As the 1970s were drawing to a close, sometimes (almost always?) bombastic and occasionally controversial Leaf owner Harold Ballard decided he needed—or just wanted— new leadership in the Maple Leaf executive offices. In my mind, Jim Gregory had been a pretty outstanding General Manager in Toronto. He had to overcome Ballard’s meddling and often toxic behavior and despite that, Gregory made many shrewd moves via trades and the draft, as I outlined in an earlier post in this series.
Of course not all of his moves worked, but what GM has a perfect track record?
In any event, Ballard dumped both Gregory and the man Ballard referred to as “Captain Video”, Roger Neilson, after the 1978-’79 season. Heading into the ‘80s, Ballard tried the old “back to the future thing”. Punch Imlach (the old Leaf GM and coach in the the 1960s) had just been axed in Buffalo, replaced by Scotty Bowman, who had himself turned down the chance to come to the Leafs because he didn’t want to work for Ballard- and in Harold’s circus atmosphere. Instead, Ballard re-united with Imlach, naming him to, ironically, succeed the man that had taken over from Punch in the summer of 1969—exactly ten years previous.
It was odd, to say the least. But that was Ballard. (Hey, George Steinbrenner hired and fired Billty Martin, what was it, five times with the Yankees in New York, right?)
What soon became clear upon his return to Toronto is that Punch had been watching the Leaf situation closely as it unfolded—from a distance. When he took over, he obviously thought Darryl Sittler, the team captain, was running not only the dressing room but the organization. He made it a point to put an end to what he evidently saw as Darryl having too much internal “power” at Maple Leaf Gardens. Imlach wasn’t all wrong. Sittler was the leader of the organization, on the ice and off. And maybe that wasn’t the healthiest thing. I don’t really know. But Imlach didn’t like it one bit.
Things came to a head right away when Punch refused to give permission for Leaf players (I think it was Salming, Sittler and Palmateer, but don’t hold me to that) to participate in a CBC/Hockey Night in Canada competition called “Showdown” or something along those lines. His public stance was that the players may get injured (the event was going to be taped in late August, I think, before training camp, when players may not have been in tip top shape. Players in those days didn’t spend all summer training like they do now…they went to camp to get into shape, so maybe Punch had a point…)
In any event, the relationship between Sittler and Imlach was poisoned right from the start.
During Imlach’s first turmoil-filled first season back, a player was quoted, anonymously, in the Globe & Mail newspaper, knocking Punch. Interestingly, respected columnist Scott Young (an Imlach biographer and friend of Punch) resigned from the paper, citing his disappointment that un-named sources (players) were used in his newspaper to slam Imlach. Young was a splendid writer, who had been on the sports beat and then became a public affairs columnist at the Globe starting in around 1973 for more than a decade. He was a very well-respected individual. (Whether his stand was "right" is a debate for another day. By this time, "Watergate" had made anonymous sources famous, and "sources" have always been a backbone of investigative journalism...)
On the ice, things got worse quickly for the Leafs. Imlach wanted to trade Sittler but couldn’t (no- trade clause, I think) so he dealt Sittler’s best friend away instead—Lanny McDonald. What a mess. Wilf Paiment who came back from Colorado was a nice player, but McDonald bled blue and white. Horrible deal. (Befitting Leaf moves of the time, Lanny went on to a classy Hall-of-Fa,e career, ending his career on a high as the captain of the Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames in 1989, scoring the clinching goal in the final game at the old Montreal Forum. An interesting side note, McDonald played briefly for former Bruin coach Don Cherry, still the famous Saturday night fixture on Hockey Night in Canada. Don never coached in the NHL again after he was fired in Colorado....Lanny is shown in action with the Rockies, at right.)
In any event, Imlach continued to dismantle the roster that Gregory had pieced together so judiciously over the years.
Some context might help: Brewer was a very bright guy. He was, in the early days of hockey, a true free-thinking, outside-the-box kind of guy. He was close with Al Eagleson, who brought union activity to the NHL players after earlier failed attempts. But it was also Brewer who had the guts to bring Eagleson down many years later and prove Eagleson did things that were illegal and harmed individual players. Brewer also took on the league and its illegal pension fund activities—and re-couped all kinds of money for former players. And he did it largely on his own, out a sense of duty and what is right.
I don’t want to spend too much time on Punch, but long story short, he dismantled the Gregory “team” and Toronto didn't make the playoffs in the spring of 1980. Imlach, who had hired a long-time colleague, Joe Crozier, to coach the Leafs, fell ill after a time and was (only in Toronto could this happen...) eventually essentially locked out of the Gardens by Ballard, when Punch was ready and wanted to come back to work. Gerry McNamara, a long-time Leaf goaltending farmhand and then scout, took over, if I recall correctly, as the new General Manager, first on an interim basis and then full-time.
McNamara was uncomfortable with the media and that unfortunately tainted his time in Toronto. He did some good things, though he was largely lambasted for decisions during his tenure in Toronto in the ‘80s.
He inherited a roster that still had John Anderson, a fast-skating young forward, Sittler and the young center that Imlach drafted in the summer of ’79, Laurie Boschman. (Later, Ballard would call out Boschman over the young center’s speaking openly about his religious faith, which, in Ballard’s mind, made Boschman a softer player than he initially had been with the Leafs…You really had to be there to follow this circus as this was all unfolding.)
On the positive side f things, one of my favorite Leafs in the early ‘80s was Rocky Saganiuk (right), a real little firebug who created havoc with his sparkplug style. Sadly, his coaches wanted him to become more of an up and down winger as I recall, and his career never became what it could have.
Just for fun, here are some of the guys who played with the Leafs in 1980-81: goalie Jiri Crha, Bruce Boudreau (yes, the longtime NHL coach), Pat Hickey, Greg Hotham (a nice defenseman with some skill), Mark Kirton, “Bunny” Larocque (Ken Dryden’s long-time back-up in Montreal), Stew Gavin, Dan Maloney, Terry Martin, Barry Melrose (yes, that Barry Melrose), ex-Sabre Rene Robert, Jim Rutherford (at the end of his career at the time, now the GM in Carolina) and Dave Shand.
They were all guys with talent, but some on the wrong side of their careers or too inexperienced. Whatever, the “fit” wasn’t right.
A big trade had seen Bill Derlago and Rick Vaive join the Leafs from Vancouver (Tiger Williams and Jerry Butler went the other way). Ex-Leaf Mike Nykoluk took over during the season as coach, but they didn’t make the playoffs in the spring of 1981, either.
In 1981-’82, a trio of young defensemen “made” the Leafs- Jim Benning, Fred Boimustruck and Bob McGill. They were all kind of rushed into the line-up prematurely. Imlach had talked about Benning very highly (all GM’s do when they draft a guy in the first round, eh?) but unfortunately invoked the name “Bobby Orr’ at one point and fans had unreasonable expectations of Benning. He was a deft passer with great vision but not a superstar talent. (Or maybe he would have been with proper coaching, I don’t know…)
But we again had a pretty scattershot roster, with a lot of guys in the line-up who were here sort of temporarily, like Ron Zannussi, ex-Sabre Don Luce (past his prime at this point), Norm Aubin, goalie Vincent Tremblay, Bob Manno and Melrose.
It wasn’t a great team, or a particularly good time to be a Leaf fan.
The next season (’82-’83) the Leafs actually made the playoffs, behind some nice pluggers like Dan Daoust and Greg Therrion. They were both small centers, but they generally worked pretty hard. Young winger Mirko Frycer brought some nice moves from Europe. I remember Gaston Gingras scored on a slapshop from center ice in a playoff game in Minnesota, but the Leafs lost the first-round series in four games (three games to one.) I think that was the year Mike Palmateeer returned to the Leafs to begin playing out what had become an injury-challenged career. (The photo of Palmateer at right shows Mike with the style of mask he wore at the tail end of his NHL career. It was very different from the one that had the old blue and white Maple Leaf on the front...). Stud rookie defensemen Gary Nylund, filled with so much promise (like the Luke Schenn, perhaps, of his day) was lost due to a major knee injury.
It was another tough season.
Former Red Wing star Dale McCourt played that season for the Leafs and showed flashes of his old form, but was not really an impact player anymore, though he wasn’t an old guy at like 27 years of age. I’m trying to remember if this was the season that Nylund had his second damaging knee injury. Jim Benning, meanwhile, had a pretty solid season. (He was only minus 4, playing big minutes, when some guys like Salming and Jim Korn were hovering around minus 35. Ouch.)
So it was indeed (another) season without playoff hockey in the springtime.
By 1984-’85, ex-Leaf forward Dan Maloney had been named Head coach. (He had been a playing assistant and then a full-time assistant coach under Nykoluk). Whereas Nykoluk might have been more of a player’s coach (though a sharp guy who had worked under “The Genius”, Fred Shero, in Philadelphia) Maloney was perhaps more direct and a lot more demanding, but it had little effect in terms of success. The team finished last overall. Benning joined the big-time “minus” crowd that season (minus 39 on the year), along with big Gary Nylund, who played his first healthy, full season in blue and white- and was minus 37. In fairness, these were kid defensemen learning in the big leagues on a pretty lousy team.
Rookie Al Iafrate (right) made the jump too soon, as well, pushed into the NHL at the age of 18. But he had talent—that you could see already. Remarkably, four different guys played more than 10 games in goal for the Leafs that season—Bester, Ken Wregget (another young, drafted net minder, who had played in the World Juniors with Bester) along with Rick St. Croix and Tim Bernhardt.
The good news is that, in the summer of ’86, because they were awful in the just completed season, the Leafs were able to select Wendel Clark from Saskatchewn and the Western Junior league with the number-one pick overall in the entire NHL draft. Leaf fans of the time know the impact that Wendel had pretty much from the moment he arrived in the 1986-’87 season. We had seen him in the World juniors and remembered then Philly GM Bobby Clarke saying..."Clark is a kid who is going to play that way (tough) his entire career...".
The Leafs, with former Sabres star Don Edwards taking the net for a good chunk of the season (though Wregget and Bernhardt played a lot, too), made the playoffs in Maloney’s second year behind the bench. Salming was the long-time veteran on defense, and youngsters like Leeman, Nylund, Steve Thomas and Iafrate all contributed. Tom Fergus was acquired from the Bruins (I seem to recall he had a contract dispute at the time with Harry Sinden, the long-time Bruins GM). Brad Maxwell, a big defenseman I had coveted for years was acquired from Minnesota as well, though he never was as comfortable in a Leaf uniform as he had been all those years with the North Stars, I didn’t feel.
Frycer had his career high of 32 goals (he could dance with the puck, though he was pretty much a one-way skill guy…) that season. The youngest of the famous Statsny brothers (Anton and Peter) Mariam, scored more than 20 goals that year. 20-year old rookie center Dan Hodgson, who had put up huge numbers as a junior out west, showed flashes of real potential but I believe he was injured at some point that season (I could be wrong…)
Gary Nylund played another full, healthy season and with Vaive, Leeman, Frycer, Clark, Courtnall, Thomas, Clark and Hodgson, you could say the future looked almost bright.
What I remember most about that season are two things that occurred in the playoffs. In the preliminary round, the Leafs had to face Chicago on the road in a best-of-five. During the first game at the old Chicago Stadium, the Leafs were getting hammered. I had to get to work really early the next morning (the kids were young at the time so life was a little different in those days with a young family…) and I turned off the game with the Leafs behind by something like three goals.
When I was heading out the door the next morning for work, I caught the tail-end a sports report on the radio. It sounded as though the Leafs had won the game. I thought, this can’t be right.
By the time I got to work, I had read the newspaper on the train and heard the news. The Leafs had in fact staged a great third-period comeback to beat the heavily-favored Hawks right in Chicago. Toronto went on to win another in the Windy City and capped the “sweep” (hey, only three games, but it counted to me as a sweep…) with a big win at home in Toronto on Saturday night.
The next series, against the Blues and a young Doug Gilmour, was a good one. It went back and forth, the Leafs winning Game 6 on a great solo effort by winger Walt Podubny, who scored late in the third period to break a tie and force a seventh game. Unfortunately, the Leafs didn’t have enough to upset the Blues.
The next season (1986-’87) was another small step important step in what looked like a Leaf turnaround under McNamara as the now entrenched GM. John Brophy was the new guy behind the bench. Maloney had wanted a long-term contract, more than Ballard was prepared to offer, and Maloney flew off to Winnipeg to coach there. Brophy brought his full head of white hair, a great wardrobe, a lengthy minor-league resume as a tough player and coach—and an acid tongue as well to his first and only NHL gig (he had been, I believe, am assistant under Maloney the season prior). It was probably the biggest pay day in the colorful Brophy’s career, though still likely far less than what the always cost-aware Ballard would have had to pay to retain Maloney.
Wregget and Bester shared goaltending duties under the prone-to-yell-a-lot Brophy. My sense at the time was that while “Broph”, as he was called, brought an immense amount of passion to his work, the players may have begun to tune him out after his rants began to wear off somewhat. Nonetheless, they made the playoffs again that season, and actually downed the Blues in 6 games in the first round.
Courtnall. Vaive, Thomas, Clark and Leeman were the big offensive producers, along with Fergus and 19-year old rookie, Vincent Damphouse. Todd Gill started taking on a bigger role on the blueline along with McGill, Iafrate and of course, Salming.
In the Detroit series, the Leafs took a three to one lead in games. In Game 4 at the Gardens, Mike Allison scored in OT from in close (I’m trying to remember if it was a wraparound goal of sorts) and the Leafs looked sure to advance.
I remember wishing Brophy would switch from Bester (who I really liked) to Wregget at that very point. It seemed like Bester played better when he did not know well in advance he was going to play. He’d play great when you didn’t expect it. Sadly, the Leafs lost Game 5 in Detroit with Bester in goal, and by the time they went back to Wregget (someone correct me if my memory is off) the Leafs didn’t win another game in the series.
That was disappointing, when it looked like the Leafs, for the first time in about a decade, would get to the third round.
Still under Brophy in 1987-’88, the Leafs went backwards in a big way, dropping from maybe 70 points in the regular season the year before to only 52. Somehow, they managed to get into the playoffs, only to be taken out in six by the Red Wings and Jacques Demers (who had a running feud of sorts with Brophy—mostly on Brophy’s part, as I recall—dating back to their coaching against each other in the minors).
Unfortunately, by the time he got to Toronto, he was largely spent as a difference maker and dynamic all-around performer. Olczyk was a popular Leaf in the time that he was here and led the Leafs in scoring that ’87-’88 season. Leeman, who had been a defenseman, was playing the wing and adjusting really well, especially paired with Olczyk. Mark Osborne, who we think of more as a checking winger under Pat Burns in the early ‘90s, was still a scorer at this point in his career (after playing with the Wings and Rangers). He put up a lot of points for the Leafs that season.
They had some offensive guys, but not enough grit on the forward lines. Former Canuck Rick Lanz played a lot on defense that season, along with Dale DeGray. (I liked DeGray a lot as a junior. I saw him develop in Oshawa…) Interestingly, they had former Oiler tough guy Dave Semenko that season, but he doesn’t stand out much for me when I think back to that season.
For all the positive things certain individual players achieved, overall, it was a mediocre team—and a bad season.
By 1988-’89, the franchise were lilting badly, and eventually the team sank under Brophy. By now, the Leafs had turned to Gord Stellick, a former kid staffer in public relations, as General Manager. Stellick may have been a knowledgeable hockey guy (many of us know he has gone on to be a very personable and well-liked radio talk show host over the past 20 or so years…) but I’m not sure he was quite equipped, from an experience standpoint, to run the Leafs.
Early in the destined-to-fail 1988-’89 season, Brohpy, by then in his third season behind the bench (but desperate for results to keep his job, perhaps) pushed Stellick to acquire Montreal tough guy John Kordic. While acquiring a tougher winger who would stand up for smaller teammates made sense in some ways, the price (Russ Courtnall) was way too stiff. Sadly, Korid led a troubled life, and died a few years later at a very young age.
Courtnall, for his part, went on to continue a long and relatively productive NHL career.
Brophy was fired about 35 games in. Former Leaf captain George Armstrong reluctantly took over on an interim basis to finish off the season—and it was a mess.
Olczcyk, Leeman, Damphouse and Fergus put up some nice offensive numbers, but Fergus managed to be a minus 38 despite earning almost 70 points on the season. A 20 year-old rookie, Daniel Marois, shocked everyone with a 31-goal season and Iafrate, now all of 22, had a breakout year with 13 goals and was a plus player as an emerging defenseman on a bad team. (I had loved Iafrate’s play in the previous year’s playoffs, or maybe it was the seven-game series two years before. He was using that long reach, big shot and great skating and looked like he was poised for super-stardom…). Luke Richardson, a first-round draft choice, made the team as a 19 year-old as well. Dave Reid, a fine checking winger, played in Toronto that season. (He later was a tremendous piece on Cup-winning teams, in that same role, with Dallas and Colorado, I seem to recall….)
Bester and Wregget were still sharing the Leaf goal, though young Jeff Reese played a few games as well that season. I’m trying to remember if this was the year (or if it was the season before) when the Leafs had a 5-0 lead one night at the Gardens against Chicago, and ending up losing 6-5. I was listening on the radio with the kids in the basement of our old house and you could just feel the energy drain out of the team that night as the game slipped away….
Whichever year it was, that lost lead was somewhat emblematic of that ‘80s decade for the Leafs—and for us as fans. There was on-again, off-again “promise”—tons of young players acquired or drafted, from Derlago and Vaive to Frycer and Clark and of course Leeman, Courtnall, Steve Thomas, Benning, Nylund, Todd Gill, etc.
We acquired guys like Maxwell and Secord who had been outstanding earlier in their careers, but less so in blue and white. We developed young goalies but ended up either destroying their confidence or sending them away.
I don’t blame McNamara, though he was part of what was, ultimately, a near-lost decade. Ballard was still calling some shots as the years went by, though age and ill heath were gaining on him as the organization—and the 80s—crawled (for Leaf fans) to an end.
Surely the '90s would be better, eh?