Ballard Anniversary Rather Apropos

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Apr. 11) — This is a silver anniversary in need of much polish.

The 2014–15 Toronto Maple Leafs will mercifully expire tonight against Montreal at the Air Canada Centre — 25 years (and several hours) after Harold Ballard went stiff. Yup, it was late in the day on Apr. 11, 1990 that Pal Hal took his final breath. The boys in blue had just landed in St. Louis for Game 5 of an opening Stanley Cup playoff round at the venerable Arena. Trailing in the best–of–seven series, 3–1, elimination beckoned. I flew to the Gateway City for CJCL AM–1430 (we weren’t yet The FAN) a few hours later, whereupon Wendel Clark dedicated Game 5 to the now–stilled owner. Appropriately, the ’89–90 Maple Leafs became rigor mortis the following night at the old barn on Oakland Ave.

Had someone joked, 25 years ago, that the Leafs — in 2015 — would still not have appeared in the Stanley Cup final since 1967, he or she might have been scoffed at. It is identical to a current submission that the Cup final drought will endure past 2040 — a quarter–century from today. Possible? Yes. Probable? Maybe. Im–probable? Absolutely. At some point, one surmises, the law of averages will supersede everything else in Leafs Land. Toronto will be champion of the Eastern Conference and finally compete for Lord Stanley’s mug. It isn’t overly zealous to predict such an occasion before Connor McDavid’s 43rd birthday. In 2040. Is it?

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FRONT PAGE OF THE TORONTO STAR — APR. 12, 1990.

MESSAGES FROM HAROLD

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COVERS OF MAPLE LEAF GARDENS PROGRAMS IN THE EARLY–80’s.

Harold Edwin Ballard will forever be remembered (among other things) as owner of the Maple Leafs during the “lost decade” of the 1980’s. His death at the beginning of the 1990’s was largely celebrated — sad commentary for a father, grandfather, quasi–husband and former child (“quasi” because Ballard and his final life partner, Yolanda MacMillan, were not formally married; living in “common–law” at Ballard’s apartment in Maple Leaf Gardens). By the early–80’s, the Leafs had become a laughingstock. It was nearly impossible to miss the playoffs in the 21–team National Hockey League, of which 16 qualified. Yet, Toronto watched the Cup tournament in 1982, 1984 and 1985, having been swept in the opening rounds of 1980 and 1981. In the first six seasons of the decade (1979–80 to 1984–85), Leafs won but a single playoff game — against Minnesota, at the Gardens, in 1983 (more later).

Ballard rode roughshod over everything at Maple Leaf Gardens — from his famous hockey team to the lowest–paid maintenance worker (everyone was lowly paid, regardless of position). As such, it stood to reason he’d insist on penning a “welcome” letter to fans that bought programs at Leaf games. Given how thoroughly inept the club had become under his watch, these letters ranged from fanciful to farcical. They were featured on Page 3 (after the “Table of Contents”) and accompanied by a stately photo of Ballard at his Gardens’ desk (below). 

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This first welcoming letter appeared early in the 1981–82 season. Nov. 12, 1981 was the 50th anniversary of Maple Leaf Gardens. The Leafs of 1980–81 were mostly terrible but made the playoffs with a record of 28–37–15 for 71 points (told you it was easy to qualify back then). In the best–of–five preliminary round, Toronto was decimated by the New York Islanders — 9–2 and 5–1 at Nassau Coliseum; then 6–1 at the Gardens. Selecting sixth in the ’81 draft, the Maple Leafs took defenseman Jim Benning (current general manager of the Vancouver Canucks) from Portland of the Western Hockey League — passing on, among others, Grant Fuhr and Chris Chelios. With Gerry McNamara as GM and Mike Nykoluk as coach, Ballard had this message for Maple Leaf fans: 

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For the record, Pal Hal’s “Stanley Cup” favorite — with suspect goaltending and absolutely no defensive structure — finished 19th in the 21–team NHL. Its ghastly record was 20–44–16 for 56 points — recording the fewest number of franchise wins in a minimum 70–game schedule and fewest points for the club in 24 years. Only the Colorado Rockies (49 points) and Detroit Red Wings (54 points) were worse than Toronto. The first–place New York Islanders were a paltry 62 points better. This despite Rick Vaive becoming the first–ever Leaf to amass 50 goals in a season (he had 54 on a line with Bill Derlago and John Anderson).

It resulted in Ballard slightly toning down his 1982–83 welcome:

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“… a little time and patience.”

Sounds familiar, huh? We can expect the same plea from Brendan Shanahan — more than three decades (and no progress) later — when the Leaf president makes his end–of–disastrous–season comments early next week. The “several positive changes” (according to Ballard) led to a 12–point increase in the standings (28–40–12 — 68 points). Mike Palmateer was re–acquired from Washington to play goal. Peter Ihnacak, Walt Poddubny and Miroslav Frycer formed a good scoring line and Vaive topped the 50–goal mark again (with 51). Leafs made the playoffs and were ousted in four by Minnesota in a best–of–five preliminary round.

Again, not exactly the Stanley Cup contender Ballard envisioned.

Still, it prompted celebration in Pal Hal’s 1983–84 letter:  

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Another example of how expectation had plummeted was Ballard’s claim of “character” from his playoff warriors the previous spring. After falling behind in the series, 2–0, at Minnesota, the Leafs put together a one–game win streak by defeating the North Stars 6–3 at the Gardens. To repeat, it was the only playoff–game victory by the club in the first half of the 80’s. In Game 4, the following night, Leafs were scored on in the final minute with Minnesota having an extra attacker. Al MacAdam then eliminated Toronto early in overtime. The influx of “character” from that epic series led to a seven–point decrease the following year. Leafs missed the playoffs in 1983–84 with a record of 26–45–9 for 61 points.

Rick Vaive scored 52 goals.

This is just a small sample–size of the baloney festered upon Maple Leaf rooters by an owner that wanted to win, but had no idea how to win. Ballard was a skin–flint — as cheap as the day is long. His skeletal hockey operation (with minimal scouting in North America and abroad) had no chance to compete with such modern outfits as the Islanders, Edmonton and Calgary. He reserved the right to approve or veto any hockey decision, which led to further decay. Ballard’s appointment of crabby, over–the–hill Punch Imlach to replace the industrious, highly–respected Jim Gregory as GM after the 1978–79 season destroyed the Maple Leafs for more than a decade. Not until after Ballard died — and his successor as Gardens’ president, Donald Giffen, lured Cliff Fletcher away from Calgary — did the hockey club begin to regain credibility.    

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BALLARD, LATE IN LIFE, WITH HIS TRUSTY SIDE–KICK — HOCKEY HALL–OF–FAMER KING CLANCY. HAROLD’S JACKET FLAUNTS HIS DUAL–OWNERSHIP, IN THE LATE–70’s AND 80’s, OF THE MAPLE LEAFS AND HAMILTON TIGER–CATS OF THE CANADIAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE.

So, there was no hockey tragedy here in Toronto 25 years ago today.

As an increasingly–demented Ballard imposed his will on the Maple Leafs, many were convinced of the club’s inevitable doom. Until he died.

But, has anything changed without Pal Hal in the past quarter–century? Some brief advancement (then regression) under Pat Burns and Pat Quinn is all to which the franchise can lay claim. The surprising, enchanting Leafs of 1992–93, led by the tireless Doug Gilmour, came to within minutes of qualifying for the Stanley Cup final (against Montreal). Wayne Gretzky personally saw that it wouldn’t happen. Otherwise, there were three other appearances in the Cup semi–finals: 1994 (with Fletcher as GM and Burns as coach); 1999 and 2002 under Quinn.

The real tragedy is that today — 25 years after Ballard — the Leafs most closely resemble the putrid product he left behind. Completely devoid of character, dignity and leadership, it’s as if the 2014–15 Maple Leafs set out to “honor” his legacy. It has left the NHL’s most enduring fan–base to cheer for the 90.5% chance of not winning next week’s draft lottery. Meanwhile, fellow pre–expansionists New York (Rangers), Chicago and Montreal go into the playoffs with legitimate opportunity to win the Stanley Cup, while previously–foundering Canadian teams in Calgary, Winnipeg and Ottawa (all in the playoffs) are miles ahead of Toronto.

In summation — it’s been a quarter–century of nothing.

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7 comments on “Ballard Anniversary Rather Apropos

  1. The players did love Harold, and to compare today with the 80’s, I’m sorry Howard your wrong. Did Harold have his warts, no question, but to say he didn’t care, like I said, it’s just too easy to knock Harold. What is the upside to being negative about someone who has passed?
    Your telling me that there is more today to watch and gravitate to? Who? Name them…who’s worth the price of admission?
    I enjoy your blog Howard, I really enjoy your historical viewpoint and your reservoir of the past of Toronto’s teams, and almost always our recall and viewpoint matches.
    I miss you on the airwaves.GET BACK SOON!

    1. The players Ballard didn’t publicly insult liked him. Which excludes many “franchise” names – Keon, Ullman, Sittler, Vaive, etc. Let’s not get carried away, Stewart. Ask Inge Hammarstrom what he thinks of Pal Hal all these decades later.

      1. Ballard was and in many ways still is PERSONALLY responsible for destroying this franchise. He created such a disconnect between the glories of the past and what the Leafs became under him I believe It still feeds into the hurry up approach to building that has crippled this team. Sometimes I think there is almost an arrogance in the way the Leafs shortcut the building process. It’s almost as if we believe we can take an approach and make it work that we wouldn’t advise any of the other 29 teams to take. It’s the kind of attitude that results in a guy like Brian Burke coming to town and taking huge, disastrous shortcuts. Or repeating the same mistake by potentially bringing in Mike Babcock and giving him player personnel authority. None of that will ever work, but no other approach in Toronto is allowed time to work. And so it goes…….

  2. Discrediting Harold is easy, almost too easy!
    Howard, he may have run a lean ship, but he did good in other areas (charties etc) and was loved by his players. The 1980’s, most would say was a dark decade, I’d say there was more to look at than this current crop! Borje Salming was still a marvel each night, Rick Vaive was potting 50 plus goals for three straight seasons (you mentioned that) and Wendel Clark was pounding his way through the NHL. Harold did care, this bunch, may be the lest likeable in the club’s history with no one to gravitate to.

  3. Great blog… love the Ballard letters and your overall sense of history when writing about the laffs

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