"The history of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the most ruthless, cynical owner of any sports organization; Harold Ballard.
Some may say the Leafs are nothing, they haven't won in 37 years, how could they now? Perhaps those who say things like that, don't really know what went on behind closed doors during the dark days of Maple Leaf Gardens. Harold Ballard left a shockwave of destruction and earthquakes of turmoil in the Leafs organization and the aftershocks can still be felt to this very day...
This is a very long article so be prepared for some reading.
The following article was posted on TORONTOMAPLELEAFFANSZONE@groups.msn.com by Bruce Kish and was originally posted on inthecrease.com
"Controversial" an NHL official history states in a whisper.
"Eccentric" a history of the Toronto Maple Leafs boldly proclaims.
"A wild, flamboyant entrepreneur," describes the venerable hockey historian Stan Fischler.
"Canada's most controversial sports figure," former Toronto Sun hockey writer William Houston bluntly exclaims in a biography.
"Relentlessly rambunctious" says former NHL president Gil Stein.
The opinion of a diehard Leaf fan, however, is in language that cannot be printed in this article.
Thus were the official and unofficial views of the late Harold Ballard, autocrat of the proud Toronto franchise and perhaps the most hated owner in the history of professional sports.
Ballard rose to power in a manner befitting Julius Caesar by besting two partners in an ownership triumvirate through scheming and the sheer force of his personality. Reaching the pinnacle during Toronto's glory days, Ballard systematically ruined a storied franchise during an 18-year reign. Even after his death in 1990, it would be nearly a decade before the proud franchise began to regain a shadow of respectability in the NHL.
RISE TO POWER
Had Ballard's father not been a manufacturer ice hockey skates, there is a strong possibility that young Harold would have been remembered as a champion powerboat racer. Yet the association with the family business aided Ballard in becoming a champion speed skater, a decent hockey player, and a skilled coach.
In 1932, Ballard served as GM and bench manager of the Toronto National "Sea Fleas" during the junior league team's Allan Cup title run. The following year, he piloted them to a silver medal in the World Championships. Success at the lower levels guaranteed promotion. By 1936, Ballard had moved up to the West Toronto Nationals as general manager. That same year, he guided them to the Memorial Cup.
Ballard used a portion of the family fortune to invest in the Toronto Marlboros, the Maple Leafs' top organization for junior player development. As principal executive, he established a winning tradition that would win an Allan Cup in 1950 and Memorial Cups in 1955, 1956, 1964, 1967, 1973, and 1975. Again, his successes became a springboard to more prominent positions.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Meanwhile, Conn Smythe, the modern founder of the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise and a league builder, stepped aside at the end of the 1956-57 in favor his son, Stafford. The younger Smythe began to remake the team in his own image. His first official act was to fire GM Howie Meeker before his first game with the team in his control. (The elder Smythe had been loyal to his former player from the Maple Leaf teams of the 1940s and appointed him general manager prior to retiring.)
Smythe's second act was to recruit six partners whom he referred to as his "Silver Seven" to assist with running the organization. The select group included business associates Bill Hatch, George Gardiner, Jack Amell, and George Mara, publisher John Bassett, and Harold Ballard.
On ice, the team's fortunes had waned. The team had finished 1957 in fifth place, 11 points out of the final playoff spot. The only bright spot had been a rookie who had been called up for the final three games of the season, Frank Mahovlich.
With the team in turmoil, no personnel moves were made during Stafford Smythe's first year and the Leafs finished in last place for 1958. After unceremoniously firing Meeker, Smythe had not bothered to replace him with a full-time general manager.
Toronto began its arduous climb toward respectability prior to the start of the 1958-59 campaign. Smythe named as general manager a little-known ex-player, coach, GM, and owner of the minor league Quebec Aces, George "Punch" Imlach. His only claim to fame was developing the future Montreal Canadiens' star Jean Beliveau. Imlach began to assemble the foundation of what would be a dynasty in the coming decade. He acquired ex-New York Ranger goalie Johnnie Bower on waivers, re-signed tough defenseman Carl Brewer, and traded for future all-star Allan Stanley.
The Maple Leafs finished the 1958-59 season in fourth and made the playoffs. The revitalized squad knocked out the Boston Bruins in a five-game semi-final series, before losing in five to a talented Canadien team that was approaching the twilight of its latest dynasty.
As changes were being made on ice, even more drastic ones were being made behind the closed doors of the Maple Leaf boardroom. Stafford Smythe's six co-owners vied with each other for control of the team. One by one, the members were bought out. Ballard with his money and influence, emerged victorious along with John Bassett. On November 21, 1961, Ballard was officially named one of three principal owners and president of the team's hockey committee. In exchange for this favor, Ballard fronted the cash to help Stafford buyout the Maple Leaf Gardens from Conn Smythe.
During the 1960s, the Maple Leafs became the toast of the NHL. Toronto won Stanley Cups in 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1967. Unfortunately for Maple Leaf fans, success would be short-lived. With the miserly attitudes of the three owners, the team's guiding philosophy changed from sustaining long-term success to maximizing short-term profits.
Ballard went to absurd extremities to get his way. Shortly after the advent of color TV in the mid 1960s, the lighting at Maple Leaf Gardens was upgraded. While providing a better picture for viewers, the lights caused a sharp glare that distracted players. A debate quickly arose over who would be responsible for paying for revamping the system. Ballard steadfastly refused.
Just prior to the start of a Hockey Night in Canada telecast, he entered the studio and approached Ted Hough, Hockey Night president and ordered that either he or his sponsors pay for the new lighting. When Hough balked, Ballard stormed out of the room and returned moments later, wielding a fireman's ax and nodding at the TV cable on the floor.
"If you don't make a decision in five minutes, I'm going to cut through this cable and there'll be no telecast of the game tonight."
Hough quickly agreed to pay.
Even away from hockey, Ballard did little to endear himself to the residents of Toronto. In the summer of 1965, he booked the Beatles for a concert at the Gardens. It was a sweltering day, but Ballard ordered the thermostat to be turned up. The show was delayed an extra hour at his command. In addition, the water fountains were mysteriously dried up. Scores of fans passed out in the intense heat while others waited in long lines for large (the only size Ballard would sell for the occasion) soft drinks.
As the first show ended, Ballard informed the band's tour manager that the second show he had booked would commence immediately. When the manager protested, Ballard replied, "They'd better perform, or the fans who bought tickets will tear them apart."
The 1967 league expansion hurt the Maple Leafs, who lost players to the six fledgling newcomers. The following year, the ownership group dealt a crippling blow to the organization. Perceiving a cash shortage, the top brass decided to sell its two minor league affiliates, the Victoria Maple Leafs and the Rochester Americans. Lost in this transaction were 45 future NHL players who would fill the ranks of other players.
The Leafs' on-ice fortunes were also distracted by the public feuding of the "Big I" (Punch Imlach) and the "Big M" (Frank Mahovlich), who were no longer on speaking terms. Imlach tried in vain to deal his star, offering to go one-up with Chicago for Stan Mikita or with Montreal for Jean Beliveau. There were no takers. Twice, Mahovlich was hospitalized for bouts of "nervous exhaustion and depression" before going to the Detroit Red Wings in a 1969 trade. Ironically, he resurfaced in Toronto in 1974 - in the uniform of the WHA's Toros.
With its top players lost to expansion teams, retired, or in the twilight of their careers, Toronto was beginning a slide back into the depths of the league. Punch Imlach was fired after a dismal 1969-70 campaign. The struggle for control of the team resumed. Ballard led a coup, orchestrating a hostile buyout of John Bassett's controlling interests in 1971.
A year later, Ballard assumed the helm as sole owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs upon the death of Stafford Smythe. A bloodletting of the front office commenced. Competent hockey managers were fired in short order and replaced by cronies and toadies. Ballard's rise to the top ushered in the Dark Ages of Toronto hockey.
The Maple Leafs' turmoil was lost in the larger struggle the NHL was fighting with the newly organized World Hockey Association in 1972. Ballard found out he could gain powerful allies among his fellow governors by carrying the league banner against the upstarts ("If the WHA [wants to take our players], we'll fight them from the ramparts.")
Yet the Leaf's decline took on the ignominy of public scandal. In 1973, a Canadian court had found both the late Stafford Smythe and Ballard guilty of tax evasion. In addition, Ballard was convicted of grand theft totaling $205,000. He was sentenced to three consecutive three-year terms, but only spent one year in jail. Given a three-day pass in 1973, Ballard cheerfully described his living conditions at Millhaven Penitentiary to reporters: a "country club, with steak dinners and colour TVs available to all inmates. The comments angered Canadians from Halifax to Vancouver and sparked debate in Parliament.
His brief departure proved a blessing. Scout Gerry McNamara, knowing Ballard hated foreigners and would have blocked any attempt to recruit Europeans, used the window of opportunity to sign Swedish star Borje Salming.
Ballard let the once proud "House that Conn Smythe Built" fall into ruin. The Maple Leaf Gardens dilapidated edifice became a symbol for what had happened to the organization. Indeed the measures to restore it were just as symbolic; when the roof started leaking, Ballard ordered plastic sheets to catch the rainwater. To literally make his mark at the arena, Ballard made imprints of his hands and feet in concrete with brass lettering beneath center ice; the imprints impacted the quality of the ice above.
Ballard continued to dream up schemes to make more money. He once asked building manager Wayne Gillespie how many pickles could be stuffed into a 30,000-gallon brine tank, then later forgot his plan to sell dill pickles at the games.
By 1974, the WHA had literally moved into Ballard's backyard. The Toronto Toros, owned and operated by Ballard's former partner, John Bassett, went head-to-head with the Leafs for Toronto fan loyalty. Despite the competition, Ballard held the one trump card that brought the Toros down: ownership of Maple Leaf Gardens.
Ballard raised the arena lease to the astronomical sum of $15,000 per game for the Toros. Bassett grudgingly accepted. He was outraged, however, when the rink was dim for his team's opening night. Ballard offered to turn all the lights on for an additional fee of $3,500 per game. Bassett howled at the demand, but gave in.
Ballard poked one further insult at his rival. He ordered the cushions on the teams' bench removed. "Let 'em buy their own cushions," he told an arena worker.
Ballard was abusive toward the WHA players. He labeled Czech defector Vaclav Nedomansky as a "traitor" for fleeing from the communist country to play for the Toros (yet later called Miroslav Frycer and Peter Ihnacek, two Czechs who joined his team "brave men for having the guts to leave their native land to start life anew in Canada.")
He attempted to ban the WHA Winnipeg Jets' Bobby Hull from playing in the Gardens after Hull threatened to remove his memorabilia from the Hockey Hall of Fame. When Hull later confronted him, Ballard lied to his face.
On the night Gordie Howe scored his 1,000th career goal, while playing for the WHA's Houston Aeros, Ballard ordered that the scoreboard over center ice not flash the news. "Why, that's not an accomplishment worthy of recognition," he told the Garden media. "A blind man can score goals in that league."
A HOUSE DIVIDED
Ballard also trained his sites on the Maple Leaf organization. Leaf scout Bob Davidson had served the franchise faithfully for many years. No apparent reason, he had earned the scorn of Ballard. Rather than cause a fuss by firing him outright, Ballard cut his salary by two-thirds, thereby gaining his resignation.
He treated other office employees just as shabbily. In 1968, he hired the future hockey historian Brian McFarlane as Maple Leaf Gardens for the annual salary of $8,500. After ignoring McFarlane's suggestions for nine months, Ballard terminated him.
The saddest episode was that of Ballard's flunky, Stan Obodiac, a naïve follower who remained fiercely loyal to both the organization and the autocrat despite the personal abuse and poor wages.
In 1980, Ballard paid him $18,000. Four years later, with 26 years of dedicated service under his belt, Obodiac only made $23,000. (The league average between $50,000 and $60,000 for half of the hours he had to work.) Still, he called Ballard a "humanitarian" and a "philanthropist" and lavishly praised his boss to the newspapers.
Ballard assigned him with petty tasks. If a friend wanted a player's autograph, even during the dinner hour, Ballard would call Obodiac while he was at the table and order him to promptly track down the player and get his signature. Obodiac did as he was told without raising a fuss for having the meal disturbed. The only saving grace was that Ballard had given him a company car for the chores.
In 1984, he rewarded Obodiac for his loyalty with an airline ticket to Hawaii - Obodiac's wife Emma being ignored. Despite being unable to raise enough money to buy a second ticket, Emma encouraged him to take the vacation anyway. But he spent the time in paradise miserable and lonely.
Shortly before his death in the spring of 1985, Obodiac called Ballard from his sickbed and thanked him for everything, calling him a great man. After the funeral, Ballard did not approach the widow or her children. On the following morning, Emma was awakened by a pounding at the door. It was one of Ballard's henchmen who was sent to pick up the company car.
"I thought they might have phoned me first," she angrily told Toronto Sun reporter William Houston. "I knew I wouldn't be able to keep the car."
To her horror, Emma learned that her late husband's pension amounted to a mere $277.06 per month.
"Two years earlier, Stan had been forced to ask Mr. Ballard for an advance on his salary because we simply couldn't pay our bills," she added. "To this day, Mr. Ballard has not called or written a note to express his appreciation for the 26 years of devoted service Stan gave to him and to the Gardens."
When asked why Stan had put up with the abuse, she replied with a twinge of pride that he had considered it an honor to work at the Maple Leaf Gardens.
Moved by the conversation, Houston confronted Ballard in a telephone interview. After stating he had no comment, Ballard added, "Just keep writing the usual bullsh*t you usually write. What do I care?"
The Maple Leaf players also found themselves as targets. Ballard once publicly humiliated Swedish-born defenseman Inge Hamerstrom for not throwing his weight around the ice: "Hammerstrom could go into the corners with half a dozen eggs in his pocket and not break one of them."
Backup goaltender Mike Palmateer once became a target for having the audacity to sport a beard while posing for a team Christmas card photo in 1977. At Ballard's order, Stan Obodiac "lopped off" Palmeteer's head (in the photo) and replaced it with his picture from the 1976 team photograph.
Frank Orr, a reporter who publicly feuded with Ballard dryly remarked, "Now that Ballard's learned how to swap the heads of players in photographs, how long will it be before he tries to swap heads among his live players in an effort to help his team?"
It was an irony that Ballard, the man who was systematically wrecking a proud franchise, was inducted into the Builders' Wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977.
Harold Ballard's rise to power coincided with the Maple Leaf's resurgence in the 1960s. Part 2 chronicles the decline and fall of a tradition-laden franchise under the iron fist of an autocrat.
Ballard's lack of tact knew no bounds. In 1979, he appeared on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation's talk show "As It Happens", hosted by the popular commentator Barbara Frum. In the course of the interview, Ballard inferred that "women are best in one position - on their backs." There was stunned moment of silence before Ballard continued, stating, "they shouldn't let women on the radio. They're a joke." When Frum rebuked him, he called her a "dumb broad" and told her to "shut up" before walking off the set.
Howls of protest and outrage swept across Canada. A few days after the interview, a mob of women picketed outside Maple Leaf Gardens, chanting, "Down with sexist Harold!"
Ballard was amused by the storm he had created. He continued to pour gasoline onto the fire in a subsequent interview with Earl McRae: "[I can't] stand feminist broads. They're a bunch of frustrated old maids. A lot of them phoned me after the Frum incident and complained. I said to them, 'What's the matter, honey, can't get a man? You want my body?' Boy, they went nuts. I loved it."
Throughout the 1970s, Ballard had steadfastly backed the Old Guard establishment against the NHL's "Young Turks" who proposed coming to terms with the WHA and merging.
"I'm against it," he told the board of governors. "If you run an appliance store and somebody steals all your washing machines, would you buy them back off him? That's what this merger thing boils down to."
Ballard did have the satisfaction of seeing the rival Toros move out of Toronto after two seasons and relocating to Alabama as the Birmingham Bulls.
In 1976, the NHL held a secret emergency meeting to elect a new leader to guide it through the WHA challenge. Ballard, representing the hard-liners, nominated John A. Ziegler, Jr. Opposing him was the progressives' candidate, Philadelphia Flyer governor Ed Snyder.
There was controversy in Ziegler's nomination as the NHL's constitution stated that only a governor could run. In a dramatic flourish, league President Clarence Campbell produced a hand-written note signed by Detroit Red Wings' owner Bruce Norris that named Ziegler the new Detroit governor.
Another point of order was made, by league official Gil Stein, who protested that Norris had not followed correct protocol in appointing Ziegler. Technically, he was correct, but Snyder pulled him aside and asked that the objection be withdrawn as Ziegler was a friend and he did not wish to run the league if any of the owners objected. Stein obliged him to the relief of the Old Guard and Ziegler was voted the new NHL chairman of the board by a 9-8 vote.
Under Ziegler, the war with the WHA dragged on for three more years, before the new president of the NHL agreed to terms with the rival league for a limited merger.
TWILIGHT IN TORONTO
The Leafs' best season during the 1970s was the '78 campaign. Coach Roger Neilson piloted the team into the post season, equipped with an explosive arsenal. Fan favorites Darryl Sittler (45 goals) and Lanny McDonald (47 goals) were among the league leaders. Blue line toughness was provided by Dave "Tiger" Williams and Jerry Butler.
The quarterfinals pitted the Maple Leafs against an upstart New York Islander squad that was two seasons from winning its first Stanley Cup. The series started out quietly, but turned into a bloody war when Borje Salming was inadvertently struck in the eye with Lorne Henning's stick and hospitalized for several days. Butler retaliated by nailing Islander star forward Mike Bossy into the boards and knocking him out of the playoffs.
Toronto faced elimination, trailing 3-2 in the series, but rallied at home with a 5-2 win. In Game 7, the Maple Leafs pulled off a stunning upset in overtime.
After reaching the semifinals for the first time in 11 years, the Maple Leafs' luck ran out as yet another dynasty in Montreal swept them in four straight en route to another Cup. In the deciding game, Tiger Williams took a costly high-sticking penalty in OT that sealed the Leaf's doom. Afterward, Ballard confronted his star enforcer and called him a "goddamn little stubble-jumper from Saskatchewan.
But Williams remembered a piece of advice from a trainer that Ballard respected people who stood up to him. "Yeah," he replied, standing up and towering over his boss. "That's better than being a fat bastard from Ontario." Ballard grumbled something, then stepped aside and let his player pass.
While the Leafs struggled in 1978, Ballard turned his attention away from hockey to purchase the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the Canadian Football League for $1.5 million. The endeavor proved to be both a financial and personal embarrassment. Dabbling in the team's daily operations, he destroyed the team's on-field fortunes and lost $20 million in the process. Finally, in 1989, he cut his losses and, disgusted, sold the team to the City of Hamilton for one dollar. He later commented on the city fathers: "One guy over there is growing marijuana and all the others are smoking it."
In August 1978, hockey writer Rick Boulton was attending a Bee Gees concert at the Gardens. Glancing up at the rafters he noticed a big gaping hole, like a missing front tooth. The gondola (broadcasting booth) that had been used by the beloved broadcaster Foster Hewitt was ripped out.
It was a shock to him and, several days later, to hockey fans everywhere.
Sensing he had a good story, Boulton pieced together a series of interviews with the Hockey Hall of Fame (which would have dearly loved to obtain the artifact), past team members, and officials. Coming up on deadline, only one interview remained - Harold Ballard. When told by the Leafs' front office that Ballard was unavailable, the reporter used trickery to ensure his call was returned:
"Tell him tell him Foster Hewitt has just died."
It was blatantly dishonest because Hewitt still breathed, but had the desired effect. Ballard called back and eulogized the legendary radioman. When asked about the gondala, he said that it had been sent to the incinerator "because it was no bloody good to anybody.
On the following morning the Toronto Star's banner headline screamed: "Oh No! Pal Hal Has Trashed Foster's Gondola!"
Anger spread throughout the league. Even former NHL President Clarence Campbell thundered his opinion: "Our troops in World War II listened to games described by Foster Hewitt in that famous gondola. How could he have thrown it into the incinerator?"
Despite his personal triumph, Boulton was also a victim of fallout. A day after the story ran, Ballard's henchman Stan Obodiac notified him that he was banned from Maple Leaf Gardens for life. (Until Ballard's death a decade later, Boulton worked undercover under the pen name "Dick Oliver".
Ballard decided to capitalize on the bad publicity he was receiving from the gondola incident. He rounded up a bunch of chairs, had Foster's name painted on the back, and sold them each for $5 as chairs that Foster had used. In truth, Foster had used many different chairs, but no one knew which ones.
When the puck was dropped in the following October to start the 1978-79 campaign, Ballard again asserted himself as the center of attention. New league president John Ziegler required teams to sew player names on the backs of sweaters. Ballard disagreed with the policy because he feared it would hurt the sales of game programs. When threatened by the league office if he did not comply, the autocrat reluctantly agreed. He accordingly ordered the players' names embroidered - white thread on the home whites and blue thread on the road blues. From any distance, the names were impossible to decipher.
Ballard continued to thumb his nose at the league and the fans. He disapproved of two star players, Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming, participating in the popular NHL-sanctioned TV intermission feature "Showdown". When the courts refused to grant an injunction preventing the players from going on the show, Ballard had it blackballed and forced its producers into bankruptcy.
The Maple Leafs struggled just to make the playoffs. Yet matters in the locker room were not helped when Ballard decided to toy with his bench manager. Prior to a crucial March 1 showdown with rival Montreal, Ballard grimly informed the press that Roger Neilson was gone if he lost the game. Late in the contest, with the Leafs trailing 2-1, Ballard made the announcement official.
Neilson was a popular coach who had gained the utmost loyalty from his players. A delegation led by Sittler and Tiger Williams pleaded with Ballard to reconsider, and even threatened not to take the ice.
Two days later, Ballard still hadn't found a replacement. He called Neilson in and rehired him, keeping the move secret up until game time. Ever the showman, Ballard asked Neilson to wear a paper bag over his head when he went to the bench for the Hockey Night in Canada TV cameras. Neilson retained his dignity by refusing.
The Maple Leafs managed to sputter into the playoffs. Their first round opponent was an overpowering Canadien team on the verge of winning its fourth straight Cup. Toronto played gallantly; pushing the final two contests into overtime, but were swept aside. The Neilson era now officially came to an end.
HITTING ROCK BOTTOM
The start of the decade of the 1980s witnessed coaching musical chairs. Scotty Bowman departed from Montreal to take over the Buffalo Sabres. Neilson crossed the border to join his staff. Gone from Buffalo was former Maple Leaf coach Punch Imlach, who now, at Ballard's beckoning, returned to Toronto to assume GM duties.
The magic, however, was gone. One man could not undo years of institutional decay. Many of the Leafs' top players of the 1970s were gone. The sale of their top two farm teams back in the late 1960s had effectively cut off the talent pipeline that had fueled past championship teams. Ballard's micromanagement demoralized the franchise down to its core and hampered any attempts to turn the organization around.
Unfortunately, Imlach's idea of house cleaning was to purge the team of its remaining talent. Pat Boutette, a grinding forward, was sent to Hartford for prospect for Bob Stephenson, who proved to be a dud. Goalie Mike Palmateer, a fan favorite, was waived. Forward Ron Ellis saw his contract bought out while line mate Ian Turnbull got a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. The enforcers, Tiger Williams and Jerry Butler were sent packing to Vancouver in exchange for Rick Vaiver and Bill Derlago. The only star who remained after the purging was aging veteran Borje Salming.
Yet two deals ripped out the heart and soul of the Maple Leafs. Darryl Sittler had fallen from grace in Ballard's eyes. The man whom Ballard claimed as the son he never had, suddenly became a "cancer" on the team. In the middle of the 1981-82 season, the future hall-of-famer was dealt to Philadelphia in exchange for Rich Costello and a second-round draft pick.
Lanny McDonald, held in high regard by teammates and well-loved by fans, was traded to Colorado along with Joel Quenneville for Wilf Paiement and Pat Hickey. Imlach announced the move to McDonald, then reached out a hand and wished him luck with the Rockies in a snide way. The player turned red made a concentrated effort not to assault the GM.
McDonald's departure devastated the Leafs' dressing room like a death in the family. Some players openly wept. Others brooded. The mood turned ugly and the players trashed the dressing room. On the following day, rookie Rocky Saganiuk made the grave mistake of announcing to his teammates: "Don't worry, guys, I'll take McDonald's spot. He was promptly bound, gagged, stripped, and had his genitals shaved.
The players were one step short of open mutiny. In early 1980, a group of frustrated Leafs put a newspaper photo of Imlach on a dartboard at a pub adjacent to the Gardens. When word got back to the front office, Dave Hutchinson, one of the ring leaders, was immediately traded to Chicago.
Coaches also came and went. Joe Crozier, who had a brief, but disastrous tenure, quickly lost the respect of his players. One night, he pleaded with them to put forth their best effort - because his job was on the line. The dressing room remained silent for a long moment, until Ian Turnbull leaned over and deliberately cut wind.
Imlach stepped back behind the bench, but the game had passed him by. Ballard fired Imlach for a second time and replaced him with Gerry McNamara. Behind the bench for the 1986 campaign was John Brophy, a former player whose reputation as a goon once caused an opposing minor league team to refuse to play because he was on the ice.
Brophy terrorized players and management alike. Said forward Miroslav Frycer to the hockey scribes after two hard years, "There's no way I'll ever play for that man again. Ninety percent of the players hate playing for him. But they're not going to say it. He's the first guy to panic behind the bench when we need a guy to calm us down. He's created a nightmare for this team, this city for me and my family. I'll never be back."
Frycer got his wish and a trade to Detroit.
Another player, speaking anonymously, told reporters, "Brophy ripped the heart out of every guy on this team, one by one."
Even McNamara, the GM, was in terror of the coach, who pleaded constantly with Ballard to have him fired.
But the autocrat remained unmoved. "Brophy's the best coach in the NHL and he'll be back behind the Leaf's bench again next season."
In another attempt to recapture past glory, former captain George Armstrong took the helm, but failed to get the ship back on course.
The Leaf's record reflected the turmoil both on and off the ice:
1980-81 - 28-37-15 71 pts. (last place, Adams Division)
1981-82 - 20-44-16 56 pts. (last place, Norris Division)
1982-83 - 28-40-12 68 pts. (third place)
1983-84 - 26-45-9 61 pts. (last place)
1984-85 - 20-52-8 48 pts. (last place)
1885-86 - 25-48-7 57 pts. (last place)
1986-87 - 32-42-6 70 pts. (tied for last place)
1987-88 - 21-49-10 52 pts. (last place)
1988-89 - 28-46-6 62 pts. (last place)
1989-90 - 38-38-4 80 pts. (third place)
For the entire decade of the 1980s, Toronto proved to be a graveyard for both coaches and GMs who could muster a pitiful 266 wins against 441 losses over the 10-year period. The team also allowed 637 more goals than it had tallied during the same period.
It was against this backdrop that the team would witness more humiliation.
ADDING INSULT TO INJURY
After the disastrous 1984-85 season under coach Don Maloney, Toronto Star columnist Gary Lautens asked readers to send in "cruel Maple Leaf jokes".
Honorable mentions included:
Q: "Did you hear the Leafs have a new Chinese coach?"
A: "Win Wun Soon."
Q: "What do the Leafs and Warren Beatty have in common?"
A: "Nothing. Warren knows how to score."
Q: "What do the Leafs and Blue Jays have in common?"
A: "Neither can play hockey."
The winning entry (which got the lucky contestant two tickets):
"Leaf goalie Ken Wregget was so depressed after blowing a 6-2 lead he jumped in front of the Toronto team bus - but it went right through his legs."
Ballard publicly feuded with members of his family. His three children vehemently disapproved of his relationship with Yolanda MacMillan, a 49-year-old divorcee who had served time in prison for conspiracy to commit fraud. Once, to spite his daughter, he cancelled a pee wee hockey game schedule for the Gardens when he learned that her son was on one of the teams.
Harold Jr. told a Canadian Broadcast Corporation reporter, "My dad once stuck my finger in a light socket when I was young and then told my mother he was 'just giving the kid some juice.'" When Ballard found out, he promptly fired his son from his position with a Garden subsidiary.
With Ballard's death in early 1990, the Maple Leafs sought to rid themselves of his legacy as quickly as possibly. One of the organization's first acts was to remove center ice and remove Ballard's hand and footprints in the concrete.
One of the last links to go was the team mascot. T.C. Puck, a shaggy Bouvier des Flandres, was a gift from Yolanda MacMillan to Ballard several months before his death. The dog appeared in several team photos. It also outranked most Garden employees. Once, when a worker refused to take the dog for a walk, Ballard fired him on the spot.
After Ballard's death, Yolanda went to court to sue for a $12,000-per-month living allowance for the dog so it could continue the "Ballard lifestyle".
Two days before Christmas 1991, the dog suffered a fatal heart attack in the back seat of a cab on the way back from the groomers.
In his concise history, "The Leafs", Brian McFarlane summed up Ballard's career and its impact on Toronto hockey with this obituary:
"On April 11, 1990, Harold Ballard, the irascible owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs since 1972, died peacefully in his sleep. His body succumbed to diabetes, kidney failure, and a weak heart. He was 86. He fought with his players, his family, sportswriters and broadcasters, the Soviets, and anyone else who looked like they wanted to scrap. His Toronto teams were often woefully weak and finished .500 or better in only six of the 18 seasons he was in charge. They never finished higher than third in any division of the NHL."
I hope this gave you some insight on how and why the Leafs organization is in what kind of a situation it is in today. Hopefully none of you will just say out of nowhere that the Leafs suck and haven't won a Stanley Cup in 37 years because in all honesty, how could they win with such an owner? He could almost be equated as a viscous dictator of the sporting world.
You know what they say; Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was the rebuilding of the entire Maple Leafs organization... "