It’s natural for Leaf fans to be impatient with what often feels like the world’s slowest ‘championship re-build’—45 years and counting. And while there is a degree of frustration—and I’ve certainly expressed it here—with the organization’s most recent efforts to see the Leafs improve, at least some pieces have been added that give us hope.
But I concede we want more, and while we may applaud the brass’ unwillingness to either sell the future or pay outrageous prices for certain (over-valued?) players, we do find ourselves like the small, sad-looking child with his nose up against the window at the corner store who doesn’t quite have enough change to buy his favorite popsicle or candy bar. (I realize I’m dating myself with that old-time image…)
But I try to remind myself that sometimes we may want something and we may even think we’ll be happy when and if we get it. But sometimes when we do get it, things don’t turn out the way we had hoped—or anticipated.
This brings me back to when I was a much younger Leaf fan back in the summer of 1974. The Leafs at the time were, under General Manager Jim Gregory, in the midst of another “re-build”, having been picked apart by the World Hockey Association after the 1971-’72 season. Gregory had drafted well in the summer of ’73, selecting Bob Neely, Lanny McDonald and Ian Turnbull. He also showed some courage and daring by thinking outside the old NHL “box” and grabbing un-proven European free-agents Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom. Darryl Sittler (drafted in the first round by Gregory in 1970) was emerging as a future team leader and while we didn’t have the world’s best goaltending at the time (this was post-Bernie Parent and pre-Mike Palmateer), the Leafs were building a fairly solid team. Not a Cup contender, but an improving young team, though oldsters Dave Keon and Normie Ullman were still around.
I remember feeling that, if we just had a been more toughness and scoring (and better goaltending, too, of course) we may be able to make strides in the forthcoming 1974-’75 season. What happened? Well, the Leafs made moves to acquire two guys with a pretty solid track record that summer, and as a fan, I applauded the moves whole-heartedly. “Cowboy” Bill Flett came over from the Stanley Cup champion Flyers and winger Gary Sabourin was acquired from the St. Louis Blues.
Flett had the great nickname ("Cowboy"), was a “Cup winner” and had been part of the “Broad Street Bullies” with the Flyers. Throw in that he had once scored more than 40 goals in a season, and I thought the Leafs had essentially stolen a near All-Star away in his prime, dealing only two players for Flett who did not seem to have a future in Toronto.
What I hadn’t taken into account was this while Flett was certainly an OK player, (and it’s not like I hadn’t seen him play in Philly), I had kind of brought into the idea that almost anyone from the Flyers had to be really good- and would make the Leafs better. But that was the problem. His flaws were covered up to the casual observer by the fact that he had been with the rough and rugged (and very talented) Flyers. While he was a fairly big guy, toughness wasn’t really his game. And he scored those 40+ goals playing mostly with Bobby Clarke, probably the best center in hockey at the time, in the prime of his NHL career. In Toronto, Flett never quite fit in. He played a lot with Keon but their styles never really meshed. Flett looked slow, and I watched in frustration as he just seemed out of sorts in Toronto colours. He finished the season with 15 goals and never quite found his stride.
The team struggled, barely made the playoffs with a horrible record and though they managed to upset a very good LA Kings team (coached by former Leaf star Bob Pulford, with future Leaf Dan Maloney and Star goalie Rogie Vachon in the line-up) in the preliminary two-out-of-three round, they were hammered by the Flyers (Flett’s old team) in four straight games in the next round. Though only 31, Flett was gone after that one season, though he had some very nice seasons later in the WHA.
Sabourin struggled, too. He ran into some injuries and never looked to me like the fine player he had been in St. Louis, though he was also only 31 when he joined the Leafs. He managed 5 goals on the season and was traded for Stan Weir (a useful player, but he was given Keon’s old number 14 right away, which I never liked) the summer after his one season in Toronto. Sabourin was productive with the Seals that next year but retired after the 1976-'77 season.
Both Flett and Sabourin were solid NHL players. But for some reason, they just didn’t thrive here in Toronto (we’ve seen this movie before, eh?).
And this just goes to show, when we are frustrated with moves that aren’t made, maybe, in the end, it will turn out just as well.