COVER

Requiem for the fallen Leafs

Robert Miller January 28 1985
COVER

Requiem for the fallen Leafs

Robert Miller January 28 1985

Requiem for the fallen Leafs

COVER

ESSAY

Robert Miller

During the 1940s Delisle, Sask., was too small to appear on most maps, but dedicated Toronto Maple Leaf fans knew where it was (40 km southwest of Saskatoon, on the Canadian National Railway’s main line). They also knew that it was a wheat farming community, that it had a rink, that its winters were wonderfully long and crisp. They knew those things because Delisle, Sask., was Max Bentley’s home town. It was where Bentley and his brothers Doug, Reg, Roy and Jack first learned to play hockey. At its highest level, which every Canadian fan once understood to be the sixteam National Hockey League, hockey brought fame to its stars and excitement to its followers.

For decades, until the NHL expanded in 1967 (later, in 1972, the Soviets arrived, changing everything), the game helped Canadians define themselves. It was part of what made them unique. Hockey mattered —and so did the professional teams who played it. The game worked a special magic that induced adults to talk in proprietary terms about their favorite clubs and youngsters to keep scrapbooks.

Demigods: Max Bentley was a Maple Leaf, an all-star centre acquired from the Chicago Black Hawks for five other players in a celebrated 1948 trade. The Bentley deal was negotiated by Leafs owner Conn Smythe, who opened Maple Leaf Gardens on Nov. 12, 1931, and who watched his arena evolve into a national shrine, a 20th-century Canadian cathedral where such demigods as Bentley played before adoring congregations while the nation listened to Foster Hewitt’s play-byplay on radio or, later, watched the games on television. Smythe died on Nov. 18,1980, but he lived long enough to see his once-proud team become less than ordinary and his arena grow old gracelessly under the bumptious ownership of 81year-old Harold Ballard. The decline and fall of the oncemighty Toronto Maple Leafs, apparent victims of bad luck and worse management, is now virtually complete. It undoubtedly troubled Smythe and it probably puzzled Bentley, who died on Jan. 19,1984, at the age of 63. Smythe, Bentley and yesterday’s Leafs had one thing in common: a touch of class.

Although Bentley had won back-to-back NHL scoring titles with Chicago in 1946 and 1947, Smythe’s five-players-for-one deal seemed prohibitively expensive according to the values of the day (Eddie Shore, the legendary Boston Bruin who became notorious as a tightfisted martinet when he acquired the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League, once

traded defenceman John Baby for a net). But Smythe was always a high roller, a sports impresario who never forgot the first rule of the entertainment business: keep the paying public happy. In 1931 Smythe wanted a winning team in his new building, and he decided that the key to success was a rugged little defenceman named Frank “King” Clancy, the property of the Ottawa Senators. Smythe bought Clancy for the then unheard-of price of $35,000—which the financially strapped Leafs owner won at Woodbine race track by parlaying a loan onto a horse he owned, Rare Jewel. Clancy, now an 82-year-old vice-president of the Leafs and one of Ballard’s staunchest friends, delivered, leading the 1931-32 Leafs to the

Stanley Cup and helping to establish a winning tradition at the Gardens. A generation later Bentley, too, delivered for Smythe, helping the Leafs win the Cup in 1948 and again in 1949 and 1951. Bentley also became renowned in the perfervid prose favored by pretelevision sports writers as “the Dipsy-Doodle Dandy from Delisle.” Rivalry: In that era, hockey players’ home towns were important and frequently cited bits of trivia for the millions of Canadians who closely followed the Leafs’ fortunes. Of course, millions more were equally supportive of the Montreal Canadiens. Indeed, the intense rivalry between the two NHL teams, with

their passionate followings, amounted to yet another great divide in a country rife with geographic, linguistic and religious divisions. Countless thousands of young Canadians collected glossy photos of their favorite Leafs, through an ingenious Bee Hive corn syrup promotion. Thousands more learned some of the geography of their country by looking up the obscure communities that proudly sent their native sons to play in the Gardens (or the Montreal Forum).

Hometowns: Wherever they lived, young Leaf fans were aware of Paris, Ont., primarily because it was team captain Syl Apps’s birthplace. They knew Moncton, N.B., at least in part because it was Gordie Drillon’s home town (Drillon was the last Leaf to win the NHL scoring championship—in 1938). And they could locate Brandon, Man., in their atlases partly because that community had sent goalie Walter (Turk) Broda to win the Vezina Trophy for Toronto. Similarly, later generations of Leaf fans knew Noranda, Que. (Davey Keon), Prince Albert, Sask. (Johnny Bower), Kitchener, Ont. (Darryl Sittler) and—because times and the league changed—Kiruna, Sweden (Borje Salming).

The Leafs used to win more games than they lost. From their inaugural season in the Gardens until Canada’s centennial year the Leafs won no fewer than 11 Stanley Cups. Since 1967, by which time the club’s ownership had passed to

Smythe’s son, Stafford, Ballard and newspaper publisher John W. Bassett, who later sold his holdings to Smythe and Ballard, there have been no Cup celebrations in Toronto. And since Ballard acquired total control, following Stafford Smythe’s death on Oct. 13, 1971, the Leafs’ decline has accelerated.

Their slogan, which Conn Smythe had affixed to their dressing room wall, remains blunt: “Defeat does not rest lightly on their shoulders.” But it has a hollow ring. Ballard’s Leafs lose many more games than they win. Having spent more than a decade first stumbling and then tumbling down the standings of an NHL that now has 21 teams, the 1985 Leafs sprawl prone, limp with embarrassment, dead-last in the league. And many of their once adoring fans—grown weary of on-ice failure by the all-but-anonymous players and off-ice bluster by their highly visible owner—have dismissed them

as irrelevant, incompetent, boring or merely comical.

For roughly half a century the Leafs played to sell-out crowds, despite the fact that they last won an NHL regular season championship in 1963. But recently more and more seats have been empty—even though the vast majority continue to be sold, usually to corporations. Still, the Gardens has abandoned the proud boast that every Leaf game since the Second World War has been sold out and, during the current season, the club has occasionally bought newspaper advertisements announcing that tickets are available. Scalpers complain that they cannot sell Leaf tickets; some seasonticket holders grumble that they cannot give them away. In fact, the most difficult ticket to acquire in Toronto this winter has not been for the Leafs at the Gardens—it was for Prince at the Gardens. The superstars at Maple Leaf Gardens now play guitars, not hockey.

Greatest: Most of hockey’s greatest superstars have played for teams other than Toronto. Montreal had Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur—towering figures representing three generations of excellence. The

Detroit Red Wings had the incomparable Gordie Howe. Chicago Black Hawks fans gloried in the feats of Bobby Hull. The Boston Bruins could boast of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. Even the New York Rangers—who have not won a Stanley Cup since 1940—employed such all-stars as Andy Bathgate and Rod Gilbert. And since the league began expanding, the greatest players have been even more widely scattered: Gilbert Perreault with Buffalo, Marcel Dionne with the Los Angeles Kings, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Denis Potvin with the New York Islanders and, of course, No. 99, Wayne Gretzky, with the Edmonton Oilers. Nevertheless, for most of their history the Leafs iced solid, effective teams which won more than their share of Stanley Cups.

Popular: Among the most talented and popular Leafs through the years: Charlie Conacher, Busher Jackson and Joe Primeau during the 1930s; Apps, Broda, Bentley and Ted

Kennedy during the 1940s; Sid Smith, Tod Sloan and Bob Baun in the 1950s; Bob Pulford, George Armstrong, Keon and Bower in the 1960s. But since the Ballard era began, the team’s two most popular stars—former captain Sittler, now with Detroit, and forward Lanny McDonald, now with Calgary —have been traded away for incurring the wrath of their owner. Leaf coaches have come in hope and gone in despair, draft choices have been traded or wasted, television ratings have dropped, and on-ice losses have mounted. But the money rolls in to Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd., which last year earned a net profit of $1.9 million on total revenues of more than $26 million. And Ballard has become a media superstar himself, chiefly because of his penchant for outrageous statements. Through it all, the professionals who wear the famous blueand-white Maple Leaf sweaters struggle along. And on the frozen ponds and covered rinks of the country, where the boys are, for the first time in a half-century the Maple Leaf sweater is the exception, rather than the rule. Even in Delisle, Sask., the youngsters fantasize about becoming Edmonton Oilers. Older Leaf fans find it rather sad.