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The '80s- What the hell happened?

Knowing that this site is primarily about my memories from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, someone asked me recently—“do you have any Leaf memories from the ‘80s?”

Well, for the first part of that decade I was still involved in the broadcasting field and had the opportunity to interview many players and coaches, so I’ll share some of those memories over times on this site, for sure.

But it was a good question.

Now, part of why I have not focused too much on the ‘80s and beyond on this site is that there are plenty of sites around which are more “current” about Leaf news and information. The other reality in my own life is that once my wife and I started our family in 1980, there simply wasn’t the time available to spend watching hockey/the Leafs. Priorities naturally shifted.

I’ve always followed the team pretty closely, just not as intently.

In recent years, as the kids grew into adulthood, there has been more opportunity to see and feel what’s happening in Leaf nation.

But back to that question, what about the ‘80s?

Well, for me, and for a lot of Leaf fans, it’s kind of a dark period. Twice the team won only 20 games. Once they won 21. They were never at or above .500 at the end of any season.

“Leaf world” changed radically when Punch Imlach made his return visit to Toronto the summer of 1979, evidently proving you really shouldn’t go home again. He started cleaning house during the 1979-’80 season, and quickly dismantled the team before his health gave out and he was fired (more correctly, not re-hired) by owner Harold Ballard.

What stands out is: Lanny McDonald was traded in the winter of 1980, and the team was never the same. It wasn’t great before, but at least it was competitive and had an edge.

There had been some camaraderie. That was soon lost.

Of course, other players left through Punch’s time and then when Gerry McNamara was in charge. Tiger Williams and Jerry Butler, two good grinders, were traded to Vancouver (for Bill Derlago and Rick Vaive—a pretty good deal, actually), Sittler took the captain’s “C” off his chest at one point and was eventually traded to Philadelphia, where he was promised the captaincy by GM Bobby Clarke and then traded the same day, basically.

Other memories? I vaguely remember defenseman Gaston Gingras, a former Hab, scoring a goal in a playoff goal from center ice in the early ‘80s against Minnesota, but it didn’t exactly have the same impact as Jacques Lemaire scoring on Tony Esposito in Game 7 of the NHL finals in 1971. The Leafs lost, I believe, in 3 straight (3 out of 5 series) to the North Stars.

Drafting Wendell Clark first overall was a “highlight” of the decade. It wasn’t like drafting Mario Lemieux (Lemieux went the year before, to Pittsburgh) but Clark at his best was a powerful, bruising player with toughness and that great wrist shot.

I know that somewhere in the ‘80s, the Leafs, with Clark playing a key role, also upset the Hawks in a short playoff series. I believe there was a big third period comeback in Chicago in one of the first two games, which set the tone for the series. (I just looked it up, it was the spring of 1986. I partly remember because my wife and I were on a rare romantic weekend without the kids in Niagara-on-the Lake, but I still managed to watch most of the last game of the series on television.)

That was followed by an interesting series against St. Louis that the Leafs lost, unfortunately, in 7 games.

I also recall that the next season (spring of ‘87) that the Leafs under John Brophy led the Wings 3-1 in a playoff series. Al Iafrate was outstanding on defense. He could skate, shoot, hit and had that long reach.

I always thought if Brophy had rotated his young goalies (Bester and Wregget) a little differently, they may have won that series. As it was, Detroit rallied to win the last 3 games of the series. It’s hard to believe that Steve Yzerman, who hasn’t been retired all that long, was already a young veteran with the Wings back then, under coach Jacques Demers.

But through that decade, they missed the playoffs more than they made them. They changed coaches-a lot. I think we had Imlach (technically as head coach), Joe Crozier, Mike Nykoluk, Dan Maloney, John Brophy, Doug Carpenter and Tom Watt. Former Leaf greats George Armstrong and Dickie Duff may have been in there, too.

And they never made it past the quarter-finals. I’d have to check and see if any of the playoff series they did win was a best 4 out of 7. They may all have been 3 out of 5’s.

So the real answer to the original question is: the memories are somewhat sparse and painful. There were lots of good players, some good coaches, just not the right mix, which I’ll get into in a subsequent post.

But I’m certain if you were a young Leaf fan in the ‘80s, you have tons of memories, maybe some really good ones, and can capture them much better than I have here. I invite you to post your own memories.

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