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The Maple Leafs weren't the only ones to mistreat former stars

In the last half dozen years, Leaf fans could fairly complain about the team’s poor showings on the ice.  But as I’ve posted in the past, the Leafs have not always been “lousy” (click to read the earlier story), despite what it may sometimes feel.

That said, there was a long period of time when the Maple Leafs, from, let’s call it an organizational standpoint, did a horrible job in terms of how they dealt with their own players.

There is no question that the Leafs, from the time Conn Smythe gave up control of the franchise to his son Stafford, John Bassett Sr. and Harold Ballard until after Ballard’s death (and the arrival of Cliff Fletcher as GM) were not really considered a “classy” organization.  Though the senior Smythe was not a perfect man and could certainly, by all accounts, hold a grudge, the Leafs had been considered a class organization in the earlier Smythe era

However, in the later 1960s, Punch Imlach didn’t exactly treat people like family as his executive tenure with the Leafs saw him in full control—quashing “union” sentiment in the dressing room, among other things, and treating players with little regard for their feelings or needs.

The new owners, particularly Ballard, who outlived Stafford by 20 years or so, (and Imlach, who actually returned briefly in the early ‘80s as GM) made the organization even less well regarded in the years after Imlach's departure.

The way the Leafs dealt with captains Dave Keon (who had helped the blue and white win four Cups in the 1960s, pictured at right) and later Darryl Sittler—two of the finest Leafs of all-time—only exacerbated the organization’s reputation.

One of the ultimate points of contention (and criticism) was indeed how the Leafs treated a number of former players, something that has admittedly changed- especially since former Montreal Canadiens star Ken Dryden assumed a management position in the 1990s.

All this said, it's interesting to look back and recognize that other “Original Six" teams have had their own issues over the years with regard to how they treated their players—including some organizations generally considered much classier than the Leafs.

Some examples:


As much as the Canadiens have a wonderful and distinguished history in terms of retiring numbers, for example, a look at their management style shows some warts, too.

Doug Harvey was the best defenseman of his generation, a tough, fearless leader who helped Montreal win many Stanley Cups.  Whether or not it was because he had tried (with Ted Lindsay) to start a players’ association, he nonetheless was unceremoniously traded to the Rangers after the 1960-’61 season, even though he was captain of the Habs at the time.

Jacques Plante was similarly discarded after the 1962-’63 season, also dealt to the Rangers, despite years of magnificent service with the Habs.

Defenseman Tom Johnson finished his stellar career with Boston, after more than a decade with the Canadiens.

While there are different stories/perspectives about this, some believe the legendary “Rocket” Richard (see picture at left) was forced to retire by General Manager Frank Selke Sr. when the Rocket actually wanted to play one more year.  He was in the midst of training camp in the fall of 1960, but suddenly announced his “retirement” after practice one day.  They pushed him into a front office position, but gave him nothing to do, leading Richard to leave the organization—and a cold relationship developed for many years.

“Boom Boom” Geoffrion retired before his time, unhappy with his relationships in Montreal.  He came back to play with the New York Rangers after a two year retirement, feeling he still had something left.

Dickie Moore (click on his name to listen to my earlier audio interview with Dickie), a tough as nails winger, retired after the 1963 season, only to return to the NHL a season later (with Toronto). He was upset that the Habs had no desire to keep him on.

My point is, even in their glory days, the Montreal organization was a business, long before the huge money that was and is invested—and made—in today’s modern-day professional sports.  There was little sentiment, at least in the case of certain players.  Some, like Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard and a few others were able to retire as Canadiens, but many more modern-day greats like Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Steve Shutt, Larry Robinson and goodness, even the legendary Guy Lafleur, (and later, Guy Carbonneau) had to finish their illustrious careers elsewhere.


Ted Lindsay gave his heart and literally gave sweat and blood for the Red Wings. He accumulated so many stitches in his Detroit career that he earned the nickname "Scarface".   But management was bitterly angry that he tried to start a players association with Harvey and he was eventually dealt to the then worst team in hockey—the Black Hawks (see photo of Lindsay with the Hawks at right).

The best example of all this in Detroit, however, is Gordie Howe. Taking advantage of Howe’s naivete, Red Wing ownership relied on him to lead the franchise, but after paying him well for many years, eventually began to grossly underpay him—such that many lesser players were actually making way more money than him by the late 1960s.

When he retired after 25 seasons he was given a desk job but not really consulted on important hockey matters, much like what happened with Rocket Richard in Montreal.  Howe eventually came out of retirement to play several seasons with his sons in the World Hockey Association.

All-time Red Wing great Bill Gadbsy became a coach  in Detroit after his retirement.  In fact, he was doing a good job as coach in the late 1960s.  But after only two games into a new season, both wins, he was fired, because ownership said he was not “sophisticated enough”.

New York

Emile Francis is highly thought of as a hockey man, and no doubt rightly so.  He resurrected the New York franchise in the mid-1960s onward after many tough years for the franchise.

But in the 1960s and ‘70s, what I remember most about his tenure (besides some on-ice success, for sure) as General Manager of the Rangers is that his coaches and captains never lasted.

I don’t have the data in front of me, but if I’m not mistaken, Francis fired Red Sullivan (former team captain), “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, and Larry Popein as coach, each time replacing them with himself.

He also traded captains Bob Nevin, Vic Hadfield and Brad Park.


The best example of all might have occurred in Boston, where the finest player of all-time, Bobby Orr, felt so disrespected at the end of his time with the Bruins (though his agent at the time may have been to blame) that he left Boston to play for Chicago.  If ever there was a player who should have retired a Bruin, it was Orr.

Thankfully, the Leafs have done much over the past decade or so to re-establish their Alumni Association, honor retired players (sometimes too often) and treat current players with respect.  And I’m sure every NHL team interacts with their players better than they did in the bad old days (bad, when it came to how players were often treated, at least).

In those earlier times,  people sometimes tend to think it was only Ballard and the Leafs who mistreated their players, but while they may have been the worst of the lot, they weren’t alone.

We all understand that teams make trades (as many have remarked, if Gretzky could be traded, then anyone could be) and even olden-days players could not always retire with the team that they started with.

But a surface look at Montreal's history, for example, would lead many people to assume that most of their great players retired gracefully, with honor, as a member of ‘Les Canadiens’.

And that's more myth than reality.

This is not to absolve the former Leaf ownership and management, simply to suggest that, sadly, they weren't always alone in how they handled things.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done. Lots of big names there, and lots of stories behind the story. Another reason why I love this game so much.