It had been a long time in the making, but in 2008, the Toronto Maple Leafs finally did it. Led by Darren Roanoke, they overcame the long odds and won the 14th Stanley Cup of their long and storied history, beating the Los Angeles Kings and their star goaltender….
Wait…. Editors message…. What the hell do you mean, it was a movie?! You realize that I now have to start this essay all over again?!
(Seven hours later….)
Okay. Ready now. It's incredible to see the NHL's legendary Toronto Maple Leafs spiral out of control the way they have over the past several decades. This is one of the league's premier teams we're talking about here, one of its oldest, and one with 13 Stanley Cups under its belt. (Only the Montreal Canadiens have more, with 24.) They are the most valuable franchise in the NHL. However, their best years appear to have just dropped off the face of the Earth. They haven't even made the Finals since 1967, which was the last year of the Original Six before the expansions began. How did this happen? Let's see if we can find out.
In 1909, the National Hockey Association was founded. They didn't have a team in Toronto, though, because none of the play places there were big enough. By 1911, though, they got that big-enough arena, and so they got a new team called the Toronto Blueshirts. (Officially, they were known only as Toronto Hockey Club, though.) They turned into an excellent team, too, winning the Stanley Cup in 1914 and 1918. After winning that first Stanley Cup, they were bought by a man named Eddie Livingstone. Unfortunately, Livingstone was a real asshole. See, his entrance into the NHA pissed off the other owners because the league charter forbade one owner to own more than one team, and when Livingstone bought the Blueshirts, he already owned the Toronto Shamrocks. He also argued with the owners of his team's arena over lease terms and threatened to move the team to Boston. He bickered over the rights to players. When the league was reduced to five teams in 1917 and needed to vote to suspend one in order to keep the league going on an even number of teams, it shouldn't surprise you by now to learn it was the Blueshirts who were suspended. Nor should it come as a big shock that this didn't sit well with Livingstone, who sued the other owners. By November of 1917, the other owners were fed up, but their league constitution didn't allow them to simply vote the Blueshirts out. So they suspended their whole league and, without telling Livingstone anything, formed a whole new league of their own: The National Hockey League. Although the NHA was officially now a one-team league, the founding NHL teams remained members of the NHA on paper and were able to keep voting down Livingstone's attempts to keep the league running.
At the time, Toronto was Canada's second-largest city, so naturally the NHL needed a team there. The Toronto Arena Company was given a temporary franchise, and they got to use the old Blueshirt players until the quarrels with Livingstone were finished. The Toronto team, still called the Blueshirts or just the Torontos, won the inaugural Stanley Cup in the new league. In spite of the Blueshirt players on the roster, NHL history records the Blueshirts' and Leafs' histories as separate. The next season, the NHA voted against playing again, which of course was code for the fact that all the owners would be doting over the NHL. Livingstone filed another lawsuit, and instead of settling and giving money or players to Livingstone, the Arena Company returned its temporary franchise to the NHL and then created a new one of its very own! The new team was called the Toronto Arena Hockey Club, better known as the Toronto Arenas. With Livingstone fighting to bring back the NHA, the Arena Company decided only NHL teams would be allowed to compete on their home ice, which was a decisive blow to Livingstone. Livingstone's lawsuits dragged through the Canadian legal system for almost a decade, and while the courts eventually decided in his favor, he never got his team back.
Lawsuits have a habit of piling up bills, though, and these bills were taking chunks of change so big that the Arenas had to start selling off their stars. For the 1919 season, they won a putrid five games and were so bad, they actually requested permission to suspend themselves before league president Frank Calder talked them out of it. Five-game winners have a habit of sitting out Finals no matter what the sport (most of the time, anyway), so they got to watch the 1919 Finals between the Seattle Metropolitans and Montreal Canadiens on TV or, well, whatever it was they used back in those days. The 1919 Finals were called off by a Spanish Flu epidemic, though; Montreal, having basically no team, tried to forfeit. Seattle, wanting to be sportsmanlike about it, refused to take the Cup. The Finals were cancelled and the NHL records the Stanley Cup as unawarded for the season. But since the Arenas were desperate for a bright spot that year, they proclaimed themselves the World Champions anyway, by default.
In 1919, Livingstone (christ, we're STILL on this guy?) won a judgement against the Arena Company for a cool $20,000. Upon getting the decision, the Arena Company , acting quickly, declared bankruptcy just to fuck him over. They were sold, and former Arenas manager Charlie Querrie put together a group of people who had run an amateur team from the Ontario Hockey Association called the St. Patricks. So that became the new team name. In 1922, the St. Patricks finished second to the Ottawa Senators, but caught fire in the playoffs and fought the Sens themselves in a two-game Finals which was decided by the total number of goals scored. Ottawa scored four. Toronto, five. It was their second Stanley Cup, and the only one they pulled in as the Toronto St. Patricks. They missed the playoffs in four of the next five years, though.
In the late 20's, Querrie lost a lawsuit to Livingstone (ach! HIM again!) and sold the St. Patricks to an ownership group led by Toronto Varsity Graduates coach Conn Smythe. Smythe argued that Querrie should reject a better offer coming from Philadelphia, because civic pride was more important than money. When Smythe took over on Valentine's Day of 1927, he renamed the team the Maple Leafs. The next year, they played for the first time wearing their iconic blue and white sweaters. Smythe's teams started a little slow; they were pretty bad for his first four years. But it wasn't too long before Smythe started performing the work that made his name one of the chief names hockey historians absolutely have to know. He put together the great Kid Line, featuring Busher Jackson, Joe Primeau, and Charlie Conacher and matched them with coach Dick Irvin. In 1932, they went the distance and defeated the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Finals. Smythe was quite happy about that; he had been tapped as The Man to run the Rangers, but was fired within a year because of a dispute only to be upended by them.
Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins almost killed Leafs star forward Ace Bailey in 1933 with a nasty hit from behind. Coming to Bailey's aid, Red Horner knocked Shore out, but Bailey was writhing on the ice. His career was over, but the Leafs avenged him by reaching the Finals. In fact, they got to the Finals in five of the following seven years, but never won. One of the losses was to the now-defunct Montreal Maroons. Their 1940 loss was to the Rangers, which I'm sure Smythe was ecstatic (read: royally fucking pissed off) about. In 1940, the Leafs helped keep their archrivals, the Montreal Canadiens, in the league. They were pretty much dead at that point, and Smythe didn't want to see them go, so to get them to be good enough to make them a gate attraction, he asked them to hire Dick Irvin. Yep, his own outstanding coach. Irvin went on to win the Stanley Cup three more times with Montreal, setting them up to become the most successful team in NHL history. Smythe replaced him with Hap Day, and he couldn't complain. Day took them back to the Finals in 1942, where they came back from a 3-1 series hole against the Detroit Red Wings to win. No other team has pulled that off since.
The Maple Leafs proved to be deep and rich with talent. In the early 40's, like every other team, they were getting decimated by aging stars, plus health problems, plus some ridiculous little war that was going on. So their lesser-known players like Frank McCool (yes, that was his real name) and Babe Pratt. Despite all their losses, they still won the Stanley Cup in 1945. And then in 1947 as well. Also in 1948. And 1949. Those last three were the first time any NHL team put together such a streak of Cup successes. With the 1948 victory, the Leafs claimed the title for most Stanley Cups over the Canadiens, a record Montreal would take back in ten years. In 1951, the Leafs and Canadiens met in the Finals. All five games went to overtime. In the fifth game, Tod Sloan scored with 42 seconds left to send the game to overtime, where Bill Barilko scored the winner for Toronto, which clinched the series and brought Toronto a fourth Stanley Cup in five years. Sadly, Barilko disappeared in a plane crash four months later near Timmins, Ontario. A popular Canadian band, The Tragically Hip, wrote the song "Fifty Mission Cap" based on his plight.
After 1951, Toronto wasn't playing like they used to, so the Cup went to the Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings year after year. The Habs' 50's dynasty closed with a sweep of Toronto. In the 60's, though, Toronto was able to pick up another band of future legends like Frank Mahovlich, Red Kelly, Johnny Bower, Dave Keon, Andy Bathgate, and Tim Horton under their great coach and general manager, Punch Imlach. Imlach brought them more Stanley Cups in 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1967. The 1967 Stanley Cup is a sentimental watershed for the Leafs. They played in the Finals against Montreal, and Montreal was such a heavy favorite that they built a Stanley Cup stand for the 1967 World Expo in the city. The Leafs were written off as has-beens, but their experience proved to be a difference-maker as they clinched the Stanley Cup in six games.
Imlach may have won the Stanley Cup four times, but he had a few key flaws as a coach. First, he was autocratic and insulting. Andy Bathgate publicly complained about him in 1965. Second, he never could accept the Players' Association, which was created around that time. That presumably caused a lot of friction, since it was led by Leaf players. Third, he couldn't seem to figure out the new talent influx brought about by the 1967 expansion. He engineered a ton of turnover but there wasn't any improvement, so Stafford Smythe (Conn's son, who owned the team now) fired him after a bad first round playoff loss to the Boston Bruins.
Ownership changed hands from Stafford Smythe to Harold Ballard after Ballard, a partner, bought Smythe's shares after Smythe's death. Stafford Smythe's boy Thomas insists Ballard doctored the will in order to do that. No matter what happened, it doesn't change the fact that Ballard became one of the most hated owners in NHL history. He traded the team's most popular players, blocked Dave Keon from signing with another NHL team when his contract wore out - causing him to jump to the WHA - and actively kept payroll as low as he could get away with in order to reel in as much money as he could. The Toronto Maple Leafs on the 70's featured players like Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams, Ian Turnbull, and Borje Salming. They were competitive, but they only made it past the first round of the playoffs once. That changed in 1979, when Ballard brought back Punch Imlach as GM. They were friends, see, and if you can figure out the kinds of goofy shenanigans the duo got up to, then you're the first star because you've been paying attention! Yeah, McDonald was traded to the Colorado Rockies, pissing off Sittler, who was the Captain. A member of the team anonymously told the Toronto Star that Ballard and Imlach would do anything to get at him, and trading McDonald was their way of trying to undermine Sittler's influence. They were also pissed that so many of their players were bitching about their contracts, and in response to the trade, Sittler resigned as Captain and the team trashed its locker room. Sittler's agent said the trade was classless, and the Leafs began a downward spiral. Sittler - Toronto's all-time leading scorer - was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers two years later.
The 1979 Leafs finished five games under .500 and only made the playoffs because the Quebec Nordiques, a holdover from the WHA merger, were there to pad them in the standings. (Ballard, of course, had thrown a hissy about the merger because the WHA's three Canadian teams had undermined his revenue and, uh, oh yeah, some shit about roster raids or some such.) For the following twelve years, they were barely competitive. They missed the playoffs six times, finished about fourth only once, and posted a .500 record only once. In the 1985 season, they finished 32 games under .500, the second-worst in their history. The times they made the playoffs, they did so with terrible records because it's the NHL and they make playoff teams out of non-NHL teams that don't even know what hockey is in that league. In 1988, they finished with the third-worst record in their history and the second-worst record in the league and were still in contention on the last day of the season. They got in that year because their division was so bad that only Detroit had a winning record.
Ballard died in 1990 and the team was bought by another Ballard friend, supermarket tycoon Steve Stavro. Fortunately, "friend" in this case didn't mean "lackey." Stavro hated the spotlight and decided to not interfere with the team. When Cliff Fletcher took over as GM in 1992, he turned the Leafs into contenders overnight. Since Toronto was the league's fourth-largest market, the Leafs weren't impacted badly from escalating player salaries, and a legion of new stars like Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, and Felix Potvin brought the Leafs to the brink in 1993. They played their way into the Campbell Conference Finals, where they matched up against the Los Angeles Kings. In a classic series, one player ultimately made the difference. That player was Wayne Gretzky who, by the way, didn't play for the Leafs. In 1999, they made another run to the Conference Finals and with talent like Curtis Joseph, Mats Sundin, Steve Thomas, and Sergei Berezin, they were favored to return to the Finals. It wasn't meant to be that year, either. They were offed in five games and mostly played like they were intimidated by the vicious, physical Buffalo Sabres team they were playing against.
The Leafs proved to be a strong team early in the millennium, but they never closed. In 2004, they had perhaps their grand opportunity, finishing their best in 41 years. They got to the second round of the playoffs, were the Flyers sent them packing. Mats Sundin, the team's longtime Captain, left in 2008, by which time the team was struggling again.
Ordinarily I start this part of my reviews with lists of retired numbers these days. However, the Toronto Maple Leafs aren't one of those teams that does that sort of thing for the most part. They've only done it twice, and those numbers are there to honor Bill Barilko and Ace Bailey. The former disappeared in a plane crash, the latter was crippled in a nasty on-ice incident. They DO honor numbers, though, and their honors list has Johnny Bower, Turk Broda, Hap Day, Red Kelly, King Clancy, Tim Horton, Charlie Conacher, Ted Kennedy, Syl Apps, George Armstrong, Wendel Clark, Borje Salming, Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler, and Doug Gilmour. Some legends who have suited up in The TO include Ed Belfour, Gerry Cheevers, Pierre Pilote, Joe Nieuwendyk, Grant Fuhr, and Terry Sawchuk.
Rivalries? Montreal. BIG. Been called hockey's greatest, and much as fans like myself pull for the Detroit Red Wings/Chicago Blackhawks rivalry, Toronto/Montreal is difficult to dispute. Objectively speaking, the Maple Leafs/Canadiens rivalry was more of a rivalry than Red Wings/Blackhawks because both of these rivalries go back through the Original Six years. Those four teams are the only ones during the Original Six quarter century that ever won the Stanley Cup, but even as a Hawks fan, a fact of puckhead life I have to face is that the Blackhawks don't really belong on the list of Original Six Stanley Cup teams. The era ran from 1942 to 1967, Chicago only won the Stanley Cup once, an aberration victory in 1961. The rest of it was dominated by Detroit, Toronto, and Montreal, who won it every year except 1961. Toronto and Montreal were stealing the title of team with the most Stanley Cups during those years. They were COMPETITIVE. And now, both have fallen on extended Cup-less stretches together. Both seem to be rising powers with each other these days. The rivalry was a feature of a short story called The Hockey Sweater, a classic of Canadian literature. These days, they're also duking it out with the Ottawa Senators. In Buffalo, we like to believe there's a hard rivalry with the Sabres, but Toronto doesn't seem to take that very seriously.
The Montreal/Toronto rivalry can even extent to cultural influence. The Montreal Canadiens are the New York Yankees of hockey. The Toronto Maple Leafs of the Pittsburgh Steelers of hockey! Leafs fans are everywhere. You can't get a ticket, even during the bad years, and the season ticket list has 2500 names on it. The fans pop up everywhere, at every game, and this even extends to hockey fans living in Sun Belt cities. The iconic blue and white sweater of the Maple Leafs is constantly among the best-selling in the league. Huge numbers of Leafs fans also live in the Ottawa Valley and the Niagara Region, so whenever the Leafs visit Ottawa or Buffalo for games, there's an almost 50/50 split of fans in the audiences. This is in spite of hardly being rewarded. In a ranking list of all 122 professional sports teams in the Big Four North American sports leagues, the Leafs were ranked 121.
References to the Toronto Maple Leafs are everywhere in Canadian popular culture as well. The Kids in the Hall, an acclaimed sketch comedy from the early 90's, sometimes referenced them. Comedy team Wayne and Shuster performed a sketch on their old radio show in which their imaginary team, the Mimico Mice, played against the Leafs. Foster Hewitt wrote a novel in 1949 called He Shoots, He Scores! which featured actual players and managers of the team. Actually, several books featured the Leafs. One of them, a 1971 romance novel called Face-off, was turned into a movie. I already mentioned a certain song by The Tragically Hip. Mike Meyers is a big time Maple Leafs fan who often hides his love for his team in movies in ways both subtle and not. In Goldmember, there's a scene where Mini-Me wears the Leafs sweater, and another scene with a news ticker which at one point says "Maple Leafs win Stanley Cup." The Love Guru revolved entirely around a guru who was hired by the Leafs to help their star player sort out his head so he could lead the Leafs to the Cup.
You can't be blamed for adopting the Toronto Maple Leafs. When people tell me maybe they would like to adopt the Buffalo Sabres as their team, I first ask them if they're crazy. Then I point out that Toronto is only a 90-minute drive from Buffalo. Given a lot of factors, though, I can't give them too high a rating, especially based on a Stanley Cup drought which is now the longest in the NHL. The Leafs are the only Original Six team which has failed to win the Stanley Cup in my lifetime. They haven't even made the Finals. On the upside, though, that may just add to a developing mystique which blows into Chicago Cubs proportions.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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