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culture

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

Forty-five years ago today, the Leafs won the Stanley Cup. Here's some of what's happened since.

Excerpt, the 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.

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.

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 Clark, Russ Courtnall, Vincent Damphousse, Al Iafrate, and Gary Nylund emerged.

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.


See also:

The Saga of the Maple Leafs’ Futility: Part Two

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).

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