By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Mar. 12) — Among the myriad issues debated throughout this frightful Toronto Maple Leafs season is ranking it amid the many–such disasters in team history. A subjective exercise, to be sure; much like rating the National Hockey League’s best–ever players. To have seen them all, one must now be among the eldest living humans — in the 110–year–old range. As such, we are left to consolidate those that we remember with the players we have read or been told about.
Same applies to the horror of Leaf annals.
You can consider me either fortunate or bedeviled. I have witnessed enough calamity in the post–1967 era to be an expert. Given there were few stretches of comparative mediocrity prior to the last Stanley Cup nearly 48 years ago, I feel I can speak for the entirety of the franchise. The Harold Ballard experience, alone, qualifies me at the optimum level.
For those that are old and forgetful — or young and still learning — let’s apply these “real–Leaf” situations–of–yore to the current team.
Imagine, if you can…
? General manager David Nonis and/or coach Peter Horachek — while talking to reporters — deliberately and repeatedly mis–pronouncing the name of the Leafs top goal–scorer. “Phil Kell–es” has to start playing better. “Phil Kell–es” needs to stop being so lazy. This is exactly what Punch Imlach did to Frank Mahovlich before trading him to Detroit in 1968. The Big M, to Imlach, was “Ma–holovich.” He knew the mis–pronunciation drove his player wacky. So, he did it all the time.
? The Maple Leafs, with (hypothetically) the second pick in this year’s NHL draft, overlooking Boston University center Jack Eichel in favor of Timo Meier (Halifax QMJHL) — the top–ranked right–winger at mid–season by Central Scouting. This is approximately what the team did in 1969: Selecting Ernie Moser (Estevan WHL) ahead of Bobby Clarke (Flin Flon WHL). Moser never played a game in the NHL. Clarke played 1,144 games; rang up 1,210 points; won the Hart Trophy as league MVP three times; played in nine NHL All–Star Games; led Philadelphia to consecutive Stanley Cup titles in 1974 and 1975 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987. To be fair, Montreal (twice), Boston (three times), Minnesota (twice), Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles also took a pass in ’69 before Clarke — a diabetic — went to Philly 17th overall. Heck, even the Flyers overlooked him with their first choice (No. 6) in favor of Bob Currier (Cornwall QMJHL). Currier played the same number of NHL games as Moser.
? Eventually hanging on for dear life to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference during a full NHL schedule, the Leafs losing the first two games of the Stanley Cup tournament — at Boston — by a combined score of 17–0. Which happened on consecutive nights (Apr. 2–3, 1969) at the old Boston Garden. A dreadfully over–matched Toronto team was annihilated 10–0 and 7–0 by the Bruins as part of a four–game sweep.
? George Cope, Guy Laurence and Larry Tanenbaum — representatives of Maple Leafs ownership — being sent to Millhaven Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont. for misappropriating company assets, but not before one of the three drinks himself to death. Leaf proprietors Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard were so convicted in 1971. Ballard went to jail; Smythe to a premature grave at 50 with a hemorrhaging ulcer.
? Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment — no longer believing in the viability of the Kontinental Hockey League — daring players to defect to Russia. Jonathan Bernier, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner take the dare and flee. This is essentially what Ballard did in 1972 with the upstart World Hockey Association, a non–entity in his mind. Leafs therefore lost No. 1 goalie Bernie Parent and their top two young defensemen — Rick Ley and Brad Selwood — to the WHA… for nothing.
HAROLD BALLARD (RIGHT) WITH WENDEL CLARK: FIRST CHOICE IN THE 1985 NHL DRAFT.
? Leafs signing highly–rated, yet passive, Swedish forward Anders Lindblink (fabricated name) as a free agent. Lindblink gets pushed around early next season, prompting Tanenbaum to bellyache in front of reporters: “That guy could go into the corner with half–a–dozen eggs in his pocket and not break any of them.” Which is exactly what Ballard said of Inge Hammarstrom in 1973 — humiliating the Swedish rookie.
? Leafs losing 8–0 at Buffalo in a Sunday–afternoon game televised across North America. Or, so it must have felt for Toronto hockey fans on Mar. 1, 1970 during such a slaughter by the Minnesota North Stars at the old Metropolitan Sports Center — Dan Kelly calling the play on CBS. The North Stars were winless in 20 games (0–15–5), dating to Jan. 14, 1970. It remains, 4½ decades later, the fourth–longest stretch without a win in NHL annals. Toronto provided a marvelous remedy for the entire continent to see. Showing that it wasn’t a fluke, Minnesota came to Maple Leaf Gardens six night later and prevailed 8–3.
? MLSE firing coach Randy Carlyle earlier this season and having to re–hire him when no one else wanted the job. Tanenbaum then demanding Carlyle appear behind the bench with a bag over his head. Yep, another Ballard production, in March 1979. Roger Neilson was canned after a Thursday–night loss at Montreal and reinstated for Saturday’s home game against Philadelphia. After a brief moment of consideration — and to his everlasting credit — Neilson refused the bag requirement.
? Leafs ownership firing Nonis this summer and bringing back 80–year–old Gerry McNamara. Ballard kind of did this in 1979, when he replaced Jim Gregory with a sorely–past–his–prime Imlach. Though Imlach had far more success with the Maple Leafs in the 1960’s (four Stanley Cups) than McNamara did in the 80’s, he was a shell of himself the second time around — destroying the franchise with a flurry of insipid trades (i.e. Lanny McDonald to the Colorado Rockies because McDonald was best friends with Leafs captain Darryl Sittler, whom Imlach despised).
LANNY McDONALD IN UNIFORM OF THE OLD COLORADO ROCKIES.
? Nonis, early last season, trading the Leafs’ No. 1 draft pick this summer (and a legitimate shot at Connor McDavid) to Pittsburgh for journeyman defenseman Paul Martin. Which is effectively what Floyd Smith did on Oct. 16, 1989 when he acquired the forever–middling Tom Kurvers from New Jersey for the club’s 1991 first–round pick — fully aware that top prize would be generational talent Eric Lindros. The franchise was spared total humiliation by placing third–to–last in 1990–91. It was still, however, a major blight when the Devils took Scott Neidermayer (Kamloops WHL) in the No. 3 slot vacated by the Leafs.
? Nonis angrily confronting the media on a stairwell at the Air Canada Center before proclaiming: “I have nothing to say and I’m only going to say it once.” Which my ol’ pal Smitty famously told a gaggle of reporters — myself included — on a Maple Leaf Gardens stairway in 1989.
? Peter Horachek, after a distressing loss to the Minnesota Wild in St. Paul, firing off 72 F–bombs in his post–game rant to reporters — as presented live on LEAFS–TV. The precise number that John Brophy served up in the wake of an appalling road effort against the Minnesota North Stars in February 1988. Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun covered that game in Bloomington; taped the Brophy diatribe and preserved it through the decades. It began like this: “Who are they? Who are these f–ing people that drag that uniform through the f–ing mud for Christ’s sakes? There’s been great players wear it and they act like this? Who are they? Where do they get the nuts to come to the f–ing rink every second day and play one period a week and get away with it?”
JOHN BROPHY, AS HE TYPICALLY APPEARED BEHIND THE LEAFS BENCH.
? Nonis, at the behest of Horachek, trading Nazem Kadri to San Jose for John Scott. The rough equivalent of Gord Stellick’s Nov. 7, 1988 swap of young and talented Russ Courtnall to Montreal for cement–gloved John Kordic — a deal blatantly pushed for and sanctioned by Brophy. Courtnall went on to seasons of 80, 79, 76, 65 and 59 points with the Canadiens, Minnesota/Dallas and Vancouver. Kordic amassed 16 points and 437 penalty minutes in 101 forgettable games here in Toronto before sadly perishing of a drug overdose in August 1992.
? Randy Carlyle, back at Air Canada Centre for the first time as coach of the expansion Las Vegas Hitmen, enjoying a 7–2 romp over the team that fired him two seasons earlier. This happened on Nov. 18, 1970 when Punch Imlach and the Buffalo Sabres appeared at Maple Leaf Gardens for the first time. Anyone think it can’t happen again?
So, yeah, it’s embarrassing in Leaf Land right now.
But, you don’t know the half of it.
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