The last few years have been trying times for Leafs’ fans. We’ve had to endure a long playoff drought, Andrew Raycroft, JFJ, and Vesa Toskala. For a large majority of us these are the darkest days we have seen. We are too young to remember anything before 1993. We have heard and read of how bad the Ballard years were thanks to the work of those fans who remember, but I think most of us cannot appreciate just how bad it was.
Thanks to the Toronto Star archives we can gain insight into what it was like to be a Leaf, fan or player during this time.
In August of 1989 the franchise was a mess. Just before training camp The Leafs found themselves without a coach or a GM. From the Star:
Some were shocked; others were discouraged. But most of all, Toronto Maple Leafs players had a question for owner Harold Ballard last night: "Where do we go from here?"
George Armstrong, their coach for the past six months, was dismissed by Ballard yesterday, an unexpected bombshell that came just four days after Gord Stellick resigned as general manager.
Shortly after Ballard relieved him of his coaching duties, Armstrong indicated his assistant, Garry Lariviere, should get strong consideration to fill the vacant coaching position. But that offered little solace to several players who had their thoughts tuned to the opening of training camp in three weeks.
Armstrong believed that his removal would be a benefit to the team that had finished the 88-89 season with a record of 28-46-6.
"The thing is, it doesn't matter who the coach is or who the general manager is; it only matters who's on the ice."
Armstrong said his dismissal means the players can no longer blame him for poor performances.
"Oh, I think they'll be better off without me," he said. "It's been stuck into their heads that with me it's no good. Now, they'll have to look at themselves. They won't have anybody to blame."
The off-ice moves left the players searching for answers and a sense of stability.
Todd Gill stated:
"There always seems to be something with this team that takes away from hockey," lamented defenceman Todd Gill. "But we, as players, have to be ready for training camp regardless of what's going on.
"My biggest hope is that we don't use this as another excuse."
Gill, entering his fourth full season as a Leaf, said it's easy to feel frustrated as a result of the off-ice events of recent days and said he hopes a replacement for Armstrong is named soon.
"I just hope the guy who comes in is given enough time to have a system ready for us to play, and that we're not running around like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off."
It remains unclear as to whether Burke’s rebuilding plan will be successful. What is certain is that despite the 29th place finish this season, the Leafs have stable management in place with a definitive plan and image for the future. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a fan during times like this, I tip my hat to them.
Source: Mark Zwolinski, Damien Cox and Mark Harding Toronto Star. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Aug 16, 1989. pg. B.1