sent the other two along to flank their remaining forces while I led my group up to the general manager’s office.

When we encountered resistance along the way we fired our common sense and they dropped instantly, stunned by their wilful blindness. We did not reach his office until the afternoon, and by then my squad was weak. I told them to rest as I set out to finish the mission alone.

The general manager was a large, loud man who seemed disturbed by the war. His office was in ruins and on his wall was a draft board full of stay-at-home defencemen.

“You’ve finally made it,” he said. “I don’t believe it.”

“Enough, this is as far as it goes,” I replied.

“So have you come here to kill me?”

I paused. Surely he was not serious. This war had been a long and terrible affair but I could not take a life. I had seen too many good young men fall at the hands of the Leafs, losing their minds to the blue and white gospel. The lunacy had to end but I would not kill him.

“Go ahead, do your worst!” he cried. This was a man who had clearly been defeated by the pressures of the job and in that moment I found I pitied him more than anything else. And it was then that I dealt the final victorious blow for the resistance.

I walked over to his draft board and replaced the plodding defencemen with skilled offensive players. It was then that the room began to rumble and there was a blinding flash of white light and the general manager and I braced ourselves in the doorway as we waited for the inevitable collapse of the building. But just when it seemed that all hope was lost: it stopped.

We had a lovely time that fall. Men and women rode carriages in the park, and after dinner people would stroll through the streets, past restaurants and shops that were once boarded up amidst the madness. I do not remember as much as I used to about those days but they were hot and there were many victories and the papers were full of joyful hyperbole.

Years later, the most beautiful sight of all was that of Maple Leaf Square. Trees had bloomed amidst the cobblestone streets and at night streetlights cast a gentle glow upon an arena that was now home to many new championship banners. The old way of thinking about sports had finally died like all men do, but this was no sombre affair. And I recall fondly one of those championship nights, the city bursting with jubilation. After a while I went out and left the arena with a smile on my face and I walked back home in the rain.

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