Will It Ever Be The Leafs’ Year?

TORONTO (Jan. 14) — For a brief moment last Wednesday, and despite all of the challenges encountered so far this season, I felt that maybe karma was on the side of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Trailing the Winnipeg Jets, 3–2, at Scotiabank Arena, Sheldon Keefe pulled Frederik Andersen for a sixth attacker. The Jets had two opportunities to seal the victory with an empty–net goal that most National Hockey League players could score blindfolded. Both attempts failed. With 14 seconds remaining in regulation, Auston Matthews took a pass from Morgan Rielly and ripped a low shot past Connor Hellebuyck to send the match into overtime. And, I thought to myself: “Maybe this is, finally, the Maple Leafs’ year.”

Six nights later and — whoosh!! — that sentiment has gone up in smoke.

It is never difficult, of course, to assume the Leafs will not win the Stanley Cup. More than 52½ calendar–years have come and gone since George Armstrong — who turns 90 in July — raised the trophy at Maple Leaf Gardens after the 1967 upset of Montreal. Twenty franchises have since won the NHL title, including a combined 20 championships by the other five teams in existence on May 2, 1967 (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York Rangers). So, predicting that a season will end with a club other than Toronto on top is akin to feeling pain after stubbing your toe. Rather inevitable. That said, professional sport has been kind, in recent years, to teams that were apparently destined to never–again prevail. The Boston Red Sox, in 2004, won the World Series for the first time since 1918. A year later, the Chicago White Sox triumphed for the first time since 1917. The Chicago Cubs, baseball’s closest facsimile to the Maple Leafs, ended a 108–year famine in 2016. In football, the Philadelphia Eagles (on Feb. 4, 2018) won their first Super Bowl, busting off a 58–year championship drought. The Kansas City Chiefs have a chance, by Feb. 2, to win their first NFL title in 50 years… since Super Bowl IV after the 1969 season. And, last June, the St. Louis Blues captured their first Stanley Cup, having joined the NHL in the expansion of 1967–68. So, indications elsewhere suggest the Leafs will, at some point, end the longest current dry spell in hockey. Just don’t expect it to happen in 2020.


Though nearly half the NHL schedule remains, I ask you this: When last (if ever) did a team lose three players, including its two most–reliable defensemen, in a five–week span to a broken foot from blocking shots? This has happened to the Maple Leafs — first with forward Trevor Moore, then blue–liners Jake Muzzin and Rielly. You and I have a better chance of winning the next Lotto–649 draw. When I was a kid, I would call it “Leafs luck”, not–yet comprehending how the franchise was legitimately doomed under cheapskate–owner Harold Ballard. Today, though the club is majority–controlled (75%) by warring factions, both Rogers Communications and Bell Canada Enterprises are national conglomerates that provide the team the financial resources to succeed. President Brendan Shanahan is universally respected in hockey and the youthful general manager–coach tandem of Kyle Dubas and Keefe appears to be on the same, contemporary page. This is hardly a remake of the Ballard–Gerry McNamara black hole in the 1980’s.

Circumstances, nonetheless, that are both chancy and self–inflicted continue to form a black cloud over the Blue and White. Only in Toronto, it seems, could the most–lavishly compensated coach in the game’s history arrive with inimitable fanfare. And then grow old and outdated before our eyes in less than half–a–decade. Only in Toronto, it seems, could the GM spend so grandly on four players (John Tavares, Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander) and not be able to afford the necessity of a reliable, back–up goaltender. Only in Toronto, it seems, could two regimes fail to understand that the No. 1 goalie is prone to weariness and cannot endure 60–plus assignments in the regular season. Only in Toronto, it seems, could a club lose three Games 7 to the same team, in the same arena, over the span of seven years. Only in Toronto, it seems, could a team spit up a best–of–seven playoff series three times (1977 vs. Philadelphia; 1987 vs. Detroit; 1995 vs. Chicago) after winning the first two games on the road. And, only against Toronto, it seems, would the NHL’s premier attraction survive overtime of a playoff match after cutting an opponent with his stick… and then score the decisive goal to avoid elimination (yeah, Gretzky–Gilmour–Fraser endures like a foul smell).


Opportunity for the Maple Leafs, with their top–end skill at the forward position, would appear to be plentiful beyond this season. But, who knows? Two of the club’s most–important figures — Andersen and Tavares — will both soon be in their 30’s, beyond the biological prime for NHL players. Neither do we know what the blue line will look like after this season, with Tyson Barrie, Travis Dermott and Cody Ceci needing to be re–signed or replaced (we can pencil in Rasmus Sandin and Tim Liljegren, but without big–league resumes). Nor do we have any idea whether Andersen will be accorded the luxury of an established goaltending partner before his contract expires after next season, though now might be a good time for Dubas to explore with $5,809,517 of LTIR cap–space at hand (according to capfriendly.com).

My 61st birthday is on the horizon (Feb. 3) and I have only vague, ghostly recollection of sitting at the foot of my parents’ bed on May 2, 1967; watching a black–and–white television when George Armstrong raised the Leafs’ last Stanley Cup. Any person younger than me knows of the occasion only via color film or historic accounts in writing. The latter group — immense and perpetually increasing — must surely wonder if it will ever be the Maple Leafs’ year. Three broken feet in five weeks would appear to rule out the current season.

Call it “Leafs luck” or a “jinx”. But, don’t try to explain it.

at Maple Leaf Gardens

Continuing with my series of programs from games I attended at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1969–70, here are two from 50 years ago this week — Leafs vs. New York and Pittsburgh.

The substandard Leafs of ’69–70 would finish last in the six–team East Division and miss the playoffs. But, 50 years ago tonight, the club took its longest undefeated streak of the season (3–0–3) into a home encounter with the strong New York Rangers, who ended the run rather rudely with a 7–1 spanking. With goalie Marv Edwards sidelined, Bruce Gamble started for the Leafs and was relieved, at 6:44 of the third period, by Gerry McNamara, the club’s future GM (1981–88). Bill Fairbairn and Arnie Brown scored twice for New York; Rod Gilbert, ex–Leaf Bob Nevin and Dave Balon had singles. McNamara entered the game after Nevin’s marker provided the visitors a 5–1 lead. Dave Keon scored the Leafs only goal at 16:24 of the first period, tying the match 1–1. Ed Giacomin stopped 39 shots for the victory. The Rangers improved to 23–8–9 for 55 points; Toronto fell to 15–17–9 for 39 points. Bruce Hood was the referee; John D’Amico and Ed Butler the linesmen.

Hall–of–Fame goalie Terry Sawchuk was Ed Giacomin’s back–up in 1969–70 with New York. Sawchuk, who helped guide the Leafs to their 1967 Stanley Cup win, had only 4½ months to live. He would perish on May 31, 1970 resulting from internal bleeding caused by a drunken spat with teammate Ron Stewart.

One night after the lopsided defeat against New York, the Leafs went to St. Louis and got blanked, 2–0. The club came back to the Gardens for a date with the Pittsburgh Penguins (Jan. 17, 1970) and prevailed, 4–0. Bruce Gamble went the distance in goal, stopping 38 shots for the shutout. Les Binkley took the loss at the other end, making 23 saves. Dave Keon had a big night for the Leafs with a hattrick. Paul Henderson also scored for Toronto; Bob Pulford assisted on two of Keon’s goals. With the loss, the Penguins dropped to 11–23–6 on the season for 28 points. The Leafs improved to 16–18–9 for 41 points. The referee was Dave Newell; the linesmen John D’Amico and Malcolm Ashford.


Gerry McNamara continued as back–up goalie for the Maple Leafs. In the program that night (below) was a story about the future Toronto GM and his relief appearance, three nights earlier, against New York.


Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins was well in front in the NHL points race after the midway mark of the 1969–70 schedule. He would become the first defenseman in league history to win the Art Ross Trophy.

The Leafs flagship radio station, CKFH–1430 (the ‘FH’ standing for Foster Hewitt), handed all games, home and away, with Foster and son, Bill Hewitt, calling the action. I fondly remember struggling to stay awake (as an 11–year–old) and listen to games from Los Angeles and Oakland that faced off after 11 p.m. Eastern. Virtually all NHL night matches began at 8 p.m. local time. The Toronto Telegram–Maple Leaf Indoor Games was a prominent event at the Gardens in the 60’s and 70’s, bringing together many of the world’s best track–and–field stars. The Toronto Star assumed sponsorship of the meet in the 70’s.


5 comments on “Will It Ever Be The Leafs’ Year?

  1. Howard – I enjoy your webpage very much and am grateful that you share those precious programs and other memorabilia with your lucky readership.

    I’m a 1963 so I haven’t suffered for quite as long as you (although as a huge Muhammad Ali fan, starting in 1977, just in time to watch his last few horrific beatings, particularly Holmes, which i am convinced robbed me of any chance of being a contented and well-adjusted human being) I am surely in a Cooperstown-like group of fans who been granted relatively few rewards (Jays twice, Raptors, Weir at Masters, not much else) compared to the voluminous quantity of trauma that has been inflicted.

    Like all good suckers, I keep traipsing back for more , as evidenced by my decision to spend a week’s wage on a pair for game 6 vs the Bruins last year, and worse, insisting that my lovely 18-yr-old daughter accompany me to the travesty. (The poor kid is herself a doomed fan and I’m amazed that Child Services hasn’t reprimanded me for not doing whatever was necessary to raise her to be a Penguin or a Shark fan. (And not that we need reminding, but isn’t it telling that she isn’t old enough to have witnessed a playoff-series win, or for that matter, only a handful of playoff appearances…)

    Regarding our friend Kerry Fraser, I agree that he made a boo-boo bit I am certain it was only that and not a result of a grand conspiracy or orders from head office to ensure that 99 be given an opportunity to win another mug. And let’s not forget Glenn Anderson’s astonishingly ill-advised decision to knock a King into the boards at the end of regulation.

    Regarding the dry-spells for the Bosox and Cubs, let’s remember that until until 1969 only 2 baseball teams advanced to the playoffs and therefore a 100-yr drought is much less incredible from a mathematical standpoint than a 52-yr shutout for a team that plays in a league where half the teams are given the chance to play for all the marbles (and it isn’t the lack of a cup in all that time that gets me, it’s that they haven’t made the finals and only made the semi’s 3 times, and were never close to winning any, other than Fraser-gate).

    i also think we should discuss the historical meltdown in game 7 in Boston a few years ago but my therapist has instructed me that not nearly enough time has elapsed to allow myself to relieve that calamity.

    i wish you continued good health but I must admit i have selfish motives…I am interested to read in 2042 how you will reminisce about the 75-yr cup drought.

    A fellow fan.

  2. How long until Duabas has to answer for the construction of this team? I realize no Muzzin and Reilly aint helping but Freddies numbers over the past 11 games are brutal and it is not all on him…..the team can’t play defense (Does Dubas even care?). Trading Kadri for Barrie suggests no!

    Is Dubas going to see the light, and the better question is should he even be allowed? People are acting as if a #2 goalie is the only thing we need to give Freddie a breather.

    I assume Keefe is no longer in the running for coach of the year.

  3. Howard,

    You will NOT like this answer by Sheldon Keefe following the Leafs’ 8-4 loss to the Panthers earlier this week:

    “On whether there is any concern about Frederik Andersen’s play and if fatigue could be a factor:

    I don’t think fatigue is an issue. We’ve done a pretty good job of managing that here of late. In fact, when his workload was heavier, he was playing better and his numbers were better. Maybe it is something the other way, perhaps, that we have to look at here to get him in a better rhythm and get him going.”

    I am not sure if you had caught that, but it fits the “only in Toronto” narrative, well.


      1. Howard, This is Andersen. We can’t use the “Overworked” excuse everytime he struggles and give him a free pass. He is terrible every October. Is he tired then? His save % was under 900 the 1st month of the season and cost the Leafs valuable points.
        Andersen gets WAY too much credit in this market. He typically has 2-3 “Cold” streaks every single season that are very long. It can’t always be summed-up as “He’s tired”.
        It’s getting tiresome hearing from the media he’s some superstar and “Vezina” candidate. He is a solid overall, top 10 goalie perhaps, No better than that. He will never even be a finalist for a Vezina with his average numbers.
        Yes, Leafs need a better backup, but Andersen can’t get a pass as he is an inconsistent goaltender because he was the exact same as a 1 B goalie playing 40 games a season in Anaheim.
        My suggestion? Do everything you can to grab Robin Lehrer in Chicago. He’s a UFA and one of the very best NHL goalies the past 2 years and he won’t require a ridiculous payday if he is signed to a new deal. Move Ceci’s contract out. It’s too high for a 3rd-pairing D.
        Making that move gives you a chance to have a #1 goalie if Andersen leaves. Because there is no way the Leafs should give Andersen a long-term deal for massive $ as those deals are looking like a disaster in Montreal and Florida.

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