By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Sep. 1) – While the Maple Leafs are in the midst of their longest-ever playoff drought – a seven-season debacle with no apparent conclusion – veteran observers still contend that the Zenith of ineptitude was the Harold Ballard era.
As with most arguments, this one is purely subjective; the semantics of playoff qualification assuring that the Leafs of the 1970s and ’80s did not miss the Stanley Cup tournament for more than consecutive springs. So attainable were playoff berths in the 21-team NHL that a revoltingly bad Toronto side booked a reservation in 1987-88 with a record of 21-49-10 for 52 points – roughly 40 less than required to move beyond the regular season today. Comparisons, therefore, may not be valid.
What I can tell you, without equivocation, is how unique and refreshing it was to follow the Maple Leafs during the 1977-78 season – its 35th anniversary now imperiled by labor conflict. The best of the Ballard years featured an improbable playoff conquest of the New York Islanders and a berth in the Stanley Cup semifinals for the first time since the Leafs championship spring of 1967. It occurred under the guidance of rookie coach Roger Neilson, whose fervid dependence on video review – though liberally mocked at the time – was well ahead of the curve in game preparation.
Sparked by a nucleus of front-line talent that included Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull and Mike Palmateer, the 1977-78 Maple Leafs fashioned the most impressive 28-game start in club history: a 19-6-3 rampage that proved slightly a mirage, but carried the club to a top-six finish in the overall standings. Not for 15 years – until the iconic spring of 1993 – would the Leafs surpass their total of 92 points. Adhering strictly to Neilson’s defensive posture enabled a record of 41-29-10, and equaled the franchise single-season mark for victories.
NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE AND TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS ANNUALS, 1977-78.
In February of the 1977-78 season, I turned 19. I was in my senior year (or Grade 13) at William Lyon McKenzie Collegiate Institute in North York. Late in the summer of 1975, I had gone to Maple Leaf Gardens with my dad to select a pair of Leafs season tickets in the south mezzanine Blues: upper-balcony behind the goal Toronto defended in the first and third periods. I spent almost the entire ’77-78 home schedule watching the Leafs from that perch (37 of 40 games, to be exact) while maintaining a collection of newspaper stories and photos from the regular season and playoffs. Presented here, in the first of three parts, are pages from the scrapbooks I put together 35 years ago.
COVER OF THE TORONTO STAR TV GUIDE FROM OPENING WEEK OF THE 1977-78 SEASON.
Glancing through the articles, you will see by-lines of reporters and columnists that covered the Leafs in the late-’70s for the Toronto Star (Frank Orr, Jim Kernaghan, Milt Dunnell, Jim Proudfoot), Toronto Sun (John Iaboni, Rick Fraser, George Gross) and Globe and Mail (James Christie, Donald Ramsay, Scott Young). Given my future endeavor, these gentlemen were as important and meaningful as the athletes I watched on the ice; coming to know all of them in later years was a privilege.
Pasted alongside clippings and photos of home games are the corresponding ticket-stub – most from our season’s perch in the south Blues – but also from a terrific pair of Reds (Sec. 49, Row L) on the east side of the Gardens, up behind the Leafs bench, between the blue-line and center-ice. On one cherished occasion (Mar. 1, 1978 vs. Philadelphia), I sat in the Gold seats, near ice level, on the west side of the arena.
TICKET STUBS FROM 1977-78 SEASON AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS. NOTICE TOP PRICE FOR GOLDS – $13.50/SEAT. THAT MAY GET YOU A BEER RE-FILL TODAY AT AIR CANADA CENTRE.
You will notice, in these pages, the comparatively poor quality of photo reproduction. Virtually every newspaper image in 1977-78 was black-and-white; color photos were extremely rare and almost solely the domain of the Toronto Sun. The conventional sharpness and contrast of digital photography was still many years in the future.
Finally, you will notice No. 23 for the Leafs – a sophomore defenseman named Randy Carlyle. The Sudbury played 49 games in his second and final season with the Blue and White; he was traded to Pittsburgh (along with George Ferguson) for veteran blue-liner Dave Burrows on June 13, 1978. In 1980-81, Carlyle won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman after compiling 16 goals and 83 points for the Penguins.
Now, Part 1 of my scrapbook pages from the Leafs season, 35 years ago:
THU. OCT. 13, 1977: TORONTO at DETROIT
RED WINGS WERE STILL PLAYING IN THE DETROIT OLYMPIA; THEY WOULD MOVE INTO JOE LOUIS ARENA MIDWAY THROUGH THE 1979-80 SEASON. PAT BOUTETTE SCORED LEAFS FIRST GOAL OF 1977-78 ON DETROIT GOALIE JIM RUTHERFORD, NOW GM OF CAROLINA HURRICANES. RUTHERFORD’S BACK-UP WAS FORMER LEAF RON LOW. ROOKIE DEFENSEMAN TREVOR JOHANSEN PLAYED HIS FIRST GAME IN A TORONTO JERSEY, WEARING NO. 4.
SAT. OCT. 15, 1977: BUFFALO at TORONTO
AFTER A TWO-YEAR “RETIREMENT”, VETERAN RON ELLIS (ABOVE) RETURNED TO LEAFS IN ’77-78.
WED. OCT. 19, 1977: COLORADO at TORONTO
IN MY LATE-‘TEENS, I WAS QUITE INTO PHOTOGRAPHY, USING THE LAUNDRY-ROOM IN MY PARENTS’ HOUSE AS A MAKE-SHIFT “DARK ROOM” – WITH DIM-YELLOW LIGHTING AND TRAYS OF CHEMICALS REQUIRED TO DEVELOP PHOTOS. FOR THIS GAME AGAINST THE COLORADO ROCKIES, I SAT IN THE TERRIFIC RED SEATS I MENTIONED BETWEEN THE BLUE-LINE AND CENTER-ICE. I TOOK THE BOTTOM PHOTO (ABOVE) FROM THAT LOCATION, AS SWEDISH FORWARD INGE HAMMARSTROM SCORED ON EX-LEAF GOALIE DOUG FAVELL. HAMMARSTROM WOULD BE TRADED TO ST. LOUIS LESS THAN TWO WEEKS LATER FOR A MORE-RUGGED FORWARD, JERRY BUTLER. ROCKIES WERE INTO THEIR SECOND SEASON IN DENVER AFTER JOINING THE NHL AS THE KANSAS CITY SCOUTS IN 1974-75. THE FRANCHISE WOULD MOVE EAST AND BECOME THE NEW JERSEY DEVILS IN 1982-83.
PLAYERS IN THE ABOVE PHOTO WERE TRADED FOR ONE ANOTHER ON MAR. 13, 1979, WHEN LEAFS ACQUIRED PAUL GARDNER FROM THE ROCKIES FOR DEFENSEMAN TREVOR JOHANSEN.
ALSO DESTINED FOR COLORADO WAS LEAFS CENTER JACK VALIQUETTE (ABOVE) – TRADED TO THE ROCKIES FOR A SECOND-ROUND DRAFT PICK (GARY YAREMCHUK) ON OCT. 19, 1978.
SAT. OCT 22, 1977: PHILADELPHIA at TORONTO
AMONG THE RARE COLOR IMAGES IN THE NEWSPAPER WAS SPORTS COVER OF THE OCT. 23 TORONTO SUN (ABOVE) – ATOP ANOTHER OF MY PHOTOS, TAKEN FROM SEC. 30 IN THE SOUTH MEZZANINE BLUES.
SUN. OCT. 23, 1977: TORONTO at PHILADELPHIA
CONSECUTIVE ROMPS OVER PLAYOFF NEMESIS PHILADELPHIA IN THE SECOND WEEKEND OF THE ’77-78 SEASON RAISED MORE THAN A FEW EYEBROWS AMONG LEAF WATCHERS… AND OPPONENTS.
WED. OCT. 26, 1977: MONTREAL at TORONTO
THIS WAS A TERRIFIC GAME, AS MIKE PALMATEER BACKSTOPPED LEAFS TO A VALUABLE POINT AGAINST MONTREAL – IAN TURNBULL SCORING ON A SHOT FROM THE POINT WITH 1:24 REMAINING THAT DEFLECTED PAST KEN DRYDEN OFF THE STICK OF HABS’ DEFENSEMAN LARRY ROBINSON. CANADIENS WOULD FINISH THE ’77-78 SEASON WITH A REMARKABLE 59-10-11 RECORD AND WIN THEIR SECOND OF FOUR STRAIGHT CHAMPIONSHIPS.
SAT. OCT. 29, 1977: DETROIT at TORONTO
EASILY THE BEST ACTION PHOTO I TOOK IN MY ‘TEEN HOBBY DAYS: PUCK BULGING TWINE IN BACK OF MIKE PALMATEER, AS RANDY CARLYLE (23) AND DETROIT’S JOHN WRIGHT LOOK ON.
INGE HAMMARSTROM-JERRY BUTLER TRADE OF NOV. 1, 1977.
WED. NOV. 2, 1977: TORONTO at VANCOUVER
LEAFS JUMPED ALL OVER CESARE MANIAGO AND THE VANCOUVER CANUCKS IN THIS GAME – ERROL THOMPSON, PAT BOUTETTE AND LANNY McDONALD PROVIDING VISITORS A 3-0 LEAD BY 5:20 OF THE OPENING PERIOD.
IN 1977-78, LEAFS WEDNESDAY-NIGHT GAMES – HOME AND AWAY – WERE TELEVISED BY CHCH-TV IN HAMILTON (CHANNEL 11). THIS WAS A DELIGHTFUL CHANGE, AS THE CTV NETWORK HAD PREVIOUSLY OWNED RIGHTS TO THE MID-WEEK HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA PACKAGE – TELEVISING WEDNESDAY GAMES FROM EITHER MAPLE LEAF GARDENS OR THE MONTREAL FORUM. IF LEAFS WERE, SAY, IN PITTSBURGH AND DETROIT WAS PLAYING AT MONTREAL, A COAST-TO-COAST AUDIENCE IN CANADA WOULD SEE THE RED WINGS AND CANADIENS. IF THE HABS WERE OUT OF TOWN AND LEAFS WERE AT HOME, THE OPPOSITE WOULD PREVAIL. CTV’s NATIONAL ARRANGEMENT ENDED AFTER THE ’76-77 SEASON AND CHANNEL 11 PURCHASED THE TORONTO MID-WEEK PACKAGE. FOR THE FIRST TIME – IN ’77-78 – GAMES WERE SHOWN REGARDLESS OF WHERE THE LEAFS PLAYED. THIS PARTICULAR MATCH (ABOVE) BEGAN AT 11 P.M. EASTERN AT THE OLD PACIFIC COLISEUM IN VANCOUVER AND WAS INTERRUPTED BY A TECHNICAL MALFUNCTION, AS NOTED, BELOW, IN THE TORONTO STAR.
THU. NOV. 3, 1977: TORONTO at LOS ANGELES
A RARE LEAF LOSS IN THE FIRST 25 GAMES OF 1977-78 OCCURRED IN EARLY NOVEMBER AT THE FORUM IN INGLEWOOD, CALIF. LOS ANGELES KINGS – LED BY HALL-OF-FAMER MARCEL DIONNE – WORE GOLD JERSEYS, PANTS AND SOCKS AT HOME, WITH PURPLE STRIPING AND NUMBERS.
SAT. NOV. 5, 1977: TORONTO at COLORADO
PLAYING AT McNICHOLS ARENA IN DENVER, THE COLORADO ROCKIES HAD THE SAME APATHETIC FOLLOWING THAT PROMPTED THE CLUB TO RE-LOCATE FROM KANSAS CITY. WITH LEAFS AS THE OPPOSITION, HOWEVER, ROCKIES DREW THEIR TWO LARGEST CROWDS OF THE 1977-78 SEASON – 9,314 FOR THIS SATURDAY-NIGHT LOSS, AS FOURTH-LINE CHECKERS JIMMY JONES AND JERRY BUTLER CHIPPED IN OFFENSIVELY FOR THE VISITORS.
WED. NOV. 9, 1977: TORONTO at ATLANTA
HOW UNIQUE IT WAS FOR HOCKEY FANS IN TORONTO TO WATCH A GAME ON TV LIVE FROM THE OMNI IN ATLANTA. THOUGH THE FLAMES WERE IN THEIR SIXTH NHL SEASON, THIS WEDNESDAY-NIGHT ENCOUNTER MARKED THE FIRST-SUCH TELECAST FROM THE LEAGUE’S MOST SOUTHERLY OUTPOST. MIKE PALMATEER AND THE LEAFS EARNED A 4-0 SHUT-OUT.
FRI. NOV. 11, 1977: TORONTO at WASHINGTON
LEAFS CONTINUED THEIR EXCEPTIONAL, EARLY-SEASON ROAD TRIP AT THE CAPITAL CENTER IN LANDOVER, MD. – RON ELLIS SCORING TWICE IN A 3-1 VICTORY OVER WASHINGTON. LEAFS IMPROVED TO 8-2-2 AFTER 12 GAMES.
SAT. NOV. 12, 1977: TORONTO at MONTREAL
LEAFS WERE AMONG THE TOP SIX TEAMS IN THE NHL IN 1977-78 BUT COULD NOT PENETRATE THAT GROUP. REPEATED SET-BACKS AGAINST MONTREAL AND BOSTON WERE THE PRIME REASON.
WED. NOV. 16, 1977: WASHINGTON at TORONTO
IN THEIR FOURTH NHL SEASON, WASHINGTON CAPITALS WERE STILL A LAUGHINGSTOCK. THE CLUB WOULD WIN JUST 60 OF 320 GAMES DURING THAT SPAN, WHICH INCLUDED A 17-49-14 RECORD IN 1977-78. GARY (SUITCASE) SMITH BEGAN HIS NHL CAREER WITH THE LEAFS IN 1965 AND SET HIMSELF APART BY OCCASIONALLY STICK-HANDLING THE PUCK BEYOND CENTER-ICE. IN THE EARLY YEARS OF EXPANSION, SMITH HAD THE MISFORTUNE OF TENDING GOAL FOR THE OAKLAND SEALS. HE MAY ALSO BE THE ONLY PUCK-STOPPER IN LEAGUE ANNALS WITH BOTH NAMES SEWN ON THE BACK OF HIS JERSEY (ABOVE).
THU. NOV. 17, 1977: TORONTO at BUFFALO
LEAFS PLAYED “ROPE-A-DOPE” AT MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM IN BUFFALO BUT CAME AWAY WITH A HUGE WIN.
SAT. NOV. 19, 1977: BOSTON at TORONTO
THOUGH LEAFS WERE A PHYSICAL TEAM, THEY SIMPLY COULD NOT MATCH THE AGGRESSIVENESS AND TIMELY SCORING OF DON CHERRY’S BOSTON BRUINS IN 1977-78.
CHECK OUT THE NOTE (BELOW, SECOND PARAGRAPH) IN JIM PROUDFOOT’S SUNDAY TORONTO STAR COLUMN.
WED. NOV. 23, 1977: TORONTO at ST. LOUIS
WEDNESDAY-NIGHT TELECAST ON CHANNEL 11 FROM ST. LOUIS ARENA SHOWED LEAFS IN THEIR CLASSIC ROGER NEILSON POSTURE: GRAB A LEAD AWAY FROM HOME AND HANG ON FOR DEAR LIFE. IN THIS GAME, A GOAL BY RON ELLIS AT 17:41 OF THE SECOND PERIOD STOOD AS THE WINNER, EVEN THOUGH THE BLUES – EMERGING WITH A 4-12-3 RECORD – OUT-SHOT LEAFS 17-3 IN THE FINAL 20 MINUTES.
SAT. NOV. 26, 1977: WASHINGTON at TORONTO
TRAGICALLY FOR FANS AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS, THE WOEBEGONE WASHINGTON CAPITALS WERE BACK IN TOWN JUST 10 DAYS AFTER THEIR PREVIOUS APPEARANCE. EVEN THE TORONTO PLAYERS MUST HAVE GLAZED OVER, CONSIDERING A BLOWN 4-0 LEAD AT HOME AGAINST THE WORST TEAM ON THE PLANET. MY OLD PAL ‘KERNY’ SAID IT ALL IN THE TORONTO STAR (BELOW).
THIS GAME WAS PROBABLY WORTH THE 73 CENTS OF RESIDENT SALES TAX.
TUE. NOV. 30, 1977: CLEVELAND at TORONTO
ANOTHER TEAM THAT RE-LOCATED FRUITLESSLY WAS THE CLEVELAND BARONS – A TWO-SEASON NHL WONDER DECKED OUT IN RED, BLACK AND WHITE. FROM 1967-68 TO 1975-76, BARONS WERE THE CALIFORNIA / OAKLAND / BAY AREA / CALIFORNIA GOLDEN / SEALS. CONSTANT NAME-CHANGE REFLECTED APATHY TOWARD HOCKEY ON THE EAST SIDE OF SAN FRANCISCO BAY. EVEN WORSE WAS THE INDIFFERENCE IN RICHFIELD, OHIO – A VILLAGE SOUTH OF CLEVELAND AND NORTH OF AKRON. THERE STOOD A 20,000-SEAT BEHEMOTH (RICHFIELD COLISEUM). WHEN THE BARONS PLAYED, 16,500 SEATS WERE NORMALLY VACANT.
WED. NOV. 30, 1977: TORONTO at CLEVELAND
I REMEMBER WATCHING THIS GAME ON CHANNEL 11… AND LISTENING FOR THE ECHO IN RICHFIELD COLISEUM. ACCORDING TO THE ANNOUNCED ATTENDANCE, THERE WERE 16,070 EMPTY SEATS FOR THE LEAFS AND BARONS.
SAT. DEC. 3, 1977: DETROIT at TORONTO
AMONG THE BETTER PHOTOS FROM THE LEAFS 1977-78 SEASON WAS THE ABOVE IMAGE OF JERRY BUTLER “VISITING” DETROIT GOALIE ED GIACOMIN. JUST TEN MONTHS EARLIER – ALSO AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS – GIACOMIN AND JIM RUTHERFORD HAD BEEN VICTIMIZED BY LEAF DEFENSEMAN IAN TURNBULL, WHOSE FIVE GOALS IN A 9-1 ROUT OF DETROIT ARE STILL A LEAGUE-RECORD FOR MOST IN ONE GAME BY A DEFENSEMAN (FEB. 2, 1977).
SUN. DEC. 4: TORONTO at BOSTON
IN 1977-78, LEAFS WERE 0-5-1 AGAINST BOSTON; 41-24-9 AGAINST THE REST OF THE NHL.
THE NHL DOESN’T HAVE MANY CHARACTERS TODAY THE CALIBER OF “HOWIE” McKENNY.
WED. DEC. 7, 1977: MINNESOTA at TORONTO
MINNESOTA NORTH STARS JOINED THE NHL AS PART OF THE SIX-TEAM EXPANSION IN 1967-68 AND WERE DREADFUL IN THE ’77-78 SEASON (18-53-9). FOR 1978-79, THE STARS SWALLOWED UP (OR MERGED WITH) CLEVELAND BARONS. BOOSTED BY SUCH ADDITIONS AS AL MacADAM AND GOALIE GILLES MELOCHE, MINNESOTA APPEARED IN THE 1981 STANLEY CUP FINAL, BOWING IN FIVE GAMES TO THE DYNASTIC NEW YORK ISLANDERS.
FRI. DEC. 9, 1977: TORONTO at COLORADO
DARRYL SITTLER SPOILED THE EVENING FOR THE LARGEST-EVER NHL CROWD IN DENVER, SCORING WITH 2:22 REMAINING TO BREAK A 2-2 TIE AGAINST COLORADO ROCKIES.
SAT. DEC. 10, 1977: TORONTO at LOS ANGELES
NEARLY 35 YEARS LATER, MIKE PALMATEER – NOW A SCOUT WITH THE LEAFS – RECALLS ROGIE VACHON SENDING A CIGAR TO VISITORS’ DRESSING ROOM AT THE FORUM AFTER THIS SHUT-OUT PERFORMANCE.
WED. DEC. 14, 1977: NEW YORK ISLANDERS at TORONTO
FRI. DEC. 16, 1977: TORONTO at MINNESOTA
MAPLE LEAF ROOKIE FORWARDS BRUCE BOUDREAU AND JOHN ANDERSON – CURRENTLY HEAD COACH OF ANAHEIM DUCKS AND ASSISTANT COACH WITH PHOENIX COYOTES – WENT ON A TEAR DURING THIS FRIDAY-NIGHT ROMP AT THE MET CENTER IN BLOOMINGTON, MINNESOTA.
SAT. DEC. 17, 1977: CHICAGO at TORONTO
I REMEMBER GOING TO THIS GAME WITH A CLOSE BUDDY THAT WORSHIPED THE CHICAGO BLACK HAWKS. BY THE MIDWAY POINT OF THE MATCH, HE WAS LOOKING FOR A HOLE TO CRAWL INTO.
AFTER 28 GAMES OF THE 1977-78 SEASON, LEAFS WERE A SCINTILLATING 19-6-3 FOR 41 POINTS WHILE PLAYING IN THE MOST DIFFICULT NHL DIVISION. THE REMAINDER OF THE SCHEDULE WOULD BE A WASH FOR TORONTO – 22-23-7 IN 52 GAMES – BUT THE EXCELLENT FIRST-THIRD CARRIED THE TEAM TO A SIXTH-PLACE FINISH IN THE OVERALL STANDINGS.
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