WE'VE ALL been there. Not literally in the serene suburb of Lakeshore, Ont., in the pleasantly appointed basement of the Micelli family (parents Bill and Anna and their children Mark, Sean and Kristina)—but rather in the state of despondency that engulfed this basement last May.
Recall the scene. No doubt Maple Leafs fans have, often. The Bruins had taken a 3--1 series lead on Toronto in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But Leafs goalie James Reimer got hot, and the teams were soon tied at three games apiece. Toronto, which last won a playoff series in 2004 and the Stanley Cup in 1967, was talking tough and knocking Boston around. Now, after two periods of Game 7, the Leafs were up 2--1, the same score as Toronto's triumphs in Games 5 and 6. Victory was certain, wasn't it? Toronto would face the shaky Rangers in the next round, and after that, anything was possible. Plan the parade!
Mark and Sean Micelli had invited eight die-hard Leafs fans (and three not-as-enthused female friends) to watch the decisive game. Before the third period Mark set up his GoPro video camera—a silver box small enough to tether to a snowboard helmet—on the entertainment center under his television. He wanted to capture for posterity the gang's celebration when the Leafs advanced.
Look, now it's 3--1, after Phil Kessel's goal a little more than two minutes into the final period. Nazem Kadri's snap shot makes it 4--1 with 14:31 left. The guys jump up from the couches, yipping and high-fiving. On the Bruins' home feed, the announcer essentially calls it for Toronto: "And the Leafs are running the Bruins out of their own building!"
But then it was Boston's turn to climb back from oblivion: 4--2, 4--3, 4--4. The GoPro is still rolling, but the giddiness melts off the faces of Micelli & Co. Overtime. Center Patrice Bergeron scores. Boston wins 5--4.
WE'VE ALL BEEN there. But we don't all share our highs and lows with the world. So why did Micelli post his—and all of Toronto's—heartbreak on YouTube? And why has the video been viewed more than half a million times? Come round, everyone, and watch these poor bastards get crushed! The emotional journey took about 50 minutes in real time, from Bruins winger Nathan Horton's maybe-they're-not-dead-yet wrister to Bergeron's sudden-death clincher, but Micelli boiled the pain down to 100 indelible seconds. As the devastating sequence elapses, it lays bare not only the despair endured by Leafs fans but also the peculiar brand of torture that comes with rooting for any sports team.
After all, "Toronto Maple Leaf Fans React to Boston Bruins Game 7 Overtime Win" is but one example of a burgeoning genre. Scores of Alabama fans' reactions turned up on YouTube after Auburn shocked the Crimson Tide at Jordan-Hare on Nov. 30, to cite a recent entry.
Micelli couldn't bear to look at the footage immediately after the loss. But three days later, once he had edited it all, he put the question to his friends: Did they want it online? A vote was taken, and the clip was posted on YouTube and Reddit. Micelli summed up his reasoning in the description of the video: "I'm sure many Leaf fans or any sports fan can relate to the reactions in this video at one point or another!"
Micelli's group includes younger brother Sean, Eric Bauer, Dylan and Marc Berthiaume, Ryan Boutette, Trevor Crevatin, Alex Djordjevski, Ivan Kolar and Brandon Pancerny. The friends range in age from 20 to 24 and are all from the nearby city of Windsor or its surrounding suburbs. They met in high school or at the University of Windsor or while bartending at Fogolar Furlan, a banquet hall.
Now hockey keeps them together. They play in a university intramural league on a team named What Would Gary Roberts Do? for the notoriously tough winger who played four seasons with the Leafs, and they watch games together. When they're not together, Bauer says, they have a running chat on their phones: Leaf Talk.
On this December day they are watching a Leafs-Bruins rematch, and wounds have been reopened. "I was miserable for 2½ weeks!" says Bauer, the loudest and bawdiest of the bunch. "I'm still miserable!"
Adds Djordjevski, "This is what it's going to be like for the rest of our lives. You're going to be up in the playoffs, and your team's gonna lose."
And Boutette, who had screamed staccato expletives in the video as Toronto's lead eroded: "The Leafs are like a sump pump. They build you up, rising and rising. Then all the water rushes out from under it. And it's really s-----."
Toronto has not even been to the Cup finals since 1967, and it has no divisional finish higher than third since the 2004--05 lockout. Yet no NHL team charges a higher average ticket price. The Maple Leafs missed the postseason every year from 2006 through '12, despite playing in the weaker conference of a league in which more than half the teams make it—but never lost quite enough to draft a player who could change the direction of the franchise. Toronto picked in the top 10 three times during that same period, never higher than fifth. The one time the Leafs earned a top two pick, it had already been dealt to—who else?—Boston.
Says Bauer, "Before? I didn't like Boston. But now? I don't want to see that logo on a TV screen. I don't want to hear the name Brad Marchand." Sean Micelli adds, "Looking at the logo links me back to the game, and it's just awful. It makes me ill."
Tonight the illness momentarily subsides after Toronto takes a one-goal lead midway through the first period. The Leafs (16-14-3 through Friday) have had a season full of fits and starts, lots of lopsided shot totals, and that's with half of an imposing December schedule still unplayed. An early lead soothes the guys. They even jump up around the table, just as they did when Toronto scored those Game 7 goals. But the celebration is short-lived. The final is 5--2, thanks to a Bergeron empty-netter. The guys, to use the local parlance, chirp him.
"F--- that guy."
WHAT ARE THE benefits of YouTube fame? If you hit it big, there's the possibility of a small amount of digital ad revenue, and there's fame—the guys have been recognized all over Ontario, by teachers and waiters and even a Leafs player. This summer Boutette was in nearby London having drinks with a buddy, wearing a Leafs hat. He says that Kadri was at the bar too. A pal of Kadri's, seeing Boutette's cap, invited him over. "You look familiar," Kadri said. "I know you from something." Boutette replied, "Hopefully you've seen my video on YouTube." He gave Kadri the quick synopsis, and Kadri recalled it and laughed.
But the only thing the guys really wanted—good Leafs tickets, which they could never afford—have yet to surface. ("You can pay David Clarkson five million a year, and you can't get us tickets?" one of them ponders. Another replies, "Sure, but what would happen if they put us up against the glass? We'd just chirp [captain Dion] Phaneuf all game.")
Perhaps they could afford tickets if they didn't buy all that Leafs gear—they own so much that it's hard to picture them wearing anything else. They've even bought bundles of tiny Leafs clothes for the baby girl Boutette is having with his girlfriend, Nickie Ribest, one of the women who was in the video, thus introducing another generation to the futility of rooting for Toronto.
But rooting for the Leafs is all they know. The video is the most primal expression of that. "When we were little kids, our dad always had a Leaf game on," says Micelli. "Dad would explain it. 'Oh, what's this, what's that?' 'That's Doug Gilmour, that's Mats Sundin.' "
Faith is the only thing the modern sports fan can protect and control. The devastation of a lost season springs from shattered hope, yes. But at least there's hope.
Why did Micelli post his heartbreak on YouTube? And why has it been viewed half a million times?
"Before? I didn't like Boston," says Bauer. "But now? I don't want to see that logo on a TV screen."
To see the full video of how Micelli and his fellow Maple Leafs fans reacted to Boston's miracle comeback in Game 7, download the tablet version of SI, free to subscribers, at SI.com/activate
Photographs by JOE VAUGHN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
FALLEN LEAFS When Mark Micelli (seated, far left) decided to record his friends' reactions to the third period of Game 7 of the Toronto-Boston playoff series, he had no idea their joy would quickly turn to sorrow.
BRIAN BABINEAU/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (LEAFS)
BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS (KESSEL)
HOPE SPRINGS IN ONTARIO A celebration erupted in the Micelli basement when Kessel (81) scored to put the Leafs up 3--1 and on track to advance past the opening round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
JARED WICKERHAM/GETTY IMAGES (BERGERON)
ECSTASY AND AGONY Bergeron (37) scored the series-clinching goal in OT and stunned the basement fans in Windsor—but their psychic pain was eased when their video went viral and they gained a measure of celebrity.