It's been 43 long years

It has 43 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs last won a championship. (QMI Agency file)

It has 43 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs last won a championship. (QMI Agency file)

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:21 AM ET

They are the Sultans of Squat. New Orleans Saints fans once hid under paper bags and called their team the Aints. The Sacramento Kings have to go back to 1951 when bobby socks and Elvis Presley were king for their last NBA Final appearance.

The Chicago Cubs haven't won a championship since 1908, the longest streak in North American major pro sports, and the NFL's Arizona Cardinals have been saying "wait till next year" for 62 years.

Cleveland is the ultimate Loserville, failing to win a championship since 1964 despite having three major sports teams.

Last week, 43 years after the birth of the expansion franchise, Saints fans could throw away the bags and celebrate a Super Bowl.

By cruel coincidence, it is 43 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs last won a championship but unlike the Saints, that is not about to change.

But it does provide faint hope the Leafs may someday overcome the legacy of Harold Ballard and the insouciance of corporate bosses.

What's needed here isn't necessarily a sugar daddy like George Steinbrenner or Mike Ilitch but rather some corporate willpower, says an expert in sports management.

"An old-school, cigar-chomping mogul who wanted to win the Stanley Cup and who'd do whatever it took would've been more useful prior to the salary cap," says Dan Mason, associate professor at the International Institute for Sport Management at the University of Alberta. "At the end of the day, it's the ability of management to put together the right combination of players and give flexibility to management."

'OBSESSION'

It also helps, he says, if that corporate structure is interested in maximizing wins over maximizing profit.

The hitch is that there has been little evidence of that from Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., and the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund which operate the Leafs.

"The monolith that is the teacher's pension fund is the worst thing that ever happened to the Leafs," says Bill Watters, who, until leaving in 2003, spent 12 years as a club executive. "The attitude is: Give me my 10% and do the best you can. I don't give a (bleep) what else you do. They may not feel that way but that's the feeling you get from them."

It's a feeling that has grown deep roots. With teams sprouting up in other Canadian cities, a hockey generation has grown up with alternative role models. As a result, the Leafs may no longer be Canada's team but they remain a national obsession -- even if that obsession is as a point of ridicule.

MYSTIQUE

Tales of Leafs follies have belonged as much in the funny pages as the sports pages. Conversely, NHL players still mark their calendars for that special Saturday night when they'll be playing in Toronto. The city, and jersey it represents, still holds a mystique.

"I remember the first time I put on that uniform was a pretty cool feeling," says Doug Gilmour. "The team was in Detroit and they wanted to take a picture of me and gave me No. 14 (Dave Keon's former sweater) and I'm going: 'No, no, no!' I was having a pretty good season, but that's not the added pressure you want."

He would become a Leafs' icon wearing No. 93 before being traded 81/2 years later.

"Sometimes it takes hindsight before you realize how special it is to play in Toronto," says Gilmour, who took all of 24 hours after his shining moment in blue to understand the difference.

"The first day I drove into Jersey, thinking they might know who the hockey players were, I said: 'Hi, I'm Doug Gilmour'. The guy (at the rink) said: 'Never heard of you, go park over there.' So, I'm like, OK, this is a little different."

Despite failing to win the ultimate hockey prize for almost a half century, players are revered in Toronto as in no other hockey city. It is a relationship of love and angst. Fans love the team's history and stars, yet hate what it has become -- a charicature of Charlie Brown on the ice; an uncaring, economic gargantuan to sports capitalism off the ice.

"If the team started winning again, you might be surprised how many people pulled their old sweaters, reading Vaive or Palmateer, out of the closet," says Mason. "There are probably more people hanging on to their attachment to the team than admit it."

How has a franchise that once owned the hockey soul of this nation reached a point where it now creates ambivalence and alienation? It took 43 years of bad management, worse luck, an egotistical lust for power and money, and misguided scouting and ownership. It took Harold Ballard's Gong Show and it took The Muppet Show of Larry Tanenbaum and Richard Peddie, who forgot they were businessmen, not sportsmen.

In his book, Gord Stellick, former general manager and now a popular radio talk show host, traced the back-sliding to that last Stanley Cup parade.

"The '67 team was in some ways a counterproductive blip. The erosion had already started with the turning down of Bobby Orr, the passing on Brad Park, those kinds of scouting gaffes," Stellick said this week. "After they won the Cup, it wasn't a gradual decline. They went to a couple of the most abominable years going."

The impression is that Ballard always used the club as a cash cow but when he bought Stafford Smythe's shares with a bank loan in 1972, Stellick says, "Harold was like a guy who bought a house on The Bridle Path but should've been living in Parkdale. He was over-extended beyond belief. So the Leafs went through a whole decade when Harold didn't have money (to run the team properly).

"I had a salary cap before anyone else ever heard of a salary cap," he jokes.

So, the WHA raided the roster, goalie Bernie Parent ended up as a Leafs-killer instead of saviour and Stellick had to let Gary Nylund go to Chicago because Ballard wouldn't come up with $30,000. "He wasn't a star but it was a symptom of what was happening," says Stellick. "The attitude was: 'Oh, just go!' "

Perhaps nobody in Toronto has been so intrinsically linked to the past 40 years with the franchise than Watters. He was a sports agent in the 1970s, became a team broadcaster and assistant general manager and now hosts his own talk shows on AM 640.

"We missed an opportunity with that (Darryl) Sittler group when Punch (Imlach) came back as general manager (in 1979)," says Watters.

The Leafs had made the playoffs in 1978 but Ballard was impatient, firing coach Roger Neilson and general manager Jim Gregory. Imlach had been the architect of the '67 team, but his autocratic style didn't mesh with players who no longer saw themselves as indentured servants. "I loved Punch but it wasn't good for the Leafs," says Watters. "It decimated a pretty good team and that 1978 group went into a death spiral."

Imlach, who had turned Frank Mahovlich from idol into franchise pariah in his first tenure, perpetuated the franchise's inclination to devour its own -- turning its heroes into flawed mortals who had to be diminished, scolded and cast aside. From generation to generation; Mahovlich to Sittler, McDonald, Vaive, and Gilmour to Sundin, they were all found expendable.

Gilmour, now a junior coach in Kingston, recalls the day in 1997 he was informed he was no longer wanted.

"For me it was a tough time," he says. "I might've been able to stay for another year or two under my contract but they wanted me to retire. Personally, I don't think I was ready to retire."

He would play another six seasons. "I think I showed that I was right," he says.

It would be one in a long series of miscalculations.

Says Watters: "If you look at that '78 team, from Sittler to (Tiger) Williams, Punch took the heart of that team and gave it away. Pat Boutette was a third-line centre, but what an important one. Imlach couldn't get Sittler out of Toronto fast enough; McDonald he got rid of because he was Sittler's buddy. Ian Turnbull he traded to L.A. for nothing. (Borje) Salming he kept because that was Harold's boy. The demise of that team is a shame."

The problems ran beyond ownership. They've never signed an impact free agent and Toronto scouts have been so misguided they would've turned a locomotive down a dirt path.

"There was never a team from '85-91 that had anything going for it," Watters says. "Yet you look at the draft picks -- they had eight consecutive picks in the top seven -- something had to be made of that and it wasn't."

By the 1980s, flush with cash from Molson's, it was difficult to discern what was bigger -- Ballard's bankroll, his pot belly or his ego.

Stellick recalls: "One day he got back from vacation and a reporter asked about adding scouts. Harold says: 'What do we need those guys for?' (The reporter) says: 'Well, like the Oliers who scout and draft well.' Harold says: 'What did they ever do?' And (the reporter) says: 'Well, they won four Stanley Cups.' Ballard replied: 'Good for them'. "

It didn't matter to him. He wanted to do it his way -- except his way never worked.

"It was almost like when we were close to winning he'd screw it up," Stellick says. "And, Steve Stavro didn't prove to be any better. He got into money trouble and passed on (Wayne) Gretzky."

MOST POPULAR

Arguably the most popular Maple Leaf of the past generation was Wendel Clark, who figured in one of the few highlights of the '80s in Toronto.

"Game 3 of the '86 playoffs. We won the first two in Chicago," Stellick recalls. "Maple Leaf Gardens ... We were so bad, we barely got into the playoffs so a lot of (season ticket) people hadn't picked up their playoff tickets. So the diehard fans got really good seats. They brought brooms. The building rocked with real fans. To see Wendel score, pump his fist and there's blood on his face. Sweep! We seemed on the verge of good things ..."

Never happened.

Clark, though, became synonymous with the Leafs jersey, even though he admits growing up in western Canada.

"I didn't care who I played for. I just wanted to play hockey," Clark says. "Back then, the NHL seemed so far away that I never really thought about it until the day I got drafted."

Clark remains one of the city's most popular celebrities.

"There's still no better place to play especially in the playoffs than Toronto," he says. "The whole place gets ramped up."

Clark gave body and soul to the Leafs, spending almost half his 15-year career recuperating from injuries.

"I had to play through 600 man-games lost to injuries," he says. "I wouldn't change anything but it was the repercussions of how I played. In the last 13 years, I was doing four to five hours of rehab a day just to keep playing."

Ballard tried to use it against him.

"After Wendel's first contract was up, he was making $110 grand," recalls Stellick.

"He missed 65 games but he'd had a great three years. So I'm talking to Harold about contracts and I said Wendel's up, too. Harold says: 'He's not looking for a raise, is he?' I knew his agent was looking for $400 grand. But Harold is thinking the guy's hurt. Why would he ask for a raise? He didn't understand."

It says something about the tumult in Leafdom that Clark's most memorable hockey moment had little connection to the Leafs.

"It was the '85 calendar year," says Clark. "I played for the Saskatoon Blades, the national junior team that beat Finland to win the worlds and then I was drafted first round and got to play for the Leafs. It's my highlight because so much happened ... never again did I see so many new things every day. Suddenly, going back to my '86 high school graduation wasn't such a big thing anymore."

The Leafs almost had their New Orleans moment when Cliff Fletcher, Watters, Gilmour & Co., came within a glimmer of the Cup final.

"The one chance that broke my heart was the '93 season when we got jobbed in L.A. in Game 6 by referee Kerry Fraser (who missed what Toronto fans believe was a series-altering penalty)," says Watters. "No fault of his except that he missed the call. In my mind, that was our Stanley Cup year because I didn't think (coach Pat) Burns would lose to Jacques Demers in a Stanley Cup final. We didn't get there -- the rest is history."

A history that would include not signing Gretzky. Any franchise which fails to sign the game's greatest player -- at a discount, yet -- deserves everything it doesn't get. It was 1996.

"I remember at Wendel's wedding, sitting with (Fletcher). He was ecstatic because he had Gretzky," says Stellick. "Wayne Gretzky, Doug Gilmour, Mats Sundin. Those were our three centres. But Stavro was being bled (financially) on the new Air Canada Centre. Once he took the pass on Gretzky, that team dissipated. Gilmour got out; they traded (Dave) Andreychuk ... Steve was no better owner than Harold or these guys now."

These "guys" would be the corporate entity led by the Teachers Pension Fund, Tanenbaum and Peddie; often regarded as boardroom heroes but bums of the halfboards.

"I see a highly succcesful enterprise. They generate significant revenues for ownership. they market themselves well," says Mason. "As a fan, it's another story. You have different types of sports management groups. You have profit maximizers and win maximizers."

TEASED PUBLIC

MLSEL has never sacrificed the former for the latter.

"They're in a very advantagous position because they don't need to win to generate the revenues. In other markets you have to win to generate revenue," says Mason.

The Leafs teased its public with playoff runs in 1999 and 2002 but Tanenbaum and Peddie then ousted Pat Quinn -- who pretty much ran things his way.

It hasn't been a pretty picture since with just one playoff series win. They haven't made the playoffs since 2004.

"I'm not surprised. What the hell do they (Peddie and Tanenbaum) know," says Watters. "I think Tanenbaum and Peddie wanted to put their stamp with MLSE on the Leafs just as they had with the basketball team.

"They were on a mission to -- I wouldn't say a destroy mission because they weren't aware they were doing that -- but that's what they did to the basketball team and had to hire (Bryan) Colangelo at $4 1/2 million to fix it. They got rid of Quinn, hired (John Ferguson Jr.) and then tried to run him out of town on a rail and finally hired (Brian Burke) at a premium. They paid the price for thinking they know a lot about sports. They don't and their record speaks for itself."

It was all supposed to be different this year. This was supposed to be the season that would end the playoff drought.

But, with its uncanny ability to find the dark cloud behind every silver lining, the team got off to its worst start in history.

All of which leaves Burke, the latest general manager looking out from the pantheon of the sporting world's greatest losers.

And, Leafs Nation wept.


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