A Maple Leaf Gardens Gallery

Based on a gallery post originally published on Torontoist on November 30, 2011, with new material mixed in.

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Maple Leaf Gardens, 1969. Photo by Bob Olsen. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0098050f.

“Where pucks once flew 15 feet or more on the ice, shoppers will stare at a 15-foot wall of cheese.”

That’s how this story originally began, published on the day Loblaws opened its Maple Leaf Gardens location. The arena on the upper level (still officially called, as of 2019, the Peter Gilgan Athletic Centre) was still a few months away from opening. The occasion was a good excuse to take a stroll through the building’s history and the diversity of activities it had witnessed.

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The Globe, February 13, 1931.

In a timeframe that would be almost unheard of today, the request for a building permit was made in February 1931. The arena was open 10 months later. Also note the simultaneous request to the city to build an arena in Spadina Crescent, which was never constructed (the site is now U of T’s Daniels Faculty).

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Sketch of Maple Leaf Gardens, The Telegram, March 5, 1931.

Construction of Maple Leaf Gardens began in July 1931 and proceeded rapidly in order to be ready for the 1931/32 hockey season. Over 1,200 labourers, 750,000 bricks, and 77,500 bags of concrete were required to build the arena.

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Opening night ceremonies at Maple Leaf Gardens, Mail and Empire, November 13, 1931.

Over 13,000 people attended opening night on November 12, 1931. Maple Leaf Gardens President J.P. Bickell hoped that the arena would “be regarded as a civic institution, rather than a commercial venture, because its object is to foster and promote the healthy recreation of the people of this British and sport-loving city.” Unfortunately, the Maple Leafs lost to the Chicago Black Hawks 2-1.

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From W.A. Hewitt’s “Sporting Views and Reviews” column, Toronto Star, November 13, 1931:

The new Maple Leaf gardens proved a revelation to the hockey public last night. Everybody expressed amazement and pleasure at its spaciousness, its tremendous capacity, its comfort, its beautiful colour scheme, and its adaptability for hockey and all other indoor sports, with the spectators right on top of the play.

The crowd–a record one for hockey in Canada–was splendidly handled. No confusion, no crowding or rushing, everything done in the most orderly and systematic manner. The opening ceremonies were elaborate and a little lengthy, but that was excusable when one considers the importance of the occasion. They don’t open million-and-a-half arenas every night in the week.

Hewitt’s son, Foster, became a Gardens legend over his decades of broadcasting games on radio and television.

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Wrestling match, Whipper Billy Watson versus Dick Hutton, Maple Leaf gardens, July 5, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7520.

Seven days after the first hockey game, pro wrestling made its debut at the Gardens. A crowd of over 15,000 watched Jim Londos defeat Gino Garibaldi on November 19, 1931. The match was promoted by the Queensbury Athletic Club, who had recently hired Frank Tunney as its secretary. Within a decade Tunney took over the promotion and would be responsible for most of the venue’s wrestling cards until his death in 1983. One of his most popular draws was East York native Whipper Billy Watson, seen here defending a world title against Dick Hutton in 1956.

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Irvine “Ace” Bailey of the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club in his office, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2370.

Among those who kept offices in the Gardens was Irvine “Ace” Bailey, who was one of the Maple Leafs’ top forwards until he was nearly killed by a vicious hit from Boston Bruin Eddie Shore in December 1933. Though unable to resume his playing career, Bailey went on serve two stints as the University of Toronto’s hockey coach and worked as a timekeeper at the Gardens until 1984.

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Skater jumps through ring of fire at Toronto War Savings Committee youth rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, February 13, 1941. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Iten 7068.

What lengths did organizers go to grab the attention of those attending the numerous war rallies at the Gardens during the Second World War? How about a skater jumping through a flaming hoop?

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Communist leader Tim Buck (front left) and others, Communist Labour and Total War Committee meeting, Maple Leaf Gardens, October 13, 1942. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7099.

Over 9,000 people attended a rally held on October 13, 1942 to support lifting the ban on the Communist Party that had been imposed under the War Measures Act two years earlier. Leader Tim Buck urged full support for the war effort to destroy the Axis powers, including conscription. Assorted labour leaders and politicians across party lines were also on stage to oppose the ban, including Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn. One wonders if Hepburn’s motives were to further embarass Prime Minister Mackenzie King as much as helping the Communists break the ban and boosting war morale.

The ban wasn’t lifted, so the Communists reorganized as the Labour-Progressive Party the following year.

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Recruiting station at wartime rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, June 1, 1941. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7033.

The Gardens were used for numerous events supporting the war effort, from fundraisers to recruiting stations like this one. Even though he was in his mid-40s, Conn Smythe signed up for military service during the Second World War, eventually leading a sportsmen’s battalion and publicly criticizing the federal government’s handling of the war. Injuries sustained while caught in a German attack in July 1944 caused Smythe pain for the rest of his life. increasing his irascibility.

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Toronto Youth for Christ rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, circa 1946. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7111.

Religious rallies were a popular draw, such as this one for Toronto Youth for Christ in 1946. Faiths ranging from Roman Catholics to Jehovah’s Witnesses held mass meetings inside the arena. This photo also provides great views of the ceiling clock and the portrait of King George VI that Conn Smythe proudly displayed.

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Mayor Robert H. Saunders and Charles Templeton at Toronto Youth for Christ rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, 1946. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7114.

Mayor Robert Saunders talks to Charles Templeton (then in the evangelist phase of his life) during the Toronto Youth for Christ rally held on June 15, 1946. Over 16,000 people attended the event. “The pageant was as colourful as a professional revue and more gripping than the hundreds of athletic contests which have been fought out before hoarse throated thousands in the Gardens,” the Star reported. “With colourful, authentic costumes, fanfares from trumpets, excellent staging and colourful, effective lighting the story of religious leaders throughout the ages was unfolded.” Among the other speakers was Billy Graham.

Templeton, who was associated with the Avenue Road Church of the Nazarene (now the site of the Hare Krishna temple), gradually lost his faith, declared himself agnostic, became a journalist, ran for the leadership of the provincial Liberals, edited Maclean’s, and generally lived a busy, interesting life.

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Bingo players, Maple Leaf Gardens, 1940s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7368.

On occasion, Maple Leaf Gardens became the biggest bingo hall in the city. I think they called O67…

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Lou Brody at Maple Leaf Gardens, between 1940 and 1960. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2439A.

Cleaning the ice surface, pre-Zamboni.

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Badminton played on skates in Maple Leaf Gardens ice show, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 6709.

Ice badminton, anyone?

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Liberace at Maple Leaf Gardens, May 8, 1954. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3404.

As longtime Gardens publicity director Stan Obodiac described this photo in his book Maple Leaf Gardens: Fifty Years of History (Toronto: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981), “Liberace exchanged his glittering suit for a straw hat in a 1954 country number.” While this particular number wasn’t mentioned , the Star reported in its May 10, 1954 review of the pianist’s show that “every time he ran off to make a change of costume or pull some cute gag, middle-aged women, who looked as though normally they’d be the soul of domestic decorum, got up and rushed after him.”

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Stanley Holloway putting on makeup, Old Vic Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Maple Leaf Gardens, December 1954. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Iten 7342.

Veteran British actor Stanley Holloway applies his makeup between cigarette puffs before a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by a touring company from the Old Vic in London. Globe and Mail drama critic Herbert Whittaker was disappointed with Holloway’s performance as Bottom. “I expected this prime exponent of earthy humour to be rougher, more simple,” Whittaker wrote in his December 15, 1954 review. “This Bottom is surprisingly modern, betraying his music hall antecedents without whipping us with uproarious burlesque. But he found himself not eclipsed but rather aided when he donned the monster head of an ass which the Ironsides have provided, and which is almost the hit of the production.” Also starring were Moira Shearer (The Red Shoes) as Titania and Patrick Macnee (The Avengers) as Demetrius.

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Maple Leaf Gardens refreshement stand, April 12, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7422.

Time for a refreshment break. Based on the date, my guess is that this photo was taken prior to the fourth game in the Eastern qualifying series for the Memorial Cup between the Toronto Marlboros and the Quebec Frontenacs.

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Globe and Mail, April 13, 1955.

The Marlies won the game 3-1, and went on to win both the series and the Memorial Cup. The roster was full of future Maple Leafs stars, including Bob Baun, Billy Harris, and Bob Pulford, along with future Leafs coach Mike Nykoluk.

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Crowds on new escalators, Maple Leaf Gardens, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7446.

Obodiac claimed that Maple Leaf Gardens was the first North American arena to be equipped with escalators.

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Performer in Maple Leaf Gardens’ Ice Capades rehearsing Peter Pan with journalist, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 6776.

Long before journalists earned the wrath of Harold Ballard, reporting from the Gardens had its share of dangers, For one, you could have conducted an airborne interview with Peter Pan before a 1950s edition of the Ice Capades.

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Performer in Maple Leaf Gardens’ Ice Capades with broken leg, with members of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club, between 1958 and 1962. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 6757.

It appears this injured Ice Capades performer’s recovery from a broken leg was assisted by Maple Leafs Tim Horton, Carl Brewer, and Bert Olmstead.

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Bill Haley and the Comets, Maple Leaf Gardens, April 30, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7213.

In what was considered the arena’s first rock n’ roll show, Bill Haley and his Comets headlined a 12-act bill on April 30, 1956 that also included Bo Diddley, LaVern Baker, Big Joe Turner, the Drifters, the Platters, and Frankie Lymon. “Like natives at a voodoo ritual,” the Star reported the following day, “the crowd writhed and reeled until their pent-up emotions burst the dam of reason and the clambered on to the stage and into the aisles to dance.” The following years, the Gardens was one of three Canadian stops Elvis Presley made on his only tour outside of the USA.

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Perry Como and Conn Smythe with “Timmy” in Como’s dressing room for Easter Seals show, “Timmy’s Easter Parade of Star,” Maple Leaf gardens, April 14, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7314.

A benefit concert for Easter Seals was an annual staple of the Gardens schedule beginning in the 1950s. Preparing for the 1957 edition are crooner Perry Como, “Timmy” Paul Gamble, and Conn Smythe. While Perry and Paul take the photo session in stride, Conn looks a little spooked. While researching this gallery, we discovered this wasn’t an unusual expression for Mr. Smythe.

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Likely from the same photo session, with Whipper Billy Watson and another youth subbing in for Perry Como. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7318.

As for the concert, the April 15, 1957 edition of the Globe and Mail observed that “it was the front rows to which Como and every star before him played. Bright-eyed children with crippled legs were the most fortunate: many there had crippled bodies as well as bodies, but they too obviously enjoyed every minute and hopped up and down with ecstatic delight.”

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Toronto Star, April 13, 1957. Click on image for larger version.

Other performers ranged from wrestler Whipper Billy Watson to the stars of CBC’s variety series Cross Canada Hit Parade and Country Hoedown.

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Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and his wife Jeanne at Liberal party rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, June 7, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4213.

The federal Liberal election rally on June 7, 1957 was a political disaster, as a teenage heckler attempting to climb onstage fell backwards and hit his head on the concrete floor. The overall Liberal campaign that year was a dud.

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Cliff Richard and the Shadows at the Biggest Show of Stars for 1960, January 25, 1960. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7220.

Cliff Richard and the Shadows were among the acts featured in the January 1960 edition of the “Biggest Show of Stars” package tour.

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Toronto Star, January 26, 1960.

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The Isley Brothers, Biggest Show of Stars, January 25, 1960. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7252.

Other acts on the bill included the Isley Brothers and Clyde McPhatter.

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Audience at the Biggest Show of Stars for 1960, January 25, 1960. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7245.

A row of screaming fans at the January 1960 edition of the “Biggest Show of Stars.” Testing the limits of their vocal chords would serve them well, especially if any of them went on to see the Beatles at the Gardens four years later.

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Toronto Maple Leafs versus Chicago Black Hawks, between 1958 and 1964. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7529.

Ageless goalie Johnny Bower guards the net for the Maple Leafs against Chicago Black Hawks forwards Ron Murphy (10) and Eric Nesterenko (15).

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Toronto Maple Leafs versus Boston Bruins, between 1961 and 1963. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7527.

In this early 1960s match against the Bruins, the Leafs’ Bob Pulford (20) has his stick primed while team captain George Armstrong attempts to help. Among the Bruins trying to prevent a Leaf goal are Pat Stapleton (4), Ed Westfall (18), and Leo Boivin (20).

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Two men in Maple Leafs Gardens dressing room, pointing to painted Toronto Maple Leafs sign, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7447.

A clubhouse motto erected by Conn Smythe to inspire the Maple Leafs. The City of Toronto Archives does not identify the two gentlemen pointing at the inspirational words, but we think they may be forward Sid Smith and goalie Harry Lumley.

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Sonny Fox with Harold Ballard at Maple Leafs Gardens, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3038.

Harold Ballard’s association with Maple Leaf Gardens began during the 1930s when the future Maple Leafs owner was involved with a number of local amateur hockey teams. This picture, featuring Ballard with American television personality Sonny Fox, was taken long before hockey fans began uttering his name with contempt.

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Dave “Tiger” Williams signing an autograph for Greg Crombie, 1978. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 8857.

This photo appears to have been left on the cutting room floor when I prepared the original post, probably to make the gallery a nice, neat total of 28 images.

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Greg Crombie at Maple Leaf Gardens with King Clancy, 1978. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 8859.

Francis “King” Clancy was the sunny face of the Maple Leafs, whether it was as a player in 1930s or a team executive from the 1950s until his death in 1986. In his biography of Harold Ballard, sportswriter William Houston compared Clancy to a leprechaun. “Clancy usually has a big smile, a twinkle in his eye to go along with his high-pitched voice. He has an amiable personality and offends no one…He is full of stories from his hockey past and can be a delightful companion.”

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One of the last chances the public had to stroll around Maple Leaf Gardens before its conversion into its present form occured during Nuit Blanche in October 2008. While there were art installation on the arena floor, the real magic that evening was hearing visitors tell stories about their experiences in the building. There were also plenty of reminders that the Leafs had left behind after vacating the premises, such as this Mercury ad.

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.”

That Other Time the Leafs Let Go of Randy Carlyle

Originally published on Torontoist on January 7, 2015.

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1978/79 O-Pee-Chee hockey cards.

Maple Leafs management felt optimistic during the 1978 off-season. A loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the semi-finals was the longest Stanley Cup run Toronto enjoyed since hoisting the trophy in 1967. General manager Jim Gregory and coach Roger Neilson believed the team was a defenceman or two away from becoming a legitimate contender.

Of the two defence-bolstering deals the Leafs made in June 1978, one went down as one of the worst deals in franchise history. It also marked the first time Randy Carlyle, who was fired as the Leafs’ coach yesterday, departed the team.

Drafted 30th overall in the 1976 NHL entry draft, Carlyle sparked a bidding war between the Leafs and the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association. Alternating between Toronto and its farm club in Dallas over the next two seasons, he clashed with Neilson in both cities over his rushing style. “Roger was always on his ass,” teammate Jim McKenny told the Globe and Mail in 2014. “Roger would give him hell about going with the puck.” Though not Neilson’s ideal player, Carlyle gained much knowledge from him, and would later use Neilson’s drills during his own coaching career.

Meanwhile, the financially shaky Pittsburgh Penguins shopped around star defenceman Dave Burrows. A GTA native and two-time all-star, Burrows was one of the best skaters in the league during his seven-year stint in Pittsburgh. Burrows compensated for a modest physical presence with skill, especially agility and speed, making him the sort of player a Stanley Cup contender desired. Never mind that injuries he suffered during the 1977/78 season were cited as a factor in the Penguins’ failure to reach the playoffs.

Negotiations to bring Burrows to Toronto began after the Leafs were eliminated from the Stanley Cup race. Penguins general manager Baz Bastein wanted Carlyle, who was impressive filling in for Borje Salming during the playoffs. “Carlyle is the one guy who had to be involved or there wouldn’t have been any trade,” he told the Pittsburgh Press after the deal was announced on June 13, 1978. Besides Carlyle, the Penguins received forward George Ferguson, who observers believed had never reached his scoring potential over six seasons with the Leafs.

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Globe and Mail, November 4, 1978.

Burrows welcomed the news. “Toronto is on the way up and I feel they have a lot of direction there,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He appreciated the Leafs’ efforts to build for the future, as opposed to Pittsburgh’s panic-driven trades. Asked about the differences between fans in both cities, Burrows was blunt: “In Pittsburgh, the people who criticized hockey didn’t know anything about hockey. But here, if you play bad, you’re not fooling anybody. You can’t hide it. I don’t think I could have come to any better team, but if playing in Toronto goes to your head, it could be the worst thing that ever happens to you.”

Carlyle learned about the deal while dining at a Chinese restaurant in the Sudbury area. Sore feelings and questioning why it happened troubled Carlyle for years. “It hurt,” he told the Star in 2013. “It’s an empty feeling that someone doesn’t want you.” He suspected that his wild lifestyle and ego might have played contributing roles.

Some Toronto sports pundits felt that the Leafs had, along with the acquisition of tough guy Dave Hutchison from the Los Angeles Kings, built a champion. “The Leafs might just have traded themselves into the Stanley Cup final,” declared the Globe and Mail’s Scott Young. Regarding the price of losing Carlyle, Young noted that “a young defence is a luxury not many Stanley Cup contenders can afford, if there’s a way to trade future potential for experience combined with excellence. That description fits Burrows.”

When both teams opened the season in Pittsburgh on October 11, 1978, Burrows received a standing ovation. He aided his new team with two assists in a 3-2 Leafs victory. It was among the few highlights for Burrows that season; he sat out 15 games after stretching his knee ligaments in a collision with Bob Dailey of the Philadelphia Flyers. He admitted near the end of the campaign that, following the injury, his confidence and timing weren’t up to par.

The following season (1979/80), Burrows played a full 80-game schedule and participated in the NHL All-Star game as a replacement for Salming. The team’s promise vanished due to a series of spiteful, misguided trades by new general manager Punch Imlach. Injuries hampered Burrows at the beginning of the 1980/81 season, while a series of acquisitions left him the odd man out on defence. “I’m happy to go somewhere I’m wanted and somewhere I like,” he told the Pittsburgh Press after being traded back to the Penguins on November 18, 1980 with Paul Gardner for two non-entities. Burrows retired following the season.

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1980/81 O-Pee-Chee hockey cards.

The players the Penguins acquired for Burrows in 1978 prospered. Ferguson scored at least 20 goals for four seasons in a row. Carlyle achieved the potential Toronto saw in him, capping the 1980/81 season by winning the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman. During the award ceremony, presenter Larry Robinson cracked about the success ex-Leafs enjoyed in Pittsburgh (which included Lady Byng Trophy winner Rick Kehoe). Referencing Toronto owner Harold Ballard, Robinson joked “Baz Bastien wants to meet with you after the awards luncheon, Harold. He wants to know if you’ve got anyone else you’d like to trade.”

Reflecting on the trade, Carlyle felt it ultimately benefitted his career. “It was depressing,” he told the Star in 1980, “but, in view of everything that’s gone on since, I now feel the Leafs did me a favour. I really question whether I’d be at the stage I’ve reached if I’d stayed in Toronto.” He remained active as a player until retiring as a member of the Winnipeg Jets in 1993.

Additional material from the June 15, 1978, September 8, 1978, October 12, 1978, June 10, 1981, and March 3, 2014 editions of the Globe and Mail; the June 14, 1978 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; the June 14, 1978 and November 19, 1980 editions of the Pittsburgh Press; and the April 4, 1979, December 4, 1980, and April 13, 2013 editions of the Toronto Star.

Pat Quinn’s Greatest Hit

Originally published on Torontoist on November 25, 2014.

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Globe and Mail, April 3, 1969.

“By National Hockey League standards he is slow and a trifle awkward,” was the Globe and Mail’s assessment of rookie Maple Leafs defenceman Pat Quinn in December 1968. “But Paddy or Lurch, nicknames his teammates have given him, is tough, honest, and is always digging away. He doesn’t possess the surplus talent that would allow him to play it easy.”

Decades before serving as the team’s head coach and general manager, Quinn, who passed away Sunday at age 71, spent two seasons as a rugged Leafs blueliner. The highlight of his Toronto playing career was a big hit that levelled a star player and caused a near-riot.

After missing the playoffs the previous year, the Leafs faced the Boston Bruins in the 1969 quarterfinals. The opening match at Boston Garden on April 2, 1969 was a fiasco. The Bruins won 10-0, but not before both teams racked up 38 penalties totalling 132 minutes, of which the Leafs earned 76.

During the first period, Bruins fans chanted “Get Quinn” in reference to a recent incident. During a March 15 match, Quinn cross-checked Bruins star Bobby Orr into the Leafs’ goalposts. Orr wrestled Quinn to the ice. Both received major penalties for their transgressions, and Quinn injured his groin.

Late in the second period, with the Bruins up 6-0, Orr rushed down the ice along the boards and lost the puck in his skates. While Orr’s head was down, Quinn nailed him with a hard elbow check that knocked the Bruin out cold.

The hometown crowd erupted in anger. While Orr left the ice for examination, someone tossed a shoe at Quinn as he headed to the penalty box. When Quinn sat down, fans splashed their drinks on him. Five minutes of chaos followed as Quinn and his teammates swung their sticks at the crowd. After police moved in to break it up, the glass shattered, and when Quinn was escorted to the dressing room, Bruins loyalists leaned over the police escort to punch him. They spat, swung their coats, and called him an “animal.”

NHL referee-in-chief Scotty Morrison praised the police officer in charge. “I understand he lost his false teeth in the scuffle and was cut around the mouth from the shattered glass,” he told the Toronto Star. “It was an ugly scene but would have been much worse if the police had not acted promptly.” Another officer, who wished to remain anonymous, felt Quinn should have been removed immediately after the hit, given the Boston fans’ lack of tolerance for anyone touching Orr.

“It was a nice clean check,” Quinn told the Star. “Maybe the people thought it was dirty. But like I said, I like to hit.” Quinn denied that he had delivered the hit in retaliation for losing the March fight to Orr, and said he hadn’t intended to injure him. Bruins coach Harry Sinden felt the blame was partly Orr’s: “When you get your head down in this league you have to expect those lumps.” Orr was sent to hospital and diagnosed with a possible concussion.

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Globe and Mail, April 3, 1969.

Bruins president Weston Adams, Jr. feared that fans would kill Quinn. “If they were smart they’d never play Quinn again in Boston,” he told the Globe and Mail. “I was afraid something like this might happen.” Sinden and Bruins general manager Milt Schmidt advised their players to ignore Quinn in order to avoid further ugliness.

When Orr was released from hospital the next day, hours before game two, he headed to the team’s hotel. There he had an encounter that confirmed Adams’s fears.

As I entered the lobby, a rather tough looking “gentleman,” for lack of a better word, walked up to me. I had no idea how he found out where we were staying. To this day, I don’t know who he was or what his affiliations were. However, as he came up beside me, he asked, in a very low voice, “Do you want me to take care of Pat Quinn?” It was kind of a scary moment, because the look in his eyes and his general demeanour made me think the guy meant to do some serious damage. I looked back at him and said “No thanks … I’ll take care of him myself.” He walked away and that was the end of it.

Orr played two periods that night before a lingering headache made him skip the final 20 minutes. While there were chants of “We want Quinn,” none were menacing. Six policemen accompanied Quinn to the penalty box when he got into some on-ice mischief. They moved aside quickly after a fan pointed out that Quinn had more protection than the president of the United States. Orr told the press he had no intention of retaliating; when asked if he thought the incident itself had been an act of retaliation, he said, grinning, “Who knows?”

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1969/70 O-Pee-Chee hockey card.

The Leafs lost the second game 7-0. They dropped the remaining two games of the series, during the last of which Orr and Quinn shook hands. Leafs coach and general manager Punch Imlach was dismissed immediately after the sweep. Quinn remained with Toronto until he was claimed by the Vancouver Canucks in the 1970 expansion draft.

Memories of the Orr-Quinn collision lingered on. The game was the first future Star columnist Rosie DiManno watched in full, and it stayed with her decades later.

That encounter, on that night, resonates still down through the years, as something more than a mere game, even a playoff game. It was war. It was hideously unfair combat: the pitifully aging Leafs; the swaggering, virile Bruins.

Yet there was Quinn, fearless and defiant and far beyond his best-before date. Blood on his face, as disheveled as a brush-cut would allow, and not giving an inch.

Additional material from Orr: My Story by Bobby Orr (Toronto: Viking, 2013); the December 9, 1968, April 3, 1969, and April 4, 1969 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the March 17, 1969, April 3, 1969, and June 25, 1998 editions of the Toronto Star.

Toronto by Newsreel

Originally published on Torontoist on April 24, 2014.

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Newsreel and press photographers, Queen’s Park, 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8012.

Before videographers, there were newsreel photographers. Carting their boxy cameras around, they roved the city, covering the top events of the day, racing to disasters, and hunting for oddball human interest stories that would amuse audiences. In their heyday, services like The March of TimeMovietone News, and Pathé News brought the richness of the world to neighbourhood movie theatres.

Last week, British Pathé announced it had uploaded its entire film collection to its YouTube channel. Shot between 1896 and 1976, the 85,000 clips cover a huge range of material dealing with everything from the World Wars to clubs dedicated to waistcoats. Now that they’re easily accessible, you can count on hours of time being gloriously wasted, especially by history buffs.

Given the vast amount of material needed to fill newsreels each week and our city’s ties to the British Empire, it’s not surprising the collection boasts a few Toronto-centric items. Type “Toronto” into the search field and you’ll find royal visits, salutes to home-grown Nobel Prize winnersparades in old Chinatownentertainment for patients in iron lungs, and beauty parlours for dogs. (Some of the related descriptions are quite amusingly matter-of-fact: footage of Nathan Phillips Square from 1969, for example, is called “two semi-circular office blocks with waterfall in front.”)

Here are just a few of the clips that caught our eye.

The Prince of Wales in Canada (1919)

While this film covers the future King Edward VIII’s cross-Canada visit in August 1919, the last four minutes (starting at the 10:30 mark) highlight his stop in Toronto. The Prince attended the Canadian National Exhibition on August 25 and told a luncheon crowd that he was delighted to visit the city he’d heard such good things about from Canadian soldiers. “It seemed to me that a lot of them came from this great city, and I know no finer soldiers or better friends.” He promised that he would do his best “to be worthy of Canada’s friendship and of Canada’s trust.”

Other stops shown in the clip include Queen’s Park (“the Parliament Buildings”) and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.

The Super Test (1924)

At first glance, it might seem as if this footage of motorcycles failing to conquer a steep incline is the 1920s equivalent of a “fail” video. But there was good reason for all the fumbling—the cyclists were dealing with slippery conditions on a 70-per-cent grade.

These early motorsport enthusiasts had gathered at the ravine by Bloor and Parliament streets on April 19, 1924, for the Toronto Motorcycle Club’s annual “hill climb.” That day, Canadian motorcycle champion Morris “Steamer” Moffatt avenged his loss of the previous year, powering up the hill in nine seconds flat. “American riders present claim the hill used is unequalled for this purpose,” observed the Globe. “The course was well roped off and the police gave splendid protection to both spectators and riders. Not an accident marred the day.”

We can only imagine the kind of complaints that would be generated if someone tried to recreate the event today.

Hooray—We Can Win Something! (1926)

The caption writer was on the ball when it came to this story about the April 29, 1926, home opener for the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball squad. The game marked the opening of Maple Leaf Stadium, which took only five months to build. Fans witnessed an exciting last-minute comeback by the home team against the Reading Keystones. Down 5-0 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, and just as patrons were starting to leave, the Leafs suddenly tied the game. Victory came in the bottom of the tenth, when Del Capes’s bunt allowed Herman Layne to run into home.

The 1926 Maple Leafs captured the International League title with 109 wins, then defeated the Louisville Colonels in the Junior World Series. The team actually included more future hockey hall of famers (Lionel Conacher and Babe Dye, though the latter was traded soon after opening day) than baseball stars (New York Giants pitching great Carl Hubbell).

Let’s All Be Young for a Few Moments! (1931)

Some things in Toronto never change. Arguments over the waterfront. Debates over another downtown subway line. Upside-down clowns at the Santa Claus Parade.

The 1931 edition of the holiday staple, held on November 14 that year, was loaded with bizarre floats and balloons that seemed poised to attack onlookers. Among the cartoon celebrities that took part in the procession were Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse. The Star also mentioned the presence of “Woofus the Tiger,” but we have no clue who he was. Blackface radio stars Amos ‘n’ Andy were also represented.

Santa’s ride that year began at Geary and Bartlett, then headed down Hallam, Ossington, Bloor, Queen’s Park, and University, before arriving at Toyland at Eaton’s Queen Street. He was scheduled to greet kids at the store from 2 to 4 that afternoon.

Toronto (1939)

The Miss Toronto beauty contest ran from 1926 until 1992, shortly after city council voted to ban the City Hall portion of the event. The year 1939 marked the third year the contest was sponsored by the Amateur Police Athletics Association, which made it part of its annual Police Games at the CNE grounds. During the late 1930s, “real girls” were encouraged to enter, and all makeup other than lipstick was forbidden.

Nan Morris, who won the title on July 8, 1939, fit the bill. A Star headline described her as neither “jitterbug” nor “glamour girl.” Initially, she claimed she was single, but a front-page story a few days later revealed she had been married to her childhood sweetheart for three years. Even though married women were allowed to participate, Morris assumed public knowledge of her status would hurt her chances.

No scandal ensued. “I wondered how long it would be before you chaps would be catching up with me,” her husband Jack joked to the Star. “As long as you don’t start calling me ‘Mr. Toronto,’ though, I don’t mind.” He admitted that he didn’t know she’d entered the contest but said, “I’m mighty glad she won. Those judges and I both know how to pick them.”

By the way—the man draping Nan Morris with her sash? Mayor Ralph Day.

Ice Hockey (1948)

Given the eternal disappointment Toronto hockey fans have grown accustomed to, it’s refreshing to find footage that proves our team was once a contender. As the 1947-48 NHL season wound down, the Maple Leafs had their eye on both first place in the league and the Stanley Cup: they won both.

The game shown here was played in front of 13,874 fans at Maple Leaf Gardens on February 28, 1948. Sportswriters praised both teams for their wide-open, end-to-end play. The game also featured the unusual sight of Leafs centre Syl Apps, known for being a gentlemanly player who served as Ontario Athletic Commissioner on the side, flattening Chicago Black Hawks defenceman Ralph Nattrass. The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond dubbed Apps the “undefeated wrestling champion of the NHL.”

The corniest and most tortured headline—inspired by the play of Black Hawks goalie Emile “The Cat” Francis—came courtesy of the Star: “MUCH ADO-ING ABOUT PUCK WHICH ‘THE CAT’ HAS ‘MOUSED!’”

Additional material from Baseball’s Back in Town by Louis Cauz (Toronto: Controlled Media Corporation, 1977); the April 18, 1924 edition of the Globe; the March 1, 1948 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the August 25, 1919, November 14, 1931, July 10, 1939, July 11, 1939, and March 1, 1948 editions of the Toronto Star.

Field Trip: Going to Ann Arbor for the Winter Classic

Originally published on Torontoist on December 23, 2013.

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Michigan Stadium. Photo courtesy Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, via Creative Commons.

When the puck drops for the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, some Toronto hockey fans will watch the outdoor match between the Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings from the comfort of home, possibly as they recover from the morning after the night before. Others may head to their favourite sports bar to catch the action. And some might even be five hours to our west, sitting in Michigan Stadium with over 100,000 other fans.

While the lead-up to the game includes tie-in festivities in downtown Detroit, fans headed to the annual event should set aside time to explore the non-hockey side of “A2.”

Let’s make one thing clear: Ann Arbor is not Detroit. Its geographic positioning is comparable to Guelph’s with Toronto: it’s a university-centric city of 114,000 just under an hour west of the region’s focal point. There’s no ruin porn—the closest might be the ghosts of the Borders bookstore chain once based there, and those are fading.

The University of Michigan is the heart of the city, and nearly 39,000 students attend its local campuses—don the school’s maize and blue colours, and you’ll feel right at home. Michigan Stadium, aka “The Big House,” buzzes during fall weekends when the Wolverines play at home. The stadium has held up to 115,000 for football games, which was part of its attraction to the NHL. Expect tailgate parties.

Heading into downtown along State Street, the size of U of M’s athletic facilities gradually shrinks, and soon you’ll see frat houses with front-yard beach volleyball courts. The hub of the U of M campus lies in “the Diag,” a large open space east of State used as a shortcut between the surrounding libraries and lecture halls. Legend has it that freshmen who step on the brass “M” embedded in the middle of the Diag will fail their first exam. It’s uncertain whether this curse applies to students from other institutions of higher learning, so probably best just to watch your step.

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From Zingerman’s Delicatessen: the #67, Jon & Amy’s Double Dip, with corned beef and pastrami.

The downtown area offers a diverse range of dining options to satisfy both meat-eaters and vegetarians. Most bars and restaurants are located on or close to Main, Liberty, State, and Washington streets. Worth a trip to the north end of the core is Zingerman’s Delicatessen. From a small deli which opened 30 years ago, Zingerman’s has grown into a foodie empire. Though it boasts bakeries, creameries, a mail order service, and a full-service restaurant elsewhere the city, the original location at 422 Detroit Street remains its heart. Zingerman’s is not cheap—expect to drop $12 to $16 for a sandwich and pickle—but the high quality and decent portions are worth it. Recent renovations have diminished the cramped chaos of the ordering area, and will make time your there more comfortable—and while waiting for your order, you can check out the baked goods and gourmet groceries. Ask for samples of anything they carry onsite, from salads in the cold case to blow-your-paycheque bottles of vinegar.

A block west of Zingerman’s is the Kerrytown shopping complex (407 N. Fifth Avenue), which includes specialty food merchants, stationers, and other boutiques. We’re drawn to Found, which mixes home décor items, ephemera, and products made with recycled materials. Ancient flash cards, found photos, Depression-era astrology magazines, and bracelets made from old typewriter keys are among the changing selection of items.

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Front window of Encore Records. Photo by Vasenka Photography via Creative Commons.

Music lovers can stop at Encore Records (417 E. Liberty Street), which seems to carry every recorded format ever invented—we’ve spotted piano rolls and wax cylinders. Records and CDs are stuffed into narrow but well-organized aisles. On past visits, we’ve gawked at the towers of incoming material at the cash register, wondering how staff aren’t accidentally buried alive in discs. Unless you’re looking for a specific album, we recommend you leave plenty of browsing time.

Other downtown attractions include two historic movie theatres (the Michigan and the State), a community arts centre, and the Gerald Ford presidential library. On weekends, a farmers’ market operates next to Kerrytown—please avoid the temptation, though, to smuggle produce across the border. Warmer months offer a better feel for the city, when it lives up to the “Tree Town” nickname it received thanks to its dense green canopy. Summer is an ideal time to explore the scenic Huron River, relax on a downtown patio, or take in the annual Ann Arbor Art Fair. Fall tree colours are spectacular, and best experienced by way of drives west through Dexter and the bizarrely-named Hell, or east along the river to Ypsilanti.

If you’re driving to the game, shuttle service will be provided from sites around the city. New Year’s Eve will be celebrated with “The Puck Drops Here,” a six-hour party downtown, which will close off Main Street. The local tourist bureau has compiled a list of some restaurants and stores open on New Year’s Day.

The puck certainly will drop in Ann Arbor, but this city also has much to offer non-hockey-minded visitors and those hockey fans in need of diversion.

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…