The point isn't so much that the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that for a decade had attracted adjectives like "hapless" and "once-proud," were actually at .500 after 17 games this season. Eight wins, eight losses and a tie is not exactly the record of a juggernaut, and no one, not even the Leaf players, dares to think about improving on .500—or leading the Norris Division—when it's all the team can do to just hang in there. The point is that there may be a light at the end of the Ballard tunnel for this hockey club.
Not a beacon or a bonfire, just a small glow to show that the Leafs may be heading in the right direction. And if after Saturday's 6-2 loss at home to the Edmonton Oilers—Toronto's fifth straight defeat after it jump-started its season with an 8-3-1 record—Leaf fans were rolling their eyes and sighing, "Here we go again," well, who could blame them for their skepticism?
No one knows better than Toronto fans that fast starts can be deceptive, as was proved last season when the Leafs opened 8-4 and wound up with the second-worst record in their 71-year history: 21 wins, 49 losses, 10 ties. And while that anemic showing put the Leafs in the playoffs, it is worth noting that no other team in NHL history and, one suspects, in the annals of professional sport, has ever qualified for postseason play with a similarly dismal .325 winning percentage. The Leafs were last in the NHL in power-play efficiency and 16th among the league's 21 teams in penalty-killing. Between Dec. 23 and Jan. 27 they set a club record by playing 15 games without a win. They won seven games on the road all year.
"It was exactly this time last year that the Leafs went into the dumper," says Toronto general manager Gord Stellick. "People are waiting for that to happen again. But I know things are better in terms of attitude and environment." He cites the current team's 6-3 road record as an example.
November 21, 1988
Stellick was just 30 years old when owner Harold Ballard promoted him to general manager last April, making him the youngest to hold that title in NHL history. He follows Jim Gregory, Punch Tmlach and Gerry McNamara to become Ballard's fourth G.M. in the last 10 years (the Leafs have also had seven coaches in that time), which goes a long way toward explaining why it has been a decade since Toronto finished with a .500 record. The cantankerous Ballard, who is 85, lives in an apartment in Maple Leaf Gardens and is described in his own press guide as "an enigma...one of the most loved and most hated people in Canada." He is certainly one of pro sport's most meddlesome owners.
What his team has lacked in entertainment value over the years, his personal life has more than made up for, and newspaper accounts of the Ballard family soap opera have kept Torontonians enthralled. One recent episode involved Ballard's oldest son, Bill, 42, against whom criminal charges of assault causing bodily harm have been brought on the complaint of Yolanda Ballard, 56, his father's companion. Yolanda has alleged that Bill blackened her eye and kicked her in the stomach in Harold's apartment on Sept. 6, just before the Leafs opened training camp, although Harold has said he was not around to witness it. The trial in provincial court in Toronto has been set for Feb. 16.
Yolanda Ballard, who is not married to Harold but legally changed her name from MacMillan to Ballard last year, is a woman with a past nearly as checkered as Harold's. In 1981 she was convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud and perjury for her part in the forging of the last will and testament of Ontario businessman William Donald Lloyd, whose estate was valued at $3 million. She was sentenced to three years in prison, served part of her term and, five years ago, walked into Ballard's life bearing a cake she had baked for him. After making the delivery to his office, she refused to leave until Harold came out to the reception area to meet her.
Yolanda has been a fixture in his life ever since. Harold himself has been convicted of and served time in prison for fraud and theft, so he harbors no prejudices in that regard. Last Jan. 3, Harold had a heart attack while vacationing in Palm Beach, Fla. As news of the old man's condition spread, the price of a share of stock in Maple Leaf Gardens, which is traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, rose from less than $30 to $36 in the next two weeks. It was up to $39.50 on July 22 when he underwent quintuple bypass surgery, rose in the next few hours to $42, then fell below $39 when it was announced that the operation was a success.
While recuperating in the hospital, Harold ordered the locks in his apartment changed and Yolanda's things carted away. But her things were more easily moved than Yolanda was. After Harold was released from the hospital, he and Yolanda were spotted lunching together in Toronto, apparently reconciled. A few days later, at Yolanda's request, police confiscated four pistols that she had found under her companion's bed. She was fearful, according to The Toronto Star, that a robber might break into the apartment, find the guns and shoot her and Harold.
It has made for mighty interesting reading in the Toronto papers, but whether any of this has influenced the Leafs' performance is debatable. Certainly, Stellick's adroit signing of free agents last summer has contributed to the team's apparent improvement this season. Veterans Brad Marsh, Dave Reid, Paul Gagne, Craig Laughlin and Doug Shedden were all signed from other organizations, giving Toronto much-needed depth, not to mention a more upbeat attitude, particularly in the cases of Marsh, Reid and Laughlin, who came from Philadelphia, Boston and Washington via L.A., respectively. "These guys have been with winning organizations," says Stellick. "That was important."
The Leafs have a nice mixture of veteran defensemen—Borje Salming, 37, Chris Kotsopoulos, 29, Marsh, 30, Darren Veitch, 28, and Rick Lanz, 27, will carry the load—and young forwards. The forwards are led by a pair of 20-year-olds, Vincent Damphousse (8 goals, 10 assists) and Dan Marois (8, 7), and 22-year-old Ed Olczyk (9, 10), whose 42 goals in 1987-88 were the highlight of an otherwise dismal season.
"We're not going to have any more on-the-job training programs on defense," says Stellick, who has had to make do without the services of his best player, 22-year-old left wing Wendel Clark, who has been out of action since last February because of injuries to the muscles in his back. "I decided some of our young players should play a little less and learn how to win a little more."
The final, and probably most important, move Stellick made was to call in the Leafs' crusty coach, 55-year-old John Brophy, and tell him to tone down his act. A hard-nosed, profane man who spent 21 years playing minor league hockey, Brophy last season won a power struggle with McNamara that led to McNamara's firing. Ballard likes Brophy's old-fashioned ways; but Brophy's relationship with his players had become nearly untenable by the end of last season.
"We were blaming the coach, and he was blaming the players," recalls Olczyk. "He's very intense and expects people to bust their butts all the time, in practice, pregame skate, whatever. He got on people too much. The game's got to be fun. It can't be war all the time. This year he's more relaxed."
"I told John his tirades had to be few and far between, and he agreed," says Stellick. "The players had stopped listening to him. Broph's positive attributes—his intensity, his will to win, his fiery nature—had gone overboard and turned into negatives."
No one in Toronto is going overboard over the Leafs just yet. But there's a growing belief that the team's no longer headed for the dumper.