Hey, what gives? With the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's always something. (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
Sometimes it’s just plain awful to be a fan.
We’re not talking about the occasional emotional bump and bruise, the kind fans get from a devastating last-second loss or a disastrous season-ending injury — or even when they watch their favorite team bow out in the conference finals, one round shy of a shot at the Stanley Cup. We mean years of suffering at the hands of a club that almost seems to delight in tormenting those who freely give to it their hearts, minds, time and money.
This is the tenth in our series on the 10 NHL franchises that take an ongoing toll on their fans, the teams that suggest that their devoted followers are either bottomless wells of hope or certified masochists — or perhaps just a touch crazy. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs, a storied Original Six NHL flagship that, despite now almost boundless riches and resources, remains on a decades-long roll of bad trades, lousy drafts, wacky ownership, front office ineptitude, on-ice disappointment and utter heartbreak that continues to torment one of hockey’s most devoted and eternally optimistic fan bases.
Honestly, for a team that has been around since 1917, it seems too easy to go back only one year to find its trademark torment, but Toronto's stunning Game 7 collapse in its 2013 first round playoff series against Boston was classic Leafs: a fast, hard fall with an aftermath that hung over the franchise like the aroma of three skunks, a dozen rotten eggs and a vat of sulfur dioxide. In the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2004, the Maple Leafs appeared bound for some measure of glory ... until misery stepped in and clubbed them and their faithful over the head. In the space of 11 minutes, Toronto coughed up a seemingly insurmountable 4-1 third period lead, including a 4-2 advantage with 82 seconds to play, before the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron sent the Leafs home for the summer with a crushing overtime goal. The video above says it all about what it means to be a Toronto fan. And waiting for the offseason to pass was an additional exercise in suffering because the Toronto Sun's back page headline about the Game 7 disaster remained burned into every fan's memory. Above a photo of fallen goalie James Reimer lying next to the puck that ended that unforgettable, torturous night in Boston, the headline simply read: THE CHOKE'S ON US. The stench of the defeat will linger until the Maple Leafs get another crack at the playoffs ... and come out with a more positive result.
Most notorious moments
• Ballard's reign of terror: An absurdly vindictive man, Harold Ballard took over the Leafs as majority owner in 1972 -- after serving a year in prison on fraud charges related to using money from Maple Leaf Gardens accounts for his own personal expenses -- and proceeded to drive the team, and himself, into the ground, doing more harm to the franchise and the people involved with it than any foe could have done from the outside. Toronto never finished higher than third in its division or got as far as the conference finals during Ballard’s 18 years at the helm, when the team was often sardonically referred to by many as "the Maple Laughs."
The brutally outspoken Ballard had many moments of bitterness and bizarrely destructive behavior. He once called NHL president John Ziegler a "know-nothing shrimp," and when the league passed a rule in 1976 requiring teams to stitch names onto the backs of their jerseys so fans could more easily identify the players, Ballard objected, citing adverse effects on program sales. He eventually complied, ordering his staff to put white letters on the backs of white jerseys and blue letters on the backs of blue sweaters so the names could not be read from the seats. During the 1978-79 season, he fired popular coach Roger Neilson, sparking a near revolt among his players. Ballard reconsidered, but asked Neilson to return wearing a paper bag to conceal his identity. (Neilson returned without the sack.) After a nasty negotiation over his team's radio broadcast rights, Ballard awarded them to the highest bidder, station CKO, taking them away from CKFH and legendary announcer Foster Hewitt. The Maple Leafs' imperious owner then ordered the radio announcer's position moved from its historic gondola spot in Maple Leaf Gardens to a less favorable place in order to make room for luxury boxes. When the Hockey Hall of Fame asked to purchase the original gondola, Ballard ordered it dumped into an incinerator.
• Good money after bad: No team does less with more than Toronto, a franchise with a long history of asset mismanagement that dates back to the days when the club was known as the Arenas. In 1919, the team sold most of its players to cover mounting debts and then produced a five-win season.In 2012, Forbes Magazine listed the Maple Leafs as the NHL’s first billion-dollar franchise (compared to a value of $130 million for the 30th-ranked Blues), but since the team's last Stanley Cup in 1967, dollars have not translated into titles or playoff success. (Toronto currently owns the league's longest active championship drought by a non-expansion team). One prime example of the Leafs' excess: Dave Clarkson, a free agent plumber from New Jersey who was given a seven-year, $36.75 million deal in July 2013. His fat contract has turned him into a wad of gum stuck to the Maple Leafs' heel, especially since he's produced, as of the end of March, a whopping total of 10 points, all but two of them before Christmas.
• Testosterone and truculence: Hired as GM, Brian Burke, who'd won the Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2007, arrived in Toronto in November '08 promising a new era in which the Leafs would no longer go easy on their opponents. "We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence," he explained. "That's how our teams play." Blustery and opinionated, Burke made for good copy while he wheeled and dealed, bringing in Phil Kessel from Boston for two first round picks (one of which became Tyler Seguin), and James van Riemsdyk from the Flyers. But as punchy as the Maple Leafs may have been, they failed to make the playoffs during Burke's four years at the helm and he ended up being canned by Rogers Communications and Bell Canada, the team's new owners, 10 days before the start of the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Though the team overcame the chaos and made the playoffs, the timing of Burke's firing reinforced the image of a franchise that is perpetually in almost comic disarray.
• Punch to the gut: In 1979, Ballard hired his buddy Punch Imlach as GM and Imlach immediately began feuding with team captain Darryl Sittler. When Sittler refused to waive his no-trade clause, Imlach started trading Sittler’s friends, sending linemate and popular right wing Lanny McDonald and defenseman Joel Quenneville to the Colorado Rockies for forwards Pat Hickey and Wilf Paiement. The deal set the tone for a decade during which the Leafs went 301-481-98. McDonald later went on to the Flames, for whom he scored 66 goals in 1982-83. In '89, he scored his 500th career goal and got his 500th assist before his Stanley-Cup clinching goal for Calgary in his final game as a pro.
• Stellick's folly: Hired in 1988, GordStellick, at the tender age of 30, became the youngest GM in franchise history. He lasted one year on the job, just long enough to trade productive forward Russ Courtnall for unproductive goon John Kordic (thus messing up the chemistry on Wendel Clark's top line). The Leafs went 28-46-6.
• More trade charades: In 1973, Toronto made a bold deal to guarantee that it could draft Neely -- Bob Neely, not Cam. The Maple Leafs dealt a second-round pick and a goaltender to Philadelphia so they could snag the big winger who went on to score 39 goals in 283 career NHL games, all but 22 of them with Toronto. The goalie in the deal, Bernie Parent, led the Flyers to two Stanley Cups.
-- In 1978, the Leafs sent defenseman Randy Carlyle and forward George Ferguson to the Penguins for backliner Dave Burrows. While Burrows had 32 points in 151 games before departing, Carlyle, who is currently the team's embattled coach, won the Norris Trophy with Pittsburgh in 1980-81.
-- Then we have the aforementioned Sittler. Just 84 points shy of becoming the first player to amass 1,000 points in a Leafs jersey, Sittler, who once scored an NHL record 10 points in one game, finally announced that he would accept a trade and was dealt on Jan. 20, 1982 to the Flyers for Rich Costello, a second-round draft pick and future considerations. Sittler scored 43 goals in his first full season in Philadelphia and later entered the Hockey Hall of Fame. Costello played 12 NHL games, all for the Leafs, and scored two goals before taking his career to Europe.
-- In 1989, the Leafs picked up defenseman Tom Kurvers from the Devils in return for a 1991 first-round pick, which New Jersey later used to select Hall-of-Famer Scott Niedermayer at No. 3. Toronto's first pick came at No. 47 (third round). Center Yanic Perreault was taken long after Peter Forsberg, Alex Kovalev, Markus Naslund, and Ziggy Palffy had been chosen. Kurvers was traded three more times, playing for seven NHL teams before ending his career in Japan.
-- Enamored with their goalie of the future -- a guy by the name of Justin Pogge -- Toronto shipped 19-year-old netminding prospect Tuukka Rask (its 2005 first round pick) to the Bruins in June 2006 for former Calder-winning goalie Andrew Raycroft, who was rapidly becoming no better than a journeyman. Rask turned into a cornerstone for the Bruins, Raycroft lasted parts of two seasons in Hogtown, and the Leafs' search for an answer between the pipes continued.
• The scapegoat: In March 1997, with the Leafs on their way to the first of two straight playoff DNQs, Toronto fans thought they'd found a scapegoat for what ailed the team: defenseman Larry Murphy, who had won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins. No one wept when Murphy was dealt to the Red Wings for the sake of his own sanity. (The Maple Leafs even picked up part of his salary in the deal.) Detroit paired the veteran blueliner with Nick Lidstrom and Leafs fans watched Murphy win two more championships on his way to the Hall of Fame.
• Who's on first?: In 2002, Leafs coach Pat Quinn mistakenly wrote Mikael Renberg's name next to number 21 in his starting lineup before Game 5 of Toronto's first-round playoff series against the Islanders. Unfortunately, Renberg was hurt and unavailable to play. Quinn meant to choose Robert Reichel, who was healthy and who actually wore number 21. The Islanders noticed the gaffe but said nothing until after the game started. Reichel was then declared ineligible and the Leafs had to play the game a man short. They did, however, win.
• Cold draft: A March 2003 trade with the Sharks (Alyn McCauley, Brad Boyes, and a first-rounder to San Jose for 31-year-old winger Owen Nolan, who lasted less than two seasons in Toronto), saw the Leafs first selection fall from No. 21 to No. 57 at that year's draft, costing them a shot at such notables as Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards and Corey Crawford. Toronto ended up with defenseman John Doherty when it could have had David Backes, Jimmy Howard or Joe Pavelski. Doherty never made it to the NHL.
• Home iced: The injury depleted Leafs trailed the Hurricanes 1-0 with under a minute left to play in Game 6 of the 2002 Eastern Conference finals and were on the verge of going home for the summer. Then the hopes and dreams of Toronto's faithful, not to mention the volume in Air Canada Centre, were pumped when captain Mats Sundin scored with only 21.8 seconds left on the clock. Into overtime went the two teams. They battled on ... until Martin Gelinas deflected a pass that eluded Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph at 8:05 of the extra session, sending Carolina to its first Stanley Cup Final. "I saw it go in, but I had to double-look to make sure," Gelinas said after the game. "But when I saw everybody jumping on the ice, and the building got a little silent, I knew." Making the outcome even more bitter for Toronto's fans -- the loss was their team's third on home ice during the series.
Surely the Leafs would get a chance to atone for last season’s shocking postseason debacle. Team president and CEO Tim Leiweke even declared last June that he was planning the route for the team's Stanley Cup parade. For a while it looked as though Toronto might even snag home ice advantage in the first round. Then came a rash of indifferent play, leading to a losing streak (currently at eight games) that has the Maple Leafs stuck at 80 points while their fans chew their nails and pray for an end to the slide before it carries the team onto the golf course. With starting goalie Jonathan Bernier hobbled by a groin injury, Carlyle has the difficult task of restoring the ebbing confidence of Reimer, who was reportedly seeking a trade after being criticized by the coach. Bernier's return on March 25 wasn't enough to apply the brakes and the skid has continued, taking on a whiff of farce when former heavyweight boxing champ Riddick Bowe (a Leafs fan) publicly threatened to flatten Carlyle if he didn't get the team straightened out.
In the system
Blueliner Morgan Rielly, Toronto's first-round pick in 2012, comes from a system that isn't a star factory. (Getty Images)
Now that Morgan Rielly has graduated to full-time duty with the varsity, Toronto's system lacks any sort of marquee-value talent. It does, however, pack enough mid-level prospects with some upside to rank it somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of future potential.
• It's telling that Frederik Gauthier (No. 21, 2013) is the most likely to succeed of this class. At 6-foot-5 and 221 pounds, he has the size, speed and hockey sense that every team craves down the middle. Unfortunately, his defining talent is his defensive acumen, not his scoring touch, so his upside is limited. There are scouts who believe that he has second-line potential, but more see him as a Bobby Holik type who can batten down the checking unit.
• Winger Josh Leivo (No. 86, 2011) is making a smooth transition to pro hockey with the AHL Marlies. There are concerns about his strength holding him back at the next level, but there's no denying his offensive touch. He has the potential to score 20-25 goals on the second line.
• There's a lot of buzz about OHL scoring champion Connor Brown (No. 156, 2012), but Leafs fans need to tap the brakes a bit. The prospect graveyard is littered with guys who tore up the junior ranks in their over-age season (Justin Azevedo and Corey Locke, we hardly knew ye). And Brown has another issue: his size. The kid is just 5-9, and while he's reportedly packed 10-15 pounds of muscle onto his draft weight of 170, he's still a slight winger. That doesn't mean he can't make the jump -- scouts love how he's become more aggressive down low and he's got terrific puck sense -- but he's not a guy whose game will allow him to slide into a depth role. It's top six or bust for Brown.
• Andreas Johnson (No. 202, 2013) could turn out to be a value selection on the wing. He's small (listed at 5-10, 180 -- one scout said that those numbers were taken while “wearing lifts with 20 pounds of rocks in his pockets"), but he's very quick and has some finishing touch, scoring 15 goals in 44 games as a rookie in the Swedish league. Like Brown, the talent is there but the bust potential is high.
• Winger Tyler Biggs (No. 22, 2011) was promoted as a Milan Lucic starter kit, but a frustrating rookie season with the Marlies suggests that the appraisal represented an aggressive overselling of his talents. His size (6-3, 228) and speed could be useful in a bottom-six role.
• Center Greg McKegg (No. 62, 2010) was a lamplighter in juniors, but needs to work on his foot speed if he hopes to progress. If that comes along, his work ethic and hockey sense could see him earn time in an energy role.
•Jerry D'Amigo (No. 158, 2009) is running out of time, but there are scouts who still believe his speed and grit could translate into a career as a second- or third-line winger.
• The first thing you hear about blueliner Matt Finn (No. 35, 2012) is concern about his skating (“He looks horrible,” one scout said), but he's regarded as the best defenseman in the system nonetheless. Finn has top-end offensive instincts, earning praise for his ability to make a smart first pass or get the puck to the net consistently. He's a few years away, but the pieces are in place for a decent second-pairing guy.
• Defenseman Stuart Percy continues to frustrate. The former first rounder (No. 25, 2011) is regarded as a quick thinker with elite puck skills, but he has yet to find the day-to-day consistency he needs even at the AHL level. “It's a good thing for a D not to stand out at the NHL level,” one scout said. “Means he's not doing anything wrong. But if he's not standing out in the A, it means he's not doing anything right. He's a guy you'll notice one night, then disappear for the next two.”
•Petter Granberg (No. 116, 2010) plays a simple, physical defensive game. Not a lot of upside here, but he could find a role on the third pair if he can beat out Andrew MacWilliam (No. 188, '08) and Eric Knodel (No. 128, '09), who was signed this week. Granberg, a UNH product, is a redwood on skates (6-6, 222) who can really dole out some punishment while providing a calm, steadying presence on the back end.
• Goalies Christopher Gibson (free agent) and Garret Sparks (No. 190, 2011) are long shots to make an impact at the NHL level, although both have the potential to mature into the back-up role down the road. -- Allan Muir
Better days ahead?
It’s hard to see much light at the end of this season's proverbial tunnel, given the direction (due South) in which the club has been heading since late February. Still, the core of the roster is generally young and a number of productive forwards are under 30: Phil Kessel, 26; James Van Riemsdyk, 24; Nazem Kadri, 23; and Tyler Bozak, 28. Tim Gleason is the oldest defenseman at 31, while captain Dion Phaneuf is just 28 -- though it seems as if he’s been around much longer. At 25, Bernier has his best days ahead of him, too. This isn’t a bad team, but it is one with players that must shake off some bad memories. Especially after last season, the greatest problem with Toronto's future is ... the franchise's past. Futility seems to be ingrained in the organization no matter who is in the front office, behind the bench or on the ice. But Leafs fans have an uncanny ability to keep expecting the best even when there is slim evidence to support their beliefs. If the team's deep-pocketed new ownership ever gets it right, there's going to be one mighty celebration in Hogtown.
Are you a Maple Leafs fan? Got a tale to tell? Feel free to share in the comments section below.