Leafs At Another Crossroad

TORONTO (June 24) — In the course of 99 years, there have been myriad turning points for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Three, in particular, stand out to this day… with Auston Matthews in the on–deck circle.

The most significant factors in Toronto hockey history are the building of Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931; the club’s affiliation with Father David Bauer and the St. Michael’s College program in the 1950’s and early–60’s; and then a hairpin turn in 1967 from which the franchise has yet to fully recover — the imprudent, near–sighted offloading of its minor–league staples in Rochester, New York and Victoria, British Columbia.

If all goes according to plan, Matthews could spark the annulment of nearly 50 desolate years — providing the Maple Leafs and their ardent followers a fourth turning point and, ultimately, an end to the National Hockey League’s longest championship drought. Such is the importance of June 24, 2016, in Buffalo.

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History would have unfolded much differently had Conn Smythe not prevailed in the teeth of the Great Depression. His ballsy decision to construct a large, modern arena at the intersection of Church and Carlton St. kept pro hockey relevant in Toronto. The Leafs, for all we know, may not have survived more than a decade in the cramped Mutual Street Arena, with its NHL capacity of 7,500. Had Smythe waited for an economic revival, his team could well have moved elsewhere before the mid–30’s. While bread lines formed across the land, he willfully stomped ahead with his arena project — convincing workers to accept Gardens’ stock in lieu of pay. Those that accepted the dicey proposal went on to considerable wealth.

With Maple Leaf Gardens came Foster Hewitt. With Foster Hewitt came a steel–and–wooden cage to be forever known as the “gondola”. And, from the gondola, came Saturday–night hockey on radio from coast–to–coast in Canada — Hewitt the lone person more famous than those on the ice. Everyplace but in Quebec, kids dreamed of skating for the Toronto Maple Leafs. At the building originally known as “Smythe’s folly.” Charlie Conacher… Red Horner… King Clancy… Syl Apps… Ted Kennedy… Turk Broda… Max Bentley… Bill Barilko. Stanley Cup titles in 1932, 1942, 1945, 1947–48–49 and 1951. Largely as a result of the Leafs moving out of their original bandbox on Mutual St., south of Dundas. And, into the cash–box on Carlton.

THE ST. MIKE’S FACTORY
Having won six championships in ten years between 1941–42 and 1950–51, the Leafs plunged into their first lengthy drought. Over seven seasons, they missed the playoffs (in the six–team NHL) three times and were bounced from the opening round in the other four years. Then, St. Mike’s came to the rescue.

Shortly after starting the Leafs in 1926, Conn Smythe had been prudent enough to sponsor the St. Michael’s College hockey program. The private, all–boys school at the northeast corner of Bathurst St. and St. Clair Ave. (founded in 1852 and administered by the Basilian Fathers) became a feeder system to the Leafs. It provided one of their early stars — “Gentleman Joe” Primeau, who centered the famed “Kid Line” in the 1930’s with Charlie Conacher and Harvey (Busher) Jackson. In the inaugural season of Maple Leaf Gardens (1931–32), Primeau won the Lady Byng Trophy and helped the Leafs to their first Stanley Cup.

Goalie Turk Broda; brothers Don and Nick Metz also arrived from St. Mike’s and were vital cogs in the 1940’s Maple Leaf dynasty. Broda played on four Stanley Cup teams; Nick Metz on five. Not until the 1960’s, however, did the St. Mike’s connection truly blossom. Tim Horton, Dick Duff, Frank Mahovlich and Red Kelly were graduates of the school. So, too, was a small but tenacious center named Dave Keon.

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I SNAPPED THIS PHOTO ON WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON WHILE STANDING ON THE FLOOR OF LEGENDARY ST. MIKE’S ARENA — JUNIOR HOME OF NUMEROUS MAPLE LEAFS STARS.

Widely regarded as the greatest player in franchise history, Keon spearheaded the Maple Leafs revival in the 60’s — teaming with Mahovlich, Kelly and and Horton on all four Stanley Cup teams (1962–63–64–67) under general manager and coach Punch Imlach. Duff played on the 1962 and ’63 champions; then was packaged (along with Bob Nevin) to the New York Rangers in February 1964 for star winger Andy Bathgate.

Keon, Duff and Nevin were among those nurtured at St. Mike’s by Father David Bauer, who established the Canadian amateur hockey program in 1962 and was GM of the national team during World Championship tournaments in 1965–66–67–69; the Winter Olympic Games of 1964 (Innsbruck) and 1968 (Grenoble).

Without the St. Mike’s connection, the Leafs would not have turned such a corner in the 1960’s.

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ST. MICHAEL’S COLLEGE GRADUATES DAVE KEON (UPPER–LEFT) AND FRANK MAHOVLICH (LOWER–RIGHT) WERE INDISPENSABLE TO THE MAPLE LEAFS STANLEY CUP RUN BETWEEN 1962 AND 1967.

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THE MAIN ENTRANCE AND ICE PAD AT ST. MIKE’S ARENA, AS IT APPEARS TODAY.

SELLING THE FARM
In the middle–60’s, unbeknownst to all, Maple Leafs owner Stafford Smythe and director Harold Ballard began siphoning money for their own purposes from a bank account known as “S.H. Marlie” (S. for Stafford; H. for Harold). In this account, ostensibly, were proceeds from the Toronto Marlboros — the Junior ‘A’ club owned and operated by Maple Leaf Gardens. The misappropriation of these funds would lead to criminal charges against Smythe and Ballard in 1971. Smythe drank himself to death in October of that year; Ballard was convicted and served a brief sentence at the Millhaven Institution near Kingston, Ont.

Both men likely envisioned their demise during the 1966–67 NHL season. As a “parting gift” to Gardens’ shareholders, they sold the Leafs’ top two minor–league affiliates for less than $1 million. The Rochester Americans ($400,000) went to buyers in Vancouver; the Victoria Maple Leafs ($500,000) to investors in Phoenix. Each club had won a championship the previous year (1965–66) — Rochester, the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup; Victoria, the Western Hockey League’s Lester Patrick Trophy. The Leafs, of course, would win the 1967 Stanley Cup. None of this mattered to good ol’ S. and H.

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FROM THE EXPORT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS WALL–CALENDAR OF 1966–67, PHOTOS OF THE LEAFS’ TWO MINOR–LEAGUE CHAMPIONS THE PREVIOUS YEAR (ROCHESTER AND VICTORIA). SECOND PLAYER FROM LEFT IN THE UPPER ROW OF THE ROCHESTER TEAM PICTURE IS DEFENSEMAN DONALD S. CHERRY.

Money from the minor league sell–off enhanced Maple Leaf Gardens’ stock. It was, however, a boneheaded strategic maneuver, with the NHL about to expand from six to 12 teams. The Leafs were deprived of more than 40 active players — any of whom they could have traded to the expansion clubs (California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues) for future draft choices. This became a staple of the Montreal Canadiens under GM Sam Pollock. Knowing the expansionists would be desperate for talent, and while anticipating the advent of the universal entry draft (in 1970), he dealt minor–leaguers for picks. One such player — left–winger Ernie Hicke — went to California on May 22, 1970 for the Golden Seals’ first selection in the 1971 draft. It became the first overall pick and Montreal landed Hall–of–Fame winger Guy Lafleur (who out–pointed Hicke 1,353 to 272 in the NHL).

Conversely, the Maple Leafs — depleted by the sales of Rochester and Victoria — no longer had such minor–league assets. The club lost 20 of its remaining few chattels in the 1967 expansion draft and was later bludgeoned by the World Hockey Association. Ballard, having emerged from prison in full control of Maple Leaf Gardens, doubted the legitimacy of the NHL’s 1972 rival. He was too stupid and/or too cheap to sign his young players — losing such key performers as Bernie Parent, Jim Harrison, Rick Ley, Brad Selwood (and, later, Paul Henderson) to the WHA. The Maple Leafs went in one direction; the Canadiens in another.

Though Montreal hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993, its 10–0 lead over Toronto in NHL titles during the post–expansion era can be traced by connecting dots to the Rochester–Victoria sell–off.

THE BRIGHTEST HOPE
There is reason to believe that the events of later tonight, in Buffalo, could spark the fourth major turning point in Maple Leafs history — such is the potential of Scottsdale, Ariz. native Auston Matthews.

Under the guidance of Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello, the Leafs are in good shape with respect to the salary cap… and a collection of bright prospects (Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Nyman, Nikita Zaitzev). The club, this week, acquired a well–established NHL goalie (Frederik Andersen) from Anaheim. Tonight, with the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, it could obtain the “franchise center” lacking since Mats Sundin’s departure after the 2007–08 season. No such player has been chosen by the Leafs since Jim Gregory took Darryl Sittler eighth overall in 1970.

Without question, Auston Matthews is the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Could such a tag be rivaled, next week, by an unrestricted free agent from Tampa Bay?

Stay tuned (but, don’t hold your breath).

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THE MATTHEWS MOMENT: TORONTO EDGES WINNIPEG TO WIN THE 2016 DRAFT LOTTERY ON APR. 30 AT THE SPORTSNET TV STUDIO. LEFT–TO–RIGHT: NHL DEPUTY–COMMISSIONER BILL DALY; JETS GM KEVIN CHEVELDAYOFF AND MAPLE LEAFS PRESIDENT BRENDAN SHANAHAN.

GAME OF SHADOWS
On Wednesday, the Toronto Blue Jays played an inter–league baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Rogers Centre. Midweek matinees normally begin at 12:37 p.m. here in Toronto. This match started at 4:07 p.m., allowing for elongated shadows to envelop the field late in the afternoon.

I captured these images from Row 3 of the upper deck:

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EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

One comment on “Leafs At Another Crossroad

  1. Dear Howard
    Thank you for the great history lesson.
    I was aware of the stupid rookie mistake JFjr commited when he ixnayed the St. John’s maple leafs – But I was not aware of the imprudent, near–sighted offloading of its minor–league staples in Rochester, New York and Victoria, British Columbia.
    I was also not aware that Conn Smythe was able to convince workers to accept Gardens stock in lieu of pay while bread lines formed across the land.
    You really should write this in a book so we could buy it.
    Thank you,

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