Half a century without the Cup: The Maple Leafs and their 50-year drought

Half a century without the Cup: The Maple Leafs and their 50-year drought


From Sittler to Clark, Gilmour to Sundin — a look back at the franchise’s long suffering since its last title in 1967

By Antoine Deshaies and Luc Fortin for CBC Sports
May 2, 2017
 

It’s May 2, 1967. The Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final.

From left to right: Johnny Bower, Frank Mahovlich and Dave Keon were all part of the last Toronto Maple Leafs championships team.
 (Aaron Harris/Canadian Press) From left to right: Johnny Bower, Frank Mahovlich and Dave Keon were all part of the last Toronto Maple Leafs championships team. (Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)

Toronto wins the 13th Cup in its glorious history. Fifty years later, the counter is still stuck at 13.

As per tradition at the time, the celebration is short lived on the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens. The longer celebration comes a few days later, with the fans, during the traditional champions’ parade in the streets of the Queen City.

At the time, the scene is familiar, almost routine. It’s the fourth Cup in six seasons for the Leafs after conquests in 1962, 1963 and 1964. The fourth would prove to be the last.

Not long after Toronto’s ultimate victory, the face of the National Hockey League changed considerably with its first big expansion. The NHL went from six to 12 teams.

 

Since then, 17 different clubs in the league have raised the trophy, including the five other original teams. Let’s go back through the 50-year dry spell with testimonies from 13 former Maple Leafs, brought together by Radio-Canada Sports, a longform piece that's been translated from French to English.

 
 

Chapter 1: The last Cup

Johnny Bower was the goaltender for the Maple Leafs from 1958 to 1970. Dave Keon played for the Maple Leafs from 1960 to 1975. In 1967, he won the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the best player in the playoffs.

Bower: At first I didn’t think I would ever end up with the Maple Leafs. When I did, I was 33 years old and I thought to myself, “There is no way I can help them.” Mr. [Punch] Imlach was our coach. I was very undecided about what to do. I had a talk with my wife, Nancy. She said, “go give it a try.” It worked out fine and I went there for 13 years. I had a good team in front of me too. Punch was very strict and demanding, and that was good because I was very hard working. I enjoyed working with him very much.

One tough moment was in 1965. I was mad at Punch when he picked up Terry Sawchuk and I thought, “Oh my gosh I’ll be sitting on the bench now. This guy is a top-notch goalkeeper.” I told Punch: “You know I can’t sit on the bench.” He said, “Johnny, with you two, we are going to win the Stanley Cup. He was right.”

Keon was named Conn Smythe Trophy winner for 1967. (CBC Sports) Keon was named Conn Smythe Trophy winner for 1967. (CBC Sports)

Keon: We had a good series against Chicago in the semifinal and everybody was surprised that we won [the Cup] — that we ended up beating the Canadiens in six games. It was a great team effort and everybody worked hard. At some point, you start to believe that you can win.

Bower: My best memory as a Leaf was when we beat the Habs in the Stanley Cup final in 1967. Boy oh boy, they had a great team and so did we. We had a lot of experience with our team — youth and guys that could skate.

Terry was the “go-to man” but did not have a good game at the Forum. I came in for the second game and third game and we both won. Then I pulled my groin in the warmup of Game 4 at the Gardens and Sawchuk was in net for the rest of the series. Nobody sat beside me on the bench because every time Sawchuk stopped the puck, there would be an elbow here, another elbow there, a reflex. Everything he did I helped him from the bench.

I was so thrilled when we won the Cup in ‘67. To have your name engraved on the Stanley Cup is just like winning a million dollars. It was a childhood dream for me. No one at the time could imagine that Stanley Cup title would be the franchise’s last, and linger for a half of a centry.

 

Keon: I didn’t think our success would stop. I thought we still had some good players. When expansion came in 1968, I still thought we had a good chance to win one or two more, but some trades were made that hurt the franchise and we just never got back to the Stanley Cup final. We started the season well, but we went in a tailspin and we never got out of it. It was a whole bunch of reasons. We didn’t get better. We stayed the same and we got worse. We didn’t play well enough.

Bower: Oh boy in 1968, Punch said in the dressing room that a lot of guys would be traded. We had a lot of old guys on the team. “If you guys don’t play better, don’t expect to be back next year.” He didn’t beat around the bush. Punch had a bit of a problem adapting to the NHL after the expansion.

 

Paul Henderson scored the winning goals in Games 6, 7 and 8 in the series of the century between Canada and the USSR in 1972. He wore Toronto Maple Leafs’ colours from 1968 to 1974 before joining the World Hockey Association.

Henderson: I couldn’t believe I was traded [from Detroit] in 1968. I thought it was terrible. I was a big Gordie Howe fan. My dad was a pretty big Detroit fan. The Leafs were in a big transition, it was an older team. We knew there was going to be multiple changes.

But when I got here, I can still remember skating out on a Saturday night and half of Canada watching. It turned out to be a great place for me. Some people don’t strive under the spotlight, but I loved it. I was like a little kid playing peewee hockey again. But I didn’t get along very well with the owner, Harold Ballard.

 
 

Chapter 2: The curse of Harold Ballard

Harold Ballard was the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He joined the team in 1957 and became the vice president and minority owner in 1961. Ballard then became the majority owner in 1971 and held that title until his death in 1990.

Hated by several of his players, Ballard was a controversial figure and was even sentenced to prison for fraud in 1972. He was enthroned in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977.

Under his reign as majority owner from 1971 to 1990, the Maple Leafs only won eight playoff series in 19 seasons.

Paul Henderson, the 1972 hero of the famed Canada-USSR series, never got along with Leafs owner Harold Ballard. (Canadian Press)
Paul Henderson, the 1972 hero of the famed Canada-USSR series, never got along with Leafs owner Harold Ballard. (Canadian Press)

Bower: Harold Ballard was okay with me. When he found out that Nancy had cancer, he sent a limousine to the house to bring her to the hospital. For a whole week, he did that. That’s a big plus for me to say about Mr. Ballard. I admire him as a gentleman. To me, he was good. I always called him Mr. Ballard and I always will.

Henderson: A lot of crap was going on. I don’t think he made good decisions at all. His ego got the best of him. He wouldn’t take advice from anybody. The last thing he was, was a hockey man. He was just a crusty, old guy. He did a terrible job. He had some good people in there, but he would overrule them and he made terrible decisions. Everybody knew that he didn’t have a clue. And he was sure that the WHA wouldn’t last so he lost a whole lot of good young players. He decimated the whole bloody team. He mistreated so many good players. We are just getting over the Harold Ballard curse.

Darryl Sittler was drafted in the first round by the Maple Leafs in 1970 and wore Toronto’s uniform from 1970 to 1982. He still owns the NHL record with a 10-point game (six goals, four assists). He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989.

Sittler: When I came to training camp in 1970, most of the guys had been on the 1967 Stanley Cup team. It was a great experience for me to play with Dave Keon, Norm Ullman and others. It was great. I made the team the first year. I was a quiet, hard-working guy. We were a "middle-of-the-road" team, I would say. We made the playoffs most years.

 

Henderson: We couldn’t compete against teams like the Montreal Canadiens. We had a pretty good team, but the Boston Bruins and Montreal were just too strong. They had better teams. We just hoped we could make the playoffs. We lost a lot of good players to the WHA. We didn’t have hope of winning the Cup at the beginning of the season and that’s very depressing.
With Ballard, it was almost a [carnival-like] atmosphere around the place.

I pulled my groin in 1972 and I should have just taken some time off. I played on one leg the whole season. I played hurt. And when you are playing for a guy like that, you lose your fun. You go to the rink and you say, "oh my God, how long are we going to put up with this nonsense?" My last two years there were very difficult ones.

Sittler: When Mr. Ballard went to jail for fraud, it was not a very pleasant time for Mr. Ballard, his family and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He had to serve years in prison. He was a very high-profile, controversial owner that the media liked to get quotes and stories from. He made it more difficult for the players to play there because of his comments. On the other hand, there were some nice things that happened. When I had my 10-point game, he gave my late wife and me a beautiful tea service. He had some good moments, sometimes.

Henderson: After the 1974 season, the WHA came after me and offered me some really good money. I didn’t want to jump to the WHA because I had never won the Stanley Cup. But the Toronto Toros offered me twice the money, a five-year contract and a significant signing bonus. I was debating whether to go or not.

I phoned Frank Mahovlich, who had signed with the Toros, and asked him for advice and he said to me that I was prophetic. He said, "Paul, if you want to win the Stanley Cup, then you’d better get away from Toronto because with Harold Ballard, the Maple Leafs will never win the Cup again." That’s the reason I jumped to the WHA.

When Ballard found out somehow that I was seriously thinking of jumping to the WHA, he phoned my agent [Alan] Eagleson to have a meeting. Our negotiation was so slow.

We went to the Hot Stove Lounge at Maple Leaf Gardens. He told us, "you sure don’t deserve that money but I’m not losing any more players to this WHA. So here’s a five-year contract. You don’t deserve it but here it is. Sign the contract." I looked at him, and he had no class whatsoever. I leaned forward and I told Harold, "take this contract and shove it up your arse." He picked up the table, threw it over and stumped out of the room. That was the end for me.

 
 

The Maple Leafs qualified for the playoffs for the next seven years, from 1974 to 1981, but never truly came close to the Stanley Cup. Toronto reached the Clarence Campbell Conference final in 1978 before being swept in four games by the Canadiens.

During this period, three teams dominated the NHL: The Philadelphia Flyers won twice (1974, 1975), the Canadiens four times (1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979) and the New York Islanders four times (1980, 1981, 1982, 1983).

Dave "Tiger’"Williams was drafted by the Maple Leafs in 1974 and played in Toronto until 1980. To this day, he still owns the NHL record for penalty minutes with 4,421  close to 74 hours.

Dave Dave "Tiger" Williams was one of Ballard's favourites. (Tim Clark/Canadian Press)

Williams: Mr. Ballard was a fantastic person. He was the best owner I had in my career. I think of him every day. We got along very well. He treated me first class. I loved the man. I still consider him as the grandfather I never had. All he wanted is for you to work for your paycheck every single second of the day. He wanted you to be proud to be a Leaf. We got along. He was so good to me and made my life easier. When you are the owner, you hire whoever … your GM and assistant, they gotta have the fortitude to challenge the owner’s wishes and wants, because his wishes and wants can be completely mixed up. And I don’t think there were enough guys that had the fortitude to stand up and challenge that decision. I had no problem challenging him and I think he appreciated people that stood up and challenged what he thought was right.

Henderson: My last game at Maple Leaf Gardens, I was playing with the Atlanta Flames. We beat the Leafs that night 5-3 and I got two goals and an assist. I was the first star of the game. When I skated out as the first star, Ballard and King Clancy were sitting in the corner. You usually come out and make a small circle but I came out and I skated to the end to salute them. There was a big skull on his face. He hated losing. I wouldn’t do that again, but at that time I was like, "I’ll show you, you old fart." I got ulcers the last year I played with the Leafs because of the anger and frustration I had toward him.

 

Years later, I wrote him a letter and I asked forgiveness. "I’m really, really sorry for the way I conducted myself." My mentor told me that Ballard would probably never answer but I needed to get it out of my system. So I wrote that letter and sent it to him. I never did hear from him … never got an answer. I started praying for the guy. Five years later, I was in Montreal and Ballard and Clancy were sitting up in the stands. So, I went over and I said hi to them and I said, "Harold, did you ever get the letter I sent to you a few years ago?" He looked at me and he said, "Yes I did." That’s all he said. Didn’t say thank you for the letter. I walked away and felt sorry for him.

 
 

Sittler: I have a lot of respect for Dave Keon and George Armstrong — the captains before me, and for the history and tradition of the Maple Leafs hockey club. To be named the captain in 1975 at a young age, I was very honoured. Never took it for granted. It was a great responsibility to be the best player I could be both on and off the ice. Sometimes things went well and sometimes it was very challenging and difficult. I tried to do the best I could every day.

We made the playoffs most of the years. Things started to change in 1973, 74, 75 with guys like Börje Salming, Lanny McDonald and Tiger Williams. We had a good nucleus of guys going in there. Unfortunately for us, in the ‘70s, the Canadiens were so strong and they won four Stanley Cups. The Islanders were very good. We beat them in 1978. We had a good team. Lanny McDonald’s goal in the seventh game [in overtime] against New York is one of my best memories as a Leaf.

Williams: On the 1978 team, I think we were short one or two guys. No doubt Montreal was a very well-oiled machine on and off the ice. They didn’t have three good players, they had 10 great players. And good people. Again: Lafleur, Robinson, Lemaire, Risebrough. These are good people and that’s why they had great careers. They put a string together and we don’t see those anymore like Montreal, Edmonton and the Islanders. Not sure we will see those dynasties again.

In 1979, the Habs beat us in four games in the second round. The referees were not very good that year. They had bad judgement that year [in overtime, referee Bob Myers penalized Williams in Game 4, which led to Robinson’s winning goal. Leaving the penalty box, Williams wanted to attack Myers but Robinson held him back]. They had cheap glasses.

Yes, Robinson calmed me down. I wouldn’t expect somebody with his leadership to do something like that. I remember it like it was yesterday. Mr. Myers was the referee for our outdoor game against Detroit on Dec. 31 [2016]. I hadn’t seen him in a long, long time and never talked to him or shook his hand since that night. I went over to him and had a chat with him and shook his hand and wished him all the best because that’s what you do. People make mistakes. He made a mistake that night. Get over it.

 

The Leafs traded Lanny McDonald, Sittler’s great friend, in 1981 to the Colorado Rockies by Imlach, who was brought back for his second stint as GM. A devastated Sittler finally agreed to a trade himself, and was sent to the Philadelphia Flyers in 1982. 

Sittler: There was a turbulent time when Punch Imlach came back in the organization as a general manager under Ballard after we knocked out the Islanders in 1978. Imlach came in and traded 10 or 11 players like Lanny McDonald — a good character guy and player. When he traded all those players, it was a difficult time. It took a long time to recover from it. 
I was the vice president of the players’ association, the captain of the team and I had a no-trade contract.

Punch Imlach, who was brought back for his second stint as Leafs GM,  traded Lanny McDonald, Sittler’s great friend, in 1981 to the Colorado Rockies. A devastated Sittler finally agreed to a trade himself, and was sent to the Philadelphia Flyers in 1982.​​ ​​(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) Punch Imlach, who was brought back for his second stint as Leafs GM, traded Lanny McDonald, Sittler’s great friend, in 1981 to the Colorado Rockies. A devastated Sittler finally agreed to a trade himself, and was sent to the Philadelphia Flyers in 1982.​​ ​​(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

I always felt that it was important to stand up for what you believe is right. When you have the responsibility as a captain, I thought I did the right thing when I surrendered my "C" as the captain in 1981 after Lanny McDonald was traded to Colorado. Imlach was one of those general managers that liked to challenge players and I did what was right for my teammates. It wasn’t a fun time. I didn’t want it to happen.

Williams: Sittler is my best friend. But to me, great players like Sittler are so great because they are great people, every moment of the day. As soon as they get out of bed, they are special every day. They are a rare group of people and Sittler is one of them. Best memory as a Leaf? There are so many. But I would say being on the ice and being involved in the game when Darryl Sittler scored 10 points — six goals and four assists. He was a great player. I had the complete opposite feeling about Punch Imlach and that’s all I’ve got to say about him.

Imlach’s second reign was short with the Maple Leafs. He arrived in July 1979 and was replaced in October 1981 after suffering his third heart attack.

He was replaced by Gerry McNamara at training camp and he held the job from 1981 to February 1988. The Maple Leafs only won one series during those eight years. Let’s say that during this time, Harold Ballard was never so prominent.

Dan Daoust, who played 518 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1982 to 1990, found that out the hard way.

 

Daoust: I played four games with the Canadiens in 1982 before being traded to the Leafs. I was in shock. I was disappointed to leave my childhood team to join a mediocre team, which had no Stanley Cup aspirations.

Fortunately, there were a few exceptions like Börje Salming. He was one of the first Europeans to play in the National Hockey League and he got insulted often by our opponents because he was Swedish. The Broad Street Bullies [the nickname given to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s] called him "Chicken Swede." He put up with a lot of hits and he gave them back. He never backed away from anyone. But the team was still undermined by management’s instability.

Börje Salming never backed down from a fight.
 

Vincent Damphousse was drafted by the Maple Leafs in 1986 and played the first five seasons of his career in Toronto before being traded to the Edmonton Oilers on Sept. 19, 1991.

Damphousse: I had four coaches in five years with the Leafs [John Brophy, George Armstrong, Doug Carpenter and Tom Watt]. John Brophy was a bit odd but he trusted me and I had a good first season with 21 goals. The team reached the second round of the playoffs. We narrowly lost against the Red Wings. Those years, the NHL was dominated by the Oilers, Canadiens and Flames.

John Brophy was one of several Toronto Maple Leafs head coaches during the dreadful decade of the 1980s. (Canadian Press) John Brophy was one of several Toronto Maple Leafs head coaches during the dreadful decade of the 1980s. (Canadian Press)

Daniel Marois wore the Maple Leafs’ colours from 1988 to 1992.

Marois: We had a lot of individual freedom on the ice. Let’s say that the game’s systems were not too strict. We were often winning games 8-6. It was nice for the statistics, but today, you don’t win like that a lot. Coaches were often replaced and in hindsight, that didn’t make sense. But in the heat of the moment, we were saying "go, go, go," and we went and played.

Daoust: I don’t like saying this but with a good coach and good management, the Leafs would have been better in the ‘80s. Instability was the team’s biggest weakness. People weren’t all pulling in the same direction. The president [Harold Ballard] dictated decisions to the general manager. Sometimes, the GM would publically say a certain player was not on the [team’s] radar and the next day, he would appear in the locker room.

Damphousse: I look back at Harold Ballard as an old gentleman who made rash decisions. He was crazy and was preoccupied by his family’s bickering about who would be his successor. He had a dog called Puck and he yapped and jumped around during practices. The dog was even in the team photo and we had to wait until the dog was looking at the camera to take the picture. The photographer would yell “Puck, Puck, Puck” to get the dog’s attention. All of that made no sense.

Marois: I had a good relationship with Ballard despite everything. He took the time to come and see me and even tried to speak French to me. He may have made decisions that didn’t make sense, but I wasn’t aware of it.

 

Daoust: Surprising decisions by management kept multiplying. They stripped Rick Vaive of his captaincy in the middle of the season on a trip to Minnesota. They never justified their decision and especially, they didn’t name anyone to replace him. That was a blow to our morale. Questionable transactions kept multiplying. When you trade Russ Courtnall for John Kordic, you can’t say that you are improving your team.

Damphousse: I was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in the middle of training camp in 1991 and that was tough to take. It was tough but in hindsight, that was the best thing that could have happened to my career. The team started to come back together a bit after my departure. Cliff Fletcher, who traded me, started to give the Leafs credibility again upon his arrival.

Marois: If I remember correctly, we had about 50 different players throughout one season. It was ridiculous.

 
 

Chapter 3: The recovery

Harold Ballard died in August 1990. Cliff Fletcher became the president and general manager one year later in July 1991. From his first season, he made several major transactions and most notably, got Dave Andreychuk and Doug Gilmour, who finished the 1992-93 season seventh among NHL scorers with 127 points. Gilmour finished fourth the following season with 111 points.

Andreychuk and Gilmour weren’t Fletcher’s only acquisitions. The Leafs general manager negotiated 22 deals between July 1991 and July 1993. The new core allowed the Leafs to get closer to the Cup. The team, led by coach Pat Burns, made the Conference final in ’93 and  ’94.

Wendel Clark was chosen in the first round of the draft in 1985. He played for the Leafs three separate times from 1985 to 1994, 1996 to 1998 and again in 2000. He was the Leafs’ captain from 1991 to 1994. The Leafs retired his No. 17 in 2008.

Andreychuk scored 640 goals in 1,639 games in the NHL. He wore Leafs colours from 1993 to 1996. He won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.

Goaltender Felix Potvin was drafted in the second round by the Maple Leafs in 1990. He became Toronto’s starting goalie at the age of 21. He was traded to the Islanders in 1999.

Doug Gilmour, top, was the Leafs’ MVP in the early 1990s. (Hans Deryk/Canadian Press) Doug Gilmour, top, was the Leafs’ MVP in the early 1990s. (Hans Deryk/Canadian Press)

Clark: In 1991, Cliff Fletcher came in and made trades that made a huge difference, such as getting Doug Gilmour. Different trades that Cliff made helped to build the team. He brought in Pat Burns as a coach. And Pat put the on-ice product together, and we got good runs for a couple of years.

Andreychuk: I can talk about Pat Burns about what he did. The motivation he gave us. He was deflecting the distraction or pressure from us. In that L.A. series [in ‘93], the way he coached us while getting the most out of his players. I can remember that. It was a big difference for why we were winning or losing. Pat Burns motivated us to win.

[Burns] had a certain image on the outside, but as a player inside, you respect him because all he’s doing is trying to get the best out of each player. He respected his veteran players a lot like me, Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark.

You wanted to perform for him and when I look back on Pat Burns, I can remember the time of us talking together, not necessarily the time of him screaming on the bench.

Potvin: Pat Burns was an excellent coach. He was very demanding, but just with the players. We had blind confidence in him. At the start of the 1993 series, we really thought that we had a really good chance to win the Cup.
We started the series with two losses against the Red Wings, but we pulled ourselves together to win in seven, at their rink as well. We also won in seven against the Blues. When you come out as a winner from that kind of series, it gets rid of a lot of doubt.

 

Our victory against the Blues is without doubt my best memory with the Leafs. We won the seventh game 6-0 in Toronto. The atmosphere was extraordinary in Maple Leaf Gardens and in the street. There were people everywhere, like if we had won the Stanley Cup. It was extraordinary.

 
 

In the Clarence Campbell conference final, the Maple Leafs were facing Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings. The Leafs had a chance to eliminate their rival in Game 6 in Los Angeles and join the Montreal Canadiens in the final. It would have been the first all-Canadian final since 1967.

Glenn Anderson was penalized in the final seconds of the game. It was tied 4-4. The Kings began overtime on the power play when Gretzky cut Gilmour’s face with his stick. The referee that game, Kerry Fraser, realized today that it should have been a penalty but he missed it.

A referee won’t call a penalty on a play he didn’t see.
A couple of seconds later, Gretzky scored the winning goal, before leading his team to the final with a hat trick and an assist in Game 7 in Toronto, and another 5-4 victory for the Kings.

Andreychuk: It happens a lot in the game. It’s because it’s Gretzky and Gilmour that it was blown out of proportion. Referees miss calls. We talked about getting over it and not worrying about it, but when you look back, it’s a huge play and it’s the difference maker in the series.

Clark: It’s probably more frustrating after it’s all over than in the heat of the moment. As a player you’re playing and moving on to the next moment and you can’t worry about that situation. It bothers the fans more than the players at the time. We were in the middle of the series and we couldn’t do anything about it.

Potvin: It really was heartbreaking to lose that game and even more so, Game 7 in Toronto. Wayne Gretzky took matters into his own hands with, according to him, the best game of his career. I was young, I was disappointed but I told myself that I would often have the chance to win the Stanley Cup. It never happened. As an athlete, that’s when you realize that while you are so close to your goal, you have to do even more.

 

Andreychuk: What were the Leafs missing in ’93-94? Not much I will tell you that. That team was a very close team. But of those final four teams, you lose to Wayne Gretzky’s best game ever; it was really, really close. I don’t think there is much of a difference when you get to the final four. Any of those four teams could have won. You need some luck on your side and unfortunately we did not have it. A lot of those guys from ‘93 are still close. It’s very unfortunate that we couldn’t win it there in Toronto.

Clark: It wasn’t meant to be. We were right there. It was an exciting time to be playing in the final. Montreal was there and that would have been something. They would have shut the country down for two weeks if that series would have been played.

Potvin: People in Toronto still talk to me about the series in ’93 and ’94. We didn’t blush about our performance. We didn’t bring back the Cup, but we still had a season that fans haven’t forgotten.

 

Since 1993, the Leafs made the conference finals three times, one more than the Canadiens.

In the Western Conference final in 1994, the Leafs fell in five games to the Vancouver Canucks.

In the Eastern Conference final in 1999, same result: Elimination in five games by the Buffalo Sabres.

The most recent appearance in the final four goes back to 2002: A loss in six games to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Yanic Perreault played for the Toronto Maple Leafs three times in his career. He played 13 games in the ’93-94 season, then returned in ‘98 to 2001 and again in 2007.

Darcy Tucker was the Maple Leafs’ little pest from 2000 to 2008. He played in the playoffs six times in nine seasons in Toronto.

Pat Quinn guided the Leafs to two Western Conference finals in 1999 and 2002. (Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images) Pat Quinn guided the Leafs to two Western Conference finals in 1999 and 2002. (Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images)

Perreault: Pat Quinn was our coach in 1999 [Quinn coached the Leafs from 1998 to 2006] and we lost to Dominik Hasek’s Buffalo Sabres. Those were Hasek’s good years. Our strength in those years was our balance. We had three lines capable of generating an attack, a little bit like today’s teams. At the time, it was generally two skilled lines, one tough line and one line of plumbers.

Tucker: Pat Quinn passing away [in 2014] was very difficult. He was more than a coach, also a mentor in life. Not only as a hockey player, but also as a man. I really enjoyed being around him as a person. I coach my two boys’ hockey team now and I do a lot of things he taught. He taught me to be a better person.
In 2002, we spent a lot of energy in those two series, I can tell you that. The physicality of both those series - hard-contested. So when you spend that much energy, it’s hard to win the next series. We played series of seven, seven and six games that year. We had to play a lot of hockey.

Our team played very well but we ran into a hot goalie (Arturs Irbe). The Hurricanes played better defensively than us. We had an outstanding group of guys. We had good players and even better people.

[Mats] Sundin’s injury hurt us a lot. Anytime you have an injury to a key player, you have a hard time winning. We had a lot of injuries and that led to us not winning that series.

 

Perreault: We were always missing a couple of good players. I remember clubs like New Jersey or Colorado always got reinforcements at the trade deadline. We weren’t far off.
The general manager Cliff Fletcher really gave the team its luster back after the wave of emptiness in the 80s. It was a first-class organization, right up there with teams like the Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks.

Tucker: Just playing for the franchise was an honour. It’s a very historical franchise, one that has a lot of memories and things of that nature. All of it. There is not one moment; the whole thing was a lot of fun.
I’m sure the Islanders fans didn’t like me. Same thing in Ottawa. That’s part of being a hockey player. If you’re well liked in the other cities, you’re not doing your job right.

Out of the playoffs three years, we missed the playoffs by one point two years in a row basically. When you get in the playoffs, anything can happen. We were a good hockey club no matter what. Not easy not making the playoffs, but that’s part of being a hockey player. Not winning the Stanley Cup wasn’t easy.

 
 

Chapter 4: New hope

From 2005 to 2016, the Leafs only made the playoffs once, losing in the first round in seven games to the Boston Bruins in 2013. The Leafs were leading 4-1 with 15 minutes left to play in Game 7. Patrice Bergeron scored the game-tying and winning goal for the Bruins.

Then came the triumvirate recruits Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. The three first-round picks, three prodigies, brought new hope to Toronto fans. The trio are already key components in Toronto’s lineup with veterans James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri.

Coach Mike Babcock, two-time Olympic gold medallist and Stanley Cup champion with Detroit in 2008, is synonymous with credibility. The pieces of the puzzle seem to be falling into place.

Will it be enough to end Toronto’s famine?

Auston Matthews is the new face of the Leafs. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press) Auston Matthews is the new face of the Leafs. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Keon: It takes players at the peak of their game and it also takes luck to win the Cup. And even then, it’s sometimes not enough.

Damphousse: It takes talent to win and for that, you have to draft well. You have to give a true identity to the team and the players have to be proud to play for the organization. They just went through a major shift. It’s not the first, but I think this time, they are on the right track.

Andreychuk: No doubt. Lots of ups and downs with the franchise. They had some good players that never matured as expected. A lot of it is the pressure of playing in Toronto.

Perreault: When you win a series or two, people get on board in a big way. People in Toronto have looked forward to winning for a long time.

Sittler: There is going to be 31 teams next season [with the Las Vegas expansion team] and it’s very difficult to win the Stanley Cup. If you want to win the Cup, you have to put together a very strong nucleus. We are starting to put those pieces together. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves; we were in last place last year. We’ve come a long way for sure. But to get to the top is an even longer way

 

Clark: It’s great that Auston beat my record (40 goals as a rookie, 34 for Clark in 1986). As a fan, you want the team to do well and in order for a team to do well, you have to have players playing well and breaking records.

Auston is a big, strong guy with quick hands. He skates well. He can play up and down with anybody in the league today and he’s only 19.
Auston, Marner and all the young guys are the main reason why the team is winning. 

 

Tucker: This year’s team is good. I’ve seen it all year long. It’s not news that they are good. It amazes me that players are so good, so young in today’s generation. But that shows how good the Leafs’ drafts were.

Henderson: Right now, they are the most exciting team to watch in the NHL. They are more exciting than any team and they were the most boring for many years. They have so much talent on that team.

Now they have taken the next step. They are changing the culture with [president Brendan] Shanahan, [GM Lou] Lamoriello and Babcock. All the players know that Babcock is not going anywhere. Players can’t get away with anything anymore.

Williams: There is only room in my heart for one and it’s the Leafs. I got a little bit for Vancouver, but not as much. The Leafs have always looked after me even when I quit playing for them. It’s not about yesterday. It’s about today and tomorrow. This year’s team is very good. We have great fans all over the world, especially in Canada.

Marois: The Leafs won their last Cup one year before I was born. I hope the next one won’t come the year after my death.

Keon: I never thought it would take so long to win again. But they are not the only team. Detroit went through it (1955 to 1997) and so did Chicago (1961 to 2010). It just goes to show you how hard it is to win. When you win it, you better appreciate it. It’s been almost 25 years for the Canadiens as well.

Bower: It’s hard to believe 50 years. I can’t believe it. The way they’re going right now, I think they’re going to be okay. I’m getting up in age and I’m wondering, "how much longer?" It’s going to take a few years. I will never give up. Don’t give up you guys.

(Large photos by Getty Images/Associated Press/Canadian Press)

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