Gordie Howe and Dave Keon’s Halloween Return to Maple Leaf Gardens

Originally published on Torontoist on June 10, 2016.

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1979-80 O-Pee-Chee hockey cards of Gordie Howe and Dave Keon.

While costumed ghouls and goblins wandered the streets of Toronto Halloween night 1979, hockey fans enjoyed tricks and treats of their own at Maple Leaf Gardens. Two hockey legends returned to the building for the first time in years, making the Leafs’ 4-2 loss to the Hartford Whalers palatable. For 51-year-old Gordie Howe, who passed away this morning, it was an early stop in his year-long farewell tour around the NHL. For 39-year-old Dave Keon, it was a return to venue he’d left under bitter circumstances.

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Globe and Mail, July 6, 1970.

While “Mr. Hockey” never played for the Leafs during his 32-year career, Howe served as a sporting goods adviser for Eaton’s, prompting plenty of personal appearances at the department store’s local outlets during the 1960s and 1970s. This apparently bothered Detroit Red Wings management after Howe ended a brief retirement to join his sons Mark and Marty on the World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros in 1973. When Howe cited one of his reasons for returning to the ice as boredom with his desk job with the Red Wings—he felt like a mushroom patch, kept in a dark room until it was time to throw more manure on him—Detroit exec Jimmy Skinner complained that Howe spent too much time working for Eaton’s.

When the Whalers were added to the NHL in 1979, Howe maintained a hectic pace as the public and media fixated on the ageless wonder during his final season. “Overall, all the attention I’m getting isn’t getting to me,” he told the Globe and Mail. “It’s easier to stickhandle your way through an interview than a young, eager hockey player…I’m playing this season because it’s enjoyable going through the circuit again.”

Howe was particularly pleased about stopping in Toronto because the return of Keon to the Gardens allowed him to share the spotlight. Keon was less excited, having left Toronto unceremoniously four years earlier after a 15-year run with the Leafs. During the 1974-75 season, owner Harold Ballard consistently dumped on his team captain, accusing him of being uncooperative with the media and failing to provide leadership to younger players. When that season ended, Keon became a free agent. Ballard showed little interest in bringing him back. “Keon is free to make a deal for himself anywhere,” Ballard told the Globe and Mail’s Dick Beddoes. “You hate to see players like Keon go, but I don’t need to be hit on the head with a sledgehammer to understand reality. We need big young legs. It’s nuts to fall in love with a racehorse because sometime he has to die.”

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Globe and Mail, October 31, 1979.

Because rules at the time required other NHL teams to provide compensation to the Leafs for signing Keon, and suspicions Ballard was asking for too much, Keon had few options but to jump over to the WHA. After stints with the Minnesota Fighting Saints and the Indianapolis Racers, Keon joined the Whalers midway through the 1976-77 season. Keon’s bitterness over his departure from Toronto was apparent whenever the subject arose in interviews—soon after joining the Whalers, he vowed never to set foot in Maple Leaf Gardens ever again.

But his bitterness wasn’t enough to prevent Keon from playing on Halloween 1979. “I have no bad feelings towards the players,” he noted. “I’m looking forward to it, but playing against the Leafs will be different.”

The game was sweet for both veterans. “Sure somebody, somewhere, scripted the hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens last night to embarrass Harold Ballard,” the Star’s Jim Kernaghan noted the next day. Besides Ballard’s treatment of Keon, the obnoxious owner refused to acknowledge Howe’s 1,000th professional goal on the Gardens’ message board in 1977 because he utterly loathed the WHA. Keon received three standing ovations from Toronto fans, while several fan banners welcomed him back. He responded by providing a goal and an assist in the Whalers 4-2 victory over the Leafs. “The response from fans was great,” he noted after the game, “This ranks up there with some of the biggest thrills of my life. It’s the kind of thing you hope for, but doesn’t always happen.”

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“Howe blast. Mark Howe (5) of Hartford Whalers watches puck just shot by his father, Gordie (behind Mark) on its way into the Toronto net in National Hockey League action at Maple Leaf Gardens last night. Goal came in third period and was the 789th regular-season NHL marker for Gordie and his third for Whalers this season. Maple Leafs’ defenceman Borje Salming lies on ice after making futile attempt to stop the whistling drive. Whalers shocked Leafs by winning: 4-2.” Photo by Doug Griffin, originally published in the November 1, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0055784f.

Howe, assisted by his son Mark, sent a 30-foot wrist shot past goalie Mike Palmateer to give the Whalers their final goal of the evening. Howe claimed getting back at Ballard had nothing to do with his goal. ‘It’s just great to score one and it was particularly nice that it was Mark who tipped the puck to me,” he told the Star. “Hell, Harold’s good for the game. He yelps a lot and pays good salaries.”

Both teams moved on to the Whalers’ temporary home in Springfield, Massachusetts two nights later, where two goals from Howe helped the Whalers deliver the Leafs their fifth defeat in a row. The Star’s punny headline screamed “Those Howe-itzers again blast Leafs.”

Howe’s final game at the Gardens occurred on February 16, 1980, which the Leafs won 5-3. Howe failed to score on four shots, including one barely stopped by Toronto defenceman Borje Salming. When goalie Jiri Crha learned that in his debut game he had temporarily stopped Howe’s pursuit of his 800th NHL goal, the Leafs netminder said “this win means even more now.” In Howe’s final game against the Leafs in Hartford on April Fools’ Day 1980, he showed his eternal toughness by earning a 10-minute misconduct penalty with 37 seconds left to go in the match after knocking over a linesman while pursuing the puck.

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Toronto Star, February 16, 1980.

Keon continued playing until 1982. His bitterness towards the Leafs remained in retirement, as he refused official overtures from the team for decades. “It was clear Keon had great pride in his Leafs career,” broadcasting and former Fighting Saints coach Harry Neale told writer Dave Bidini several years ago. Neale summarized, after a pause, Keon’s feelings as “heartbroken.” But Keon has appeared at Leafs events in recent years, and will be honoured alongside other team greats with a statue to be unveiled in Legends Row this October.

Additional material from Keon and Me by Dave Bidini (Toronto: Penguin, 2013); the February 7, 1974, July 10, 1975, December 3, 1977, October 31, 1979, November 1, 1979, and April 2, 1980 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 15, 1975, November 1, 1979, November 3, 1979, and February 17, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Photo by Doug Griffin, 1975. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0055785f.

While browsing the Toronto Public Library’s archive of Toronto Star photos, found this gem from Howe’s WHA days. The caption’s prediction of Howe’s retirement was premature: “Hero worship: Mayor David Crombie (centre) and Metro Chairman Paul Godfrey appear properly awe-inspired at pre-game ceremony honoring Gordie Howe at Maple Leaf Gardens last night. Howe played what was probably his last regular season game in Toronto and was in top form as his Houston Aeros beat Toros: 5-2. The two civic dignitaries received autographed sticks and Toros’ sweaters.”

The Saga of the Maple Leafs’ Futility (Part One)

Originally published on Torontoist on May 2, 2012.

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Globe and Mail, May 3, 1967.

Forty-five years ago today, the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup, defeating the Montreal Canadiens in a six-game series. Few could have imagined that nearly half a century later, fans would still be waiting to see the team hoist the trophy again.

Over the next two days Torontoist will look at the good and bad moves the team has made since 1967, without resorting to cries like “Leafs suck!”

Until his death in April 1990, many of the franchise’s faults could be blamed on one man: Harold Edwin Ballard. From the time he entered the Leafs’ ownership as part of a triumvirate with John Bassett and Stafford Smythe in 1961, Ballard seemed driven less by a love of the game and more by greed and a near-pathological need for attention. The same year the Leafs won their last cup, that greed appeared to drive the decision to sell their top farm teams in Rochester, NY and Victoria, BC for just under $1 million. The move robbed the Leafs of 45 players, many of NHL calibre. The combination of the sale, the expansion draft to stock six new teams in 1967, changes to player development rules that denied the team the use of the junior Marlboros as a feeder team, and aging stars thinned the Leafs’ depth pool, which led to a last place finish during the 1969/70 season.

Following Bassett’s decision to sell and Smythe’s death in 1971, it quickly became clear that Ballard, not the players, intended to be the Leafs’ star attraction. A year-long stint in prison for defrauding the Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens provided a temporary break, during which the Leafs became the second NHL team to dip into the emerging European talent pool. Unfortunately, the experiment ended after the signings of Inge Hammarstrom and Borje Salming due to Ballard’s seeming xenophobia, which caused future European stars to sign elsewhere.

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Darryl Sittler and Rosemarie for March of Dimes Put Yourself in the Picture campaign, Maple Leaf Gardens, 1970s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4256.

Despite the team’s slow but steady improvement during the mid-1970s with young talent like Salming, Darryl Sittler, and Lanny McDonald, the omnipresent Ballard (who lived in an apartment in the Gardens by this point) loved denouncing players after bad nights. He was especially annoying during playoff runs—when Ballard boasted that the Leafs would defeat defending Stanley Cup champions the Philadelphia Flyers during the first round of the 1976 playoffs, ratcheting up the pressure on players considerably. Coach Red Kelly tried to distract the team by latching onto the “pyramid power” fad (basic idea: if you placed pyramids around a room, it was felt they would have supernatural powers). Kelly’s amateur psychology seemed to work when Sittler scored five goals in one game, but the Leafs lost the series in seven games.

When Roger Neilson replaced Kelly in 1977, Ballard faced a new problem: a coach who preferred improving the team over hanging out with the owner. Players raved about Neilson’s unconventional coaching methods, while the media dubbed him “Captain Video” for his use of videotape to analyze the team’s performance. An envious Ballard devised unsuccessful attempts to embarrass Neilson, such as distracting his video review sessions on the road by sending a prostitute to his hotel room. Despite taking the team to the semi-finals during the 1978 playoffs, Ballard was eager to dispose of Neilson. The situation devolved into farce when, after retracting a March 1979 firing attempt when he couldn’t secure a replacement, Ballard tried to convince Neilson to approach the bench with a paper bag over his head. Neilson refused to go along.

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Left: 1959/60 Parkhurst hockey card of Punch Imlach. Right: 1974/75 O-Pee-Chee hockey card of Lanny McDonald, sans trademark moustache.

After finally firing Neilson and general manager Jim Gregory following the 1978/79 season, Ballard initially considered Don Cherry and Scotty Bowman as their respective replacements. Instead, he rehired Punch Imlach, who had guided the Leafs to their last Stanley Cup. It was one of the most catastrophic moves in franchise history. Imlach was an old-school disciplinarian who expected his orders to be followed without question. His hard-nosed approach destroyed a team that had developed cohesiveness, leadership, and pride. Most of his wrath was directed at captain Darryl Sittler, initially for defying his request not to participate in a Hockey Night in Canada intermission skills competition program. The team failed to receive a court injunction to block Sittler’s appearance, despite contracts that obligated the team to participate in the program. Relations deteriorated between Imlach and Sittler, who was backed by his teammates. Out of spite, and because Sittler had a no-trade clause in his contract, Imlach unloaded the captain’s closest friends on the team. A series of bad trades ensued, the worst sending Lanny McDonald and Joel Quenneville to the Colorado Rockies in December 1979. A demoralized Sittler had the “C” removed from his sweater. The only swap that worked in the Leafs’ favour saw fan-favourite enforcer Tiger Williams sent to the Vancouver Canucks for goal scorers Bill Derlago and Rick Vaive.

The 1980s marked the dark ages for the franchise. Following Imlach’s dismissal after a heart attack in 1981 (the second he had suffered during his tenure), Gerry McNamara led the team to six losing seasons. A veteran scout before becoming GM, McNamara seemed as interested in battling the media as building a competitive team. When McNamara attempted to prove he had suffered brain damage following a car accident, the jokes flowed. McNamara had to work within Ballard’s increasing stinginess with funds, which resulted in the Leafs having only three full-time scouts, rarely pursuing free agents or participating in the waiver draft, and filling key roles with people already in the organization. Prospects were often rushed to the NHL far sooner than they should have been, though promising players like Wendel ClarkRuss CourtnallVincent DamphousseAl Iafrate, and Gary Nylund emerged.

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Harold Ballard with Miss Tiger Cat and Miss Blue Bomber, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2409.

By the end of the 1980s, Ballard’s declining health muddied personnel matters. After an interregnum, 30-year old Gord Stellick was hired as McNamara’s replacement in 1988. He made one colossally bad trade (Courtnall for John Kordic), found himself saddled with a coach forced into the position by Ballard (George Armstrong), and was left virtually powerless during the next amateur draft. As sportswriter William Houston observed, “Everything seemed out of control. At the top was a feeble and ailing owner, who refused to give his general manager any real control. The coach didn’t want to coach. And many of the players didn’t seem to want to play.” The situation was such that Maple Leaf Gardens’ stock rose whenever Ballard entered the hospital. According to one investor, “We know he had diabetes. We know he doesn’t follow his diet. We know he’s eighty-three. That’s why I started buying stock.”

But the last season of the decade showed signs of hope. After Stellick resigned, new GM Floyd Smith and coach Doug Carpenter guided the 1989/90 Leafs to the team’s first .500 season since 1978/79. It helped that Ballard had grown too infirm to meddle. Wendel Clark delivered one of the best lines following Ballard’s death on April 11, 1990: “I wish him well—wherever he goes.”

Things were looking up for the 1990s.

Additional material from Leafs AbomiNation by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange (Toronto: Random House, 2009), Maple Leaf Blues by William Houston (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990), and Why The Leafs Suck And How They Can Be Fixed by Al Strachan (Toronto: Collins, 2009).

UPDATE

Part two of this series was written by another author and may be found here.

The Leafs’ Stanley Cup drought now stretches over half-a-century. Will spring 2018 change that? Stay tuned…

Vintage Toronto Ads: You Will Believe A Bear Can Play Hockey

Originally published on Torontoist on September 9, 2008.

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Scene, September 20-26, 1970.

If Baikal was “the Bobby Orr of the bruin hockey world,” we hope that the bear’s knees were sturdier than the hall-of-famer’s. The results of two years of hockey drills for Baikal and nearly a dozen other bears were on display for Canadian audiences in the fall of 1970, when a Moscow Circus tour provided a slight thaw in Cold War relations.

The tour got off to a rocky start in Montreal after two trapeze artists hung helplessly for more than 10 minutes when a rope ladder became entangled around a swing and caused the acrobats to lose their footing. When the troupe arrived in Toronto, a photo call with three bears roped in Maple Leafs defenseman Jim Dorey and goalie Jacques Plante. Besides their prowess with the puck, the bears showed off their soccer, ballet, and tango skills.

The circus engagement forced the Leafs to go on an extended road trip to wind down their exhibition schedule. The team’s regular season started in Vancouver, where the Canucks earned their first NHL victory in a 5-3 match.

Reviewing opening night for the StarJim Proudfoot observed a less-than-enthusiastic crowd of 5,000, whose frosty reaction was attributed to the attempt to cross traditional circus acts and the Ice Capades.

As long as the Muscovites are doing their own thing they’re just marvelous. Their acrobats, their unicyclists, their trampoline athletes, their jugglers, all are magnificent. But they would be just as magnificent without skates. It is when the Russians attempt such things as production numbers and pairs and singles, just like they must have seem in some mediocre touring revue, that they fall absolutely flat. The comedy numbers are an example. Perhaps the audiences would be convulsed in Omsk or Minsk but in Toronto they were bored, or what is even worse, annoyed. One reservation must be made: the girls are gorgeous and sparkling and admirably energetic, and when they return the customers’ applause in the finale, beaming with genuine pleasure, they succeed where so many diplomats have failed. They make us love Russia.

Proudfoot was also impressed by the bears, who looked “no more disorganized than the Leafs on a bad night. They scored three goals, which doesn’t always happen on hockey night at the Gardens.”

Moscow-based circus acts returned to Toronto later in the decade. A planned appearance in October 1983 was cancelled by Gardens owner Harold Ballard after a Korean airliner that carried several Canadian passengers was shot down by the Soviets. Other cities followed Pal Hal’s lead and the circus tour was quickly scrapped, though the performers had an extended layover in Halifax when Aeroflot flights to Canada were suspended.

Besides joining the international condemnation of the Soviets after the airliner incident, Ballard may not have wanted to have been shown up by hockey-playing bears who may have exhibited stronger stickhandling than the Leafs of the early 1980s.

Additional material from the October 7, 1970 edition of the Toronto Star.