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The Leaf legacy in my lifetime: Part V, the 1990s

As we await any (unlikely?) major moves on the part of the Maple Leafs on Monday, "deadline day", it seemed as good a time as any to take a step back and continue with my "primer series" on "The Leaf Legacy in my Lifetime" which I've been running here these past few Sundays.

Today is "Part V", the 1990s.

That said, if anything breaks Monday, I will aim to be back with some current Leaf talk late Monday regarding any recent developments in Leaf world.  (I'll also try to be on Twitter at times, for anyone who might like to discuss any trade-day happenings...)

In case you might be interested in more current issues, as we wait (and did not catch them over the past while) here are some recent posts:

-On Wilson's future

-What's the most you would give up to bring in Nash

-Is Jake Gardiner really an untouchable?

-Do the Leafs "need" to make the playoffs?

-Some Leafs that could be moved on Monday

-Brian Burke:  the legend and the myth


The ‘90s could not come quickly enough for most of us as Leaf fans.  While there were a few highlights (being bad enough to earn the “right” to draft Wendel Clark first overall, a tough western kid with a huge heart) and a thrill here and there (upsetting the Hawks in the playoffs, the Mike Allison overtime winner against the Red Wings…),  I tend to remember the ‘80s as a generally lousy decade in Leaf history.

Sadly, it seemed that, as Harold Ballard, the aging and publicly cantankerous team owner got older, he grew increasingly involved in the team’s operations- and increasingly ineffective, if that was possible.  Whether my perception of his day-to-day involvement was fully accurate or not, he was, unfortunately, the face of the franchise far too often because of his public comments and generally outrageous/outlandish ownership style.  In fairness, I’m sure some former players would stand by Ballard and say he was a swell guy, but from a fan perspective, the team was getting worse—much worse, throughout the ‘80s, compared with the ‘60s and ‘70s.

On the ice, the 1989-’90 season was middlish in terms of results.  (That was after  the summer we drafted three first-rounders—all from the Belleville Bulls.  All were good players and made it to the NHL.  One of them played over 1,000 games, I believe.  The criticism of the selections wasn’t about the kids in question.  Critics just wondered why the Leafs had scouts at all, if we weren’t going to bother going just beyond the broader Toronto area to draft our players…) 

The team finished with 80 points in 80 games that season, which, by then recent Leaf standards, wasn’t (sadly) too bad at all.  Doug Carpenter, who had coached the Devils for a time, was a bright, experienced and innovative coach.  If you just look at the names on the roster, you’d say hey, that was a actually pretty talented team.  You have to remember that this was the tail-end of the high-flying and high-scoring ‘80s.  That was the year of Gary Leeman’s breakout 50-goal campaign.  Eddie Olczyk was a big part of Leeman’s success as I recall, along with winger Mark Osborne.  (Osborne is best remembered as a checker here in later years, but he was a scorer in his early days with the Wings, Rangers and Leafs…)

We also had Daniel Marois, with 39 goals, and of course Clark, though he missed about half the season with injuries.  Dan Daoust was still around in a checking role, along with Dave Reid and rugged Lou Franceschetti, who had a big year that season with over 20 goals.  Former top pick Vincent Damphouse was one of the stories of the season, piling up over 90 points.

On the backline, we had an interesting mix, to say the least.  Brad Marsh, surely one of the last Maple Leafs not to wear a helmet, was a solid, if slow-footed, mainstay.  Al Iafrate, though struck by serious knee injuries, was emerging as a talented player.   Young Luke Richardson, a top draft pick, was a comer, too, tough and improving.  Todd Gill was around, as was big Brian Curran, who picked up over 300 minutes in penalties that season.  Tom Kurvers (acquired from the Devils for what turned out to be future Hall-of-Famer Scott Niedermayer, ouch) was a nice player, contributing 50+ points from the blueline, along with Rob Ramage, the team’s captain, who provided similar offensive production.

In goal, we still had little Allan Bester, who shared time with Mark Laforest and Jeff Reese.  In the playoffs, we lasted one round and five games, Reese winning that one contest against the Blues, a regular playoff match-up on those days because of the divisional set-up.

The term doesn’t really apply, but it was almost an 'eclectic' mix, if you will—a little bit of everything:  some speed, offensive talent, promising youngsters, toughness and the ever-present “potential”.  But at the end of the day, the team was mediocre, for the time.

In 1990-’91, former Leaf player Floyd Smith and Sabres coach was still the General Manager (it’s funny, his role has almost been lost in my memory…), though a bad start to the season cost Carpenter his job.  He was replaced by former University of Toronto coach Tom Watt (left), a very bright young hockey guy who had achieved modest success in Vancouver, though a bit more so before that with the Winnipeg Jets in the 1980s.  But it was not a good season for Leaf backers. While the team started the year with a lot of the same faces from the previous season, there were a ton of trades.  Gone were guys like Olczyk, John McIntryre (a rugged young forward a liked), Osborne, Iafrate, Kordic and Bester.

It was, in effect the beginning of the make-over that would pay dividends fairly shortly thereafter.  In came Bob Rouse, Mike Foligno, ex-Oiler center Mike Krushelnyski, along with Dave Ellett and Peter Zezel.

During the off-season, Cliff Fletcher was brought in as General Manager.  Now, while Cliff is revered here for what I’m about to talk about, his legacy, in my opinion, was/is nowhere near as successful as that of Bill Torrey on Long Island.  Both teams (the Islanders and Atlanta Flames) were early 1970s expansion franchises, joining the NHL the same season.  Torrey ran the Isles, Fletcher the Flames, both from "Day One".  Fletcher would have you believe that to sell the game in the south, you had to have “known” names, and perhaps he was right.  But it took him better than 15 years to win his one and only Stanley Cup (and that only once the franchise re-located to Calgary).  Meanwhile, Torrey built with a better mix of young players, drafted much better than Fletcher and won four Cups by the middle of the 1980s.  (Fletcher won his Cup as GM in 1989 in Calgary.)  This is not to diminish  Fletcher as a hockey guy.  He is quite rightly well-regarded.  But Torrey had him hands-down, head to head.

That aside, it was a great stroke for the new Leaf ownership (I’m trying to remember if, on the heels of Ballard’s death, Don Giffen a long-time Board member, was the team President who hand-picked Fletcher—I’m hoping someone with a better memory of that precise period may be able to enlighten me…)

Fletcher built very well and aggressively on the moves Smith had embarked upon.  Watt was still the coach that season, which was more about building for a quick return to being a contender than necessarily simply making the playoffs in the spring of ’92.  He started his own personal “hit” parade by sending a bunch of guys to the Oilers (including Luke Richardson and Damphouse) for Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr.   The Oilers got two talented young players for two older guys, but it helped the Leafs for a time.  Fletcher’s really huge deal, one that will always stand out in the minds of beleaguered Leaf fans, was the one that brought a disgruntled Doug Gilmour (he was at odds with then Flame GM Doug Risebrough) to Toronto in a massive 9-player (or whatever it was) deal. Leeman and goalie Jeff Reese went the other way, but somehow Fletcher also got Jamie Macoun and Rick Nattrass, both highly useful defensemen, along with Gilmour.

He also picked up rugged Ken Baumgartner and re-acquired Mark Osborne and Brad Marsh in other trades.  That summer, just before the draft in ’92 summer, he sent mid-range picks to Washington for a first rounder (Grant Marshall…who did not have an impact with the Leafs but as I recall had some nice seasons elsewhere later…).

The Leafs (having missed the playoffs) went into the 1992-’93 season with a new look, and a very new face behind the bench. In came Pat Burns, the ex-Montreal cop who had coached the Habs for four seasons with some success, including a trip to the finals in 1989.  Under the demanding motivator with the great mustache and tough-guy look, the Leafs had a big season, getting to an impressive 99 points during the regular-season.  Along the way, Fletcher kept fine-tuning, bringing in John Cullen, an offensive center from the Whalers, Sylvain Lefebvre from Montreal for a third-round pick (now that was a steal…) and the really big one that season, when he stole Dave Andreychuk from the Sabres (unloved there at that point after many years, much as Tim Connolly was at the end of his time in Buffalo) for a rapidly aging, though not fully in decline Grant Fuhr.

The trade was made possible because Fletcher and Burns began to believe what young Felix Potvin, all of maybe 22 or so at the time, was ready to assume the job as the top guy in in the Leaf net.  We had not really had anyone run with that ball, as it were, for quite some time.  Ken Wreggett had, to an extent, but Potvin really stole everyone’s attention—and the show.

Come playoff time, the Leafs were underdogs, and I think it’s fair to say that no one expected much, especially since the Red Wings, who had been building for some team now around people like Steve Yzerman, looked as though they were ready for a serious run at the Cup.

The first two games of the playoffs, it sure looked that way.  The Wings ran over the Leafs, physically. There were mumblings from Red Wing players about Wendel Clark, our captain, being a lot tougher player at home than he was on the road.  Detroit won the first two games and were soaring heading to Game 3 at the Gardens.

Clark took things into his own hands early, setting a physical tone.  The Leafs responded, and behind Potvin, turned the series around.  They won two close games, then captured an overtime game in Detroit to take the series lead.  They then, however, fell flat at home in Game 6.  Yzerman, criticized for not being a good leader in the press and by frustrated Wing fans, responded with a big game that night.

That set the stage for Game 7.

To provide some additional personal perspective, the Leafs that year really re-ignited my love affair with the team, the feeling that I had had with them since the late ‘50s.  Oh, I had watched pretty closely through the ‘80s, but like a lot of fans was discouraged that things were simply never progressing consistently.  (Our family was growing, our kids were really young and there wasn’t always the time to devote to watching a not-very-good team every single night.)  One good draft, or one decent season, would seemingly always be followed by a lousy draft and a crummy season where we would take huge steps backwards.  It was difficult to be hopeful and truly “believe”.

So having been bit so many times before, by Game 7 in Detroit, in that wonderful spring of 1993, I could not even watch.  I trolled around the house that night, watching TV, wondering what the score was but afraid to actually check for updates.  I would occasionally flick on that great old channel (the predecessor to what we know in Canada know as “The Score” television network/channel).  Back then, it was just a station with a red screen, light popular/rock music, and a flashing sports scoreboard ticker-tape.  When I saw the game went into overtime, it was too much.

I would flip back on occasion, expecting the worst.  Then came the moment when the “ticker” claimed the Leafs had won in overtime.  I didn't believe it…but I immediately rushed to put the game on and had it confirmed:  the Leafs were celebrating, and they were indeed advancing to the next round, because of little Nicki Borschevky’s marvelous deflection.

The subsequent series against the Blues was when a lot of us first really got a glimpse of just how good Curtis Joseph was.  The young St. Louis netminder stood on his head.  Only Doug Gilmour’s memorable “wrap-around” magic in OT gave us the Game 1 win.  St. Louis evened the series with an OT win themselves in Game 2 and then really outplayed the Leafs back home to take a 2-1 lead in the series.  I think Game 4 was a Sunday afternoon game, and the Leafs played a solid road game to even the series.  They split the next two before Toronto hammered a St. Louis team that just didn’t have a lot left for Game 7 at the Gardens.  The Leafs jumped out to something like a 5-0 lead.  I was late getting home that night, and when I turned on the radio and heard the score, I felt a huge sigh of relief.

Could we actually make it to the finals, for the first time since I was 13 years of age, in 1967?

Sadly, as many of you well know, we couldn’t.  Oh, we played like hell against Gretzky and the LA Kings in the semi-finals.  Our no-name defense (Gill, Ellett, Macoun, Lefebvre, Yushkevich, etc.) were great.  Gilmour was amazing.  Potvin wasn’t perfect but always seemed to bounce back after a tough night.  (Burns would go for a skate and have a little talk with Felix, reminding them they were in this together…just bolstering his confidence…)  Foligno wasn't the player he had been a decade before but he chipped in.  Zezel, Osborne and Bill Berg (that's guy that Burns said - when Berg had been acquired by Fletcher- that he wouldn’t know Berg if he ran over him) were so good as a checking unit—and penalty-killers.  We had such a nice blend of scoring with Andreychuk and company and a good “system” under Burns—a system which, as best I could decipher, was: don’t make stupid passes and work like hell.

It all ended, well, it’s painful to tell the story.  We had a 3-2 lead in games after Glenn Anderson scored in overtime in a tense Game 5 affair at the Gardens.  Back at the LA Forum, the Leafs exploded in a wild third-period comeback, Clark playing maybe the best hockey of his life and virtually willing the Leafs back into that game.  But then, there was the missed Gretzky high stick on Gilmour, the Gretzky overtime goal not long after, and #99’s even better performance in Game 7 at the Gardens.

Some context for the late series Gretzky "turn sound":  then well-known hockey writer Bob McKenzie had penned a column, after game 5, that Gretzky was playing like he had a "piano on his back".  Not surprisingly, Gretzky did read the comment, and if that guy ever needed any extra motivation (he later admitted it did work him up) well, he had it.

The Leafs had managed to tie the game at 3 in the third period in Game 7, but we never got the lead.  I think that night was the first time some of my then young children had seen, well, let’s just say a certain level of intensity on my part as I was watching a hockey game—one where the outcome really mattered to me.  I don't know if they were shocked, horrified or what, but it was more emotion than I would usually demonstrate in front of them, as I literally begged the Leafs out loud to play the best hockey of their lives for the last 15 minutes of that game.  They tried, but they lost 5-3, or 5-4 or whatever it was.  (I think we scored in the dying seconds to make it close, but you knew it was over…)

The “final” series that seemed destined to be, like ’67, between Montreal and Toronto, the two great historical Canadian rivals, was not to be.  After weeks of honking horns, flags on cars, people walking the streets in Leaf jerseys, sports talk radio like it had never been before, everyone abuzz all around the Toronto area, there was a palpable feeling in the city the next day.  It was…over.  Just like that. (Much like when the Blue Jays lost a three games-to-one lead in the 1985 playoffs, missing a chance to advance to the World Series for the first time in their history…but because it was hockey, and the Leafs, the feeling was much, much worse…)

1993-’94 started with great promise.  Pretty much all the familiar faces were back.  We started the season with something like a 10-game winning or unbeaten streak.  They flattened out but the big start enabled the Leafs to still finish the season with 98 points.  They looked pretty good in beating a young Eddie Belfour and the Blackhawks in the first round.  Then, they were life and death to beat the San Jose Sharks, of all people, in round two.  In fact, if (I think it was Johan Garpenlov, but I could be wrong) who hit the crossbar in overtime in Game 6; otherwise the Leafs would never have made it to the final four for a second year in a row.

After winning Game 1 in OT against the Canucks in the semi-finals, I was shocked at how easily, relatively speaking, Toronto went out after that—four straight against a very solid and well-coached Vancouver team (Pat Quinn was the coach there at the time…).

My recollection is that that series, in particular (and probably the near-loss against the Sharks) told Cliff Fletcher that he needed to do something, urgently, before the Leafs got too old and could no longer compete at that level.  So that summer, he sent Captain Wendel (left) off to Quebec in a heart-wrenching deal that brought Mats Sundin here.

Unfortunately, the intention was to re-build or re-work on the fly, and not miss a beat.  Instead, in the short-term, the team got worse, not better, in 1994-’95.  Some of you will recall that was the lockout/strike-shortened season.  The Leafs struggled, and lost in the first round in 7 games against the Black Hawks, after leading the series two games to none.  It was not a good way to end the season, one that had seen trader-Cliff pull all kinds of strings in an effort o get the team over the hump.

But despite bringing in Benoit Hogue, Rich Sutter, Tie Domi, Paul DiPietro (the ’93 Montreal playoff hero) and Warren Rychel, the Leafs weren’t going anywhere.

A lot of draft choices had been sent away in Fletcher’s time, not that that necessarily hurt at the time as he had picked up some quality along the way.  But there was not a lot of youth, shall we say, in the “system” at the time.

By 1995-’96, things were getting progressively worse.  Burns was in his fourth season behind the Leaf bench, and this was an era when that was a long time to be behind the bench, when the classic “tune out” factor that we talk about tended to rear its head.  It certainly seemed to happen, as the Leafs went into a swoon.  Despite bringing in future Hall-of-Famer Larry Murphy the summer prior, the Leafs struggled.  Murphy was booed.  Burns was fired.  Andreychuk was traded away.  So was talented young defenseman Kenny Jonnson, to re-acquire Wendel Clark and Matthieu Schneider.

But it was all for naught, as the Leafs, under captain Gilmour and interim coach Nick Beverley, fell with little fanfare to St. Louis in 6 games in the first round.

Heading into 1996-’97, you didn’t have to be a hockey expert to know the wheels had fallen off.  When things were good, Fletcher’s free-spending (and reportedly personally lavish) ways were revered and accepted—but less so when the team struggled.  That summer, he jettisoned more players, including Todd Gill, Ken Baumgartner, Mike Gartner and Dave Gagner.  He was starting to acquire assets and draft choices, but it was a stunning reversal of form.  Was it the ownership starting to pinch pennies again?

I seem to recall this is around the time that Fletcher supposedly had a deal in place to bring Wayne Gretzky into the fold as a free-agent, but it was shot down, as the story goes, by the Board.  In any event, I’m not sure it would have made much difference.  The team was lilting badly, and about to sink.

In the summer of ’96 we had a lot of draft choices.  The only one that ever really made it was the guy we drafted about a millionth overall, Tomas Kaberle.  But he was indeed a tremendous hidden gem, as things turned out.  Mike Murphy, one of the nice guys in the NHL, was hired to coach.  He was media-friendly and very popular (much like Paul Maurice in more recent times) , but the team did not make the playoffs that season.  Along the way, Fletcher moved more assets, shipping Gilmour to the Devils for youngsters Jason Smith, Alyn McCauley and little Stevie Sullivan.  All had pretty nice NHL careers (Sullivan is still playing, of course), but not so much with Toronto.  Veteran forward Kirk Muller was shipped to Florida.

A team that had, two short years earlier, been in the semi-finals, was now lingering around the cellar, or close enough that it felt that way.

So that summer, in 1997, in came a new brush, with Ken Dryden, the former Hab goalie and celebrated hockey author, at the helm of the organization as the President and (kind of) General Manager.  (Former Winnipeg GM Mike Smith was really running the day-to-day operation, though with a vague title, I seem to recall.)

As the new season got underway, Murphy was still behind the bench, but Sundin was the team’s new captain, after the departure of Gilmour before the deadline the previous season.  Sundin wanted the job, and got it.  Dryden was a thoughtful guy, and provided a different look and feel as the organization’s top guy. His thing seemed to be about restoring pride in the uniform, though that had been in place just a few short years before.  (He did handle a sad sex-scandal, involving a former employee, I believe it was, as best probably anyone could…)

In any event, it was another less than stellar season, as Toronto finished last in the “Central” Division with only 69 points.

This led to yet another shake-up.  After leaving Murphy twist in the wind that spring and summer for way too long, Dryden finally decided he would not re-hire the well-liked bench boss.  He and Smith turned to veteran NHL coach Pat Quinn, who had been let go not long before by the Canucks after himself having re-built that franchise and bringing it to great success, including some stirring playoffs runs.

Lo and behold, to my shock, (and likely to the surprise of many Leaf fans) Quinn, (right) with a lot of the same players that Murphy had the year before, took his team all the way to the "final four" in the 1998-99 season.  While Quinn was roundly criticized in his Toronto years for not “liking” young players (which was not true…he had the confidence to play three rookie defenseman his first year in Toronto) or relying on and being unduly loyal to his veterans to too large a degree (maybe, but I don’t by that, either…hell, he had no problem playing a lot of young guys in Vancouver, and Toronto, too, for that matter…), he bolstered the confidence of his new team. He basically said, “I see talent here..”.  And, rather than make them feel they had to play the trap or a defensive system to have any hope of winning, he let them play some offense.  And that they did.

Now, when I say he had much the same team, there is one caveat:  Curtis Joseph was signed as a free-agent, and, well, let’s say that didn’t exactly hurt, eh?  (Felix Potvin was moved as a result.)  Steve Thomas had also came back to the Leafs for a second time, and young Bryan Berard came via trade that season.

In the playoffs, Gary Valk scored that big goal to win a game against the Penguins (wasn’t that in overtime??) and though they ultimately fell in 5 games to the very strong Buffalo Sabres in the semi-finals  the season was, if anything, a remarkable achievement.

Heading into the 1999—2000 season, hope had been restored in Toronto.  They had a strong, commanding presence behind the bench, a young emerging leader in Sundin and a tremendous goaltender in Curtis Joseph who helped give the team the confidence to play Quinn’s way.  They also had a host of guys who knew their roles and could make some make plays, too.  Names like Berezin, Sundin, Thomas, Sullivan and young Mike Johnson all chipped in with nice seasons offensively.

As the new season—and a new decade—dawned, a lot of us wondered:  how far can we go?


  1. Great post, Mike. It's really fun to remember the past successes (and disappointments) of the team - though the 93 playoffs still rankles!
    I, too, remember that 7th game playoff with Detroit. For some reason, I had to run an important errand just as OT was starting. As I was walking along Yonge Street, I suddenly heard cheers from open windows in houses and apartments above stores along the way - loud enough to cut through the sounds of traffic. I knew we'd won! In that next series, I was lucky enough to attend the famous OT game with Joseph just stoning us - and Potvin doing his own number on the Blues, it must be said. My girlfriend at the time was with me. The atmosphere in the Gardens was what you'd expect - electric, passionate, and NOISY! At one point in OT, I said something to my girlfriend and when she didn't respond, I turned to say it louder. She was asleep! How she managed that in that deafening arena, I don't know. As fate would have it, she woke up just in time to see Gilmour score the winning goal.
    I was also at that game in the 94 series against San Jose where we were one crossbar away from elimination. I've never seen a team cycle the puck the way the Sharks did that year. They had a number of Russian players who all seemed to be on the same page, as forwards and defencemen kept circling and cycling until a scoring chance opened up.
    And you mention one of my favorite 90's Leafs - Dmitri Yushkevich. He was one tough competitor! I recall a playoff series against the Penguins - which we won - in which he always skated side by side with Jagr whenever play stopped - yapping at him constantly. He could also dish out a punishing hit. I was sorry to see him go...

  2. Thank you Gerund O'. I'm glad the piece triggered some fond memories.

    Like you, I was sad to lose Yushkevich. In hockey terms, he was a warrior and a Leaf I really loved.

  3. Another great one, Michael. I've really enjoyed this series. Just got around to reading it after that "eventful" trade deadline day (!).

    I recall the 'circus' at Carleton after Ballard's passing. There was the drama of his son, Yolanda, Stavro, etc. battling for a stake. I'm amazed Fletcher, Burns, and Co., managed to excel in that climate.

    Downtown was a great place to be in those 2 memorable playoff seasons. It was exam time at university, but we always made it to the common room or a campus pub to catch the action. I guess we kinda' got lucky that super Mario wasn't in the lineup, in that Pittsburgh series, eh? Yushkevich would have had a tough time with 66 & 68! But it was a good series and I remember Perrault (in one of his stints) getting a winner in OT, I think, which was huge. And of course, there was the magical deflection by Nik Borchevsky. Still get chills remembering that series (and a Foligno OT in the same series, too, right?). Too bad there wasn't much to cheer for the next 4 or 5 seasons.

    I've mentioned before, I've come to appreciate Quinn's time here a lot more on reflection, than when he actually coached/managed. He iced competitive teams (something we can only seem to dream and rant about now), and his arrival certainly signalled promise at the end of the '90s.

    Looking forward to the '00s, if you plan to do one!


  4. Thanks very much, Caedmon. You're absolutely right about the early post-Ballard era. Ownership issues, ultimately resolved, all part of the good old days- at least the old days!

    Good point about I recall, Yushkevich had all he could handle with Jagr. And yes, Yanic Perreault. You have a sharper memory than I. I remember the big Gary Valk goal, but would be hard-prsesed to say if it was in overtime, or short-handed, but it was key at the time, I believe.

    I think you're right about Foligno...there were two big OT winners for the Leafs in that Detroit series in '93, and yes, it was Foligno in Game 5....

    I am hoping to finish the Legacy series with the 2000s....just need the inspiration to close it off. Thanks Caedmon.