It was a confession, it was an apology. It was an envelope full
of chunks of masonry, delivered by courier to Toronto's Maple
Leaf Gardens last month. During a tour of the Gardens last
summer, a souvenir-hungry fan from British Columbia had chiseled
a few brick fragments from the walls of the storied building and
smuggled the rubble off the premises.
After the season began and Toronto sank to the bottom of the NHL
standings, the thief had a change of heart. Fearing that he'd
somehow desecrated the old barn, thereby jinxing the Maple
Leafs, he returned the fragments with a note of apology. What
the fan didn't know was that the Gardens, once described by
Toronto owner Steve Stavro as hockey's "mother temple," home of
11 Stanley Cup champions and 44 Hall of Famers, had already been
desecrated, repeatedly and obscenely.
Just when the soft, slow, old, underachieving, last-place Maple
Leafs thought things couldn't get worse, the ghastly secrets of
60 Carlton Street began coming to light. On Feb. 18, Toronto
police arrested Gordon Stuckless, 47, a former Gardens
maintenance man, and charged him with "indecent assault of a
male" and "gross indecency" for allegedly performing lewd sex
acts on a minor. Three days later they arrested John Paul Roby,
who had worked as a Gardens usher since 1971, on 11 counts of
sexual assault against six boys, although detective Dave
Tredrea, the lead investigator, told SI on Sunday that he had
received complaints from 49 alleged victims.
By week's end police were preparing a separate investigation
involving five other alleged perpetrators, two of whom may be
former Gardens employees. The alleged assaults, not all of which
occurred in the Gardens, took place over three decades, ending
in 1993. The details that have emerged are chilling: Adolescents
were lured with hockey sticks and game tickets given out by
Gardens workers and then assaulted behind Zambonis, in saunas
and boiler rooms.
Coming less than two months after former junior hockey coach
Graham James of Calgary was convicted of sexually assaulting two
of his players (SI, Jan. 13), news of the Gardens scandal rocked
Canada, where the Maple Leafs have a strong national following.
With the Montreal Forum recently razed, the Gardens, with its
dun-colored bricks and cantilevered roof, may be Canada's most
recognizable and beloved building. When the Maple Leafs held
their disgracefully belated press conference to address the
scandal on Feb. 24, two Canadian television networks interrupted
their regularly scheduled programs to carry it live.
One day later the Leafs jolted Toronto again by trading
33-year-old captain Doug (Killer) Gilmour, the scrappy, highly
skilled center who had been Toronto's emotional leader and best
player this decade. Gilmour was dealt to the New Jersey Devils
along with 32-year-old silver-haired defenseman Dave Ellett and
a draft pick for a trio of players so young that, according to
one Canadian columnist with a penchant for black comedy,
"they'll need to be chaperoned around the Gardens."
The shipping of Killer to East Rutherford amounted to an
admission by the Maple Leafs, who through Sunday had the worst
record in the league (24-37-2), that their 1996-97 season is
over. Toronto has endured a stunning reversal of fortune. Four
years ago the Leafs were an overtime goal away from reaching the
Stanley Cup finals for the first time since winning the trophy
in 1967. The next season they appeared in their second
consecutive Western Conference finals. But Toronto coach Mike
Murphy, who was an assistant back then, recalls, "It was pretty
clear that we'd gotten from that group of guys as much as we
were going to get. It was time to retool."
Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher became a retooling fool,
pulling the trigger on 29 trades over the next two seasons.
Among the players he dealt or didn't re-sign were veteran
forwards Dave Andreychuk, Dave Gagner and Mike Gartner. Still,
he was unable to prevent Toronto from tumbling to the bottom of
the Central Division standings. The Gilmour deal last week was
another splash of Grecian Formula for one of the NHL's oldest
clubs. "Three years from now, when Gilmour and Ellett are
retired, we're going to have three guys who are 26, 25 and 22,"
says Fletcher. "We're paying now, but we'll get paid off later."
While he awaits the payoff, Murphy must work with a roster
featuring a bunch of guys who are past their primes and a bunch
of guys hoping that they'll have a prime. Says Murphy, "We're a
team under reconstruction." So pardon their appearance.
In their first game after "the Dougie trade," as many Maple
Leafs players glumly referred to the Gilmour deal, Toronto
somnambulated through a 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals.
Afterward, some Leafs were asked if they believed they could
make the playoffs. "Hey, there are still 20 games left," said
left wing Nick Kypreos. "Sometimes when an animal is wounded,
that's when he's at his most dangerous."
That's true, Nick. At other times, that animal seeks out a
secluded place in which to expire, which is what most of the
Maple Leafs seemed content to do against the Caps. It did not
reflect well on Toronto's veterans that the most energetic Leaf
was a 5'9" sprite of a center named Steve Sullivan, one of the
players acquired from New Jersey. Sullivan, 22, set up Toronto's
lone score. Converting his feed was creaking 30-year-old winger
Wendel Clark, who can still pop the odd goal but who no longer
Now in his 12th NHL season, Clark can't mete out the punishment
or play the physical style that once made him one of the
scourges of the league. After trading him to the Quebec
Nordiques two years ago, Fletcher brought Clark, who had
subsequently been dealt to the New York Islanders, back to
Toronto last March. As has often been the case of late with
Fletcher's transactions, a team other than the Leafs ended up
congratulating itself. To get Clark and defenseman Mathieu
Schneider, Fletcher surrendered to the Islanders promising
22-year-old defenseman Kenny Jonsson and Toronto's first-round
pick in this spring's entry draft.
That draft choice stands a strong chance of being the top pick
overall. The first player likely to be selected is Joe Thornton,
a 6'4", 200-pound forward of vast skill and promise who hails
from London, Ont., 100 miles from Toronto, and whose every NHL
goal will prompt people in the province to remark, "He could've
been a Leaf, eh?"
Well, this is supposed to be the deepest and most talent-laden
draft in years. Can Toronto surprise everyone and come up with a
stud in the second round? No, it can't, and not just because
scouting has never been a Maple Leafs strength. The Leafs don't
have a pick in the second round: Fletcher sent it to the
Philadelphia Flyers two summers ago--along with last year's
first-round pick--for Dimitri (-19) Yushkevich, a defenseman
Toronto had not thoroughly scouted, who turned out to have a
chronically bad knee and who through Sunday had all of two goals
this season. Toronto is now trying desperately to peddle him.
Enough Fletcher-bashing, however. The Leafs would not be in the
NHL's subbasement without the underachievement of such players
as Mats Sundin, a talented center who has been invisible since
the All-Star break; goalie Felix (the Cat) Potvin, who has been
a dog since last season; and defenseman Larry Murphy, Toronto's
highest-paid player ($2.35 million) and biggest disappointment.
Word around the Gardens last spring was that the Leafs' board of
directors pressured Fletcher into reacquiring the popular Clark.
Fletcher, a company man, neither confirms nor denies this. Nor
will he attribute his off-season jettisoning of Andreychuk,
Gagner and Gartner--combined goals this season at week's end:
71--to the need to dump salaries to meet the budget imposed on
him by Stavro.
Fletcher at least deserves some credit for the respect he has
shown Toronto's tradition. Shortly after joining the
organization in 1991, he hung the Leafs' Stanley Cup banners
from the rafters and opened his arms to team alumni, two things
the previous regime had not done.
Harold Ballard, the colorful convicted felon (47 counts of fraud
and theft) who owned the Leafs from 1971 until his death in '90,
was much more concerned with his revenue stream than tradition.
During his austere regime Toronto's Stanley Cup banners were not
on display in the Gardens; painters, in fact, once used them for
Yet even while Ballard ignored the Leafs' heritage, put a crummy
product on the ice and watered down sodas to squeeze as much
profit as he could from concession stands, the Gardens sold out.
In fact, it still sells out. As bad as the Leafs are, no team
draws higher TV ratings in Canada. No NHL ticket is tougher to
However, when sellouts are assured, win or lose, an owner's
incentive to improve his team can disappear along with his sense
of accountability to the public. This might explain the Leafs'
six-day delay in holding a press conference after the Gardens
sex abuse scandal erupted. It might explain why Stavro took a
powder when the press conference finally occurred. It was left
to Fletcher, Murphy and the players to express sorrow for what
"It's so sad," Kypreos said after last Thursday's practice.
"Maybe some good will come out of it. Maybe it will be a wake-up
call to parents. Know where your kids are and who they're
hanging out with."
Even as Kypreos spoke, the dressing room was overrun by
11-year-old boys. A Mighty Atom-level team from Guelph, Ont.,
was being given a tour by Toronto assistant coach Mike Kitchen.
Half the boys clustered around the stick rack and became
slack-jawed with covetousness. The other half stood mesmerized
before the stall in which Gilmour's gear had hung. Said one of
the boys' coaches, "They'll talk about this for the rest of the
And cheer for the Leafs, most likely, for the rest of their
lives. Sex scandal? It'll be forgotten. Lousy team? Maybe it'll
improve, maybe it won't. Either way, Toronto makes money. The
same old saw you hear in Las Vegas applies to Maple Leaf
Gardens, Ltd.: The house always wins.