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Book Excerpt: Leafs AbomiNation Part Three

A fan with a paper bag? How cliche. I bet a chapter in the book is title "Blame the Fans"*

*There is such a chapter.
A fan with a paper bag? How cliche. I bet a chapter in the book is title "Blame the Fans"* *There is such a chapter.

When news of this book first came out the response was...ummm...visceral to say the least and understandably so. I received a copy to review (I'll post it next week) but over the weekend I'll provide you the excerpt of the first chapter. Read it at your own risk. Full disclosure: The hour and a half I spoke with Michael Grange turned into about 5 pages worth of me defending our honour. Also, I HAVE to put up the book cover every time but each time will have a new joke. 

Chapter One: Blame History

Smythe's Leafs weren't prima donnas, but they were stars, albeit in a different age. Back when the NHL was a select club of some 120 players (compared with today's approximately 700), the Leafs were a perennial powerhouse. A Toronto player led the league in scoring for six of the seven seasons between 1931 to 1938, Drillon racking up 52 points in 48 games to top the chart. Who could have predicted then that Drillon would still be the last Leaf to win the scoring title more than two decades after his death in 1986?

But there was still a steady stream of talent filing into Maple Leaf Gardens every autumn. Between Syl Apps in 1937 and Brit Selby in 1966, Toronto players won more of their fair share of Calder Trophies, awarded to the NHL's top rookie each spring. They piled up nine over that span, or nearly double the average in a six-team league. Though Calder-winners Gaye Stewart and Kent Douglas may not be household names anymore, Dave Keon and Frank Mahovlich certainly are, as is Howie Meeker, who was fresh from the war effort when he won the trophy in 1947.

How good were those Leaf teams? The 1945 edition finished twenty-eight points behind Montreal in the standings, but ended up beating them in an epic six-game semifinal en route to winning the Cup yet again.

But Smythe was not running a charity devoted to the health of Toronto's sense of community spirit."[Leafs] management has always been business-conscious," Foster Hewitt wrote in 1955. "No enterprise could have a directorate that reads like the all-star team of Canadian financial leaders without being dollar-minded. Conservatively managed, it has steadily improved its position . . .

"From an investment point of view the Gardens have done remarkably well. In one of its early years the club offered one of its players $3,000 in currency plus $3,000 in stock for a season's salary. ‘Nothing doing,' the player declared. ‘I want it all in money.'The player was paid as he preferred, but if he had taken the stock and retained it for a few years he would have received over $30,000 for his initial $3,000."

Smythe's return on investment as the Leafs' owner was even more impressive. In 1961, Smythe sold the majority stake in the Gardens for some $2.3 million, claiming that he was essentially handing down the club-albeit hardly gifting it-to his son Stafford. Though the elder Smythe must have known his son couldn't have come up with enough money to buy the team on his own, the Leafs' first owner expressed public shock that Stafford was in cahoots with a couple of members of the club's board of directors, John Bassett and Harold Ballard.

From that moment, of course, everything changed. It changed on the ice because the fact remains that Conn Smythe's Leafs, or Leafs teams that consisted of players he brought to the team, won eleven Stanley Cups, and the post-Conn Smythe Leafs have won none.

And it changed off the ice, too. The transaction would be the beginning of the end of the Smythe family's influence on the club Conn built. Years later, Stafford Smythe's son Thomas would allege that Ballard crowbarred the Smythe family out of the ownership picture forever by tricking a drunken Stafford into signing an altered will that paved the way for Ballard to take control of the Gardens. And even more recently, with the Gardens all but forgotten and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment-MLSE, the Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC ownership conglomerate-long in control, members of the Smythe family complained publicly that they were no longer invited to the Air Canada Centre's directors' lounge.

But the changes began long before that, when Ballard and Bassett and Stafford Smythe began to have their way. Profits tripled in short order, but heads shook, too. The Gardens was suddenly awash in advertising. And crowded with new seats too. While the elder Smythe took pity on the throngs of Leaf fans standing three- and four-deep in the arena's upper reaches and actually reduced the number of tickets sold per game from 16,318 to 14,500, the new regime set about jamming new seats into crevices once thought too tiny. The old patriarch justified the loss in revenue on the grounds that "it isn't fair to sell standing tickets to folks who can't see the ice. . . .We will cut our ticket sales and give everyone a chance to have a look at the play."

But his son and his pals had no such compunction. Old seats were shaved smaller. The portrait of the Queen that hung at one end was removed in the name of yet more ticket revenue. Scott Young, the sportswriter who would co-author Conn Smythe's autobiography a couple of decades later, assessed the new Leafs ownership back in the 1960s in words that seem eerily relevant today: "They've removed the sentiment from the operation."

Sniffed the Globe magazine in 1966: "The word is that the Gardens has fallen into the clutches of a naughty and mercenary trio of upstarts who have no regard for a sacred trust and are interested only in making money." Sportswriters don't really use the word "naughty" all that much anymore, but the idea hasn't changed.

Harold Ballard, of course, would ultimately emerge as the lone majority owner, and "the Ballard Years" would enter the annals of Toronto hockey lore as the name of the era in which the mighty Leafs began their dizzying descent towards the status of laughingstock, a mantle they will probably only shrug off by winning a Stanley Cup. If that goal seems impossibly distant today, it is in large part a consequence of the venality, capriciousness and shortsightedness that marked the lost years between 1972 and Ballard's long-awaited death in 1990.

Excerpted from Leafs AbomiNation by Dave Feschuk Michael Grange Copyright © 2009 by Dave Feschuk Michael Grange. Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.