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Is it really “tough” to play in Toronto?

Playing in Toronto, whether a player starts their career here or ends up with the blue and white later in their NHL years, does not always end well for those players—or for (too demanding?) Maple Leaf fans. 

How many times does the story end well?  Heck, even Mats Sundin (pictured at right), a long-time Leaf with superstar talent, ended his career elsewhere—after ticking almost everyone off by not relenting to Cliff Fletcher’s request to obtain some assets for him in a trade. (To be honest, I was in the small group who had no problem with Sundin wanting to stay in Toronto at the time.  Why would he want to “help” the organization, if he was going to play somewhere else?  But that’s a friendly debate for another time.)

On the surface, a lot of us probably have the impression that Toronto is a difficult market for a lot of players to be a Leaf.  But is that really the case?  Is Toronto actually a tough place to play when you’re a Maple Leaf? 

Well, again, we’ve heard that many times over the years.  However, some players say that’s an over-reaction, that Toronto is the best place in the world to play.  Yet there does seem to be a long line of players who left town (or were run out of town) under less than favorable circumstances.

Personally, I don’t know the real answer.  It must be different for every player and his family, depending on whether they enjoy the spotlight when things go well- and the intense scrutiny when they don’t go well.  Throw in a host of things that non-professional hockey players (like the rest of us) can’t possibly understand and it becomes rather complicated.

In any event, history tells an interesting story.  Back in the 1960s, Maple Leaf star Frank Mahovlich suffered from anxiety while playing under the microscope of Punch Imlach and the sometimes harsh fan base in Toronto.  In the early ‘70s, another talented forward, Mike Walton, experienced similar issues (which had started under Imlach and continued under new General Manager Jim Gregory) and demanded a trade out of town.

A few years ago, one of the classiest leafs of all-time, Ron Ellis, a Leaf fixture in the 1960s and ‘70s, revealed that he had struggled from depression issues through his years playing in Toronto.  Now, anxiety and depression are serious health issues, and it’s impossible to know if certain individuals would have experienced these difficulties regardless of being hockey players- or if they hadn’t played hockey in Toronto.  But being a Leaf does seem to bring certain pressures.

I’ve plucked a few names from memory who played here through the years, in a very un-scientific effort, to try to determine if players generally could combine good performance and a good overall experience playing for the Leafs in Toronto.  Readers can certainly add names to the list:

           
1970s key Leafs

  • Dave Keon- 15 years a Leaf and long-time captain, was shoved out the door by the team owner
  • Darryl Sittler- Leaf first-round choice in 1970, great career in blue and white, but a messy and unpleasant exit
  • Paul Henderson- Team Canada hero never quite reached his promise in Toronto.  Didn’t trust Harold Ballard and left for the WHA
  • Jacques Plante- played very well in Toronto, despite earlier asthma issues in a HOF career
  • Promising youngsters Rick Ley, Brad Selwood, Bernie Parent and Jim Harrison all jumped to the WHA when ownership wouldn't "pay up"
  • Lanny McDonald- after some fine years, was traded by a vengeful returning GM (Imlach)
  • Bill "Cowboy" Flett- 40 goal scorer before he hit Toronto, but struggled with the blue and white
  • Gary Sabourin- regular 20-goal scorer with the Blues, but couldn’t stay healthy in Toronto
  • Rick Kehoe- blossomed after leaving Toronto
  • Mike Palmateer- “the saviour” in his early days, also traded
  • Tiger Williams- tough guy who gave his all, traded to Vancouver
  • Borje Salming- HOF career, finished his career in….Detroit, of all places
  • Dave Burrows- never quite played as well here as he did in Pittsburgh
  • Dave Maloney- helped in the spring of ’78 but never had the impact he had in LA and Detroit
  • Randy Carlyle- Leaf draft choice went on to be a Norris Trophy winner somewhere else
  • John Anderson- Leaf draft choice played well here, traded

(That's 18 less than positive exits in this small sample from that decade. I'm sure there were others I haven't mentioned.)

1980s key Leafs

  • Laurie Boschman- first round pick was disrespected by Harold Ballard; had a nice career elsewhere
  • Billy Harris- former Marlie star never played as he had with the Islanders
  • Russ Courtnall- nice start in Toronto, traded
  • Gary Leeman- 50-goal scorer, then traded
  • Dale McCourt -former first overall pick had little left once he hit Toronto
  • Brad Maxwell- never played as well here as he did in Minnesota
  • Al Iafrate- brilliant talent, experienced internal team conflict, traded
  • Alan Bester- much promise, no coaching, traded
  • Rick Vaive- 50-goal scorer, acquired in a trade, got—and lost—the captaincy, ultimately traded
  • Bill Derlago- like Vaive, acquired then traded
  • Wendel Clark- three times a Leaf, hero to many, traded twice but finished his career in Toronto
  • Steve Thomas- Leafs didn’t hold on to him long enough the first time around
  • Vincent Damphouse- first round pick; traded and had a tremendous career elsewhere
  • Al Secord- fine career before being traded to Toronto
(Another 13 less than positive exits.)

1990s key Leafs

  • Sylvain Lefebvre- played the best hockey of his career here; traded
  • Doug Gilmour- legendary status in Toronto, traded
  • Kirk Muller- better player before and after he left the Leafs
  • Rob Ramage- fine player but not a major impact guy in Toronto for whatever reason
  • Luke Richardson- drafted in Toronto, long NHL career with other teams
  • Glenn Anderson- not the player he had been in his hey-day with the Oilers
  • Mike Foligno- contributor in Toronto but he was a star in Detroit and Buffalo
  • Bob Rouse- played some fine hockey with the Leafs but left in free-agency
  • Ken Linseman- had an excellent career, but arrived very late in his career to Toronto
  • Dave Andreyckuk- excelled in Toronto, but won a Cup elsewhere after leaving the blue and white
  • Mike Gartner- had a HOF career but his Toronto years were just OK
  • Dave Gagner- a wonderful career before he hit Toronto; less of an impact here
  • Larry Murphy- enjoyed much greater success before and after Toronto in a HOF career
  • Freddie Modin- never quite fulfilled his promise until he left Toronto
  • Steve Sullivan- excelled after he left Toronto
(14 more examples of either a tough time playing in Toronto, or a lousy departure.)

2000s key Leafs

  • Owen Nolan- acquired at trade deadline, ended badly in Toronto; played much better before and after he left Toronto
  • Ron Francis- acquired at trade deadline; HOF career before he arrived in Toronto; no impact here
  • Brian Leetch- acquired late in his career but little impact after HOF career with the Rangers
  • Bryan McCabe- booed at times here but played the best hockey of his career under Quinn after being traded to Toronto; traded
  • Nik Antropov- I don’t know what to say; a guy with eternal “potential”
  • Shayne Corson- a gritty player, some memorable Leaf moments but it ended badly here
  • Alex Mogilny was a shadow of his best self by the time he got to Toronto, but had some moments
  • Gary Roberts- full value for his time in blue and white but still finished his career elsewhere
  • Chad Kilger- had his best years under Quinn in Toronto but later traded
  • Eric Lindros- Leaf fans wanted him for years. Arrived a bit too late.
  • Jason Blake- never thrived in Toronto
  • Pavel Kubina- one of those defensemen who was more appreciated before and after his time with the Leafs
  • Vesa Toskala- it never happened for him in Toronto
  • Lee Stempniak- better before and after Toronto
(14 more not so positive examples.)

The point of this exercise?  While some of the players I listed above certainly played well in Toronto, few if any retired here under positive circumstances.  It would seem that the majority of players mentioned in this rather modest “survey” were either pushed out of town unceremoniously, did not bring their “A” game to Toronto when they were actually here or at the very least were traded away.  In fairness, sometimes players got here too late in their careers, or left before they reached their prime.

Others had issues with coaches, fans, or management. Some left because that’s just the nature of the business of hockey.

Again, this is hardly scientific.  And I’m sure fans in other markets may be able to tell similar tales.

This is simply to remind ourselves that guys want to do well when they’re here, but it doesn’t always happen.  It may be in their heads, the pressure they feel, it may be unfair expectations, it might be the fan reaction (e.g. Larry Murphy), who really knows? 

Leaf fans love their team, and I’m sure Montreal fans—with 10 Stanley Cups since 1967— will laugh if we say our “standards” or expectations are too high here.

But the fan interest, meshed with the intense media glare, does make Toronto a rather challenging market.  Whether this reality is part of why the Leafs have not made it to the finals in so long is impossible to assess with certainty. 

And this has been Burke’s challenge from the beginning—and continues to be.  He needs to continue to attract and obtain players who can not only perform at an elite level together, but also in the “Toronto reality”.

4 comments:

  1. "Al Iafrate- brilliant talent, experienced internal team conflict, traded"
    Langlois is the master of understatement.

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  2. What about Felix Potvin? Certainly not the ideal departure after doing yeoman's work for the Leafs often with little help.

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  3. Good point about Felix. As I mentioned in my post, these were just a few names I was recalling as I was writing. He could be on that list, for sure.

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  4. Long suffering Leaf fanJanuary 18, 2011 at 6:24 PM

    Dave Keon , Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Mats Sundin for sure should have retired as Leafs. Rick Ley wanted to stay with the Leafs, but management wouldn’t budge another 10,000, he ended taking the New England offer which was 60,000 more than what the Leafs offered. Another player that had his struggles with the pressure in T.O was Jim Mckenny. He battle alcoholism throughout his modest career.

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