Toronto Sport Has Gone to the Pits

TORONTO (July 10) — It’s true: We play small ball here in the Big Smoke.

As the Toronto Star detailed, this week, in a marvelous chain of essays that should win literary awards, we are, without question, a City of Chumps, not Champs. The six–part Star arrangement (below), co–authored by Dave Feschuk and Bruce Arthur, left nothing on the table. It was a rare and optimum example of good journalism in this sports city and proved that the reporters who cover the Maple Leafs, independently, need not wave the flag.

In the past generation, our professional sports teams have executed but a pair of bold moves — each paying off handsomely — occurring in the span of less than three years. Alex Anthopoulos played out the first act in a three–day period (July 28–30, 2015), acquiring, as general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, elite shortstop Troy Tulowitzki from the Colorado Rockies and front–end starter David Price from the Detroit Tigers. Veteran outfielder Ben Revere came over from the Philadelphia Phillies. Results occurred immediately. A middling 50–51 team went on the hottest tear in franchise annals: 14–1 in 15 games to Aug. 13, then 28–14 the rest of the way to breeze past the New York Yankees and win the American League East for the first time in 22 years. Not since 1993, which climaxed with Joe Carter’s walk–off home run against the Phillies in Game 6 of the World Series, had there existed anywhere close to baseball euphoria in Toronto. But, the “go for it” determination of Anthopoulos re–ignited a dormant (and largely new) fan base. Seats at the Rogers Centre disappeared quickly; sell–out crowds showing up, night after night, in the final two–plus months of the schedule. The entire country fell into the Blue Jays’ spell as the club lost the first two games of the American League Division Series at Texas before becoming the first team in Major League playoff history to rebound from such a deficit in a best–of–five affair (winning three straight in Arlington). Next up were the Kansas City Royals in the A.L. Championship Series. And, though the Blue Jays were dispatched in six games, the nearly three–month–long gallop captivated the city and surrounding area.

While making gazillions for owner Rogers Communications.

Fast–forward to July 18, 2018, a time when the Toronto Raptors very much resembled the Core–4 Maple Leafs. The National Basketball Association club, born in 1995–96, was enjoying its initial taste of prosperity, having topped the Atlantic Division in four of the previous five seasons, while advancing to the 2016 Eastern Conference final against Cleveland. With the series tied, 2–2, LeBron James and the Cavaliers throttled the Raptors by scores of 116–78 (in Cleveland) and 113–87 at the Air Canada Centre. Clearly, the Dinos weren’t good enough. What followed were two additional playoff losses to the Cavs, topped by the humiliation (in Game 4 of the 2018 Conference semifinal) of getting hammered by 35 points (128–93) for the most lop–sided defeat ever in a clinching post–season encounter. Now, the Raptors were less than good enough. Which was not the least–bit satisfactory to president/GM Masai Ujiri, who pulled off the best “closing” trade in Toronto professional sports history.

Sound and structured, defensively, Masai understood the likely impact of acquiring a Top 6 player in the NBA. So, he traded franchise stalwart DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for small forward Kawhi Leonard, who had guided the Spurs to the 2018 NBA Finals (losing in seven games to Miami). Initially, the swap garnered consternation, as Toronto basketball fans revered DeRozan. But, knowledgeable NBA observers knew that Ujiri had pulled off a franchise–altering deal. Which culminated, 11 months later, in the city’s first major sports championship since the ’93 Blue Jays — a six–game ouster of the injury riddled but star–studded Golden State Warriors. Closing out Oracle Arena in Oakland. Never had the city erupted in such widespread exhilaration, as evidenced by the surreal aerial images (below) of University Ave. swarmed with reveling citizens who jammed the parade route, four days later, to extol the NBA titlists. The enormous turnout (estimated at 1.2 million people) made international news.

Otherwise, small ball has prevailed with our sports entities. Most alarmingly, with the city’s hapless and hugely beloved hockey team, which continues to waft in a pothole of paralysis and playoff mediocrity. For, minimally, the past three years, the tall thinkers at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (Rogers, Bell, Brendan Shanahan) have known that William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews — selected in consecutive National Hockey League drafts (2014–15–16) — are incapable of an elongated Stanley Cup hunt. Prolific during the 82–game regular schedule, yet largely effortless to subdue once playoff money is on the line. As written here on numerous occasions, and adroitly examined in the group of Toronto Star essays, the club’s languid nucleus should have been dismembered after it regurgitated that 3–1 playoff edge against Montreal in 2021. Even casual hockey observers understood that moving forward without fundamental change was no–longer viable for the Leafs. The best players on the team routinely choked early in the Cup tournament. Yet, Shanahan and Co. became the outright antithesis of Anthopoulos and Ujiri (say that quickly a few times), assuming a lame and onerous path; refusing to follow inclination. Hardly surprising, though, amid fanatics that have been walloped into submission for nearly six decades.

What the hockey administration has never adequately explained is: Why?

After the Montreal debacle, a 12–year–old child could see the Leafs, as constructed, had no chance to make a deep playoff run. How, then, could the decision makers — four and five times as old — turn a blind eye? Quite easily, as it happened. Shanahan fired off his now–infamous “we will get this done” quote and the rinse/repeat cycle has since followed. As it will again next spring, if Marner remains in tow. Clearly, there is no impetus for the hockey department at MLSE to cross into Ujiri mode and become creative. Or, adventurous. This was again unmistakable when the company hired NHL retreads Brad Treliving and Craig Berube as GM and coach, a year apart. It was simply “grab the first guy available” and get on with summer cottaging. Not that either man is disrespected in hockey. Quite the opposite. Even if the quickest and easiest choice. With no imagination required. Which answers precisely why Maple Leafs management has frozen, for the better part of a decade, amid playoff misadventure. Disrupting the Core would be a confession of failure… and, honestly, what’s more important? Ego, obstinacy and job preservation? Or, recognizing an indisputable flaw and improving the club on behalf of its loyal and multitudinous followers? You know the answer. It’s not even close. Nor will it be until the Core is dismantled.

Truth be told, the mega–wealthy Leafs haven’t made a legitimately bold statement in more than 30 years… since Cliff Fletcher acquired Mats Sundin from Quebec prior to the 1994 NHL draft in Hartford. Just 2½ years after pilfering Doug Gilmour from his former team in Calgary. Three decades! Doesn’t that piss you off? Even a little?

The fans are often blamed for undiscerning loyalty. Yet, no one castigates a devout Christian for attending church on Sunday. There is a parallel. Both are habits, even if one is more pious. An individual anticipating 50 or 60 percent attendance at Scotiabank Arena should see a doctor. It will never happen. The Leafs would easily fill Rogers Centre and its 40,000 seats. Maybe even Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, which accommodates 114,000 spectators. Point being that demand far outstrips supply as it pertains to watching the Leafs in person. There is so much corporate money in Toronto that the Leafs will never encounter lagging attendance.

The Star series did not examine the Toronto Argonauts or Toronto F.C. — both appealing to niche audiences. The others, particularly the Maple Leafs, generate world–wide affection, ala the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs. Feschuk and Arthur brilliantly summarized their articles by zeroing in on the prime matter: a singular (and simple) lack of ambition. The Blue Jays could be 0–91 before tonight’s game in San Francisco and curious sports fans would still jam Rogers Centre to experience the recent renovations. No need to actually improve the product on the field, as Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins showed by doing almost nothing last winter. The Leafs could march out 20 jesters and Scotiabank Arena would burst at the seams. No club in the history of Toronto sport has more–blatantly rested on its draft laurels than the Shanahan Leafs. Lethargy has dominated Maple Leafs management throughout this unfulfilling era. And, no one seems to particularly care.


The more things change… Though the Maple Leafs of the mid–to–late–70’s possessed infinitely more character than the current team, even the Darryl Sittler–Lanny McDonald–Borje Salming outfit suffered from that Toronto thing. As evidenced (still painfully) by losing a 1977 Stanley Cup quarterfinal to Philadelphia after winning the first two games on the road. The Leafs had not prevailed at the old Spectrum since December 1971. But, consecutive–night victories in the den of the Broad Street Bullies had the Leafs staring at a major upset (the Flyers had been to the Cup final in three consecutive years, winning against Boston and Buffalo before losing to the Canadiens). Alas, it could not be sustained. Though leading by a goal in the final minute of Game 3 at Maple Leaf Gardens, then crafting a 5–2 edge midway through the third period of Game 4, Toronto lost both matches in overtime. Philadelphia went on to four consecutive triumphs and upended the Leafs in six. After which general manager Jim Gregory and coach Red Kelly were fired by owner Harold Ballard. Here are the front Sports pages of the Toronto Star after each of the first two triumphs; stories provided by legendary hockey writer Frank Orr:


4 comments on “Toronto Sport Has Gone to the Pits

  1. The problem is multi-faceted, Firstly, MLSE hired people who had no experience in the positions they were taking. Secondly, poor decisions were made by the individuals MLSE hired: bad trades, bad free agents signings, bad drafting and bad contracts being given out. Thirdly, MLSE failed to hold the people it hired accountable, True, Dubas and Keefe have moved on, but it is now too late. The Leafs have only a couple of prospects of note. Next year they have a draft pick in the second round, then nothing to the 5th. The clock is running out on this team, and unfortunately we fans will have to wait until the current group is shown the door for a proper rebuild to begin.

  2. The Jays are owned by a public company who care only about shareholder value and filling a summer of TV Programming, selling merch and “in game experience” in a renovated stadium.
    Leafs and Raptors have two equal partner owners, competitors no less and also public companies. Based on past and current direction, it sure seems they are also primarily interested in keeping their building filled, merch sales and ripping off fans based on false hope…As long as people keep lining up and shelling out dollars, what is the incentive to change?

  3. I always like your articles but this may be the best one ever. Keep them coming and keep Toronto sports management on their toes. ??

  4. Great article Howard. The situation with the Toronto Blue Jays and Maple Leafs is depressing. I’m hoping that Masai can rebuild the Raptors, at least he has a track record of success, albeit not recently. As for the Blue Jays, the situation seems hopeless. Bizarrely, Atkins has somehow maintained an iron grip on the keys to the GM’s office. As for the perpetual “Run it Back” Maple Leafs, I’m speechless.

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