37. JFJ loses his way
John Ferguson Jr.’s tenure was a well meaning, but flawed attempt at being his ‘own man’.
He was the compromise candidate for two warring factions on the Leafs’ top-heavy search committee and wanted to escape his famous father’s shadow. But he was already in conflict with his coach, Pat Quinn, who had wanted his own choice of a veteran crony for the post when he stepped down as GM.
An excellent scout and legal beagle for the 21st century NHL, Ferguson nonetheless struggled to get by in the NHL old boys’ network — “he’s in way over his head” declared one long-time player agent — and his differences with Quinn eventually saw the coach scrapped in 2006.
But Ferguson’s choice, Paul Maurice, missed the playoffs two years as well and a string of non-impact trades and cumbersome contracts brought the Leafs into the salary-cap era on the wrong foot. There were expensive buyouts for Owen Nolan and Ed Belfour and unpopular trades for Vesa Toskala and Andrew Raycroft (Ferguson was feeling heat from upstairs to make the playoffs right away), yet the latter costly moves still couldn’t fix the troubles in goal.
From a playoff team when he was first named GM, Ferguson started the Leafs on a five-year dry spell and had to endure his bosses calling it “a mistake” to have gone with a novice.
36. When the world beat the Leafs
Few outsiders believed in the viability of the World Hockey Association when it launched in 1972, when its cowboy owners vowed to compete with the NHL, offering fantastic salaries and new markets in the U.S. South. One of the haughtiest responses came from the powerful Leafs.
But more than 60 NHLers took one look at the big money, including many Leafs, and used it as their ticket to get out from under Harold Ballard’s stingy ways. Paul Henderson, still waiting for the big raise Ballard promised him after helping save the country’s pride in the ‘72 Summit Series, broke ranks, while Bernie Parent was an early defector and eventually Dave Keon, too.
Further enticement was when the WHA set up shop in Toronto, and Leaf greats such as Henderson, Frank Mahovlich and Norm Ullman returned as the Toros, playing to some packed Friday night houses at the Gardens to a group of mostly young fans who couldn’t get tickets to see them as Leafs.
In the book The Rebel League, Henderson recalled Ballard eventually offering him a five-year pact around 1974, sneering “you don’t deserve this, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose another player to that league.”
Henderson, who had not become a born-again Christian yet, told Ballard to stick his offer where the sun didn’t shine and jumped. Ballard was one of the last holdouts in favour of bleeding the WHA dry before agreeing to the four-team merger in 1979.
35. Too little, too late
In the past five years, the Leafs’ failed playoff hopes have come down to a tale of two teams.
The one that stumbles for about four months under harsh scrutiny and slips to the back of the pack, and the carefree bunch that emerges right after NHL GMs fold up their market stalls on trade deadline day.
Heading into this Olympic break, Toronto’s post-lockout record in February, March and April is 64-47-15, much of that powered by strong finishes after the trade deadline when the pressure on the club has dropped significantly.
“They started to play very well when nothing was on the line,” Cliff Fletcher said at the ’08 deadline when he was interim GM.
In 2005-06 and ’07, the Leafs reached as high as 90 points and in the latter season, were alive for about a half hour after their 82nd game. But all that does is beg the question: Why they can’t show some of that urgency in October and bank playoff points, instead of tired old quotes about needing to be more intense and preparing better for games?
34. Food chain eats Fletch
Steve Stavro, founder of Knob Hill Farms grocery stores, had been more than a passive member of the board of directors during the Ballard reign. As an executor of Ballard’s will, he was positioned strongly as a white knight to pursue controlling interest once Ballard did pass away.
But in the vacuum created by Ballard’s inability to run the company in the last months of his life, second in command Don Giffin used his time in charge to hire Cliff Fletcher away from the Calgary Flames. He gave the ‘Silver Fox’ sweeping powers to spend his way to contention, which the frugal Stavro initially objected to, but relented when the Leafs caught fire in 1992-93 and began the first of two profitable runs to the conference final.
But by 1996 the drive had stalled and Stavro, running low on private funds, was looking at ways to finance his attempt to take MLG private. Noting the payroll had tripled under Fletcher to about $40 million without a Cup, he ordered the GM to pull back spending. Still believing he was just a player or two away from getting the Leafs to the top, Fletcher objected, but his purse strings and eventually his job, were cut out from under him.