Ballard’s slapstick Leafs

Hal Quinn January 28 1985

Ballard’s slapstick Leafs

Hal Quinn January 28 1985

Ballard’s slapstick Leafs


Hal Quinn

Their photographs line the hallways of Maple Leaf Gardens. Forever young, the heroes of yesterday gaze down at visitors to a once-proud shrine of hockey, their Stanley Cup celebrations fixed in time. But many of today’s visitors to the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs were not born in 1967, when the last of the team’s 11 Cup celebrations took place. The men with the close-cropped hair in the oversized black-and-white photos are only heroes to older generations, their exploits fading memories.

Young hockey fans today can only imagine a National Hockey League dominated by the skaters in blue and white; or English Canadians waiting each Saturday night for the familiar voice of Foster Hewitt: “Hello Canada, and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland.” In the past 18 years the Maple Leafs have fallen from the pinnacle of the nation’s game—from the best in a six-team league to the worst in a 21-team league. The players are no longer icons for worship, but

objects of derision. And much of the blame rests on the broad shoulders of the team’s 81-year-old owner, Harold Ballard, who told Maclean’s last week: “I hire the manager and I hire the coach, so if I make a mistake it’s not good. But I don’t think I’ve made any mistakes.” Earlier, he had observed, “The unfortunate thing about it is that they can’t fire me, because I sign the cheques.”

Desperation: It has

not simply been misfortune that has befallen one of the most storied franchises in professional sport. The decline of the Leafs has been steady, the mismanagement consistent. Since the last glorious seasons in the 1960s when the Leafs won four Stanley Cups, the Ballard-orchestrated team has traded away its stars, drafted average players when future superstars were available and treated coaches and veteran

players with indifference. The 1985 version has the worst record in the NHL despite two road victories last week —over the equally inept Vancouver Canucks and the playoff-bound Los Angeles Kings.

Still, the Leafs have little chance of making the playoffs—an ignominy reserved for just five of the league’s teams. Conceding futility early this month, Ballard instructed his coach, Dan Maloney, and general manager, Gerry McNamara, to forget about trying to improve the team through trades. Said Ballard: “We’re in a position where we can’t catch up anyway.” The team’s 53rd NHL season was virtually over before half of the games had been played.

In desperation, coach u Maloney has tried almost ^ everything to muster his 1 collection of unpolished I youngsters and fading 5 veterans. He benched his

only legitimate star, captain Rick Vaive; staged interminable practices, sometimes not even letting players have a puck; juggled his lineup; and promoted and demoted players back and forth from the Leafs’ minor-league team in St. Catharines, Ont. Finally Maloney hired a “motivator” to give the team sessions in positive thinking. Nothing worked. Some fans took to wearing paper bags over their heads while watching yet another defeat and chanting for “Albert,” the fictional hockey-playing hero in a television commercial. The Toronto Star responded to the plea and produced “Albert”—in real life an American college player, Bill Stewart —for a home game. But the fantasy and the laughter did not last.

The on-ice reality continued to be too painful for Leafs fans across the country.

Hoping: Almost all of the 16,300 seats are presold for every Leafs home game, about 65 per cent to corporations, yet empty seats now dot the Gardens where hundreds of fans once lined up for hours in the hope of getting into the standingroom areas. Most seasonticket holders are hanging on to tickets they waited years to obtain or had willed to them. Ken Stewart, a vice-president

at Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada, has had his season tickets for seven years. “I’m waiting for the team to turn around, and I’m quite content to keep buying tickets and hoping for that day.” But others, like Gordon Shank, general manager of Levi Strauss Canada, are not content. Shank, whose company held two $774 season reds ($139 cheaper than a gold seat), said: “We cancelled them after the 1982-83 season. We became disenchanted with paying so much money to go and see what was supposed to be entertainment. That last season we would usually leave after the first period.” Out on Carlton Street the ticket scalpers are losing money. Around the city, channels are being switched and TV ratings are plummeting. Winter Saturday nights no longer belong to the Leafs.

It was once the dream of almost every Canadian boy—at least those who did not yearn to skate in Montreal’s Forum—to play in the Gardens. Indeed, Toronto’s long-suffering Swedish defenceman Borje Salming, 33, whom teammates call“Dad”, recalls thinking as a youngster that “Toronto and Montreal were mecca cities of hockey.” Ironically, Mais pie Leaf Gardens, the 2 venerable shrine that op-

ponents once feared to enter, has become a fearful place for the Leafs themselves. In their first 24' home games this season, the Leafs won only five games. Maloney said that when the Maple Leafs stepped off the plane last week in Vancouver, “They were a different team. I could see it in their eyes. When you are losing, Toronto is not the city to be in.” Maloney and his wife, Suzanne, used to go out for dinner after home games. They do not any more. Salming said he no longer walks the city streets, preferring not to hear the taunts.

Unbearable: Vaive, 25, and struggling after three seasons when he scored 50 or more goals, was especially happy to get away from the Gardens last week. The Ottawa native, the youngest captain in Leafs history at 21, was relieved to escape the critical press and spectators. In late December the pressure became unbearable. After waking from a pregame nap, Vaive dressed and, unhappy about the way his sportscoat looked, ripped it off along with his tie and threw them across the living room of his suburban Toronto home. “I was so angry and frustrated I just cracked,” said Vaive. “I started shouting at my wife Joyce. I was like a kid having a fullblown temper tantrum. Even my dog, a big German shepherd, ran away and hid behind the couch.”

Added Vaive: “It’s a shame when you work your butt off and there’s some bums up in the stands booing you. We were glad to get out of Toronto. It would be better if we could play all of our

games on the road.” Vaive’s linemate John Anderson, who has been benched, shifted to various lines and has faced Ballard’s public accusations that he is not earning his paycheque, says the Gardens works against the team. “Most of the players in the NHL are Canadian kids,” said Anderson. “They know that when they come into the Gardens they’ll be on TV and that their mothers and friends will be watching. So they always want to play their best in Toronto.” Ballard, who travels with his team on all their road trips with his sidekick King Clancy, has been troubled. “I’ve put in a lot of sleepless nights,” he said. “But I don’t have any solutions. I’ve been watching hockey for 60 years, but I can’t figure this one out.”

Decay: Others think that they have. Eagleson, executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, says that the problem is Ballard himself. Eagleson looks back to the 1979 season for the seeds of decay. Said Eagleson: “The first step to oblivion was when they brought back Punch Imlach.” Imlach had coached the Leafs to their Cup victories in the 1960s and was hired as general manager in the spring of 1979. Then-general manager Jim Gregory was never fired but simply cast adrift. He read in a newspaper of Imlach’s appointment. “Ballard thought Punch could do it all again,” said Eagleson. “They had five players —Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Mike Palmateer, Salming and Ian Turnbull—who were as good as the top five on any other team. They got rid of all of them but Salming. They took the guts of the team and stripped them away.” According to Eagleson, a TV program was responsible for the trade of three of the team’s stars. The league and the Players’ Association sanctioned a shootout series called Showdown. Sittler and goalie Palmateer were chosen to represent the Leafs. Imlach tried to block their participation. The Leafs players, particularly association representative McDonald, supported Sittler and Palmateer. Said Eagleson: “Imlach never forgave them.” In December McDonald, one of the team’s most popular players and prolific scorers, was banished to hockey’s Siberia, the Colorado Rockies, now the New Jersey Devils. Ballard told Maclean’s: “I’m not relieving myself of any of the blame, but I didn’t figure directly in that trade. I should have, but I didn’t. Lanny’s a great guy.” In 1980 Palmateer was traded to the Washington Capitals. Jn 1982, Sittler, team captain and the most popular player, was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Leafs reacquired Palmateer prior to the 1981-82 season. But after the season he took the Leafs to arbitration over his new salary. Leafs general manager Gerry McNamara warned Eagle-

son, Palmateer’s agent, that filing for arbitration “would not be in Mike’s best interests.”

Palmateer won the case and was awarded a salary of $220,000 in U.S. funds.

While he is still being paid, Palmateer, 31, has not suited up since the fall of last year. The reason: following an exhibition match, Palmateer balked at practising the day after a game. Rookie coach Maloney, fully backed by Ballard, ruled that every member of the club had to practice. Said Eagleson: “Mike was told to go home and that the team would call if he was needed. They also made it clear that they wouldn’t be calling. It’s just another example of the shoddy way they treat their people.”

Eagleson also cited the cases of George Armstrong, a former Leafs captain and player for 15 years who was “pushed aside”in 1971, and Norm Ullman and Dave Keon, who were simply not offered contracts in 1973 after 22 years of service between them. In 1981

Ballard decided to re-

place Imlach while he was hospitalized with heart problems. Imlach was not fired. He learned of his fate when he returned to work and discovered that the nameplate for his parking space had been changed to read “Gerry McNamara.”

Legendary: The Leafs’ deportment,

and fortunes, stand in _

marked contrast to their archrivals of long ago, the Montreal Canadiens.

When the Habitants faltered in the early 1980s the team Canadienized the Canadiens. Former all-star defenceman Serge Savard was hired as general manager, and he hired former teammate and all-star centre JacquesLemaire as coach.

The legendary Jean Beliveau continued as the team’s vice-president of social affairs. And when Guy Lafleur retired last fall, the Canadiens gave him “a job for life.” The team even has a special lounge in The

Forum open to former Canadiens only, something Eagleson says the Leafs should establish.“They should welcome all the players back to the place,” he said.

As he acknowledges, the ultimate responsibility for the players and the team’s performance rests with Ballard.

_ He said of his hockey

team that rings up $250,000 on the Gardens’ cash registers each Saturday night: “When they stink, I feel like a pickpocket for taking the people’s money. I get all kinds of letters about this team. I’d swear you could see the tears on some of them, but no one feels worse than I do.” Superstar: Most, if not all, of the sadness could have been prevented. Each spring the NHL holds its draft of amateur players. More than a £ decade of mediocrity z gave the Toronto team ö enviable opportunities, I because the teams draft

in inverse order of their standings the previous season. Players passed over by the Leafs now star with other teams.

In fact, the only good draft in the 1970s came in 1973 when right-winger Lanny McDonald and defenceman Ian Turnbull arrived. The following year Toronto selected centre Jack Valiquette, now retired, over New York Islander superstar Bryan Trottier, Boston Bruin marksman Charlie Simmer and Philadelphia Flyer Mark Howe, son of Gordie. In 1977 the team selected right-winger John Anderson and defenceman Trevor Johanson, neither of whom have lived up to their potential. At the time, Islander Mike Bossy, now the game’s most prolific scorer next to Wayne Gretzky, and the Capitals’ Rod Langway, now the game’s best defenceman, were available.

Suffered: In the last seven drafts, four under general manager McNamara —whom the players call “B.D.” behind his back in reference to an auto accident from which McNamara claimed to have suffered brain damage—superb players passed over by the Leafs include two of the talented Sutter brothers, Ron and Duane; Buffalo’s Phil Housley; Edmonton’s Grant Fuhr and Kevin Lowe; Vancouver’s Tony Tanti; New York Rangers’

Don Maloney and Ron Duguay; Chicago’s Al Secord; Philadelphia’s Brian Propp; and Minnesota North Stars’ Tom McCarthy and Don Beaupré. Collectively, they represent a group whose Cup celebration photograph would likely have already been added to the Gardens gallery.

While there is no evidence that a photographer will soon be called to take historic photos of Leafs players, there are some signs that the club’s future may be brighter than its present.

Among the young players who may develop and form the nucleus of a competent team: 1983 draft choice Russ Courtnail, the 19-year-old centre, and defencemen AÍ Iafrate, 18, and Gary Nylund, 21, and the young goaltending pair of Allan Bester, 20, and Ken Wregget, 20. Ballard concedes: “ We are using guys between 18 and 20 years of age. They’re

shell-shocked out there.”

Proud: Anderson, 27, thinks they will get over it. Said Anderson: “I figure I’ve got about three years left. That’s long enough for these kids to grow, long enough for this mediocrity to turn into stardom.” Still there are those who do not believe success will come as long as Ballard is in control.

Ballard turned down a $40-million offer from a group fronted by singer Ann Murray. “I want $100 million,” he told Maclean's. “I know I won’t get it, that’s why I put the price of $100 million on it.” The Leafs’ fall has taken years, but Eagleson believes it would not take long for the onceproud team to rise again. He said “They’d turn around in the time it would take for Ballard to take his hands off the wheel.”_

With Jane O'Hara in Los Angeles and Robert Block and Jane Ming ay in Toronto.