In 1988, when Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Edmonton Oilers, he was asked to reflect back on his most memorable moment with the team and, specifically, which of the four Stanley Cups he had won was most important to him.
He hesitated for a second with a cliché of “they all mean so much” (or something to that effect) before giving his honest answer.
“The first one,” he said. “You never forget the first one.”
As I was walking out of BMO Field last week after the Columbus Crew game, I was caught with a certain melancholy. Yes, we had succeeded in arriving at the stage that we so longed for since last winter, and the long season was worth it, but something felt different this time. It wasn’t the same.
And until I remembered Gretzky’s words, I couldn’t quite figure out why.
Is it because of the expectations?
Last year’s run was magical. Toronto FC caught lightning in a bottle in the penultimate game of the regular season with their 3-5-2 formation, and off we went. I, along with many other fans, had hoped for just a playoff win after the brutal exit in 2015, but the ride didn’t stop until we got to the MLS Cup final.
Conversely, who didn’t expect Toronto to be playing in this year’s championship game?, It has been less of a magic thrill ride, and more predetermined fate. Aside from that early run of draws, was there ever a hiccup in TFC land this season? From the minute we secured the Supporters’ Shield, playing in the Cup final seemed like a birthright this season, and that took some of the adrenaline rush out.
Is it because of the delays between games?
Part of what makes the MLB, NBA and NHL finals so enthralling is the scheduling: you’re playing almost every other day.
It’s a cycle. One day, you’re nervous about the game that night and you watch it. The next you spend rehashing it and consuming every article written about it. The next morning you’re back to getting ready for the game that night. The downhill bobsled ride doesn’t turn into a cross-country ski event; it’s an emotional rollercoaster that doesn’t let you off until it is finished for certain.
Contrast that with the MLS Cup playoffs. By nature, the amount of games played is less, but when you’re waiting two or three weeks between them, it’s very easy to move on to other things for a while. Out of sight, out of mind. And if you’re not living and breathing it every day, the attachment on game nights is still strong, but it suffers.
Is it because we didn’t have to beat our rivals to get here?
I’ve been inside Northlands Coliseum when the Oilers won a Cup. I’ve been inside the Q when the Cleveland Cavaliers forced a game seven against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals. But no sporting event I have ever attended compares to the thrill of last season’s Eastern Conference final against the Montreal Impact.
Down 3-0: two away goals to make it a game. To Toronto for leg two, and everyone is talking an assuring mantra of ‘all we have to do is win this game 1-0’.
But then Dominic Oduro happens. Hopes are failing… and then the most magical game ever happens. When you win in that fashion, you’re pumped. A 7-5 aggregate win will do that. Compare that with the ho hum games against the New York Red Bulls and Columbus, and the juice just hasn’t been there.
Is it one of the reasons above? Is it something else? Is it just that this is the new norm in Toronto FC fandom? I’m not quite sure. But last year had a magical quality that this year just hasn’t been able to capture yet.
Win on Saturday, and last year will be a mere footnote. 2017 will be the magical first and decades from now, when I attend matches with my son at BMO Field, I’ll look at all the MLS Cup banners hanging off the rafters, put on my glasses, and look for a slightly tattered one that says ‘2017 MLS Cup Champions’.
“Ah son… I can still remember that one like it was yesterday,” I’ll say. “The other ones are all a blur... but the first one. You never forget the first one.”
Bring on Saturday. Bring on destiny.