Bigger NHL hasn't treated Leafs kindly

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- The NHL schedule maker must have a nostalgic side where the Maple Leafs are concerned.

On yesterday's 40th anniversary of their first game outside the Original Six, the Leafs were once again playing an expansion team from that era, the hometown Penguins.

The first year the NHL doubled to a 12-team operation, the Leafs missed the playoffs and many have traced their difficulties competing in a larger, modern NHL to the Cup drought followed their 1967 championship. Since '67-68, 11 teams have started from scratch and won a Cup, compared to zero for the Leafs.

LOST PLAYERS

Toronto lost players in the expansion draft, notably goaltender Terry Sawchuk and defenceman Bob Baun to the Los Angeles Kings and Oakland Seals, respectively. L.A., with its purple and gold uniforms, was the first of the new teams to play the Leafs, Oct. 25, 1967 at the Gardens.

Leafs general manager Punch Imlach didn't think much of the Kings, Seals, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota North Stars and Philadelphia Flyers, threatening his players with $100 fines for every home loss to the poor cousins. The Leafs beat the Kings 4-2 that first night, but their overall record against the new clubs was a mediocre 10-11-3 that season.

"It would always be a joke to us, teams coming in from a place like Oakland," recalled Leafs' defenceman Jim McKenny. "You'd think 'How do I get up for these guys?', but then, they'd beat us. Before long, you'd have been happy to change places with them."

Within the next decade, Buffalo, Vancouver, Washington, Long Island, Atlanta, Colorado, and Kansas City were admitted, later joined at the end of the '70s by four teams from the defunct World Hockey Association. The 1990s saw a new wave in the U.S. Sun Belt; Tampa, South Florida and Anaheim, with older northern franchises relocating to Dallas, Phoenix and second go-rounds in Minnesota and Atlanta.

Now, there is talk of a team in Las Vegas in a few years or expansion to Europe, the final frontier.

"I started in a six-team NHL and expansion is the biggest change I've seen in the game," said league senior vice-president Jim Gregory. "In the 1960s, the idea of putting an NHL team in Florida was considered impossible."


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