Friday, March 30, 2012

A New Low

In 1978, the Leafs made the semi-finals and were just four wins away from competing for the Stanley Cup. Lanny McDonald’s game seven OT goal set the Leafs up against the mighty Montreal Canadiens. I was eight years old and smitten with all things blue and white.

Seven months later, Lanny McDonald was traded to the Colorado Rockies for Joel Quenneville, Pat Hickey and Wilf Paiement.

I have no memory of Leafs GM Jim Gregory being replaced by Punch Imlach, the machinations of the club were beyond a boy whose primary off-ice focus was Star Wars and the original Muppet movie. But I remember that trade and the hurt it caused. I remember it as Darryl Sittler losing his best friend.

I blamed Ballard and I blamed Imlach. I thought that if they were replaced, the Leafs would rise again.

* * *

In 1986, the Leafs upset the Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs, dumping them in three straight. Leafs coach Don Maloney was heralded for getting the right match-ups and out-coaching Bob Pulford’s Hawks. Those Leafs put up just 57 points and were a pretty awful team, but winning a playoff series? That was a serious change of pace.

Maloney’s contract expired that summer and as talks dragged on a feeling of dread settled in. Ballard wouldn’t budge and Maloney quickly landed in Winnipeg. The always-angry John Brophy was the new Leafs coach. It had been seven years since the team had a .500 record. It would be another seven before they crossed the 82 point threshold.

I hated Ballard and thought GM Gerry MacNamara was a joke. If they could only be replaced by real hockey men, this franchise might have a shot. If only…

* * *

In 1990, I lived in Ottawa. It’s not that long ago, but it might as well have been the Stone Age. There were no dedicated sports channels, no internet and no access to round the clock real time information. I tried everything imaginable just to pull in a lousy AM signal to hear a static-infused mid-season Leafs game. Leafs coverage was rare. I’ve never read more agate type in my life. Between Doug Carpenter and Tom Watt, the joke was no Leafs lead was safe, no hole was too deep to climb out of.

As awful as it may seem, I cheered when Ballard died that spring. I may have even prayed that Donald Crump and his push to bring in Anne Murray’s business manager to run the club would be thwarted.

Just give me some good hockey men and no meddling owners. That’s all I ask and this team will be ok…

* * *

My God the Cliff Fletcher years were sweet. Hard working talented teams. Good coaches. An air of professionalism and, believe it or not, beer finally sold at the Gardens. Gilmour in the top four in scoring, Andreychuk notching 53, then 54 goals. Buying scalped Greys at Christmas for $20.

This is what happens when meddling owners die and legitimate hockey men run the show. 100 points in a season. That’s only ten more points than the Leafs had from 1987 to 1989.

Then Steve Stavro went broke. The team shed salary. Took a pass on Gretzky. We had brutal losing seasons with Mike Murphy swimming behind the Leafs bench, way out of his depth.

Just give me an owner with deep pockets. Just give this franchise some stability…

* * *

JFJ was the anti-Midas – everything he touched tuned to lead. His mistakes are legion and the franchise still suffers for them.

I’ve never been so torn as a Leafs fan as I was during JFJ’s reign of error. I desperately wanted the Leafs to succeed, yet each mistake brought the club one step closer to firing JFJ, the architect of so much of my misery.

It’s telling that the core debate of the time didn’t centre on whether JFJ was qualified to run the club or whether he was even competent enough to be a GM. No, we all argued about the degree of board interference and how many fingers Richard Peddie had in the pie.

If only this club could get a GM who had the spine to tell the MLSE board to stuff it. If only Richard Peddie would retire (or get lost swimming in his gold plated money pool). If only, if only, if only…

* * *

I had always presumed there was a systemic or structural flaw that kept the Leafs from, well, not greatness but at least fielding a team that wasn’t a complete embarrassment.

In the low times, and there have been too many to count, there was always something or someone to cheer against – Harold Ballard, an incompetent GM or coach, the meddling MLSE board, the stupidity of JFJ – there was always a reason to keep me engaged with the team, a reason to hope.

For just the third time in the last 45 years, the Leafs have deep pocketed hands-off ownership and talented hockey men at the helm, yet I’ve never been more disengaged than I am now.

I don’t watch the games, I don’t look for highlights, I rarely read the sports pages and I seldom blog. I haven’t tuned into a Leafs game in nearly eight weeks. I don’t even know what nights they’re playing anymore.

Six months ago, such apathy was unfathomable. Now? There is no boogey man to cheer against, no meddling owner, evil board of directors or incompetent coach. There is only another wasted season, another year of my favourite team plumbing new depths, and a mistake-prone GM who has been reduced to a blustering, lying, bully.

Everything I’ve ever wanted as a Leafs fan is at the team’s disposal. They’ve never been worse and I’ve never cared less.

A new low.


  1. Simms3411:01 am

    Holy shit that's depressing.

    Very well said ... but depressing.

  2. That is an excellent summary of the past several decades. It really is.
    I just want to inject a shred of positive thought into the current situation. I mean, things certainly weren't as good as it seemed when they were first overall 60 or so games ago. And things aren't as bad as they seem now. This is a team that badly misses its first line left winger in Lupul. And on the 2nd line, Kulemin - although having a bad year offensively - is still a vital component of their top 6 with his skating and defensive ability. Those 2 injuries, along with a drastic change in playing philosophy under a new coach, are magnifying this current slide.
    Liles and Reimer were on their way to career years before concussions turned them into shadows of their former selves.
    This team is not as bad as it's now playing. The MSM does not want people to think about logical reasons like that, because negativity is still sexy in online reporting, just like it was in the traditional newspaper days. So, of course they churn out the constant barrage of "worst Leaf team ever" and "Burke needs to be fired" etc etc
    I maintain hope. I remember that the Pat Burns teams were not oozing with talent either, but they got the job done and were legitimate playoff teams.
    Next season will be key for me. I want to see what Carlyle's d-first mentality will do with a summer-tweaked roster.

    A note on the coaching change... Even though I supported the firing of Wilson, I must admit that I was wrong for being happy it happened when it did. This team is too young and was too ingrained with a Wilson system to suddenly give them a new coach who wants something completely different from them, especially since they were already in the middle of a huge slide. I wish they had waited until the offseason to fire Ronny.

    1. Thanks for the comment - this team was off the rails long before Lupul and Kulemin's injuries...Reimer had only played 8 games before his injury, that's way too small a sample size call a "career year"

      Liles, I'll give you. He looked great earlier this season. Why the Leafs decided to extend him while he was concussed is beyond me. The amount and term of Liles new contract is preposterous and is going to bite the Leafs.

      Hopefully the club can turn it around next year. I'm not so confident...

  3. There is always a reason for everything, but most of the time we won't know what it is until well after the fact, if we ever do at all.

    Keep on keepin' on I guess.

  4. TheOtherAndrew3:11 pm

    Well said. That's a big signifier that I'm burned out too: I don't know when the games are either anymore.

  5. Anonymous10:39 am

    Not since the mid 80's have I activbely disliked a leafs team more than this. The most apathetic bunch to wear the uniform.

  6. Anonymous12:34 pm

    Beautifully written and precisely how I feel; I wish this letter was hand-delivered to every honest Leafs fan in the world.

  7. Anonymous3:44 pm

    Don't worry, another trade from Calgary is coming. This time it will be Kipper and he will take the Leafs into the playoffs. Be prepared to part with Colborne and swap 1st round picks and it will happen.

  8. Anonymous6:50 pm

    I feel much the same way, but I can't ever remember the Leafs having a decent farm system. That may be our only salvation. I remember when Quinn took over, and all of a sudden we had Kaberle, Antropov, Poni, Markov, and Sullivan. No superstars but some depth coming up from the minors. I think maybe we might have the same thing brewing, but its going to take another couple of years. I'm not very positive on what they can do with free agents next year. Now if we can get a top 5 draft pick and get a potential first line centre....

    1. Leafs current farm system isn't much better than what was in the system 4+ years ago...hopefully the Leafs can pick up a great prospect at the draft.

    2. DarkPhoenix12:52 pm

      "Leafs current farm system isn't much better than what was in the system 4+ years ago...hopefully the Leafs can pick up a great prospect at the draft."

      Who's opinions are you reading? HockeyFuture has always had an anti-Leaf bias. Four years ago, they ranked the Leaf minor system 30th in the NHL. Now? It's 8th and rising.

      The minor system is far deeper than it has been for years, and if the Leafs can just hold on, it'll start to impact them. What they need to avoid now are knee-jerk reactions (firing the management, trading for Nash, etc.) meant to prop up weary fans but are guaranteed to lead the Leafs down the same path.

    3. Go back and look at the Leafs youngsters pre-Burke:

      I'd say that list is on-par, if not better, than what's in the system now.

      Put up names if you think the system is "far deeper." I've looked at the depth charts and the box cars and I don't see it.

  9. Twisted Sittler7:26 pm

    Amazing job. Well said. I feel the exact same way and it scares me a little. I've felt a lot of feelings in my 33 years as a Leafs fan; apathy has never been one of them until now. It seems there are fewer and fewer fans making it out to the ACC to watch these guys, too. Maybe this will convince the brass to get more serious about contending. I can't believe I'm using apathy to spark some degree of hope...No question I'm a Leaf fan...

    1. I think your last line is the most important. I'm a Leafs fan too and hoping there's a spark or new direction next season.

  10. Paul Steckley9:09 am

    "They've never been worse and I've never cared less." Honestly? I'd take this team over most of the Leafs' teams from the 80's in a heartbeat. And what about the 2008-09 team where Jason Blake was our leading scorer? I'll say that again, Jason Blake was our leading scorer in 08-09. No, my friend, the Leafs have been in far worse shape than they are currently. Your apathy has obviously affected your memory. There have been some truly terrible Leaf teams in our lifetime. This one is bad but isn't even close to the bottom. Don't forget that this team was solidly in a playoff spot halfway through the season. There is talent here, they just have to rebuild their confidence.

    For the most part, your post nailed the mostly sad history of post-70's Leaf history, but I don't share your pessimistic view of the Leafs' future under Burke. I think we need to concentrate more on the mistakes of JFJ and recognize just how deep his incompetence has hurt this franchise (how different would this franchise be if he hadn't traded Rask for Raycroft?), in order to realistically appraise Burke's starting position and the gauge the task ahead of him. Burke has made some mistakes (signing Lebda, not securing a veteran goalie as security, etc.) but the pieces he's put in place bode well for next season. A season under Carlyle will better prepare this group of players to play meaningful hockey when the open skating lanes of October and November start to shrink and it becomes harder to score yourself out of trouble. Every young team stumbles at first with consistency and I haven't seen anything to suggest that the added experience of this season will do anything but help the Leafs next year.

    I prefer to stay positive and look forward to next season.

    1. Not even in the 1980s did a Leafs team have just 6 wins in 28 games.

      The early season Leafs were a mirage. They had an unsustainable shooting percentage and when it regressed to the norm, they could no longer outscore their problems.

      I too am looking forward to next season, but only because things can't get much worse.

    2. Paul Steckley10:49 am

      Are you really saying this team is worse than some of the teams we had in the 80's? There were some atrociously bad teams in that decade, so bad that if we had been in the Adams division instead of the Norris the Leafs might have gone winless the entire season.

      This season's Leafs weren't as good as they looked in November, definitely, but they weren't as bad as they looked in February either. The drop in their shooting percentage wasn't as problematic as their shoddy defensive play and inability to adapt their offence when teams learned to restrict their movement through the neutral zone. The Leafs scored many of their goals this season off the rush and that became increasingly difficult to do as the season wore on as teams adapted to their play. What wasn't a mirage was the skill and speed the early season Leafs displayed. Those are real assets. I think they just need a better system, one that allows them to establish an offensive cycle game to maintain pressure, and one that helps them sort out their defensive responsibilities quicker.

  11. Dan Derlago3:07 pm

    This is my first ever comment here, so I'm going to go on for a bit -– it'll be as if I've been commenting for years!

    I think I'm a wee bit younger than you, but not by a lot. I remember the Lanny McDonald trade -– not when it happened, but Lanny's first game back in Toronto. HNIC ran a little montage of Sittler and Lanny giving and going, set to sad music (was it, "Nobody Does it Better"? let's assume so), then showed Sittler greeting Lanny with open arms and the two of them flashing smiles for the camera. And I just remember thinking how sad it was that the Leafs traded Darryl's best friend, how cruel it was to do that, and how little sense it made.

    That's probably my first tangible Leafs memory, when I think about it. Yet, I stuck with the team. Of course I did, what else was a kid in Toronto going to do. I followed them obsessively like every other kid in school. I remember discovering for the first time the Leafs broadcasts on CJCL 1430. I was slowly turning the dial, heard the words "Gavin" and "speed" and knew I had found it. It was like discovering gold. They're going to tell me everything happening in the game while I listen in bed???

    I sunk with every loss, but felt elated after every win. Remember the time the Leafs took a 5-1 lead on the Oilers into the first intermission and won 11-9? I sure do. Still, all those losses... But I never gave up.

    Then came that magical season. Not 1992-1993. 1989-1990. A .500 season! We won as many games as we lost! Gary Leeman scored 50 goals! Vincent Damphousse is good! Daniel Marois is good! And they play for us!!!!!

    Then came 1990-1991. Right back to the sucking. That was when I could no longer take it. I was 14 going on 15 and I had waited my whole life to see a half-decent Leafs team. We finally got one season of that and it was right back to the losing? Hell no, not for me.

    So I gave up. I really, genuinely did. Exactly the way you've described here. I no longer kept up with the team. I no longer had any idea when the next game was or who the Leafs were playing, which would have been unthinkable for me for the six to eight years until then. I remember one time going to get a haircut and the barber asking me what I thought of that night's game against Detroit -- winnable game! They suck too! And I told him straight out, I'm not even paying attention to the Leafs. I had no idea they were playing Detroit that night, I don't care that they are, but if you want my prediction, I'm sure the Leafs will lose, just like they always do. So help me, I cut the barber deep that day.

    And I went right on not caring into the next season. Until the Gilmour trade. Which changed everything, of course. I don't need to explain how. (I remember getting such a kick out of the debate that went on in the summer of 1992: is Tom Watts really that bad a coach? Do we really need to fire him? It was a debate only fans who had never witnessed winning before could have.)

    So my point, and I do have one, is: things aren't as bad right now as they've been many times before. This is not a new low, at least not for me. Those 80s teams effectively missed the playoffs just as many times in a row as this version (did it really count when they finished 4th in the Norris division? Not to me). This team is a goalie away from being playoffs-caliber, and a true first-line center away from being legit. They're way better than the 80s editions and not nearly as polarizing as the Quinn-Domi-Tucker-Corson Legion of Assholes.

    It gets better.

    Also: fire Burke.