leafs in springtime: nobody is going to give us anything

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Conn Smythe would have called it “Bastille Day:” Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan delivered his verdict on the year just ended on Sunday, when he fired GM Dave Nonis, coach Peter Horachek, and nearly 20 other members of the team’s hockey staff. Yesterday, winger Joffrey Lupul called it “a wasted season” while captain Dion Phaneuf called it “the toughest year” of his career. In a press conference, Shanahan looked to the future. “We need to have a team with more character and one that represents this city the way it deserves,” he said. If you were looking for cruel vituperative fun on an altogether sombre day in and around the Air Canada Centre, there was always Rosie DiManno’s column in The Toronto Star, which I’ll just boil down here to a dozen or so key words and phrases she used to describe the team and its effort:

unlamented, unloved, misery, big whoop, defunct, blighted, arse-over-teakettle, implode, benumbed, laughable, how many times and how many ways can you say: Oh. My. God. irrelevant, plague of inertia, ignominy, moribund, the team’s loutish character, comedia del hockey

This isn’t the first time the Leafs have missed the playoffs, of course, even if it is among the ugliest cases in recent memory. Counting back to 1917 and the dawn of the franchise, Toronto teams have avoided the playoffs about a third of the time, 32 of 97 seasons, or more than twice as often as they’ve won Stanley Cups. Actually, in fact, Toronto is the playoffs-missingest team in the history of the NHL: no team has fallen short more than they have — though the New York Rangers are a close second, with 31 futile campaigns to their credit.

With that in mind, before Shanahan’s future takes hold, there’s just time to review what lies behind, in the past, in the Leafs’ forlorn history of not being good enough.

In 1957, Leafs’ majordomo Conn Smythe took sole responsibility for his team’s — I don’t know what you want to call it, demise? downfall? collapse? Anyway, Toronto missed the playoffs that year for the first time in four years, and just the fourth in 27 seasons. “A year of failure,” Smythe called it at a “flamboyant” press conference he felt the need to hold in New York, where the NHL governors were meeting while the Leafs played out their season.

They still had a couple of games left, but Smythe wanted to get a headstart on the post-season turmoil. He’d already left his captain at home in Toronto, defenceman Jim Thomson, because treachery: he’d had the gall to be trying to help organize a players’ association.

“Next year,” Smythe thundered in New York, “our players will have to understand that they owe 100 per cent loyalty to the team.”

He didn’t fire his rookie coach that day, Howie Meeker, nor the GM, Hap Day, though many of the newspapermen had come expecting one or both to be sacrificed.

Smythe was willing to say that just maybe the Leafs would have to change the way they played. “We have a Spartan system,” he mused, “and we may be out of date. We prefer the body … we have stressed the defensive and not the offensive … Our system may be open to question.”

The very first year the Leafs were Leafs, they missed the playoffs. That was 1926-27, the year Conn Smythe took control of the team with a group of investors and in mid-season exchanged an old name (St. Patricks) and colour (green) for news. The team had three coaches that year and ended up bottom of the Canadian Division. They played their final game at home, hosting Montreal. Only a small crowd showed up, most of whom had come to see Howie Morenz and the Canadiens. But the Leafs played as if life depended on it, The Daily Star said, and ended up winning by a score of 2-1, with Bill Carson playing a prominent role along with, on the Leaf defence, Hap Day.

So that’s a plus.

In 1930, the club wanted to send the players off to their summers in style one the games were over, with a banquet, but it was hard to organize. Charlie Conacher, Red Horner Ace Bailey, and Busher Jackson were off in Montreal, watching the Maroons and Bruins in their playoff series as guests of a “Toronto hockey enthusiast,” while back in Toronto, the rest of the team was packing up for home. I don’t know whether they ever got their meal, but the Leafs returned to the playoffs the following year. The year after that, they won the Stanley Cup.

Just to be keeping it positive.

It was 14 years before they ended their season early again and while there’s no good reason, really, to be ranking the years of disappointment one above another, dropping out the year after you’ve won a Stanley Cup would have to smart, wouldn’t? 1946 Toronto did that with Hap Day now presiding as coach. (It happened again, though not until 1968.)

If only, wrote Jim Coleman in The Globe and Mail in ’46, the Leafs had a goaltender like Durnan, and defencemen of Reardon’s and Bouchard’s quality, maybe a front line resembling the likes of Lach, Blake, and Richard — well, then they’d be the Canadiens, of course, who did indeed end up winning that spring.

For solace, at least, the Leafs triumphed in the last two games they played that season, whupping Detroit 7-3 and 11-7. And that had to have felt pretty good.

Still, it was time to clean out the old, sweep in the new. It was a particularly poignant day, once the whupping was over, for a couple of long-serving Leafs who’d scored a bunch of goals over the years. Sweeney Schriner and Lorne Carr were retiring — though they did mention as they prepared to head home to Calgary that they’d be happy to listen to any other NHL teams who might be willing to make them an offer. (None were.)

As the spring playoffs went ahead without his team, Conn Smythe was feeling — surprisingly? — peppy. If nothing else, he noted for anyone who wanted to hear, the Leafs had rights to and/or options on a veritable mass of hockey talent for the year coming up, 82 players.

“We’re definitely,” he advised, “on the upswing.”

True enough: the Leafs did take home four of the next five Stanley Cups.

I’m not going to trudge through every season the team failed — where’s the fun in that? But back to 1957 for a minute. It is, if nothing else, a bit of a watershed. Teeder Kennedy, 31, retired that year for a second and final time, having returned to the ice midway through the year before deciding that it was time to make way for the next generation. Former Leafs captain Sid Smith, also 31, decided he was quitting, too, until Smythe talked him into returning for one more year.

Conn and Coach: Smythe at Boston Garden at some point in the 1930s with Leafs' coach Dick Irvin, whose teams never missed the playoffs while he was in charge in Toronto. (Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Conn and Coach: Smythe at Boston Garden at some point in the 1930s with Leafs’ coach Dick Irvin, whose teams never missed the playoffs while he was in charge in Toronto. (Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Another player, winger Gerry James, announced that he was quitting hockey to play in the CFL. With Smythe questioning his character and loyalty at that New York press conference, captain Jim Thomson vowed he’d never again play for the man, which was correct: Smythe traded him to Chicago, the NHL’s Island of Broken Toys when it came to exiling players involved in trying to promote the association.

For the Leafs, the next generation was playing for the St. Michael’s Majors. As the season sputtered to its end, Smythe had Day call up 18-year-old Frank Mahovlich to join the big team for the last few games of the season. The Globe and Mail:

“I don’t see how he can miss,” said King Clancy, Leafs’ assistant GM. “He can do everything and I have never seen a junior who lays down a better pass.”

“His name might be Moses,” Day observed laconically, a fervent hope that the husky junior might eventually lead Leafs out of the shinny wilderness.

In three games, he scored a goal and sat for a penalty.

Once the Leafs’ season ended, Smythe sent some of his players on outings — what The Globe and Mail called “educational hockey tours” — to attend the two NHL semi-final series that Toronto had qualified for. Howie Meeker would shepherd Brian and Barry Cullen, Bob Pulford, Dick Duff and Gerry James, while Clancy or maybe Day would take Ed Chadwick, Mac Reaume, Bobby Baun, and Al MacNeil.

If nothing else, Smythe hoped that seeing rivals playing for the bonus money that the playoffs yielded would motivate his players for next year.

“I remember the year [1949-50] when Detroit and Rangers played two of their games in Toronto. Our players sat in on the games and Meeker said ‘Look at that bunch of bums — they cost us $2,000.’ It had a tremendous effect on our team — we won it all the next year.”

Smythe was playing coy about the whole coaching situation. Questioned about the future of his coach and GM, he said there would be “no Bastille Day.”

“No-one has been hired or fired,” he said. “No-one has been given the job of coach or manager — yet.”

He’d asked Meeker whether he was available for the season and Meeker had told him yes, he was, so he’d be “with the organization.” Also, Smythe reported, he’d run into longtime Leafs’ trainer Tim Daly at the barbershop. “I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘I’m available, boss.’” His plan, he didn’t mind revealing, was to hang on until 1959, when he’d be 75 — unless was he already 74?

Uncertainty over Hap Day’s future came to a head on March 25 when he met with Smythe at the Gardens. After 28 years with the team as player, coach, and manager, he saw it come to an end that day. It didn’t even take two minutes.

Day seems to have disturbed by what he’d heard Smythe say in the New York press conference. He said he’d felt like he’d been “dismembered” in public. He was annoyed, too, by this whole question of availability. Gord Walker from The Globe and Mail was on hand for the final bust-up, when the two men went into Smythe’s office and, moments later, were out again.

Smythe: “Hap asked me if there was any significance to my asking him whether he was available for next year. Then — you better get that from Hap. He’ll tell you.”

Day was putting on his hat and his coat. “I asked what he meant by asking me if the (general manager’s) job was open, would I be available? I told him I didn’t understand that. He told me there was no use discussing next year’s plan if I wasn’t available. I said if that’s the case, then I’m not available.”

He posed for a couple of photographs, then he was gone. Then he was back: he’d forgotten to leave his office key.

He met the newspaper boys for lunch next day at the Royal York. He was fine, he said, no hard feelings.

“It’s a sad day for me,” is what Smythe said. “He’s an honest workman and an honest guy. Anything good about a man can be said about Day.”

Smythe didn’t know what he was going to do; he said he didn’t even have an inkling. He said he was recommending to the Leafs’ Board of Directors that Meeker remain as coach, though by May he was interviewing a former Montreal player, Billy Reay, for the job. Maybe Meeker would be GM; anyway, Smythe was appointing a seven-man committee to run the team’s hockey operations, headed up by his own son, Stafford, and featuring the management stylings of Harold Ballard.

Reay came on as coach. Meeting the Toronto press for the first time, he said that his biggest concern was … left defense. “That’s the key to any successful hockey team,” he said.

Hap Day considered an offer to take on the presidency of the AHL but in the end said no. By the end of July he’d decided on his future, and it was in St. Thomas, Ontario, where he was taking a job with Elgin Handles — “a firm,” as The Globe helpfully detailed, “that manufactures various types of wooden handles.”

1958. For the first time in the team’s history, the Leafs finished last in the NHL. Stafford Smythe took responsibility this time, “on behalf” of his committee. He did warn the players: never again, okay?

There was talk of dealing — first-year captain George Armstrong might even be on his way out. But Conn Smythe didn’t have any illusions: trades were not the answer. “Nobody is going to give us anything,” he was saying. “They would have to be crazy if they did. We’ll have to develop our own players.” All the Leafs had to do to make it back into the playoffs, he felt, was fix their defensive system. Oh, and a strong-checking, robust centreman wouldn’t hurt.

What happened in 1973 to steer the Leafs out of the playoffs? Dan Proudfoot sifted the ashes in The Globe. Well, first off the upstart WHA stole Bernie Parent, Brad Selwood, Rick Ley, etcetera, plus they couldn’t win on the road plus injuries — “no team limped as much.”

The Leafs did draft Lanny McDonald that summer, and Ian Turnbull, too, and they brought in Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom from Sweden.

So there’s that.

In 1982, playing out the season, Leafs players said that they were sorry while hoping that their dismal season didn’t lose coach Mike Nykoluk his job. One problem, as some of them told The Globe and Mail’s William Houston: he was such a low-key, softspoken guy, he should have pushed them harder. “I’d hate to see him get fired when it’s really the players’ fault,” confided winger Terry Martin. “We deserve to get yelled and screamed at the odd time.”

On the bright side, the Leafs would be drafting high, and might be able to hook a Gord Kluzak or a Brian Bellows. (Or not: picking third, they nabbed a Gary Nylund, a couple of spots ahead of Washington’s choice of a Scott Stevens and Buffalo’s of a Phil Housley. A Doug Gilmour waited until St. Louis called his name in the seventh round.)

Houston’s further analysis of the Leafs’ lost season found: lack of enthusiasm; senseless mistakes; defence often caught out of position; stupid penalties by Rick Vaive and Borje Salming; not much hitting.

Patience, said Nykoluk. “For the last ten years, this organization has had a pyramid man, a video-machine watcher and a ranter and a raver,” he said, referencing Red Kelly, Roger Nielson, and Joe Crozier, respectively.

“And nothing has helped. More (hasty moves) won’t help. Before changes are made, everything in the organization must be considered.”

Globe columnist Allen Abel was writing that year about the “familiar liturgy of ineptness” and calling the Leafs (and Red Wings, too) “insults to their heritage.”

The season ended with the team losing 12 consecutive road games and when the dust had settled and the smoke was cleared, amid the rubble and the ruin, the Leafs were looking back on the worst season in all their history. “When I came to training camp in the fall and saw all those inexperienced defencemen, I knew it would be a tough season,” said the goaltender, Bunny Larocque.

“The 1981-82 Leaf team will be remembered for its youth movement, its inept defence and the long-time veterans who abandoned the team,” Houston wrote, referring latterly to Darryl Sittler and Wilf Paiement.

“I’m glad the season is over,” said Coach Nykoluk at the team’s farewell luncheon  “I’m looking forward to next year.” He was there for that, too, maybe surprisingly, and the Leafs made the playoffs, the first round. He stayed on for a third season, too, with no playoffs; then he was fired.

The end of the 1968 season had its own sad shape. Sorry — this is turning back again, to another of those embarrassing just-won-the-Stanley-Cup-seasons-only-to-miss-the-playoffs-the-next-season situations. After 11 seasons with the team, Frank Mahovlich was gone, sent to Detroit as March began as part of package deal that brought back Paul Henderson and Norm Ullman. “He’s failed to be the miracle worker he so often has seemed capable of being,” The Star’s Jim Proudfoot wrote of Mahovlich, “and, for that reason, he’s moved up and down from the heights of popularity to the depths of disfavor.”

With two games left in the schedule, the Leafs learned that legendary trainer Tim Daly had died in hospital at the age of 83 or (possibly) 84. He’d finally retired in 1960, after 34 years on the hockey job.

The same day they heard that, the Leafs’ leading scorer was explaining how his own personal season had soured on him. “Hockey hasn’t been very much fun these last couple of months,” said Mike Walton. “I should be enjoying it, but I haven’t.” Yes, he’d just scored his 30th goal, triggering a bonus in his contract, and making him just the seventh Leaf ever to hit that height, but even so, he wasn’t sure whether GM Punch Imlach really liked him.

Plus, he was sick of the press. “All I ever read about in the Toronto papers is about my defensive play,” he Kesseled. “If I’m on the ice and two goals are scored, I hear about this. Nothing is ever mentioned about the other guys who were on the ice. Just me or Pulford. It browns me off hearing that kind of stuff all the time.”

He was irritated, too, by reports that Detroit had asked for Garry Unger over him in the Mahovlich trade. He didn’t believe it: from what he’d heard, Detroit was actually still doing its best to get him.

At Tim Daly’s funeral, the pallbearers included Ace Bailey, Syl Apps, George Armstrong, Red Horner, and the old trainer’s favourite rummy opponent, Hap Day. Teeder Kennedy couldn’t make it: he was vacationing in Florida, as was Conn Smythe.

Daly stories swirled; a few of them made the papers. From The Globe:

As a trainer, Daly was never accused of pampering his athletes. When hockey players complained of muscular aches he usually advised them: “skate it out.”

Tim was mildly contemptuous of the complicated apparatus used by today’s highly skilled trainers. His most ingenious ministrations to the injured and ailing were ice packs and smelling salts. If a player was injured on the ice he was restored by pumping his legs.

The next day, the ’67-’68 Leafs got together one last time to take the team’s annual formal photograph. Bob Haggert, incumbent trainer, presented the players with new uniforms, ordered just in time for the playoffs they wouldn’t be playing in. It was a struggle to get the sweaters on. Goaltender Bruce Gamble was late. Dave Keon and Murray Oliver clowned around. When the photo-taking was finished, Haggert took back all the uniforms, packed them up for next year.

Ron Ellis and Brian Conacher were taking their wives south for a holiday to Florida before returning home to take summer courses at the University of Toronto. Tim Horton had two new doughnut stores he was building.

Johnny Bower was going out as a salesman for Borden Chemical while Paul Henderson aimed for Goderich, Ontario, where he had a job as an investment advisor. Wayne Carleton would be manning his ice cream stand in Meaford, Ontario.

Larry Hillman was heading north, to paddle a canoe and grow a beard.

There was one last Leaf game still to play that year, a couple of weeks later at the Gardens, after all the players had left town. An older, slower bunch of Leafs would be taking the ice, an alumni team of 40- and 50-year-olds facing a crew of antiquated Canadiens in a charity game in support of the Charlie Conacher Cancer Research Fund.

On the night, while actual NHL hockey went on elsewhere, 8,975 fans took what they could get: a brew of skill, sentiment, and slapstick, The Globe and Mail called it.

Hap Day was there to coach the Leafs along with Joe Primeau and King Clancy. Turk Broda was in the net, for a bit, and Ted Kennedy was back from the south to join the likes of Sid Smith, Howie Meeker, and Guses Bodnar and Mortson. Max Bentley was in from Saskatchewan with brother Doug and another former Black Hawk linemate, Bill Mosienko. Elder Canadiens included Rocket Richard, Elmer Lach, Ken Reardon, and Floyd Curry, with Gerry McNeil guarding the goal. The word on Richard was that he still went all-out near the net; for Reardon, it was keep your head up.

King Clancy was said to fulfill a lifelong dream that night: he threw a bucket of water a referee. The team in the blue-and-white won, 5-1.