Will Maple Leafs Trend Ever Change?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (July 2) — It began, without warning, on a quiet Sunday in early–March 1968. Of course, there was little chance of any real–time alert back then, in the days long before the Internet and social media. As such, the story didn’t break until the wee hours of Monday morning. And, it became gargantuan news — the Toronto Maple Leafs had traded star left–winger Frank Mahovlich to the Detroit Red Wings.

Shocking though it was, no one foresaw a trend developing with the Leafs, who were mediocre in the first year of the expanded National Hockey League but still the defending Stanley Cup champion and a team that had won four NHL titles in six years. As it turned out, however, the unloading of Mahovlich by general manager and coach Punch Imlach kick–started a pattern of nearly half–a–century — one that continued on Wednesday when the Leafs dispatched Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since 1968, one way or another, the Leafs have recurrently gotten rid of their best players — most often by trading them elsewhere. 

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It is emblematic of a team with the longest current Stanley Cup drought — one that hasn’t even appeared in the championship round since Canada’s Centennial year, and has failed to qualify for the post–season in a full 82–game schedule since 2003–04. And, it will change only if the current Leafs administration follows through with its plan to re–construct the team patiently and modernly. A fundamental part of the process is for Toronto to again become a safe haven for those wearing the uniform; for the franchise to carefully choose and then dignify its marquee personnel. Not since Conn Smythe divested interest in the club in the early–1960’s has our town been such a hockey destination.

Charlie Conacher, Joe Primeau, Red Horner, King Clancy, Syl Apps, Turk Broda, Ted Kennedy, Johnny Bower, George Armstrong, Tim Horton, Ron Ellis and Borje Salming are legendary Leaf figures that history recalls without scandal or dishonor. Not so the vast majority of more recent stars: Mike Walton, Bernie Parent, Dave Keon, Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson, Lanny McDonald, Darryl Sittler, Rick Vaive, Steve Thomas, Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, Curtis Joseph and Mats Sundin. Now, Kessel. All have somehow run afoul of the organization; the lone constant being the team, itself. Not until stability is reintroduced to the Leafs, and then prevails for some time, will this destructive pattern end.

The 47–year exodus has been non–stop.

It began with Mahovlich twice requiring psychiatric care to withstand the tyrannical Imlach before gaining his “freedom” — the Mar. 3, 1968 mega–trade that sent the Big M, Peter Stemkowski, Garry Unger and the rights to another Imlach victim, Carl Brewer, to Detroit for Ullman, Henderson and Floyd Smith. It continued in early–1971 with the free–spirited Walton also on a couch recovering from Imlach’s pestering. Even under the refined Jim Gregory, who replaced Imlach as GM in 1969, Walton needed a change and he was sent to Philadelphia (then Boston) in a three–way swap that landed Parent in blue and white. Then came good ol’ Harold Ballard — paroled from Millhaven Penitentiary near Kingston after serving time for misappropriating the Maple Leaf Gardens treasury. Arriving in time to run the Leafs into the ground for 20 years.    

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Parent was allowed to walk free after two seasons — Ballard, the genius, daring him to accept an offer from Miami of the new World Hockey Association, an entity the Leafs owner insisted would not materialize (it lasted seven years and completely altered the wage–scale of professional hockey). Parent refused to play for Ballard when he returned to the NHL in 1973; he was traded to Philadelphia and backstopped the expansion Flyers to consecutive Stanley Cup titles.

Paul Henderson, enduring Canadian hero of the September 1972 showdown against the Russians, reached a contract stalemate with the Maple Leafs in the summer of 1974; appropriately branded Ballard “a cheapskate,” and then fled across town to the WHA Toronto Toros.

Keon, the clever and distinguished center–man widely regarded today as the greatest player in franchise history, became a victim of Ballard’s frugality and pettiness after the 1974–75 season. The owner would neither offer him a relevant contract nor grant him his release. As such, Keon departed bitterly and joined Minnesota of the WHA. He would later return to the NHL and the Gardens with the Hartford Whalers (Oct. 30, 1979); be feted a standing ovation in front of Ballard, and score a first–period goal against his former team. Norm Ullman, another gifted and classy center, was similarly wronged by Ballard after the ’74–75 season; he, too, defected rancorously to the Edmonton Oilers of the WHA.

Sittler and McDonald were linemates, best friends and prolific scorers on the best Leaf teams (1976–1979) of Ballard’s ownership tenure — Sittler, in 1975–76, becoming the first Leaf to register 100 points in a season; McDonald, in 1976–77, scoring the most goals (46) of any Toronto player since Mahovlich’s team–record 48 in 1960–61. McDonald famously struck in overtime of Game 7 at the Nassau Coliseum to send the Leafs past the heavily–favored New York Islanders in a 1978 Stanley Cup quarterfinal — Toronto advancing to the Cup semis for the only time under Ballard. When the club could not repeat the following spring, Ballard fired Gregory and second–year coach Roger Neilson, replacing Gregory with an antiquated Imlach — then 61, and more than a decade removed from his Maple Leafs Stanley Cup run. It was a disastrous hire.

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Pulling rank, Imlach challenged Sittler’s authority as captain. Sittler pushed back and Imlach would have quickly unloaded him had he not possessed a no–trade clause. As a wacky alternative, the embittered GM sent McDonald to the Colorado Rockies (Dec. 28, 1979) in arguably the most destructive maneuver in franchise history. Distraught, Sittler un–stitched the “C” from his jersey prior to a home game against Winnipeg the following night. It took nearly two years, but the Leafs eventually dealt Sittler to Philadelphia in a ridiculous exchange for someone named Rich Costello, who dressed for all of 12 games in a Toronto uniform.

Rick Vaive, at age 23, replaced Sittler as captain and became the first Leaf to score 50 goals in a season — doing it in three consecutive years: 1981–82 to 1983–84. Vaive met his demise under Ballard and coach Dan Maloney when he overslept and missed a practice in Bloomington, Minnesota on Feb. 22, 1986. He was divested of his captaincy and eventually traded to Chicago prior to the 1987–88 season. Accompanying Vaive to the Blackhawks was a prolific, home–grown player from the junior Toronto Marlboros — Steve Thomas — who had scored 35 goals for the Maple Leafs in 1985–86. Again, two of the club’s best players were sent packing under the tempestuous owner.

Sadly, the trend did not abate after Ballard’s death in April 1990. By then, Wendel Clark had become the most popular player on the club and one of the most beloved in franchise history. Selected first in the 1985 NHL draft, Clark had scored 34 and 37 goals in his first two seasons before a back ailment stalled his career. Stability had arrived in Toronto with the hiring of Cliff Fletcher as GM (in 1991) and Pat Burns as coach (in 1992). A monstrous, 10–player trade with Calgary landed the Leafs Doug Gilmour and the 1992–93 club came within minutes of advancing to the Stanley Cup final, losing to Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in Game 7 of the Cup semis at Maple Leaf Gardens. Clark recovered to have his best season (46 goals) in 1993–94, but the Maple Leafs were easily cast aside by Vancouver in the Conference final.

Fletcher and Burns concluded the team could not move forward without change and Clark was sent to the Quebec Nordiques in a multi–player swap for Mats Sundin moments before the 1994 NHL draft in Hartford.

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As the Leafs slid down the standings in the mid–90’s, Gilmour began to sputter on a pair of achy feet. His phenomenal, record–setting seasons of 1992–93 (95 assists, 127 points) and 1993–94 (84 assists, 111 points) were well behind him when he and Fletcher reached an impasse in negotiation. It resulted in a trade with New Jersey (Feb. 25, 1997) that brought Jason Smith, Steve Sullivan and Alyn McCauley to the Leafs.

Felix Potvin had starred in goal during the 1993 and 1994 playoff runs but had declined considerably by the end of 1997–98. Leafs president Ken Dryden was talked into signing free agent netminder Curtis Joseph and the move turned out brilliantly. For four seasons (1998–99 to 2001–02), Joseph provided Leafs their best goaltending in the post–1967 era. Cujo’s Toronto demise began in Salt Lake City after Team Canada’s opening match of the 2002 Winter Olympics, a 5–2 pounding by Sweden. Pat Quinn, his Toronto coach, elected to replace Joseph with Martin Brodeur for the next game and Canada went on to break a 50–year drought, defeating the host Americans in the gold medal showdown.

Joseph’s pride was wounded by the perceived slight from Quinn and he left Toronto as a free agent on July 1, 2002 — signing in Detroit.

With the first decade of the 2000’s winding toward conclusion, Sundin overtook Sittler as the Leafs all–time points leader (987–916). For three years after the canceled 2004–05 season, the club wallowed out of playoff contention and Sundin refused to waive his no–movement clause at the trade deadline in March 2008, claiming he didn’t want to abandon his teammates. Though Sundin owed the club and its fans absolutely nothing — he had performed consistently well in the absence of a supporting cast — his decision was roundly condemned in Toronto. After sitting out the early part of the 2008–09 season, he signed as an unrestricted free agent with Vancouver and scored the winning goal in a shootout against his ex–team at Air Canada Centre on Feb. 21, 2009.

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The well–documented Kessel saga here in town ended on Wednesday morning with his trade to Pittsburgh. Until the third month of last season, Kessel had provided the club with all it could reasonably ask — scoring 30, 32, 37, 20 (in 48 games) and 37 goals, while missing only 12 matches. Then, for whatever reason, Kessel put it in neutral after mid–December of 2014 and stopped competing, as the team plummeted embarrassingly toward the NHL cellar. It was the only unfavorable portion of his Leafs tenure, yet one that no fan of the club could excuse. Kessel lost the trust and confidence of Brendan Shanahan and was history as soon as the Leafs began negotiating with Mike Babcock.

Might this unstoppable, 50–year pattern end with the Leafs’ next “best player?” If nothing else, the club has the law of averages on its side.

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One comment on “Will Maple Leafs Trend Ever Change?

  1. Howard, you’re the only wag I’d trust to write a book on the nooks and crannies of Leafs history. And the only one whose book I’d buy. Maybe devote a chapter to the two other parts of the Sittler trade. Ken Strong and the draft pick which became Peter Ihnacak. I wonder what brother Miroslav is up to these days???

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