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culture

The Saga Of The Maple Leafs’ Futility (Part Two)

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

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When Steve Stavro finally gained control of the Maple Leafs, following the death of Harold Ballard in 1990, his life had been an unequivocal success. After leaving Macedonia when he was seven, he followed in his father’s footsteps, opening a chain of grocery stores around the GTA. A noted philanthropist, he was instrumental in the soccer community, bred racehorses, and was about to become a member of the Order of Canada. But for Leafs fans, there was one abject failure on his resume that could only have been viewed as incongruously ominous: in 1962, Stavro’s grocery store, Knob Hill Farms, sponsored a hockey team in the Metro Junior A League. Following the season, both the team and the league folded.

Despite objections from Stavro, the Leafs hired Cliff Fletcher as general manager, a decision that would prove to be very wise. It didn’t take Fletcher long to make an impact, in part by working out a blockbuster 10-player deal with the Flames. It’s often said that the winner of any sports trade is the team that ends up with the best player, and Fletcher had secured just that in Doug Gilmour. In 1992-93, Gilmour set a franchise record with 127 points, and with help from the breakout goaltending of Felix Potvin and the late-season addition of Dave Andreychuk, he brought the team closer to the Stanley Cup than they have ever been since.

That season, following back-to-back seven-game series against the Red Wings and Blues, the Leafs squared off with the Kings in a conference final that will always be a thorn in the sides of Toronto fans. There were fireworks from the start, with infamous enforcer Marty McSorley delivering a nasty hit on Gilmour in game one, inciting all-out mayhem that culminated in Leafs coach Pat Burns attempting to climb across the bench to confront his Kings’ counterpart, Barry Melrose. With the Leafs leading the series three to two, a missed call in overtime—Wayne Gretzky drew blood on a high stick to Gilmour’s face—would prove to be costly when Gretzky scored the game-winner moments later. The Great One would go on to net a hat trick in the deciding game, during what he has since called the greatest game of his life. In 1996, Gretzky expressed a desire to defect to Toronto instead of his eventual landing spot in New York, but that deal would ultimately be vetoed by Stavro.

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From there, it was a slow descent into mediocrity. After losing again in the conference finals the following season—this time to the Canucks in only five games—the Leafs packaged a deal that shipped Wendel Clark to the Nordiques and got them Mats Sundin in return. This didn’t result in the expected immediate dividends, as they never won more than two games in a row in 1994-95. Also, an ugly 3-16-3 stretch in January and February of 1996 precipitated the firing of Pat Burns. The Leafs missed the playoffs for the first time in five years, and Fletcher traded Gilmour as one of his last orders of business before he himself left the team.

In 1996, Stavro entered into a partnership with Larry Tanenbaum, forming Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. The move to the Air Canada Centre in 1999 ushered in the era of head coach Pat Quinn, which was characterized by impressive regular seasons and perennial playoff underachieving. Under Quinn, with Curtis Joseph between the pipes, Sundin lighting up the scoreboard and Tie Domi dishing out vigilante justice, the franchise garnered its first ever 100-point season in 2000 and made the playoffs for six straight years. The end result was two conference finals lost and a deep, abiding hatred of frequent playoff ousters the New Jersey Devils and their frustratingly effective clutch-and-grab style. In 2003, Steve Stavro stepped down as chairman of MLSE in favor of Tanenbaum, receiving as a parting gift his own luxury box that displaced some disabled children. Hockey went dark in 2004 with a lockout, and if Toronto knew what was in store for them over the course of the next seven years, they may not have wanted it to return.

Pat Quinn remained in 2005, but even a respectable 90-point season wasn’t enough to qualify the team for the playoffs or to enable him to keep his job. With an aging Sundin and an unproven supporting cast under new coach Paul Maurice, the Leafs failed to crack the post-season for two more years despite a guarantee from Maurice to accomplish just that in 2007. As expected, he was promptly fired, just like his porous goalie Andrew Raycroft and many others. Fans bid a less welcome goodbye to the soon-to-be retiring Sundin, another deserving athlete robbed of his chance at a championship win.

On paper, the tandem of general manager Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson appeared to be a swell idea. Burke blew into town full of bluster, speaking of truculence and then demonstrating his intentions by challenging other GMs to fights in barns. And yet, the product he put on the ice in 2009, his first full season, finished dead last in the conference. The acquisitions of defenseman Dion Phaneuf and forward Phil Kessel have proven to be worthwhile, but one wonders if the cost may have been too steep. Signs of incremental improvement in 2011 did not carry over to this past season, leading to a mob mentality that forced Burke’s hand in dismissing Wilson.

And now, here we are, not a taste of the playoffs since 2004, wondering once again how to right the ship. Ask any fan in the city and they will have a detailed plan for success—sturdier defense, a veteran goalie, speedy Europeans, or bruising fighters that will teach opponents a lesson. Toronto is teeming with folks that are, above all else, tired of losing. They are demanding not the apologies that they have been given, but only an immediate honest-to-goodness winner. If that seems unreasonable or irrational, such is the nature of these things. Fair or unfair, rabid fan-bases don’t much care how you do it, just that it gets done.


See also:

The Saga of the Maple Leafs’ Futility: Part One

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