It never fails. Whenever the Leafs are in a prolonged slump, experience turmoil in the dressing room and the front office, make a coaching and/or general manager change, I get phone calls from media colleagues.
Having been a diehard Toronto Maple Leaf fan growing up and then having the good fortune to be involved in the organization in many different capacities for the last 14 years of the Harold Ballard era (1975 to 1989), I am the curator of the abstract Leaf museum for low points of the organization and the enduring misery of its faithful fans.
My experience is particularly unique because I remember those events that fans have conveniently forgotten. For the record, Harold Ballard died in April, 1990, but his court appointed executor had been taking care of his affairs for many months before that. Leaf fans wished that had been the case for many years before that.
What happened to the sure thing?
Now to this season. How does this incredible slide from a "sure thing" for the playoffs to a Maple Leaf team that is now among the bottom five or so teams in the NHL happen? Playoff hopes vanished before the first day of spring. Leaf fans wished they had known this on the first day of winter and would have derived satisfaction with a losing team that was at least vying for one of the top two or three picks overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft.
Now the Leafs look to selecting anywhere from fifth to 10 overall and that lacks the same lustre as the consolation prize for being in the top three. It could help Leaf fans forget the second overall pick of the Leafs that Boston used to select Tyler Seguin in 2010.
Dubious record in last Stanley Cup year
Incredibly the Leafs' all-time record for futility is in a year that remains the gold standard for success. The Toronto Maple Leafs last Stanley Cup victory was in 1967, something every kindergarten-age child is aware of. Do they also realize that same team holds the all-time Leaf team record for most consecutive losses? Yes, from Jan. 15th to Feb. 12th, 1967 they lost 10 games in a row. It is easy to forget that dubious distinction with better memories of the Stanley Cup parade, the fourth in seven years, up Bay Street just a few months later.
Those Leaf teams were not all that dominant in the regular season. In the final four seasons of the Original Six National Hockey League, the Leafs finished in third place on three occasions, and fourth once. They won two Stanley Cups over those four years (1963 & 1967) even though they weren't a dominant regular-season team.
Losing was expected
In the post-expansion era, the Leafs have never really been one of the "haves." This is when the losing became an unfortunate part of Leaf culture and fan's expectations. When Harold Ballard refused to pay the going rate to keep goaltender Bernie Parent and others from defecting to the new found rival World Hockey Association, we expected the result to be what it was. We expected to not make the playoffs and our expectations were met. When we made it the odd time, we expected to be eliminated easily in the first round, and again, our expectations were met.
The current angst is different. We actually got used to some playoff success when Cliff Fletcher became Leaf general manager in 1991 and we had those great playoff springs in 1993 and 1994. A few years later, with Pat Quinn at the helm and either Curtis Joseph or Ed Belfour in goal, there were many spring evenings where the horns honked and the banners were waved as exuberant Leaf fans paraded throughout the streets.
That all stopped in 2004.
Then came this endless "rebuilding" phase. And, as good Leaf fans, we bought into it. We may have become impatient at points, but we understood that the end result would justify the means.
When this year arrived with the Blue and White nine wins above .500 in February, the end was near. But on one of the greatest nights in recent Leaf history, to me, it all changed. Mats Sundin was honoured in a very classy ceremony both by the organization and by Sundin.
One of his comments was to "give these young players your complete support as they have great pride and passion in playing for Toronto and are trying their very best and appreciate your support."
The fans, inspired by Sundin, did just that. The team didn't.
My vivid memory is of Lars Eller of the Montreal Canadiens blowing by Dion Phaneuf in that lopsided Montreal victory. Things have never been the same since.
I can think (though I am scarred) of beginning the 1985-86 season with a record of 1-11-0 in our first 12 games. But, that was somewhat expected as the Leafs had finished 21st and dead last in the NHL the previous season.
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The arrival of Wendel
There were upsides in the next 68 games. One was the "prize" for finishing last, selecting Wendel Clark first overall in the 1985 Entry Draft. Clark and a young Maple Leaf team actually ended up making the playoffs that season, even after that miserable start, and upset the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round that next spring.
The 1989-90 Leaf team was an entertaining and exciting one that had been eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs, but seemed to be a team on the rise.
Unfortunately that "rise" ended before it really started.
The start was an incredibly dismal 3-15-1 record in their first 19 games. It cost head coach Doug Carpenter his job before the 19-game mark, replaced by Tom Watt. General Manager Floyd Smith made a trade out of desperation to get defensive help.
Tom Kurvers was acquired from the New Jersey Devils for a first-round pick in the 1991 entry draft. That was the draft where Eric Lindros was the overall consensus first pick. Smith knew there was no danger of that being the pick he had shipped to the Devils. He was correct in that, but the result wasn't any better. The Leafs came third last and the Devils used that pick to select Scott Niedermayer...ouch!
My "best" comparable season for current Leaf fans is the 1979-80 campaign. Two years of regular-season success and some playoff success with head coach Roger Neilson had fans, once again, excited about the future - and with good reason. The likes of Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams, Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull and goaltender Mike Palmateer provided a strong foundation. Though Neilson had success, he wasn't successful in convincing owner Harold Ballard he was the man for the job.
No more "country club atmosphere"
Out went Neilson and general manager Jim Gregory, and in came the second reign of the George "Punch" Imlach era. He vowed to get rid of the "country club atmosphere" and change the culture. He drastically did that and quickly changed the results. A team that had looked like it was one of the top five in the NHL, was 20-29-4 in February. Lanny McDonald had been traded. And the final "trigger" for that trade was a 10-0 drubbing by the Boston Bruins on Dec. 20th, 1979. Sound familiar?...In case Leaf fans had forgotten the 8-0 Bruin drubbing just a week ago.
Palmateer was his usual cocky self that night: "I played fantastic, I made some big saves otherwise the Bruins could have scored more," he said. Palmateer is now a member of the Toronto Maple Leaf scouting staff. This signaled the start of a complete decade of futility (with a few exceptions).
I hope that Leaf history doesn't repeat itself. And, though I love talking Leafs to my friends and colleagues, I hope that my "expertise" is put back on the back burner.