March 1, 2010
43 blunders that have haunted the Leafs
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
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.
43. Who owns the Leafs?
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
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.
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.
33. Sour Swede
The greatest scorer in team history should have ideally retired as a Stanley Cup champion or at least as a Maple Leaf, but there would be an awkward parting of the ways.
As time ticked down on the 2007-08 season and unrestricted free agency, Mats Sundin made it clear he didn't want to be traded, thus the Leafs let a huge opportunity get away in terms of re-stocking the farm with the bountiful crop of a deal. When the Atlanta Thrashers acquired Erik Christensen, Colby Armstrong, first-rounder Angelo Esposito and a future first-rounder from Pittsburgh for Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis, envious Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher thought he could've topped that had Sundin agreed to move.
Now the Leafs faced 2008-09 with their leading scorer in limbo. Everyone tried to pry information from the big Swede during the summer, who had been captain for a decade. But his indecision and his preferred hermit-like existence in Sweden dragged the process into the following season. The Leafs gave up pursuit with new GM Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson intent on taking the Leafs in a new direction.
Sundin eventually signed with the Vancouver Canucks and though his first game in Toronto saw him receive a nice reception, it wasn't the way it was supposed to end.
32. The Muskoka Five sit tight
Feb. 26, 2008
It was around the time that Leafs TV did a feature on Darcy Tucker's sprawling new home that he and a group of players armed with no-trade contracts were dubbed "The Muskoka Five", too ensconced in T.O. to want to think of winning with contenders elsewhere.
But Tucker, Pavel Kubina, Tomas Kaberle, Mats Sundin and Bryan McCabe refused to give up their clauses, despite keen interest at trade deadline time from other clubs. Established defencemen such as Kubina and Kaberle were of particular interests to playoff-bound clubs, but interim GM Cliff Fletcher, hoping for a bold stroke to re-vamp the team, could not budge them.
31. Who let the dog out?
July 2, 2002
He grew up around the corner, he would place in the top 10 in four franchise goaltending categories, games, wins, shutouts and goals-against average. He would take the Leafs to two conference finals and make sincere goodwill gestures such as donating a private box to kids with medical issues.
But Curtis Joseph would not go out a Cup winner with the Leafs as was his great ambition, he would choose to leave his dream job on this date because he didn't think the Leafs were serious about winning.
That is what he determined from a bitter contract wrangle in the summer of '02 when the Leafs dragged their feet and Joseph looked at the growing number of free agents in his shoes who had opted for clubs such as the Red Wings.
General manager Pat Quinn shrugged and brought in Ed Belfour who came close to Joseph's numbers a couple of years, but had a porcupine personality.
Six years later, neither Joseph or the Leafs had found what they wanted, the team going through a couple of GMs and several goalies, while Joseph had gone through three clubs and seen a grand total of 15 playoff games.
He came back for a swan-song with the Leafs, but there was the definite feeling the best years had come and gone.
"I should never have left," Joseph eventually admitted.
30. Paper Bag Prince
March 3, 1979
Roger Neilson coached 1,000 NHL games for eight teams, but had his first employers in Toronto been more patient with his innovative 'Captain Video' techniques, the cerebral Neilson might have improved upon his 41-win opening season.
But he didn't get the chance to complete his second year. An impatient Harold Ballard first tried to fire him after a late-season loss in Montreal, telling the media, but never getting around to actually informing Neilson. Ballard spent a whole day trying to find someone in the hockey front office willing to replace the coach, but no one wanted their own head in the noose.
With a game against the Flyers coming up the next night and his resolve weakened by a plea from captain Darryl Sittler to let Neilson come back, Ballard stopped the coach as he was cleaning out his desk and decided to pretend to the media that the whole dismissal was a prank. He even had Neilson briefly talked into wearing a paper bag over his head that night behind the bench and whipping it off at the end of the national anthem.
Neilson's good sense prevailed, the Leafs won and harmony was briefly restored but he was let go anyway in the off-season.
29. Five-headed management monster
May 30, 1997
In the late 1990s, the 'most important team in the NHL' as it called itself had a very muddled hierarchy.
In Ken Dryden, they had a president who couldn't lure a general manager and then appointed himself the role. In the eccentric Mike Smith, they had a GM aspirant who grated under the 'associate' GM label, while Anders Hedberg was a scout with the assistant GM's tag and Bill Watters was assistant to the president, having held Hedberg's title in the previous regime.
Pat Quinn, meanwhile, the only man who had been a president and GM with another team (Vancouver), was just trying to coach.
Hired on this date, the methodical Dryden never rushed into anything, leading to frequent log jams in the team's decision-making process. It took months to fire previous coach Mike Murphy after two non-playoff finishes and goaltender Felix Potvin, pushed to the backburner when Curtis Joseph signed, eventually bolted the team as he waited for a trade that didn't come until mid-season.
After one year of watching all this unfold, Quinn stepped in during a falling out between Dryden and Smith to take the GM reins, as a matter of personal survival.
28. When a Tie is a loss
May 3, 2001
What was he thinking?
With the Leafs in the home stretch to tie a hotly contested conference semi-final against the New Jersey Devils 2-2, on home ice and in a game where he'd already scored, Tie Domi picked a most inopportune moment to revert to thuggery.
He had the Devils' great defenceman Scott Niedermayer in his sights for a clean hit, but raised his elbow like a battering ram and knocked Niedermayer from the game and the series. The dastardly deed was Domi's last appearance, too, suspended for the playoffs and the first eight games of 2001-02. It created a media circus at his hearing (coach Pat Quinn manhandled an innocent photographer) which distracted from the team.
The Leafs did win one more to set up a seventh game in the Meadowlands, but jarred to life by the Domi hit, the Devils weren't going to lose it. Many Leafs, while respecting that Domi had watched their backs for years, said the elbow was the turning point in the series.
"I can't walk away from that fact. I did it," Domi said later. "I don't understand it. What am I going to say?
"I keep thinking back --'What happened?' -- and I'm thinking that the building was so loud, the emotions were so high. There's so much going through you at that moment. "All I know is every time I've gone to hit (Niedermayer), he had his stick up high. I guess I just anticipated that. I don't know why. It was a reaction to what I thought he was going to do.
"What can I say? I'm sorry for all of this happening. I feel like I let so many people down. I let myself down. I let my team down. I let my fans down."
27. Big M, big trade, big trouble
March 3, 1968
Frank Mahovlich was a popular, graceful player who was so near to becoming the first Leaf to crack 50 goals in addition to being part of four Cups.
But he was drained from fighting autocratic GM/coach Punch Imlach, who felt the star was not always giving 100% and objected to his asking a raise for a new contract in 1962-63. That led to the famous $1-million offer from the Blackhawks, made over a few drinks in a hotel room, which lasted until the sober light of day when the Leafs reneged.
Imlach belittled his star by mispronouncing his name and though the Leafs won another Cup in '67, it came at the expense of a bout of depression that landed Mahovlich in hospital.
He became the centrepiece of a deal that sent him, Peter Stemkowski, Garry Unger and the rights to Carl Brewer to Detroit for Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith.
Ullman and Henderson didn't disappoint, with Henderson representing the Leafs on Team Canada '72.
But to this day, the Big M's fans are steamed he was driven away, starting a trend that saw many Leafs stars end their careers with other clubs. Mahovlich flirted with 50 goals again as a Red Wing, but it would be another seven years before a Leaf would score more than 40.
26. Free agents shun Leafs lock-up
July 1, 2002
The unshackling of NHL free agents after the mid-1990s should have been a bonanza for the Leafs. They had the financial resources to out-bid all but a small group of teams in a non-cap system and they were a flagship franchise in a beautiful city with a new arena.
Some big names were lured, but most others stayed away. Convinced the Leafs were being too cheap, too plodding or both just weeks after lack of depth sank them in the conference final, fans and media wanted GM/coach Pat Quinn's head in the summer of 2002. The biggest names -- Bill Guerin, Darius Kasparaitis and Bobby Holik -- were snatched up before the Leafs opened their wallet.
"We put our bids in, but what really blew everybody away was the length of the contracts that were being signed," Quinn said at the time in his defence. "The fourth and fifth years (which would follow the coming year-long NHL lockout and salary cap in '04) were very, very scary. We're being prudent ... not to bury this organization with a lot of contracts that you can't get rid of."
But when John Ferguson Jr. came to power, he had his own problems. He couldn't give popular Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk the same deals, so they bolted. Determined to be a man of action where Quinn dithered, Ferguson threw away big money in bad free-agent years, binding the club to players such as Jason Blake. His successor, Cliff Fletcher, also over-paid for unknowns such as defenceman Jeff Finger.
25. Cup hopes sink into the Pacific
May 24, 1994
For the second time in as many springs, the Leafs found they lacked the tools to get to the Stanley Cup final.
This time, they couldn't point to a suspect non-call by a referee or the individual brilliance of a Gretzky to ruin the chance, but their own dearth of secondary scoring, size and clutch goaltending.
The apex of the Cliff Fletcher era ended with a double-overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks, fatigued by of their second straight series on the West Coast. They blew a 3-0 lead in that fifth game after failing to sweep the first two at home of the 2-3-2 format.
Losing all three in Vancouver had the Leafs grumbling about changing conferences, though that wouldn't happen for another four years. The most significant fallout was the decision to go after a second centre to take the pressure off of Doug Gilmour, leading to the Mats Sundin-Wendel Clark deal a month later.
24. Unholy goalies
June 22, 2007
If goaltending in hockey is like pitching in baseball, the Leafs are in dire need of some long relief and no-nonsense closers before they win a Cup.
Whether they're rushing them (Ken Wregget, Allan Bester), trading them too early (Bernie Parent, Tuukka Rask), getting them past their prime (Grant Fuhr, Ed Belfour), or over-paying (Vesa Toskala, Andrew Raycroft), going to war against them (Curtis Joseph, Belfour) or simply giving up on them (Felix Potvin), they can't seem to fill the most important position.
Toronto has already used 12 goalies since the lockout.
23. The Night Toronto Died in Chicago
April 2, 1989
This was far from a defining moment in the failed search for a Cup, in fact it wasn't even a playoff game.
But it illustrates the fine line between confidence, incompetence and consequences, in a Leafs world ruled by the latter two in the 1980s. Despite winning just 28 of 79 games, the Leafs went into Chicago needing a win to nip the equally dreadful Hawks for the fourth playoff spot in the awful Norris Division. The Leafs had tried everything the night before to gain the precious two points in St. Louis, pulling their goalie with the score even, leading to the NHL's first regular-season empty-net winning goal in a tie game.
Toronto took a 2-0 lead on Chicago and then 3-1, but Leafs' Ed Olczyk missed a chance to clinch it and the Hawks clawed back. A Todd Gill giveway in his zone in the opening minute of overtime led to Troy Murray's winner on Allan Bester.
A win that night and the Leafs might have overcome all the numerous trials that season, the firing of John Brophy, a power struggle at the Gardens and a war of words between Harold Ballard and Wendel Clark, and Ballard and his young GM, Gord Stellick. It could have been a turning point at the end of the awful '80s. But it was Chicago which used the result as a springboard to play division leading Detroit, beat them and then go all the way to the conference championship, a prelude to two successful seasons under coach Mike Keenan and a trip to the '92 Cup final.
22. Down with the ship
Feb. 21, 2009
Never mind who the captain of the Leafs will be when Gary Bettman hands the lucky man the Stanley Cup to spin around the ACC, how about getting a captain who stays put?
Since George Armstrong retired, no Leafs captain spent his entire career here. Dave Keon went out a Hartford Whaler, Darryl Sittler a Red Wing, Rick Vaive a Buffalo Sabre, Rob Ramage a Flyer. Ramage, Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour all played for four other teams. Keon, Sittler and Vaive all had fights with team management on their way out the door.
Clark and Gilmour did make it back to retire as Leafs in different capacities, but the franchise's leading scorer, Mats Sundin, exited wearing Vancouver Canucks before calling it a career. Toronto doesn't even have a captain now, so Bettman need not sweat the presentation ceremony.
21. Hal hides the heraldry
Oct. 11, 1990
In the Montreal Forum, the Canadiens' 23 Cup banners were always on display, along with a galaxy of retired numbers of Les Glorieux. You couldn't swing un chat in the seats without hitting a Richard, Beliveau or Cournoyer, who would offer encouragement to the next generation of Habs, sometimes just by sitting in the vicinity of the bench. Passing the torch and all that.
But under owner Harold Ballard, who was jealous of the success attained by others, Leafs accomplishments were hushed up. And most of the team's greats stayed away, rarely wanting to associate with the regime which had aliented stars such as Dave Keon and Darryl Sittler, changed the logo, took down their famous Cup banners and used some as drop cloths for Gardens' renovations.
Some greats did stay on as club employees, but that meant catching Ballard's wrath on many occasions. Johnny Bower, who was a scout, was temporarily fired one day because Ballard had no idea how the junior draft worked. When told the Leafs could not draft all the players Bower had made notes on during a trip out west, an angry Ballard assumed Bower was gold-bricking and told him to clear out his desk.
The banners returned officially on this date after Ballard's passing and a proper Leafs alumni association was formed in 1995.
But 25 years had elapsed without positive input from a star-studded group that had a lot to offer the next generation.
20. Say goodbye to the kids
June 12, 1969
Not long after the Leafs won their last Cup, their pipeline of young talent was shut off.
The universal NHL draft of 1969 marked the end of direct sponsorship of junior teams and so the Leafs lost their in-house production line, the junior Marlies, having already ended their equally beneficial relationship with St. Michael's College.
One of the most dominant Memorial Cup teams was the 1963-64 Marlies, who defeated the Edmonton Oil Kings for the title. Future Leafs Cup winners Ron Ellis and Pete Stemkowski were on a line with Wayne Carleton. Others included Mike Walton, Rod Seiling and the colourful Jim McKenny. The coach was future Toronto GM Jim Gregory.
"I don't think we realized how good we were back then," Ellis told the Toronto Sun years ago. "It's not until you can look back now and see that we had everything -- size, aggressiveness, defensive and offensive players. We had all the right ingredients for a championship team."
The Marlies had won Memorial Cups going back to 1929, when their leaders were future Leafs stars Charlie Conacher and Harvey Jackson. In the mid-1950s, more Cup-winning Leafs were bred, such as Bob Pulford, Bill Harris and Bob Baun, They'd win more Cups into the 1970s, but by then, other NHL teams were in on the secret and players such as Steve Shutt and Mark Napier became Cup champions with other teams and players such as Gordie Howe's sons (Mark and Marty), Jim Peplinksi and Sean Burke made their names elsewhere.
From the St. Mike's side came four NHL Hall of Famers: Tim Horton, Mahovlich, Keon and Red Kelly. All but Kelly were from Northern Ontario.
"The north country has produced most of the all-time Leaf greats," said ex-Leaf and author Brian Conacher, "boys who came down to Toronto with the determination to give their hearts for the Leafs."
19. Quinn recovers, but Leafs don't
May 28, 2002
This wasn't so much a blunder as a case of a good intention that back-fired.
But it occured during the last time the Leafs were close to a Cup, just seven victories shy.
General manager/coach Pat Quinn developed an irregular heartbeat early in the Eastern Conference final against the Carolina Hurricanes and was advised to stay under medical observation for some or all remaining games. But with the Leafs down 2-1 in the set and Game 4 at home, Quinn's condition improved enough that he could sign himself out of the hospital (where he was under police guard from over-enthusiastic fans) and make a surprise appearance behind the bench.
But the Leafs' dressing room had a different dynamic at the time, with veterans such as Gary Roberts in charge and a player injury crisis at the time. Though glad to see Quinn back at his post, the extra media distraction was not needed for a key home game. Instead of being inspired by their boss' return, they fell behind 3-1 in the series before losing in six games.
18. Jacking up the rent
March 3, 2004
GM Brian Burke is fond of saying that none work harder to sustain and promote the game of hockey than the 30 NHL general managers, yet no group acts as irresponsibly around every first week in March.
Squeezed between visions of winning a Cup in a few months and the clock ticking towards the trade deadline, their year-long patient plans are often thrown away in mad pursuit of a Cup ring that only one of their company will eventually wear each year.
The Leafs have been no different, but already low on high draft picks, they’ve often left their cupboard totally bare. On this date, they gave up two prospects and a first and second round pick for Brian Leetch of the Rangers. They won one round.
Deadline deals also saw them pursue Benoit Hogue, Mathieu Schneider, Aki Berg, Tom Barrasso, Glen Wesley, Owen Nolan, Phil Housley and Ron Francis, plus re-acquire Tie Domi, Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour.
The Leafs deserve points for trying, but since engaging in such gambles, they haven’t even made it past the third round, while only a few of the names above stayed longer than a year or two. Whether the lost picks turned out well or not, Toronto had given up its chance.
17. Wendel off the Cliff
March 13, 1996
When he bumped into a group of writers the day he traded beloved captain Wendel Clark to the Quebec Nordiques at the ‘94 draft in Hartford, GM Cliff Fletcher asked them if fans had begun tearing the CN Tower down in protest. And he wasn’t joking.
His acquisition of Mats Sundin in the deal, the future franchise scoring leader, would eventually justify the bold move, but Clark would not be forgotten by fans on the street or those residing in the ivory tower of MLFG Ltd.
Many believe Fletcher undid a good trade by paying too high a price to recover Clark on this day in 1996. It hadn’t escaped the notice of the bean counters on the board hat after back-to-back visits to the Conference final with Clark, there followed a first-round playoff elimation without the fan favourite.
Never mind Clark was showing the signs of wear and tear with the New York Islanders at the time, the call went out to bring the captain home. The deal re-attained Clark, Mathieu Schneider and junior D.J. Smith for defenceman Kenny Jonsson, forward Darby Hendrickson, junior Sean Haggarty and a first round pick in 1997.
Schneider was a warrior, but the much younger Jonsson had been a rarity, a defenceman drafted and developed by the Leafs. The big loss was the pick, which the Isles turned into Roberto Luongo, one of the new century’s dominant goalies.
16. Don’t Beam Scotty Up
Aug. 1, 2008
Scotty Bowman has won much Stanley Cup bling, including multiple gems with a pair of Original Six teams.
He might have had vat least one diamond-encrusted Maple Leaf rock, but we’ll never know. The Leafs have brought in three president/general managers from Cup winners since 1967, Cliff Fletcher, Ken Dryden and now Brian Burke, but the much-decorated Bowman tops an impressive list of managerial masterminds who said ‘no thanks’, in part because they feared the meddlesome reputation of Leaf ownership. At 74, Bowman joined the Chicago Blackhawks on this date as senior advisor.
Bowman had been doing a long-distance dance with the Leafs since the 1980s, when he had a chance to see them up close as a broadcast analyst. After leaving the Red Wings in 2002 with a third ring, Bowman wasn’t quite prepared to pack it in and though the bungled transfer of power from Pat Quinn to rookie John Ferguson might have been an opportune time to come in as GM, Bowman was interviewed as a senior advisor until 2007 and that would have been with Ferguson still around.
But Bowman wanted the clout that MLSEL had given Bryan Colangelo on the basketball side. When that wasn’t negotiable, Bowman backed away. It’s believed he had been offered at least three different job titles over the years, but a match was never made.
Others considered for the job if not actually interviewed included Bob Gainey, John Muckler, Ken Holland, Steve Tambellini, Jim Rutherford and Doug Armstrong. On two ocassions, MLSEL made overtures to David Poile, once when then-president Ken Dryden approached him in 1997 after Poile was let go by Washington. But the odd way Dryden had structured the hierarchy steered Poile to try his luck with the expansion Nashville Predators.
When the Preds faced ownership issues, he discussed the senior advisor’s role in ‘07, but once again, the job description didn’t favour a man who liked to run his own show.
“In Nashville, I knew I would have my fingerprints over everything we did,” Poile said.
15. That hurts
March 11, 2000
Yes, every team has injuries and champions distinguish themselves by how they overcome such setbacks, not by making excuses.
But as a team rarely blessed by depth since 1967, injuries at any point in the season took an especially high toll on the Leafs.
In 1978, during an improbable run to the semifinals, they managed to get past the New York Islanders without all-star defenceman Borje Salming, out with an eye injury.
But there was only so much Ian Turnbull and the rest could accomplish, especially when the Leafs ran into the stacked Montreal Canadiens in the next round.
Some 15 years later, and in the Cup semifinal again, a gaunt Doug Gilmour barely made it through 21 playoff games in 42 days and, though not actually hurt in one specific body part, this depleted bag of bones had little in the tank for Game 7 against the L.A. Kings.
Back in the conference final the next year, Gilmour was playing on a bum ankle and top defenceman Dave Ellett recovering from a separated shoulder when the Leafs couldn't get past the Canucks.
The irony is that in 2002, with several players on the shelf with injuries -- including top scorer Mats Sundin and energy wingers Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi and Garry Valk -- the Leafs went deep into the playoffs, only to falter once the banged-up players returned and eager farmhands were taken out of the lineup.
But the Leafs have had their share of training-camp and regular-season mishaps, too. From the 1980s on, there were severe injuries to first picks such as Craig Muni, Gary Nylund and, early in their careers, Wendel Clark and Al Iafrate.
In the late '90s and early '00s, the bad luck of the high picks continued when Luca Cereda and Karel Pilar developed career-threatening heart problems and Nik Antropov and Carlo Colaiacovo were shelved by a series of health mishaps.
Eye injuries have also been prevalent, affecting the career of Bryan Berard, who was hurt on this date, and ending that of minor-league prospect Mark Deyell.
Gilmour's Leafs and NHL career would end with him being helped off the ice in Calgary with a knee injury.
14. Divorce and Dave Keon
April 19, 1975
"He was a Leaf through and through and the way he was treated at the end cut him to the bone."
So said a teammate of Dave Keon's, who along with Mats Sundin were considered the best Leafs never to have captained a Cup winner.
Recently voted the greatest Leaf of all time by a hockey panel selecting the top 100 Toronto players in team history, the first captain of the Harold Ballard era was deemed to be lacking leadership in the eyes of the owner. That was despite being close to a 40-goal man in his early 30s and still doing all the little things, such as winning faceoffs and killing penalties, that had made him a big part of four Cups in the 1960s.
But asking for a salary consistent with his value and a no-trade clause -- both deserved to make up for being underpaid in the team's glory years -- was the issue that drove Keon from the team and later convinced him to sever all connections. He should have been given the chance to properly guide Darryl Sittler and the '70s Leafs towards a new Cup chapter. But he was gone in the summer of '75, after playing his last game on this date.
Ballard made a bluff offer for Keon to make his own deal elsewhere, then set the compensation bar so high that no other club touched him. Keon did an end run and signed with the WHA, with his attempt to come back as a checker with the Cup-bound New York Islanders again thwarted by the Leafs, who held tight to his NHL rights.
He returned to play the Leafs at the Gardens one last time in the early '80s with the Hartford Whalers, but from the moment he retired, he vowed not to re-enter the building for any Leafs-sponsored event.
He was further outraged by the team policy of keeping the sweater numbers of Leafs greats in circulation, rather than retiring them as was the norm in the NHL. He also detested the way Ballard had the Smythe family written out of team history.
Keon's grudge and boycott extended to new ownership's attempts to honour him, though he relented just once (at left) to be with his teammates for the 40th anniversary of the '67 Cup. He was given a standing ovation, but not the longer and louder tribute that was expected, partly because the exile made him a stranger to the younger generation of Toronto fans, a man they only knew from black-and-white newsreels.
"He had differing opinions and stuck to them, so you have to admire him for that," Johnny Bower said.
He had so much more to give as a player and a mentor, yet No. 14 remains a missing ingredient to a title.
13. Ballad of Mats Sundin
Dec. 18, 2008
He was the leading points producer in team history and professed his love for the city.
Yet, both sides had strange ways of expressing their commitment to each other and, in the end, neither side got what it wanted most. Mats Sundin had no Cup for 13 seasons of hard work and the fans never gave 100% of their hearts to him.
Many griped that, for all the years he led the Leafs in scoring, he could never lead them in the field when it counted, a key critique of the trade for Sundin that had cost Wendel Clark.
And though Sundin never said it publicly, there were years when the Leafs let him down, unable to surround him with wingers who could bury the great passes he was laying in the slot or add the pieces needed to put the Leafs over the top.
Sundin's oft-stated desire to be a Leaf for life ended with a one-year contract for 2007-08 that underlined how the relationship had gone south.
He took a wait-and-see approach, to judge if the 2008-09 Leafs were going to be a good fit for him and if he even wanted to play.
That decision became a drawn-out affair that saw Sundin hang on to his no-trade clause as an influential ringleader of the so-called Muskoka Five in the spring of '08. The Leafs ended up receiving nothing in return and the distracting guessing game almost carried into the calendar year 2009 before he finally chose to play a bit role with Vancouver.
Sundin is now retired and the search for the next captain and franchise player goes on.
12. Gutted by Rollie the Goalie
May 23, 1999
Word quickly filtered through the Air Canada Centre on this rare afternoon playoff game that Sabres had gift-wrapped Game 1 of the Eastern final by not starting their ace goalie, Hart Trophy nominee Dominik Hasek.
The Dominator, who was either hampered by a groin injury or embroiled in one of his frequent flare-ups with factions on his own team, was not in the crease for the national anthem, replaced by Dwayne Roloson. To this date in the playoffs, Curtis Joseph had been hot, getting the Leafs to the conference final in 12 games, with 25 goals allowed. Roloson had never won a playoff game.
But the Leafs were not sharp on this day -- too pretty with their passes according to coach Pat Quinn -- and lost the opener 5-4.
Though they got to Roloson the next game, the Sabres achieved the split they needed on the road and Hasek magically returned in top form and gave up just six goals in the final three games.
A golden chance had slipped away.
11. Gretzky arrives at the Gardens
Nov. 21, 1979
The NHL's icons always seemed to shine at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Air Canada Centre, in games usually broadcast coast-to-coast. But starting with his first NHL appearance in front of family and friends from Brantford, hurting the Leafs at home was raised to painful levels by No. 99.
Within two games at the Gardens, the Edmonton Oilers wunderkind racked up 10 points, then 20 goals and 20 assists after 11 starts. At one stage, he was averaging 1.48 goals a night at MLG and .86 as a visitor everywhere else. The final dagger was virtuoso performance in Game 7 of the '93 conference final.
"I love playing there," Gretzky said. "It's a great building with so much tradition."
As Gretzky went, so did fellow 1980s and '90s stars Brett Hull, Eric Lindros and Mario Lemieux, all fattening their career numbers at the Leafs' expense, home and away.
When the Air Canada Centre opened, a new galaxy of stars such as Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, Ryan Miller, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk began using the big stage to beat up on the Leafs.
Only a select group of Leafs ever enjoyed such a comfort zone.
10. Expanding NHL swallows Leafs
Oct. 25, 1967
The Leafs have pocketed millions in expansion fees since 1967-68, but they don't seem to be spending it on Stanley Cup parades.
Since they ushered out the Original Six era with their '67 Cup and played their first expansion team, the L.A. Kings, on this date, the Leafs have seen 15 other teams drink from the mug.
That includes every one of the old guard except the Chicago Blackhawks, meaning 11 teams that began life as a piece of paper and pen, went from scratch to beating the Leafs to the title. Yet, a parade of GMs in the past two decades has boldly proclaimed the Leafs are no expansion club and that sophisticated Toronto fans shouldn't have to sit through a three or five-year rebuild.
But in some cases, clubs such as the Pittsburgh Penguins have won the Cup, bottomed out, were sold and came back to win it again while Toronto spun its big wheels. Eight other teams, including Canadian rivals Ottawa and Vancouver at least made the final, which the Leafs haven't reached since '67, either.
9. The kids aren’t all right
June 11, 1980
Fred Boimistruck described it best: “Like going to war when you’d never been shot at.”
He was speaking of the ill-conceived plan of putting a group of young, high draft-pick defencemen right in the front lines of the sorry teams that comprised the early 1980s Leafs, hatched by GM Punch Imlach and fostered by Gerry McNamara.
One by one, Boimistruck, Bob McGill, Jim Benning and others were handed vital jobs on a team with big-time expectations, but small-town thinking when it came to individual coaching, a proper supporting cast and personal development.
Benning (picked sixth overall), McGill (26th) and Boimistruck (43rd) all saw action from 1981-83, two disastrous seasons that yielded 84 losses and more than 700 goals against. “You just never saw that in pro sports,” ex-Leafs captain Rick Vaive said. “You knew we were asking for it.”
Today, Leafs prospects such as Luke Schenn benefit from going through the national junior program and year-round tutelage from many assistant coaches. The Leafs must also abide by NHL rules that ensure unprepared kids such as Nazem Kadri are returned to their clubs if they aren’t going to play quality time in the bigs. But no such escape hatch was there for those young Leafs 30 years ago, tossed into the grinder in the blind hope they’d mature into the backbone of a Cup contender.
Boimistruck, taken in 1980 with Craig Muni, McGill and Darwin McCutcheon on this date, would be not last long, though Muni, McGill and Benning eventually found their way.
“Like any other junior, I realized a dream of playing in the NHL my first year,” Boimistruck said. “But I found myself on a losing club and my confidence level went down. The fun got sucked out. To get such an opportunity was unbelievable, yet there’s some bitterness with how it turned out.”
For one game against Detroit, injuries forced the callup of Muni and McCutcheon, putting five underagers on the same blue line.
“It wasn’t just we three, but (top 10 drafts) Al Iafrate and Luke Richardson also had problems,” McGill noted.
The Leafs took five defencemen in the top 10 from 1980-90, five more with the 20th to 30th selection. None would become mainstays.
8. Punch up the act
Oct. 10, 1979
George (Punch) Imlach had won the Leafs’ last Stanley Cup and was never far from view from frustrated Leafs fans after moving down the road to Buffalo and establishing the expansion Sabres as a constant thorn in Toronto’s side.
So, when Harold Ballard forced out Jim Gregory as GM in 1979, he took crony King Clancy’s advice and went back to the man he believed could restore Toronto’s greatness.
But after years being out of touch with Toronto and the changing NHL landscape, Imlach found that a powerful players union and independent thinkers had rendered his intimidating old-school ways almost useless.
Yet, he was determined to win a battle of wills with the players clique, led by captain Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Ian Turnbull and Borje Salming.
He fought them on petty issues such as participating on the TV intermission feature Showdown and when the players hijacked a Ballard charity initiative to demand their boss drop his objection to the Leafs playing the visiting Soviet all-stars, Imlach took advantage of the fight to further his goal of breaking up this gang.
Knowing he couldn’t strike at Sittler because of his no-trade clause, he began trading his lieutenants such as Pat Boutette and ultimately McDonald and Tiger Williams.
Ballard caught on too late that the Imlach-Sittler feud was out of hand, but by the time his head coach’s health issues gave the owner the excuse to get rid of him, the damage was done and the Leafs’ Stanley Cup chances were gutted.
7. Curses, ghosts, legends
Feb. 13, 1999
As macabre as it sounds, many fans wonder if there’s a Bill Barilko-type thread they’ve missed as the Leafs’ title drought now stretches three times longer than the 10 years between the discovery of Barilko’s body in a plane crash and the gap between Cups in 1951 and ’61.
The closest match was the recovery of Jim Pappin’s ’67 Cup ring, which the leading playoff scorer gave to his father-in-law, Peter Kyrzakos, a few months after the big win. Pappin told CTV Newsnet he was ticked that the Leafs had traded him to Chicago and, at a time when rival players had nothing to do with the opposition during the season, he had no attachment to the ring. But Kyrzakos, a big Leafs fan, lost the ring in the waters of his vacation home in Vero Beach, Fla. in the early ’70s and afraid of upsetting Pappin, paid $4,000 to have a new one made, using Eddie Shack’s as the model.
Kyrzakos passed away in 2004, eventually having told Pappin of the original’s loss, but a forgiving Pappin forgot the whole matter, until a treasure hunter called him three years later with news he’d found the personally engraved ring by chance with an underwater metal detector. Alas, there was no change in Leafs Cup fortunes.
As for a King Tut-type curse, most of those stories were concocted before the team moved from the historic Gardens on this date in 1999.
It was strange indeed that in the 1990s, Ace Bailey’s newly placed No. 6 banner used to sway in the rafters at the start of every game, where other flags didn’t. More than one late-night watchman said he “sensed a presence” when the lights dimmed, especially after Harold Ballard’s death.
And former public relations man Bob Stellick still recalls the day in 1997 that a package arrived post-marked British Columbia, containing pieces of a gold brick from the Gardens exterior.
The accompanying letter from a long-time Leafs fan explained he slipped away unnoticed from a building tour the previous year and somehow chipped out a brick from the hockey shrine to take home to B.C., in triumph. But the following season saw the Leafs miss the playoffs for the first time in five years, trade Doug Gilmour, dump GM Cliff Fletcher, while the Gardens became embroiled in a sexual-abuse scandal.
“I feel I have put a curse on the team and am now returning these (pieces) to their rightful place,” read the apology.
The 21st century mythology has begun centring on the retired/honoured numbers debate, that the Leafs will never win until Dave Keon’s No. 14 and others are taken out of circulation for good.
6. The darkest decade
Jan. 2, 1980
He truly thought he was pushing the right buttons.
But Gerry McNamara’s reign of error and other hierarchy horrors surrounding the 1980s Leafs are still viewed as a wasted chapter in post-Cup team history, where the team’s poor performance and off-ice internecine affairs clouded an entire decade.
McNamara’s record as GM was 166-302-67 between 1981-88, when the Leafs not only lost, but failed to develop a string of top-10 draft picks. The ex-scout had an eye for talent with Al Iafrate, Wendel Clark, Vince Damphousse, Gary Leeman, Peter Ihnacak and Ken Wregget among his best picks. The final draft that he supervised yielded Luke Richardson, Daniel Marois, John McIntyre, Joe Sacco, Mike Eastwood and Damian Rhodes, all future NHLers.
“There’s no question we could have done something if the (kids) had stayed together and I’d been allowed to continue,” McNamara said in a 2004 interview with the Toronto Sun.
But he claimed to be undermined by two key people in the organization, the increasingly erratic Harold Ballard and coach John Brophy. He fought Brophy to the bitter end to curry the owner’s favour, but lost that battle. McNamara had a fatal attraction to Czechoslovakian players and his expensive foray to spring Miro Ihnacak from behind the Iron Curtain infuriated the boss.
Ballard ran the team on a shoestring budget and ordered his GM to be frugal in contract talks, which the latter happily followed. McNamara’s war with the media amidst several losing seasons meant his defeat in the court of public opinion, as well. The contract issues and many questionable trades hurt youngsters and veterans alike, but McNamara blamed Brophy for much of the end result.
“Mr. Ballard would ask me: ‘Why aren’t we better? Why is this guy or that guy not improving?' ” McNamara said. “I told him what I thought (about Brophy), but he still wanted him as the coach.”
The decade began with a 3-1 loss to the Islanders on this date and ended with an overall record of 441 losses, 260 wins and 91 ties.
5. A travesty of trades
Jan. 20, 1982
Where to start when listing the valuable resources lost through trades by the Leafs?
Four captains (Darryl Sittler, Rick Vaive, Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour)? A 50-goal scorer (Dave Andreychuk), potential 50 (Frank Mahovlich and Lanny McDonald)? A Norris Trophy winner (Randy Carlyle)? A Conn Smythe-winning netminder (Bernie Parent)? The leading scorers in the ’67 Cup playoffs (Jim Pappin)?
Or, all those high draft picks. Though you can’t be sure which way the Leafs would have gone every June, the picks taken with their ticket includes a great looking starting lineup of Roberto Luongo in goal, Scott Niedermayer, Mark Stuart and Darius Kasparaitis on defence, with Mike Cammalleri and Dainius Zubrus up front.
Many of the trades, chronicled previously in this series, were trade deadline specials designed to take the club deep into the playoffs, but instead emptied the cupboard of youth and draft picks.
There were insignificant deals at the time such as Greg Hubick for Doug Jarvis, with the former disappearing and the latter going on to become the NHL ironman with 964 consecutive games. The Leafs, and more precisely their fans, couldn’t wait to get rid of defenceman Larry Murphy, whom the grateful Red Wings made part of a Cup champion.
The Leafs gave up on Carlyle too early to get the veteran presence of Dave Burrows, who was past his prime and then lost Burrows anyway, along with the useful Paul Gardner for the long-forgotten Kim Davis and Paul Marshall. And trades pushed many players right out of the organization who might have been contributors in other roles later in their careers.
Sittler, the 100-point captain, fetched a draft pick that became Peter Ihnacak on this date, but the other two components, Rich Costello and Ken Strong, were poor compensation for a player of his stature.
For all the good Gord Stellick did in his short stint as GM, he’ll be dogged by John Kordic for Russ Courtnall. The Leafs lucked into homegrown players such as Steve Thomas whom they lost along with Vaive and first-rounder Bob McGill, for the competent Ed Olczyk, but the over-the-hill Al Secord.
Think of all the moves the Leafs made to try and settle their goaltending, up to the post-lockout deals for Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala that didn’t solve the problem and led to another trade for Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The Leafs weren’t burned by trading away stoppers such as Ken Wregget, Felix Potvin, Eric Fichaud and Justin Pogge, but they may severely regret the loss of Tuukka Rask to Boston in the Raycroft trade.
Space doesn’t permit getting into the trades the Leafs should have made, as they let scoring threats such as Steve Sullivan get away for nothing.
4. Those daft drafts
June 17, 1989
A pattern of sorts was set in the NHL’s first universal draft in 1969 when the Maple Leafs took Estevan, Sask., winger Ernie Moser ninth overall, overlooking the next westerner, a Flin Flon firecracker named Bobby Clarke. Later, the Leafs traded to get two of the first-rounders they passed on, Jim Rutherford and Pierre Jarry.
For every good draft, such as 1973 when Lanny McDonald, Bob Neely and Ian Turnbull accelerated the drive to Cup contention, there was a ’77, when John Anderson and Trevor Johansen were plucked 11th and 12th, respectively, from the in-house Marlies, while the Isles used their two high picks on Mike Bossy and John Tonelli en route to a dynasty.
In the 1980s, drafting good players wasn’t the problem, but developing them was, as top 10s Jim Benning, Gary Nylund, Russ Courtnall, Al Iafrate, Luke Richardson and Scott Pearson all struggled on bad Leafs teams.
That brings us to 1989, which could have been a watershed draft. As in ‘73, Toronto owned three first- round selections, picking third, 12th and 21st, with the gates of Europe swinging wide open, on top of the usual Canadian junior talent, the NCAA, U.S. high schools and the Canadian national team.
Fans were salivating. But the Leafs ventured no further than a two-hour drive, betting the farm on a trio of junior Belleville Bulls — Scott Thornton, Rob Pearson and Steve Bancroft.
“Hopefully, we’ll go to the Stanley Cup. That’s why we’re here,” Peason declared.
He nearly made it as a role player with the Pat Burns’ Leafs a few years later, but Thornton, a decent two-way forward, was traded and Bancroft wound up playing just six games in the NHL.
Among those the Leafs skipped were Stu Barnes (fourth), Bill Guerin (fifth), Bobby Holik (10th) and Olaf Kolzig (19th), but perhaps their worst foresight was their next 10 picks. The Leafs still had shots at Kris Draper, Dallas Drake, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Federov, Pavel Bure, Arturs Irbe, Vladimir Malakhov and Vladimir Konstantinov.
In 1995, they gambled on Oshawa defenceman Jeff Ware, who played 15 games as a Leaf and over the years re-acquired seven of the players chosen first to 90th in that draft. Without a first-rounder in ’96, they had to go the long route to get back four of the top 22.
Drafting might not be an exact science but give the Leafs a D-minus.
3. Hal Freezes over Leafs
By the late 1960s, the Gardens had already evolved into the Carlton St. Cashbox, largely because of the aggressive and innovative Harold Ballard’s work landing rock concerts and new business to augment its famous hockey tenants.
Back in ’61, with club patriarch Conn Smythe winding down his involvement in the rink he’d built and the team he nurtured, his son Stafford and pals Ballard and media mogul John Bassett (pictured below) had done some fancy financial footwork to get control of the arena. Benefitting from both a thwarted takeover by Bassett and the failing health of the younger Smythe, Ballard was in position to get sole ownership late in 1971.
But fraud and theft charges followed him and Smythe and surviving partner Ballard eventually served prison time. Enjoying his celebrity while locked up, Ballard took delight in giving the middle finger to society, behaviour that would soon have dire consequences for a hockey team.
If he had limited his ego to such stunts as putting blue names on blue sweaters, painting centre ice in Tiger-Cats football logos and urging fans to boo the Russians on the scoreboard, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But Ballard’s insistence on putting his stamp on everything had him at odds with players, fans and team traditions.
And though he enjoyed his image as a wealthy man, the cost of paying back the loans to secure boardroom control of the MLG empire meant keeping a ceiling on payroll before the term “salary cap” had come into use in the NHL. The impact was felt on the ice, particularly in the years 1979-91 when the Leafs made little headway.
As he approached his 80s, Ballard had little use for the expanding NHL selling the game and telling him his buisness, or for people in his own organization making suggestions. He tightened his grip and surrounded himself with yes men, while fighting a series of distracting battles with financiers, his management and players, his estranged family and the media.
He died on April 11, 1990. He was not averse to winning a Cup, though it had to be done his way. Yet, 20 years onward, none of the well-heeled businessmen who took control of the company has won it the conventional way, either.
2. High stick, Doug stuck
May 27, 1993
The high stick on Doug Gilmour by Wayne Gretzky has become as infamous as the Zapruder film for Leafs fans.
Almost everyone born before 1983 who bleeds blue and white can tell you exactly where they were this night, in front of the TV yelling at referee Kerry Fraser.
It was Game 6 of the Western Conference final, the Leafs up three games to two and on the verge of going to the Cup final for the first time since ’67, where the Montreal Canadiens were waiting.
The Leafs made up a two-goal deficit and sent a 4-4 game to overtime. Fraser detected an infraction by Leafs winger Glenn Anderson with only a few seconds to go in regulation so Toronto started the extra period a man short. But it looked like things would even out when Gretzky’s stick came up on a faceoff and cut Gilmour’s face, drawing blood.
Instead, to the astonishment of Leaf Nation, Gretzky remained a free man and shortly after came through with the winning goal. Gilmour remained incredulous almost 20 years later, as he said in the book Tales From The Maple Leafs.
“If Kerry hadn’t seen the call, which obviously he didn’t as he says, the linesmen should have made it,” Gilmour said. “Give (Gretzky) two minutes. With Anderson in the box. it would have just evened out. It’s sad and disappointing that three people on the ice did not see it, especially when it happened at a faceoff.”
Frustrated at not getting an explanation from senior officials, then-assistant GM Bill Watters snidely concluded: “The puck must have bounced off the ice when (Fraser) dropped it and hit Doug in the face.”
The Kings rode their momentum back to Game 7 in Toronto where Gretzky had a vintage game and L.A. won the series. The Leafs have never really been that close to the Cup final since that night.
In 2009, Fraser wound up on Watters’ radio show, explained his side of the story again and withstood a barrage of calls from fans with long and painful memories.
“Any official absolutely has nightmares when they have an effect on the game — and a negative effect,” Fraser said. “When it crosses over into what occurred that night, the human error, the element that we miss ... I think about it often.”
Fraser said he had an obstructed view of the fateful draw and it was his recollection that Gilmour told him the cut had come from the follow through of Gretzky’s shot.
One caller told Fraser he still suffers sleepless nights, another e-mailed that it was “the game that broke my heart.”
“I hope you got it all out, you should not carry this anger and resentment,” Fraser advised those who haven’t moved on.
But it might take another 43 years.
On one hand, we’re with Eddie Shack, who once stood in a room full of his ‘67 teammates and present-day MLSEL brass, and noting ownership’s role in the four decades between Stanley Cups, bellowed “isn’t that a bunch of bullsh--?”
Shack went on to praise the fans for being the most patient in the NHL, through more failed two, three and five-year plans since the old Soviet Union. But in looking up the blunders, bad luck and bizarre behaviour that comprised 43 factors keeping the Leafs from the Cup, the No. 1 reason is likely staring back at you in the mirror.
It’s not a conclusion reached easily. This line of work exists in part to give the fan a voice where his or her emotional/financial investment in a near century-old institution is concerned. There has been a lot to criticize about the people in charge abusing that trust since 1967.
Though fans have felt helpless to change the course, it’s also noteworthy, as Thomas Jefferson said, that in democracy, people get the government they deserve. In a 30-team league with modern mediums to all, no one is held hostage to the Leafs. Whether you have thousands of dollars tied up in an ACC seat license, buy the odd purple ducat, subscribe to LeafsTV or slap a few cents down on a blue logo pencil at Zellers, you can always vote with your wallet.
As long as blindly loyal patrons, particularly the high rollers in the lower bowl, fill the Air Canada Centre at least 41 nights a year, there is no desperation for those up top to seriously change their ways. For every disgusted patron who makes a big deal about turning in their season’s tickets proclaiming ‘I’ve had it’, someone on the waiting list since the Great Depression will be sure to take their place.
In Montreal, when the play of the Habs started to slip a few years ago, fans began boycotting products of Molson’s, a ploy that got the attention of the beer baron owners. But that’s a little tougher here, unless you want to punish the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan by holding back on your kids’ gifts at Christmas and the last day of school.
Remember, this team once had Wayne Gretzky signed, sealed and delivered in 1996, which would have provided a centre ice depth chart of The Great One, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin. But Steve Stavro, the owner at the time, realized Gretzky’s presence wasn’t going to mean one more ticket purchased at the sold out Gardens and thus rejected the deal.
Today, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., has not only kept the dollar sign on the same altar as the Leaf logo, it's made room for a basketball team, soccer team and real estate ventures, too.
In that respect, the Leafs are a success, which pleases their many faceless investor execs. That’s not to say MLSEL is oblivious to the cries from street level, their pat answer being why wouldn’t they go all out for a Cup and the reward of more millions in playoff revenue, souvenirs, not to mention a legitimate excuse to make the league’s most expensive ticket even higher. The company is a good corporate citizen and sensitive to the changing demographics of Toronto proper, where their own research shows a dip in fan support. Hockey is not the national sport of an increasing immigrant population and they’ll have to produce a winner to lure new fans as their old guard ages.
But for now, that’s not a problem. It’s always remarkable when covering road games, to see how many drive to Montreal, Buffalo and Ottawa up to four times a year, or New York, the Island and New Jersey to be taunted with the clapping ‘Sixty-Seven’ chant. Perhaps most surprising is the support of young fans in Leaf colours who pop up in Edmonton and Calgary where the local teams have won Cups. This hardy group carries the torch for their fathers and grandfathers who raised them on tales of Original Six glory.
There is a tendency as well for self-flagellation, reinforced by fan e-mails received since the 43 capsules were launched last week. They didn’t get in touch to say this series was an insult to their allegiance, they wanted to make sure we included this dumb trade, or that bad draft or another rash or short-sighted decision. Still, they come back each year for more.
Leaf fans can always look down at the Chicago Blackhawks, whose Cup drought could hit a half century next year. Yet, having bottomed out and come back on the strength of six picks in the top 15 since 2003, who wants to bet the Hawks win before the Leafs?
There’s always the persona of perennial lovable loser, once held by fans of the New Orleans Saints in football and in seeming perpetuity by the Chicago Cubs in baseball. But in Toronto, after 43 years and counting, the time for tough love from the audience is just about here.