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…

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Vintage Toronto Ads: Tracking the Maple Leafs, 1970s Style

Originally published on Torontoist on April 3, 2012.

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Green Lantern/Green Arrow #93, February-March 1977.

How we imagine this magnetic hockey scoreboard was used: depending on newspaper delivery time, a dedicated young fan grabbed the sports section while drinking rich, chocolatey Ovaltine for breakfast, or after school. He flipped to the standings, noted any changes, then rushed over to the fridge to update his beloved board. Once the magnets had been moved, he retired to his room to read his comic books.

Producing a magnet set and standings board for the 1976/77 NHL season would have been a last-minute scramble, thanks to two off-season franchise shifts. While one move had already been resolved when today’s ad went to press (the California Golden Seals became the Cleveland Barons), the fate of the Kansas City Scouts was still “undetermined.” The magnet designer may have had insider information or great prognostication skills, as the Scouts utilized a triangle-shaped logo in their new guise as the Colorado Rockies.

Also accurately predicted was the Maple Leafs’ resting spot for 1976/77: third place in the Adams Division, with a regular-season record just over the .500 mark (33 wins, 32 losses, 15 ties). For the second season in a row, the Leafs fell in the Stanley Cup quarterfinals to the Philadelphia Flyers. (Unlike the previous season, coach Red Kelly didn’t use “pyramid power” to rally his players.) Kelly’s contract ran out following the team’s playoff exit, and his fate was unresolved for two months. That he aggravated old neck and back injuries prior to the playoffs and sat in traction for part of the post-season muddied matters. Ultimately he was not rehired and Roger Neilson assumed coaching duties.

Ron Wilson’s Recent Departure From the Leafs Was Not His First

Originally published on Torontoist on March 5, 2012.

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Imagining a 1979/80 Ron Wilson hockey card (the only suitable picture I could find at the time was black & white).

Friday’s firing of Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson marked the second time the organization has let Wilson go. The first time was not accompanied by catcalls or media pressure to leave the team—it was barely acknowledged, if at all. Wilson’s first departure was as a player, following a frustrating season that included injuries, limited playing time, and a personal loss.

As the 1979/80 season approached, Leafs publicity director Stan Obadiac penned a coffee table book spotlighting the year to come. While the book was full of hope, the Leafs were descending into chaos. Following poorly executed dismissals of coach Roger Neilson and general manager Jim Gregory, owner Harold Ballard hired Punch Imlach, who had coached Toronto’s Stanley Cup winners during the 1960s, to run the club. Over the next two seasons, Ballard and Imlach dismantled a promising team, as feuds with stars like Darryl Sittler lowered clubhouse morale and resulted in one of the worst trades in team history (dispatching Lanny McDonald and Joel Quenneville to the Colorado Rockies to spite Sittler). Ten straight seasons of sub-.500 play ensued.

Wilson, like his teammates, had a two-page spread in the coffee table book. Entering his third season with the Leafs, he was praised for his smarts. According to new coach Floyd Smith, quoted in the book, Wilson was “a very intelligent hockey player and he moves the puck exceptionally well for a defenceman and he shoots well. If there is a drawback, it’s his size. He has all the natural skills and ability.” Wilson had good hockey genes—his father, Larry, played in the NHL during the 1950s and briefly coached the Detroit Red Wings, while uncle Johnny was an All-Star player with Detroit, then coached the Pittsburgh Penguins during the late 1970s.

Each player responded to a questionnaire. Among Wilson’s responses:

Sports celebrity pro and con: “Celebrity? I kind of like it all. But there’s a lot of pressure put on you by the public to win. Of course you want to, but people do put a lot of pressure on you, especially in Toronto because it’s such a hockey city. Otherwise, I enjoy the attention because I realize that I’m only going to get it here for a few years. When I was growing up, Dave Keon was my hero, then Bobby Orr. Now I wear 14, which was Keon’s number, so that’s a really big thrill for me.”

Are you superstitious as a hockey player? “Yeah, I am a little superstitious. Before each game and period I always whack the goalie three times on the pads. I’ll eat the same meals if I had a good game before, but I’m not like guys who wear the same clothes. Last year I had a four-leaf clover stuffed in my glove for a while, but I lost it.”

Favourite books, films, TV, music: Mystery novels are Wilson’s favourites. Since he was an economics major in college, and hopes to work on an MBA in the next couple of years, he brushes up on that subject by reading texts. “I go to every movie that comes out, especially on the road. I saw The Deer Hunter twice. I’ll go see anything, as long as it’s entertaining.” Quincy is his favourite television show and Ron watches all sporting events. He listens to Doobie Brothers and Beach Boys records and catches the occasional repertory theatre in Providence, Rhode Island [Wilson attended college there with current Leafs GM Brian Burke and pursued post-graduate work in economics during the off-season] .

Personal goals for the 1979-80 season and future in hockey: “I’d like to be able to play a regular shift. I wouldn’t set any goal-scoring or point-scoring goals for myself. I just want to play a lot to give myself a chance to score 15 or 20 goals. As far as the team’s concerned, getting up to first place is a goal. I’ll just play until I stop enjoying it. If I don’t play a lot this year or next year I may hang up the game because it’s no fun sitting on the bench. I like the action.”

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Goalie Mike Palmateer stares out from the cover of The Toronto Maple Leafs 1979/1980.

Wilson received few shifts with the Leafs in 1979/80. Prior to training camp, his father died of a heart attack. A pre-season knee injury sidelined him during the fall, followed by a cracked cheekbone and cracked thumb. He spent most of the year with the Leafs’ farm in Moncton, New Brunswick, where along with the other prospects he grumbled about lack of playing time and moves by Imlach that blocked call-ups to Toronto, like the signing of 41-year-old defenceman Carl Brewer after half-a-decade of retirement. “I think I’m being phased out,” Wilson told the Star in December 1979. “I haven’t even got a line anymore. I want to be traded like everyone else.”

It was an injury to Brewer, along with other limping defencemen, that led to Wilson’s return to the Leafs on March 28, 1980. “I felt like a little kid again when I got the call,” he told the Star. “After a while in the minors, you start to get the feeling you don’t figure in the big team’s plans, that you’ve been forgotten.” Wilson played five regular season games and three playoff games, scoring one goal and four assists. Following the Leafs’ early exit from the playoffs, Wilson was sent back to the New Brunswick Hawks for a championship run that saw the team lose the Calder Cup final.

With little fanfare, Wilson left the Leafs organization and played several years in Switzerland before returning to the NHL with the Minnesota North Stars during the 1984/85 season. Nearly 30 years passed before he returned to the Leafs as their coach. However his second stint with the team would go, it was certain that it wouldn’t end as quietly as the first one.

Additional material from The Toronto Maple Leafs 1979/1980 by Stan Obodiac (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979), and the December 15, 1979 and March 30 1980, editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Find the Puck

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New Liberty, October 1948.

Can you help Maple Leafs Hall of Fame goalie Turk Broda find the puck before the Boston Bruins offense does?

Launched in 1932 as the Canadian edition of an American general interest publication known for providing readers with the estimated amount of time required to read each article, Liberty magazine was purchased by Jack Kent Cooke and Roy Thomson in 1946. Briefly renamed New Liberty, the publication adopted a sensationalist tone that increased its circulation (the cover story for the edition today’s ad appeared in promised to tell “the truth about margarine”). Thomson sold his share of the magazine in 1948 when it appeared profits were nowhere on the horizon, but Cooke persevered and managed to make a little money from Liberty during the 1950s as its focus shifted to chronicling showbiz personalities on both sides of the border. Cooke sold off “Canada’s young family magazine” in 1961 to new owners who let it limp along for three more years.

This game shot was likely taken during the 1947/48 hockey season, as the Leafs didn’t start the 1948/49 season until this issue was almost off the newsstands. Besides Broda, other Toronto players searching for the puck are Joe Klukay (number 17) and Bill Barilko (number 21; he switched to number 19 for the 1948/49 season, then to his eventually-retired number 5 before the 1950/51 season). It was a good era to be a Maple Leafs fan as, despite a losing record during the regular season, the 1948/49 squad became the first NHL team to win three consecutive Stanley Cups in a row.

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The answer, as shown in the December 1948 edition of New Liberty.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Hockey Night in the 1930s

Originally published on Torontoist on January 15, 2008.

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Toronto Star, December 3, 1937 (left), December 6, 1937 (right).

The rumour mill is swirling around the Maple Leafs this week, as a less-than-stellar season and mixed signals from club ownership lead to daily reports about the fate of the team’s management and captain. With all signs pointing to a third straight early vacation at season’s end, the team’s followers are steamed.

Fans 70 years ago may also have been frustrated with the club, though in their case the problem was a team that usually reached the Stanley Cup finals but couldn’t quite win Lord Stanley’s silverware. At least if the team lost, the TTC was there to offer a cheerful bow before a warm trip home.

Under the stewardship of coach Dick Irvin, the 1937/38 edition of the Leafs finished first in the Canadian Division, eight points ahead of the New York Americans. The NHL would drop its divisional structure after the season, when its active membership fell to seven teams after the Montreal Maroons suspended operations (the franchise initially asked for a year off, tried to relocate to St. Louis and officially folded after the 1938/39 season). The existence of the Maroons explains why the Montreal Canadiens are billed by their nickname in today’s ad, as other period game notices indicated the city the Leafs were up against.

The game in question resulted in a 3-3 tie, highlighted by a stick-swinging fight initiated by future Habs coach Toe Blake. The Toronto Daily Star’s headline two days later read “Leafs Draw With Canucks But Lose to Tough Mick.”

The major hiccup during the season was the loss of captain Charlie Conacher in November, due to a dislocated shoulder. Doctors urged Conacher to retire—he sat out the rest of the season, but would return to action with the Red Wings the following year. Leading scorers for the Leafs, and the league, were right winger Gordie Drillon (26 goals, 52 points) and center Syl Apps (21 goals, 50 points).

TTC conductors would have had a busy playoff season, as the Leafs fought their way past the league-leading Boston Bruins into the Stanley Cup finals. Transit authorities didn’t have to worry about a mass victory celebration as the Leafs lost the Cup on the road to the Chicago Black Hawks, a team that still holds the record for the lowest regular season winning percentage by a Cup holder (14 wins, 25 losses, 9 ties). The Leafs may have tempted the fates by rejecting calls for goaltending assistance by Chicago after Mike Karakas suffered a broken toe—legend has it that the Black Hawks approached veteran minor leaguer Alfie Moore while he was drinking in a Toronto bar. It was the fourth time the Leafs had gone down in the Cup finals since their last championship in 1932 and they would lose twice more before hoisting the Cup in 1942.