43 blunders that have haunted the Leafs

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

Brian Burke said it himself: In a league of 30 teams, the odds of winning a Stanley Cup at least once in 30 years should be pretty damn good.

"Somehow, we've defeated that math here in Toronto," Burke mused.

This June will mark 43 seasons since the Leafs won it, a string of futility topped only by the Chicago Blackhawks, yet they at least show up in the final now and then.

Since George Armstrong held the Cup aloft at 'new' City Hall, the Leafs' quest to win another has stretched into its sixth decade, a Holy Grail quest for some, wholly embarrassing for others.

How is such a drought possible for a franchise that considers itself a cornerstone of the NHL?

How could the loyal fans be treated this poorly this long by a team that used to have the class of the Montreal Canadiens and the swagger of the New York Yankees rolled into one?

What big blunders, bad luck and bizarre behaviour brought them so far from the success they enjoyed in the Summer of Love in 1967?

The Toronto Sun has capsulized it into 43 momentous dates that have kept the Cup and the Leafs apart so long, which we'll share with you during the course of the NHL's Olympic break.

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43. Who owns the Leafs?

February 2010

The late Conn Smythe, Harold Ballard and Steve Stavro had their triumphs and their flaws in their time as the singular head of the Maple Leafs' hockey club.

But they all loved and fiercely protected their team, even if they sometimes had strange ways of showing it.

In the 21st century, there are no denizens of the Ballard Bunker that fans can trade barbs with, reporters won't bump into 'Major' Smythe at the race track or his gravel pit and Stavro isn't bustling around the rink with his aides and their notepads, fussing over every detail like it's the dairy section at Knob Hill Farms.

The Leafs are now one tentacle of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd,. which also owns or operates the ACC, Ricoh Coliseum, NBA and soccer teams, an outdoor stadium, a four-pad rink, a giant condo development and three TV networks dedicated to four sports properties. It's worth close to $2 billion in recent financial reports.

Its command structure is divided between the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan (66%), Kilmer Sports Inc./Larry Tanenbaum (20.5%) and Northleaf Capital Partner, formerly TD Private Capital (13.5%). No doubt some people in that army of suits and retiring school marms cares about winning, too, but their main concern is profit margins.

The Leafs used to be considered a kind of public trust that no one man or company can own, something your grandparents, parents and you invested heavily in time and emotion. The folks at MLSEL are good corporate citizens, but as a hockey entity, it's now very much a faceless, bottom line business that no longer has the Leafs at its core.

If you don't like it, go shout at a glass tower on Bay St.

42. Bernie and boys burn Leafs

July 27, 1973

Never say the road to the Cup doesn't go through Toronto.

Since 1967, the Leafs have an unfortunate history of supplying the right winning component -- to the wrong team.

Ex-Leafs players Larry Hillman, Mike Walton, Doug Jarvis (a draft pick), Gary Leeman, Vince Damphousse, Ed Olczyk, Jamie Macoun, Larry Murphy, Bob Rouse, Dave Reid and coaches such as Randy Carlyle and Pat Burns, won hockey's ultimate prize elsewhere. Players such as Murphy were booed out of Toronto.

But one of the worst give-backs was goalie Bernie Parent.

The Leafs were astute enough to acquire the youngster in a 1971 trade with a second-rounder that became Rick Kehoe for Mike Walton, the aging Bruce Gamble and a first-rounder (Pierre Plante).

Unable to stop Parent from defecting to the WHA for a short stint with the Miami Screaming Eagles/Philadelphia Blazers, the Leafs eventually took him back, but then traded him to the Flyers for Doug Favell and Bob Neely. Good pickups, but Parent would lead the Flyers to the Cup in '74 and '75, beating the Leafs in the latter playoffs, on his way to back-to-back Conn Smythe Trophies.

41. Oops, wrong address

October 6, 1981

At the time, switching to the newly re-aligned Norris Division seemed to make perfect sense to the Leafs.

Why not get out of the Adams Family where Boston and Buffalo were regularly kicking their butts and opt for the same stable as the awful Detroit Red Wings and Winnipeg Jets, beat on them, play the Minnesota North Stars to ,500 and make playoffs a regular gig?

But the Leafs would not make it in their first year in the 'Chuck Norris'. Despite the generous post-season formula where the top four division clubs got in only one sat, the Leafs still managed to finish last or close to it in the next eight years.

Not only that, they would have to play the majority of divisional road games in a later time zone and a whack of conference dates two and three hours behind. Gone were the team's easy bus rides to Buffalo and the fan party in Montreal playing their old rivals.

In the years the Leafs were most Cup competitive, 1993 and '94, they played three draining series on the West Coast, finally coming back to the Eastern Conference in 1998.

40. Across the universe

February, 2010

Sure, every Leaf says he wants to make it in Toronto where fans care about the game, in the centre of the hockey universe, blah, blah, blah.

But the recently departed Jason Blake was the latest in a long line to say it's a hard place to play if you're perceived not to be earning your big cheque.

T.O. is not for all tastes, not that the media attention is more or less negative than another NHL city, but there's certainly a greater amount of coverage. And every player coming in almost automatically gets that 43-year Cup burden shifted upon them.

"Many people who left Toronto probably brought their ulcers with them," chuckled Wade Belak, now with the Nashville Predators. "Everyone here asks me what it was like to be there, to be in the circus. Here, every little thing isn't dragged out for a week. If we don't score a power-play goal for a couple of days, no one really notices.

"If you survived Toronto, you can survive anywhere."

39. Burke bravado backfires

Sept. 19, 2009

The Leafs are on the verge of extending their record of a non-playoff streak to five years and no one expects it to end quickly.

But there are legitimate questions whether general manager Brian Burke, in his zeal to put his stamp on the team, postponed the parade further by trading two first-round picks and a second-rounder to Boston for winger Phil Kessel.

After all, clubs such as Washington, Pittsburgh and Chicago went for the long-haul rebuild earlier in the decade, bottoming out for high picks, and are now reaping the profits. The Leafs have given up two of those precious picks and Burke's insistence in the autumn that they should consider themselves playoff worthy sent confusing signals to the public, especially when they entered the Olympic break in last place in the East.

Subsequent deals by Burke landed defenceman Dion Phaneuf and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and Kessel -- and, yes, Phaneuf can be compared to first-rounders in an advanced stage of development -- but the playoffs, never mind the Cup, could still be two or three years away.

And if Boston calls out top-ranked Taylor Hall first overall on Toronto's ticket, there will be severe backlash.

38. Miro the Zero

Dec. 28, 1985

The Leafs had been ahead of their time in the 1960s and '70s in looking into the burgeoning European talent pool. In a 1963 exhibition game, goalie Kjell Svensson was used by the Leafs to back up Johnny Bower for an exhibition match against Detroit at Windsor Arena, as well as trying out a left winger named Carl Oeberg, a full decade before Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom signed.

In 1982, GM Gerry McNamara's eye was on the former Czechoslovakia, where Vaclav Nedomansky and the Stastny brothers had been recently sprung and where McNamara believed he could get a number of stars on their national team to defect. The rights to Peter Ihnacak had already been secured and McNamara acquired Miroslav Frycer in a trade.

But when other teams started picking Czechs at the '82 draft, McNamara ignored the scouts' advice to switch back to North American talent and picked three more, including Peter's younger brother, Miroslav. Pleased at how Peter and Frycer were performing, McNamara saw Miro as the next logical step in a master plan.

But no Leafs scouts had actually seen Miro play as he was held off the national team in the wake of the earlier defections. In a clandestine mission, the GM was able to get his man out of the country during Christmas 1985. On his reputation alone, the Leafs paid almost $1 million in salary and under-the-table costs to finagle the defection, but it turned out Ihnacak wasn't as big, or as good, as his brother, let alone a superstar.

He played 56 games for the Leafs and Detroit and, combined with the wasted Czech draft picks, turned the clock back further.


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