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How Harold Ballard wrecked what should have been the best Leaf trade in my lifetime: getting future Hall-of-Famer Bernie Parent in 1971

 In light of the Phaneuf trade on the weekend, fans are in a “trade”-talk frame-of-mind.

I was born in 1953, and I don’t pretend to remember every trade the Maple Leafs have ever made since then. I posted yesterday on a number of major deals the Leafs have been involved in over the years, but couldn’t think of one where they obtained a budding star defenseman at the age of 24.

People are probably more excited now than they were when Fletcher traded for Doug Gilmour, because, as I posted earlier, many Leafs fans didn’t honestly know much about Gilmour until he arrived in Toronto and made a huge impact over time.

There’s no doubt the Phaneuf deal has excited people. Not because it will lead to a Stanley Cup any time soon but because he provides something Leaf fans love—a skilled, hard-hitting player who plays with an edge, like a Gary Roberts on the back end.

As a Leaf guy myself for fifty years, there have been quite a number of trades that intrigued and sometimes excited me over the years.

I know there were many famous trades before my time—Max Bentley to Chicago for 5 guys in the ‘40s was huge in its day.

When I was quite young I recall the major move by Punch Imlach to acquire Red Kelly from Detroit in 1960 was big, and certainly contributed significantly to the Leafs winning 4 Cups in the 1960s.

Then there was the deal for Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney, which contributed to the Leafs winning the Cup in the spring of ’64. (Giving up Rod Seiling, Bob Nevin, Dick Duff and Arnie Brown was a big price, long term—it was a trade that helped make the Rangers a good team for many years.)

Of course, for many folks the move to ship superstar winger Frank Mahovlich along with Pete Stemkowski and a very young Garry Unger (and the rights to the then- retired Carl Brewer) was the biggest ever. The Leafs were dying on the vine in the spring of 1968, and were going to miss the playoffs the year after winning the Stanley Cup. So Imlach went after Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith, who all produced some good hockey for the Leafs over the next several seasons, but they could never get the Leafs past the first round in the playoffs.

For me, the trade that should have been the biggest and best ever was made by Jim Gregory, then the Leafs GM, in the winter of the 1970-’71 season. Mike Walton, the speedy young Leaf forward, wanted out of Toronto. The Leafs completed a 3-way deal whereby Walton and goalie Bruce Gamble ended up in Boston and Philly respectively, Rick MacLeish (drafted by the Bruins) went to the Flyers, and goalie Bernie Parent went to the Leafs.

I remember clearly that I couldn’t have been happier when I heard about the trade. It was a stunning mid-season deal, and I was thrilled at the prospect of obtaining a young, potential superstar goalie—just like current Leaf fans are about getting Phaneuf as an elite young defenseman in his prime.

After three horrible seasons since winning the Cup, the Leafs had again started slowly that 1970-’71 season, but they turned their season around and got hot at the beginning of December. Dave Keon was having a fabulous season with unknown forwards Garry Monaghan and Billy MacMillan on his wings. Jim Harrison came over in a trade with the Bruins and brought a toughness that was lacking on the forward lines. Brian Spencer was called up from the minors to add even more toughness in the corners and along the boards.

Importantly, Jacques Plante had joined the Leafs after ending a long retirement to star with the expansion St. Louis Blues. He had a tremendous season that year with the Leafs, and obtaining Parent was, to me, going to make the Leafs at least a solid playoff team.

Parent had come up as a 20 year-old with the Bruins out of Niagara Falls in 1965, and went to Philadelphia in the 1967 expansion draft. He played well with the Flyers, and was just what the Leafs had not had in my memory—a solid, young, goalie. (Johnny Bower had been outstanding, of course, for many years, but he played until he was 45 years old during the 1969-’70 season.)

That spring of ‘71, the Leafs gave a great Rangers team all they could handle in a tough 6-game series. Parent played well for the most part in that series splitting time with Plante. (Plante started 2 games and a part of a third—the infamous night Vic Hadfield threw Parent’s mask up in the stands at Madison Square Garden during a bench-clearing brawl near the end of Game 2.)

Unfortunately, within a year, Parent was on his way to the World Hockey Association and the Miami Screaming Eagles—or whatever they were supposed to be called. Leafs owner Harold Ballard never believed the WHA would make it, and he lost Parent, Rick Ley, Brad Selwood, Jim Harrison and others, essentially gutting the young team Jim Gregory had assiduously built over the past several seasons.

Parent played little, if at all, in the WHA, I can’t remember clearly. I do know that he wanted back into the NHL the next season, but didn’t want to come back to Toronto. So the Leafs traded his rights back to Philadelphia along with a draft choice (Larry Goodenough) for a first-round draft choice (Bob Neely) and goalie Doug Favell. Goodenough had a steadier career than Neely, even though he was drafted much lower.

Parent helped the Flyers win 2 Stanley Cups, and became a Hall-of-Fame goaltender, having honed his craft playing with the master, Plante, in Toronto.

Ballard’s lack of foresight—and his thrift—cost the Leafs a superstar goaltender and also cost Leafs fans a lot of frustrating nights, wondering what might have been

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