Stroll the corridors of Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens and the men in the photos lining the cinder-block walls stare down on you like ghosts, relics of the Leafs' storied past imprisoned now in frames of steel and glass. Syl Apps with the Stanley Cup. George Armstrong with the Stanley Cup. Turk Broda. Busher Jackson. Babe Pratt. "They give me a tingle in my spine," says Toronto captain Rick Vaive. "Especially the ones with the Cup. I think, 'God, I'd like to be there.' "
Forget it, Rick. They may give you a tingle in your spine, but let's consider what you and your teammates must be giving them. Even with a boost from last weekend's ministreak (a 6-4 win over Chicago on Saturday and a 5-3 upset of Buffalo on Sunday) the Make Believes, er, Maple Leafs, were 3-12-3 and struggling with Los Angeles for the worst record in the NHL. And they were behind the winning pace of the 1984-85 Leafs, whose 20-52-8 record was the worst in the team's history. We're talking heavy futility. Before Saturday's game, Toronto was winless through a team-record 13 games. The Leafs have won only once at home this year and are eight points out of first place in the Norris, a division so weak that leader St. Louis is in a tie for ninth in the overall NHL standings.
For the 67-year-old, 11-time Stanley Cup champion Leafs, there are reasons but no excuses. Poor trades, poor drafts, mishandling of stars and an unstable atmosphere created by a meddling owner have reduced this onetime Canadian national treasure to a laughingstock. The Maple Laffs.
"Montreal was the team for French-Canadians, but for fans who were bilingual like me—English and profanity—Toronto was Canada's team," says Gordie Howe. Howe recalls that, as a child, "I searched through every garbage can in Saskatchewan for Beehive Corn Syrup labels so I could mail them in and get Turk Broda's picture." Now one can look in the garbage can and find a whole team. Thus the Leaf jokes fly:
November 25, 1985
Down the road in Hamilton (a city pushing for an NHL franchise), the word is: We may not have a team, but we're only five points behind Toronto.
And what do the three Toronto pro teams—the Leafs, Blue Jays and Argonauts—have in common? None of them play hockey.
The Leafs are so bad that earlier this month assistant coach John Brophy asked to be sent to the minors. Well, actually, he wanted to be head coach of the St. Catharine's Saints, Toronto's AHL farm club. But when the Leafs went to promote then Saints coach Claire Alexander to the big club, did he jump at the chance? Are you kidding? For two days he considered quitting hockey rather than joining the Leafs.
Even the scalpers are taking a beating. Until this year the Maple Leafs claimed sellouts—not counting no-shows—for every home date since 1946. Virtually all of the Gardens' 16,182 seats were in the hands of season-ticket holders. Now season-ticket sales are down to 12,000, and as a scalper on Carlton Street moaned, "You can buy every game at the box office." The question is, who wants to? Why shell out good money to watch one of the weakest offenses in the NHL (3.4 goals per game) play as though the offensive blue line were a speed control bump?
The traditional thinking is that the Leafs' myriad problems are spokes leading to a common hub, that being cantankerous 82-year-old owner Harold Ballard. Ballard has taken his team from best in the league to worst. The Leafs' decline dates from 1967, the last year they won the Cup. The next year they didn't even make the playoffs. Ballard was only a part-owner then; since he became full owner in 1972, the Leafs have reached the semifinals only once. Ballard, who loves the spotlight and who flaunts an it's-my-money-and-I'll-do-as-I-damn-please attitude, has a history of alienating his best players, meddling in trades, hiring and firing on whim and either not getting the right people to run his team or not leaving them alone so they could.
It was Ballard who called ex-Leaf captain Darryl Sittler "a cancer" on the team and who refused to meet Sittler's increasing salary demands and so badgered him that Sittler asked to be traded in 1982. Earlier Ballard had approved a deal that sent Sittler's best friend and the team's second best player, Lanny McDonald, to Colorado. Last year Ballard denounced Vaive, who scored more than 50 goals in 1982, '83 and '84—he's the Leafs' only 50-goal scorer ever—as a mediocre player.
But Ballard may be slowing down. Diabetes has led to circulation problems in his feet and, it seems, to a growing sense of his mortality. Asked how he was feeling last Tuesday night in St. Louis, Ballard fired back a fastball: "You writers aren't going to get rid of me that easy." But the heater doesn't pop the way it used to, and those close to the team say that in the last year Ballard has left much of the running of the club to general manager Gerry McNamara and coach Dan Maloney. And while speculation is rampant that either or both may be booted if the Leafs keep losing, Ballard said, "I'm convinced we have the right coach and the right general manager." Words to start packing by?
If only one man goes it will probably be Maloney (rumored replacements include ex-Leaf coach, now scout, Floyd Smith, ex-Chicago coach Orval Tessier and ex-Washington coach Gary Green). Yet Maloney seems to have done the best he could given his paucity of scorers. The Leafs are losing, but they are not getting blown out. Ten of their 12 losses have been by one or two goals. The question is: Has McNamara given Maloney the horses?
In dealing away Sittler, all McNamara got in return were Rich Costello and Ken Strong, who have spent most of their careers in St. Catharine's, and a draft choice that turned out to be Peter Ihnacak, an average forward. He also traded Laurie Boschman to Edmonton for Walt Poddubny. Boschman is now with Winnipeg and in a three-way tie as the Jets' leading scorer. Poddubny was with St. Catharine's until being recalled last Thursday. And in trading John Anderson and Bill Derlago this year, McNamara gave up 63 goals from a team that needs all the scoring it can get.
McNamara appears to have fared well in the '85 draft, No. 1 overall pick Wendel Clark having shown that he's a tough kid who can score (eight goals). But the 1982 first-rounder, defenseman Gary Nylund, still makes mistakes in his own zone, and the top 1983 selection, forward Russ Courtnall, had only 12 goals in 69 games last year. McNamara claims Courtnall, Nylund and the team's 1984 first-round pick, defenseman Al Iafrate, will develop into top players. "Looking back I don't see anything I would've done differently," he says. But McNamara admits, "What we're going through isn't heartbreaking, it's heartrending."
That was certainly the case last Tuesday night. With 2:03 left in what appeared to be a sure 3-3 tie (and a much-needed point) in St. Louis, Leafs forward Miroslav Frycer broke a cardinal rule of hockey—don't overhandle the puck in your zone when you're the last man out—which led to a breakaway game-winning goal to the Blues' Joe Mullen. As some Leafs smashed their sticks on the ice in frustration, Ballard drew a deep breath and, just for a moment, looked down on his chest where he might have read the inscription on his tie clasp: STANLEY CUP 1962. Twenty-three years and forever ago.