Our problem last year is Toronto ’s this year.—Danny Gare, Buffalo Sabres
The Ice Follies moved into Maple Leaf Gardens last week and the on-and-off-the-ice follies of the Toronto Maple Leafs mercifully had to hit the road. Synonymous with Hockey Night in Canada and source of legends and heroes since the first days when Conn Smythe parlayed bets to buy the franchise in 1927, the team had become, in the parlance of players and opponents, a “zoo” a month short of the halfway mark of the season. Its captain had resigned; his buddy and winger was traded, as were others; its goalie was playing out his option; everyone was on the trading block; a 41-year-old defenceman had been resurrected, a promising young one traded; the team was playing without a system, members united only in their contempt for management and their desire to play elsewhere.
In the hockey media capital of the world, the players, owner and manager were staging a tragicomic soap opera rivalling the New York Yankees for daily headline innuendoes, rumors and complaints (the difference being that the Yankees win while feuding). The bitching had even spilled over into the sports media when a Globe and Mail columnist awarded a Toronto Star writer with a prize for “cowardly sportswriting” and radio and TV sportscasters took on-air potshots at their print colleagues. Respite from Afghanistan, Iran and the price of gold couldn’t be found in Toronto’s sports pages.
Last season Leaf owner Harold Ballard fired his coach, Roger Neilson, on TV during a loss at Montreal, only to rehire him days later. The prelude to this season may have started there. At the end of the season, Ballard made it clear he was shopping for a coach. Neilson joined Scotty Bowman, who had left Montreal, in Buffalo. The list of candidates was daily trumpeted in the media but all declined until finally Leaf coach and general manager of the 1960s, Punch Imlach, signed as general manager and Floyd Smith as coach. Both had been dumped by Buffalo.
Before the season began, the National Hockey League’s Player Association (NHLPA) and NHL-sanctioned TV gambit Showdown was set to be videotaped. It proved to be the first showdown of the current series between the Leaf management and its players. Captain Darryl Sittier and goalie Mike Palmateer were to take part. Ballard sought a court injunction to block them and contradict a league vote of 20-1 (guess who?) in favor of the show. A judge refused to grant the injunction; league president John Ziegler fined Ballard $10,000 for breaking an NHLPA-NHL agreement; Sittier and the players considered Ballard’s move an insult and challenge of Sittler’s captaincy and leadership. (Ballard has refused to pay the fine. The money will be deducted from the Leafs’ share of receipts from the recent tour of Soviet teams.)
Imlach, the former army drill sergeant, made it known that changes would be made. “The Showdown thing got it started,” says Alan Eagleson, executive director of the NHLPA and Sittler’s agent. “The players had a PingPong table in the clubhouse. That was removed without any discussion. A couple of players lived north of Toronto and had called home after games. The private phone was removed and replaced by one that had to go through an operator. They were niggly little things and they irritated the players.” Amid trumpets that the days of the “countryclub” atmosphere were over, a player was fined $250 for going to Imlach’s office while not wearing a tie and the club announced its right to fine or suspend any player that management deemed had done something detrimental to the club. “That’s a pretty broad scope,” says Eagleson. “Imlach doesn’t accept that the players have rights that all the other general managers have accepted. He has to realize that players’ rights are crucial to the future of hockey and that the 1960s were 20 years ago.”
As the losses piled up, the situation blew up (fittingly) at a press conference. The media were posed to ink and broadcast a suspected trade for Palmateer. Instead, Ballard was prepared to announce an exhibition game, for charity, against the Canadian Olympic team. Sittier and Eagleson intercepted him, saying that neither Sittier nor the players had been consulted. Sittier contended that the scheduling of the game would mean four games in five nights for the team and, since the two teams had already played in preseason (Leafs lost), he proposed that the Leafs and the Olympians trade goalies to take the competitive pressure out of it. He also suggested that in return for playing the Olympians the Leafs get a chance to play the Soviets next season. Ballard agreed to the deal at the press conference saying, “They have a gun to my head, but I’ll accept it.” The next night, the Leafs lost 10-0 to Boston and Ballard promptly reneged on the deal.
As the team floundered toward Christmas, it was presented with the news that a star of Imlach’s first Leaf reign, the now-bald 41-year-old defenceman Carl Brewer (listed in the program for a March 23 NHL Oldtimers game) was being resurrected. Many Leafs considered that as management’s way of getting a pipeline to the dressing room. But the real present was a trade. Coach Smith was shocked when told by a reporter that the team’s second and the league’s 15th leading scorer of last year, Lanny McDonald, and promising young defenceman Joel Quenneville, the Leafs’ first draft choice of 1978, had been traded to Colorado. The next day, in the dressing room before the game, Sittler cut the captain’s “C” from his sweater. “I can no longer be a hypocrite,” he told his teammates. “My idea and management’s idea of being a captain are nowhere near the same.”
Happily in Denver, McDonald said, “I’m one of the fortunate ones. Feel sorry for the guys staying behind on a disappointed, disorganized, disgruntled hockey team. The situation in Toronto boils down to Imlach against the world.”
The Leafs’ world took another tumble shortly after the McDonald trade. The NHL has an agreement with all hockey federations to pay $25,000 for a player joining an NHL club and another $25,000 after the player has played 40 NHL games. The Leafs signed Czech goalie Jiri Crha this season and paid the Czech federation the first $25,000. It has since been loudly proclaimed that the Leafs won’t pay another $25,000. Hence when Palmateer was “injured” playing out his option, and Paul Harrison caught the flu, the Leafs, unwilling to pay for Crha’s play, were without a backup goalie. Imlach announced that another star from his previous reign, now scout and at least 55-year-old Johnny Bower, would dress as a backup goalie. It was also announced that if Bower dressed, he would get ice time. Harrison mercifully recovered. The idealogical irony of the charade is that the Czech federation has yet to collect any such payments, not wanting it thought that there is a price on leaving Czechoslovakia.
The episode was followed by the trading of defenceman Dave Hutchison to Chicago and the players moved to media centre stage again. A few Leafs joined “Hutch” at a Toronto pub to celebrate his escape. The players unloaded verbal and real darts at Imlach, whose picture graced the pub’s dart board. The players’ identities (save Hutchison’s) were not disclosed in the media. Though the bartender did not return to work the next day and left town shortly afterward, Imlach stated, “Of course I know who was there, of course I know who said what, and, of course I don’t forget.”
And so last week the Leafs hit the road for seven games. A veteran player voiced the sentiment of many by saying, “It’d be a miracle if we win one of these games.” Unburdened of his “C,” Sittler scored three goals in the first game and first loss of the trip as rumors swirled about a trade for Sittler with Minnesota, Chicago or Los Angeles. (Sittler has a seven-year, no-trade contract. As Imlach talks trade with other general managers, a figure of $500,000 is repeated as Sittler’s price to waive a trade refusal clause in his contract. “There is no such clause',' says Eagleson. “Imlach asked my assistant what the price would be to buy out the clause. He told him $500,000. I told Imlach $1 million but said Darryl’s price is probably $2 million. The joke is there’s nothing to buy or sell.”) Eagleson says that he and Sittler are not prepared to make a settlement to end the “no-trade” contract, because “Imlach would bury (trade) him in Washington.” If the Leafs trade Sittler, the trade is void and he becomes a free agent and the Leafs will not be compensated. “Anyway, the only places other than Toronto Darryl would play are Philadelphia, Minnesota, Montreal or Buffalo,” says Eagleson. And so it goes.
Just before the Leafs’ road show began, former Leaf McDonald flew into town to be with his wife as she gave birth. He visited his old teammates, passed out cigars and a few shots at the Leaf management. All three Toronto papers ran pictures of the former Leaf, his wife and their new daughter—on the front page. Tune in next week.
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