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Whatever happened to the promising mid-'80s Maple Leafs?

Perhaps the most disheartening moment for Maple Leaf fans in the generally dismal 1980s was the tail-end of the 1986-’87 NHL season.  Why so, you may wonder, given that the entire decade was not exactly uplifting for Leaf followers? 

The first half of the decade was a virtual write-off- some awful seasons and very little in the way of playoff appearances of note.  But after drafting Wendel Clark first overall in the summer of 1985, the Leafs began a bit of a turnaround.  By the end of the '86-'87 season they were making legitimate headway.  They really found their legs in the first-round of the playoffs against the favoured St. Louis Blues, who were led, in part, by a young and energetic Doug Gilmour.  They took out that Jacques Martin-coached St. Louis squad in four games in the best-of-five first-round series, and then went on to face the heavily-favoured Red Wings, coached by Jacques Demers (who had a personal rivalry with Toronto coach John Brophy)—and led by a then very young Steve Yzerman.

How was it that the end of that particular season was so crushing?

Here’s a some of what happened:  the Leafs unexpectedly jumped out to 2-0 lead in the series behind kid goaltender Ken Wregget against the Wings right at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.  The Leafs lost Game 3 back at home at the Gardens, but squeaked by the Detroiters in overtime at home in Game 4 on a quick wrap-around goal by center Mike Allison.

With a 3-1 lead in games, it looked as though the Leafs, despite a very mediocre regular-season under then head coach Brophy, would be able to advance to the Western Conference finals to face the vaunted offensive machine of the Edmonton Oilers.  There was almost a sense of euphoria that the Leafs would get to that next round.

But it wasn’t to be, as the Leafs could not close the deal against Detroit. The Wings came from behind to beat the Leafs, just when Toronto was so close to achieving a degree of success they had not reached in (at the time) a decade—since advancing to the NHL semi-finals against the hated Habs in the spring of 1978.

But even more important, maybe, than losing that particular series to a pretty good Detroit team (who had finished first in the old “Norris” Division that season) I sometimes wonder what happened after that.  I raise this because while then General Manager Gerry McNamara was often criticized (and yes, his media manner was not terribly friendly or successful in the ‘80s in his time as the Leaf GM) he had drafted and traded for a lot of good young players. 

In goal, we had the aforementioned Wreggtt and little Allan Bester (a guest a while back on our "Leaf Matters" podcast). They had both played for Canadian’s National junior team.  Borje Salming was the veteran bellwether on defense.  Oh, we had the usual assortment of nice though certainly  not spectacular NHL players (like Dan Daoust, Brad Smith, Mark Osborne and Greg Terrion), but importantly, the Toronto roster was sprinkled with quite a few young players who weren’t just “prospects”.  They were guys who were actually already pretty solid young NHL players.  Have a look at some of the names (with their age at the time on the right):


Al Iafrate 20
Todd Gill 20
Rick Lanz 24


Russ Courtnall 21
Gary Leeman 22
Wendel Clark 19
Rick Vaive 27
Steve Thomas 23
Miro Frycer 26
Vincent Damphousse 18 

We also had a sprinkling of other useful performers like defensemen Bill Root (the ex-Canadien), Bob McGill and Chris Kotsopoulos and forwards including  Peter Ihnacak, Allison and Tom Fergus.

I’m not suggesting it was a Stanley Cup team, but take a look at what we have now on the current Leaf roster and compare it with the roster I just shared with you.  In the context of the time, that ’86-’87 roster, with two solid young goalies (both 22 years of age with tons of NHL experience already) and that talent across the roster…well, it was not bad at all.  And I would argue there was a lot of real skill there and legitimate potential—maybe more than what we try to convince ourselves about the current Leaf roster.

So what happened?

I don’t know.  I really don’t know.  I mean, a guy like Iafrate (right) was one of the most talented young Leafs I've ever seen.  Wild, unpredictable, yes- but awfully gifted.  The Leafs drafted a big, young 18 year-old defenseman in Luke Richardson that summer, giving them even more youngsters with legit potential.  They traded Vaive and Thomas (boy, I hated giving up Thomas) for tough-guy Alan Secord and an emerging star, Eddie Olczyk.  Olczyk was a creative offensive player not even in his prime at that point, but Secord was on the down side of his career (and he had been a really, really good power forward who could do it all—score goals, fight, play the corners and the front of the net) and never really contributed a lot in Toronto, unfortunately.

Mostly, I think the team stopped listening to Brophy.  In his first full year behind the bench as the head man the season before, he was able to bully and threaten guys and it seemed to work sometimes with a pretty young team.  He was a yeller and screamer and I sense the team mostly tuned him out over time.  When that happens, it’s never a good thing.  So in 1987-’88 the Leafs regressed badly, ultimately finishing the season with a record of something like 20 wins and just over 50 points on the season—which was not good, obviously.

They still had (losing Thomas aside) all that young talent, but something was obviously missing.

By the beginning of the 1988-’89 season, the Leafs got off to another rough start under Brophy.  He somehow convinced the team’s inexperienced GM, Gord Stellick, to trade a young, emerging NHL player (a speedster with big-time talent in Russ Courtnall) to Montreal for tough-guy John Kordic, about 10 games into the season.  By the 30-game mark, the team was struggling so badly they fired Brophy and brought in former Leaf captain and long-time Marlie junior coach George Armstrong to take over.  He did not want the job at all, and it showed. 

It was a mess. By the summer of ’89, the team used its first thee draft picks to select players form the same junior team in Belleville.  All had nice NHL careers, but mostly not in Toronto.  That just led to more criticism about the Leafs and their scouting approach—as in, did the organization even allow their scouts to drive past Belleville, about an hour and a half outside of Toronto—to look at players?

I can’t give you a clear idea of why the team drifted so badly when it looked (as had happened a few times before since the team's last Cup in 1967) as though things were very promising.  I check that list of players above and wonder how we could take all that talent (and no, we weren’t the high-flying Oilers of that era, but we had some speed, some grit, some young goaltending…) and essentially, within two years, have to almost start all over again.

It just happens sometimes.  We can say it was mismanagement, and that’s part of it,  I guess.  It wasn’t until Cliff Fletcher became General Manager and ultimately brought in Pat Burns from Montreal (and re-vamped the roster, of course, including acquiring Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk) that we had that tremendous run in 1993 and 1994.  But I’ve always felt we had it going a bit after that 1986-’87 season, yet something took the wind out of the organization’s sails.  Was it the meddling, headline-seeking owner, Harold Ballard?  Poor coaching? Guys not being developed properly, or a team simply not fulfilling its early promise?

I don’t have the answer.  But that was a team we should have been able to build with— and should have been a lot better than it ended up being.


  1. Boy I would love it if you guys could get Stellick on the Podcast.If you read Gord's book he tries to justify the Courtnall trade with something along the lines of 'Courtnall wouldn't play for Brophy.' What BS. As a member of the media I don't know how he can't just say 'mia culpa' on that one.

  2. It was a peculiar time in the team's history- a very inexperienced GM and an old-school coach. It was a bad cocktail. The story at the time, Sean, was that Brophy wanted toughness and Kordic was a big-time enforcer with the Habs. But trading a front line forward with speed, skill and youth on his side for more of a one-dimensional player made zero sense, no question.

  3. Oh, what a sad memory of what might have been with that lineup eh? In retrospect (it's always easy for me to look back with 20/20 hindsight I know), the defense was maybe a little shaky, but then whose wasn't during that era? The Vaive/Thomas-Secord/Olczyk trade was always puzzling to me. The end result is obvious of course in that we gave up a lot more in futures than we received, but from my view I just don't know what would necessitate such a trade in the first place. I have always felt that you trade surplus for need, so it can be win-win for both teams. Pulling off a blockbuster like this with four prominent scoring wingers smacks of trying to shake things up. Maybe that is a result of disfunction within management. I do see to remember Brophy being quite a bear to play for.

    Mostly though, I have always put my blame right at the top-Harold Ballard. He ruined the team once at the turn of the decade, and it appears his fingerprints are all over the body again just as they might have been pulling out of a several-seasons-long funk. I certainly did not see it as coincidence that the team started to come around right after he died.

    That Courtnall trade, on an aside, was just laughable. I could care less if there was a personality conflict. If they had to get rid of him, they could have gotten so much more in return. If they wanted someone of Kordic's ilk, players like him were a dime a dozen in the old IHL at that time.

  4. I've often wondered about that deal, too, Pete. As you say it's easy to second-guess, but we gave up two young guys who still had big years ahead (though Vaive was never going to be a 50-goal man again) for one young guy and a player who was past his prime. I guess Vaive had gone past his best-before-date with management, having already lost the captaincy, etc..

    I have no doubt Ballard's fingerprints were on just about everything. He wrecked the team in the early '70s by ignoring the WHA, threw classy veterans out the door in the mid-'70s, fired and re-hired Roger Neilson the same week in 1979, brought back Punch Imlach (who tore the team apart), the '80s were largely terrible- it was a mess. Thanks Pete.

  5. I was a young whippersnapper during the late 80's seasons, so I can't speak too deeply towards them. But I do remember taking a lot of heat as a fan for a number of years after the Courtnall/Kordic trade. The only thing worse than the trade itself was the fact is was the Canadiens that fleeced us. I honestly think it all comes down to Harold Ballard. Yes, the coaches were inept and the GMs made poor decisions, but it all goes back to Ballard and his ego. His ugly mark has been difficult for the Leafs organization to wash off and it still seems to crop up every now and again, even though he's been dead for years!!! (Raycroft for Rask, anyone?) Honestly though, Ballard had a hold on that team that was unhealthy and counter-productive and the current perception of the Leafs, that of a second-rate team, can still be traced back to Ballard and his insistence on making our club a laughing stock all those years ago. And while public perception shouldn't matter, I'm sure it still does for many free agents who would otherwise consider playing in Toronto. I hope I'm right in my thinking that the Leafs are finally turning a corner again and that this quality young team will be a success in this league soon; a team that will be a desirable place to play and a winner once more.

  6. For me, Twister Sittler, you make a very fair point: it does take time to get rid of perception, and 20 years of Ballard's often inept and "activist" (in the worst sense) ownership has cost the team to this day. Yes, he's been gone a long time and subsequent ownership and management teams have had an opportunity to put their stamp on the organization and the team on the ice. But Ballard created a sense of estrangement with his own employees and former players that in some cases exists to this day.

    The hope is that the organization will continue to return to the Smythe (pre-Ballard) era, when it was a successful franchise- and a proud one. Many strides have been made in the past 20 years and people like Fletcher, Burns, Dryden, Quinn (in each their own unique way) and others have played their part in restoring that Leaf pride. We're still inching our way back.

  7. I'm hoping a small part of the 'estrangement [of]... former players that in some cases exists to this day' will be healed in a small way tonight. Though he has shown up for one event in the past, Dave Keon is listed as one of the players from the '63 cup winning team that will be honoured in the pre-game ceremony tonight.

    I would sure like it if the Leafs made a compromise with their 'retired numbers' and honour Keon differently than the others whose jerseys hang in the rafters. My idea would be something like what happened with Ron Ellis, who wore number 6, after the family of Ace Bailey consented. During the intervening years since Keon departed, there have been too many players wearing number 14 that shouldn't have... perhaps Stan Weir was an exception and, to some extent, Keon was honoured by a young Matt Stajan who wore the number in Keon's honour. What I would like to see is the chance for Dave to give his consent to a player he really appreciates (or the right to withhold consent should he so choose - privately. i.e. no media involvement or knowledge of the request). The team could extend the same option to his family/chosen agent when he passes away.

    This way, the team could maintain the availability of numbers, but reserve them for the best of the best... perhaps others could be given the same kind of say (27 Mahovlich/Sittler, 21 Salming, etc.) though it could be a little cumbersome, the number recommendations could come from the team (if the player requesting the number meets a certain threshold of pre-agreed criteria). They could even have a short ceremony at the start of a game where the player receives his new number jersey from the honoured player / representative.

    I really appreciate the comparison you've provided for us, Michael, and the thoughful comments of the posts I've read. The mention of Brophy is exactly who I 'feared' Carlyle might be as a coach... I didn't want this group to have a guy who could be 'tuned out' as quickly as Brophy. I think, however, that Randy is a little more like a maturing Scotty Bowman (who I always respected). I hope he can walk the fine line an keep communicating without over-criticizing or over-praising.

    I was also stunned by the Courtnall-Kordic trade... it baffles me to this day that any such choice would have been made... BAD memory(!) but worth the rehash if it keeps the team from such an insane choice in the future.

  8. What happened after that?
    2 bad seasons, a promising year, a fallback year, then we got Gilmour.

    A lot of that talent can be traced fairly directly to the success of 92/93. Look at the gilmour trade and fuhr trade - a lot of that good young talent was peddled for Fuhr, Anderson, Gilmour et al and then andreychuk.

    Darkest just before dawn!

    Anjin Miura

  9. I appreciate your perspective on the Keon matter, InTimeFor62. Some fresh ideas. I'd love it if they simply started retiring numbers. New owners: make it happen, MLSE...

    I'm with you- I sense Carlyle is not just the "same old" Carlyle, but a better version. We'll see.

  10. Thanks for chiming in Anon (Anjin). That early-mid-'90s quad was fun to follow, and yes, those trades helped make it happen.

    Good to hear from you. Drop by again.

  11. The names your mentioned in your post are interesting. Al Iafrate and Rick Vaive (the only two sweaters i've ever owned) and Alan Bester (had a drawing of him on my wall) were obviously my favorites as teenager, but it´s interesting to see that there were also favorites of an older fan, and still remembered today.

    As for Brophy, I think he just manhandled everyone. The players, fans, media, and the young GM. He was a bad version of an old school Don Cherry. And of course those trades...

    And as for talent, that team had not some, but alot of it. I think Daniel Marois (played on the line with Damphousse) was part of that team too. I think management was just too impatient.

    There is one particular playoff moment I remember from the series against St. Louis. It's a beautiful Ken Wregget glove save that Bob Cole went nuts calling. I can still hear Harry Neale say "the webbing in Wregget's glove went back six inches". I don't know why I remeber that particular save, but it stuck with me. If someone has a link to that video it would be grately appreciated.

  12. Good to hear from you on this one, portuguese leaf. I recall you indicating you were hoping to see a piece on the later '80s Maple Leafs.

    I think you're right about Marois, but I'd have to look it up. I do know Marois had one big (30 goal?) season with the blue and white.

    The Wreggett save may be on You Tube somewhere. If someone sees your post, maybe they can share a link.

    Thanks portuguese leaf. Plenty of talent on those teams but something was missing, unfortunately .

  13. I think it was a combination of mismanagement, injuries, and personalities.

    I wrote on Iafrate myself. From what I gathered, he was among the most talented players from his draft. But as Harry Neale put it, 'he had all the tools, but no toolbox'. And that was always the impression on Al. He just wasn't all there, not enough to be a smart, dominant defender. He lacked the mental side of the game. I recall the same being said about Ian Turnbull... flaky, a really great talent whose head was never 100% in the game.

    I don't think anyone should forget either that there's confusion about the whole story, but there's enough anecdotal evidence to say that serious locker room issues arose when Gary Leeman started dating Iafrate's ex-wife. But the Iafrate trade turned out great for the Leafs, getting Rouse and Zezel.

    The Courtnall-Kordic trade... I take Stellick's word for it. John Brophy wanted toughness. And Russ Courtnall, though a very talented guy, was always sort of not well-thought-of by management. Ballard never liked guys he thought were soft... Hammarstrom, Boschman, etc. Somewhat like Kadri in recent years, Courtnall was speedy, shifty, and offensively good. He was not defensively great, he brought no size or toughness. Easy to think that one Courtnall started slowly that year, a young, relatively inexperienced GM like Stellick could be pushed by an owner and a coach to trading a guy who wasn't scoring and brought nothing else to the ice. Of course we know Kordic's story.

    Damphousse, well, you gotta give something to get something. I have no complaints about letting Vinny et al go and getting Fuhr and Anderson.

    Some of these other guys, I wonder if it's not nostalgia-tinted a little. Danny Marois has 2 real good seasons with the Leafs, and never really played NHL hockey again, certainly never hit 30 goals again.

    Even Rick Vaive, a great year after he left for Chicago, but after that he was never really a top-line guy anymore. We have to recall though, the Leafs tried very hard to get Olczyk before that trade actually happened... when Gary Nylund signed with Chicago as a free agent, the requested compensation was Ed Olczyk. So I think there was a long-time desire to get Eddie O to Toronto. Al Secord, I tend to think the idea was he'd be Toronto's Butch Goring... scoring, tough veteran who;d been playoff hardened. Of course, the team was nowhere near needed a Butch Goring to get them over the top...

    All in all, no disrespect to those late 1980s Leafs, but it was a lot of things. Bester and Wregget had been jerked around enough that the team had no real good consistent goaltending. They could have been so much better if developed properly. The defence was a mish-mash... a declining Salming, a couple vets, and a bunch of young guys expected to be great. And then a forward group that actually wasn't bad when you think about Clark and Olczyk and Fergus, Daoust and Terrion, etc. And too many coaching changes... and guys not really meant to coach (in my opinion), from Maloney through Nykolyuk and Brophy, Carpenter. I think Tom Watt would have done ok if they had sorted things out for him.

  14. Turnbull was an infuriatingly talented guy, Mark. He drove a lot of us crazy as Leaf fans in the '70s, and probably his coaches, Red Kelly and Roger Neilson, too. Not sure if his love of playing the game was as big as his talent. So hard to know.

    As for Iafrate, I've long thought that he was so young, too young really- and better coaching might have nurtured his sublime skills. We'll never know.

    Lots of talent, uneven management and direction. The result was what we saw. Great post, thanks Mark.

  15. Regarding the 9/3/1987 trade, Vaive had been on the outs with management for a couple of years at least, and Thomas the summer of 1987 was a free agent, and had been through some rather acrimoniouw negotiations with the Leafs. Bob McGill, don't forget, was a throw-in in that trade, thought of as strictly a muscle man, but who improved his defensive play and had a respectable NHL career. Brophy had long been an admirer of Secord, who had a 4-goal game against the Leafs the previous January but had a sharp decline in production in the second half of 1986-87. As a Chicago fan, I was pleased with the trade, when and after it happened.

    Rick Vaive most definitely was a top-line guy after leaving Toronto, he scored 43 for Chicago playing (mostly) with Savard and Larmer, was despised and disposed of by Mike Keenan in 1988, and suffered some injuries in Buffalo which hampered him and hastened the end of his career.

    1. Anon- what I remember most about Vaive at the end of his career in Buffalo was his willingness to take punishment in front of the net. Tough job, but he did it. I have fond memories of Vaive as a Leaf.

    2. Definitely, I remember he wore that huge neck protector and probably took more crosschecks to the back over his career than anyone I've seen. The Savard-Larmer-Vaive line was very successful and fun to watch in the first part of the 1987-88 season, and he tied the League record for most playoff goals in a series (5, in 5 games) against St. Louis that year.