Those were the days

Former Toronto Maple Leafs Owner Harold Ballard. (Sun Media file photo)

Former Toronto Maple Leafs Owner Harold Ballard. (Sun Media file photo)

GARY LOEWEN

, Last Updated: 4:09 AM ET

With the miserable Maple Leafs in the basement, fans are evoking memories of the bumbling old days of the Harold Ballard era.

Hey, c'mon, folks, the Ballard days weren't this bad.

This year's Leafs, having won three of 20 games, are on pace for 12 victories -- or maybe a baker's dozen if they get lucky.

During Ballard's 19-year term as principal owner, the Leafs never won fewer than 20 games and missed the playoffs only five times from 1972 to 1990.

The current Leafs, under the condo-flogging, basketball-dribbling, soccer-scuffling Maple Leaf Short of Entertainment Ltd., are on target to miss the playoffs for the fifth year in a row!

Yet, despite putting a laughing-stock on ice, the Leafs are No. 1 at the box office -- and at the bank. Forbes Magazine this month ranked the Leafs' value at $470 million, highest in the NHL.

Ballard, on the other hand, ran the Leafs on a shoe-string. The team wasn't anywhere near as profitable and ticket prices were reasonable.

As the owner, Pal Hal was visible -- he attended practices and watched games from his end-zone bunker at Maple Leaf Gardens. He was an easy target for vilification by fans.

Nowadays, could anyone actually pick out an MLSEL governor from a line up of chablis-swilling navy suits in the platinum club at the Air Canada Centre?

Club president Richard Peddie might be recognizable, but even he has disappeared into condo limbo since GM Brian Burke become the face of the Leafs on Nov. 29, 2008.

Bob Stellick, who worked his way up to an executive position during the 1980s under Ballard -- and survived to create his own communications company -- says the old fella did care about winning.

"Mr. Ballard didn't understand how the game had changed," Stellick said yesterday.

"It was kind of like working for your grandpa, and he thought a buck was worth what it had been worth 35 years before."

Whatever profit Ballard made, he ended up losing most of it on other investments: The Hamilton Tiger-Cats cost him $4 million annually -- almost as much as the Leafs' annual payroll -- and he also lost millions on a printing plant and an AHL team, Stellick said.

"Instead of making the Leafs better, he squandered his profit on other ventures."

After Ballard died in 1990, the company divested itself of bad investments and put a greater investment into the hockey team.

That paid off with strong playoff runs in 1992 and 1993.

It is said the best owner you could have is one with little knowledge of hockey and deep pockets, and one who doesn't meddle.

That holds true with MLSEL ... save the third part.

When Steve Stavro was bought out in February 2003, it laid the groundwork for the current board. Mistakes were made: Board members and players formed relationships; certain players got contracts they didn't deserve; and the inexperienced John Ferguson Jr. was hired as GM.

The Leafs are still trying to dig their way out of the JFJ mess, which left some lingering, malodorous contracts.

The Leafs have the fourth least salary-cap space (about $600,000) in the NHL, so trying to pull off a trade can be a financial nightmare.

However, Burke's arrival has accomplished two things: It has cut off interference from the board, and his personality has brought passion to the organization.

He promised the Leafs would be physical and play "black-and-blue hockey."

"We're throwbacks," Burke said.

Just not throwbacks to the Ballard era.

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Who Owns the Maple Leafs?

66% Ont. Teachers' Pension Plan

Looks After the Cash and Pensions of 284,000 Active and Retired Teachers in Ontario.

20.5% Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment

Board of Directors

13.5% Kilmer Sports Inc.

TD Capital

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TROUBLED TEAM

Readers have their say

How would you fix the Leafs? Comments from torontosun.com:

"Simple fix, stop pretending third-line players make a great team, build through the draft and stop taking short cuts because everyone has seen what every free agent has done for the Leafs which is set us back another three years."

-- Mike Chwojka

"There is no fixing this sad sack of losers."

-- Vito

"They should fire Ron Wilson! They have been terrible keeping the puck out of the net since he has been the coach. They say you can teach defence to players and so far he has failed."

-- Bill Matthews

"The only way to fix this mess is to send MLSE a message. Stop going to the Barn on Bay and that's it!! We have to attack their pockets like they attack ours."

-- Ralph Spataro

"Move the Coyotes to Hamilton and force the Leafs to put a product worth watching on the ice."

-- Kevin Corbett

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Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment

BOARD OF DIRECTORS

L. Tanenbaum

Kilmer Sports Inc.

Richard Peddie

MLSE

Dale Lastman

Goodmans LLP


Photos