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Book Excerpt: Leafs AbomiNation Part Five

When did the Maple Leafs become an NBA franchise?
When did the Maple Leafs become an NBA franchise?

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

Could any team survive a meddling owner who goes out of his way to squander the likes of Lanny McDonald, Darryl Sittler and Dave Keon in exchange for little more than a pair of Cooperalls? Ballard's own history shows the kind of effect the guy could have on a hockey team. Before he began systematically stripping the Leafs of their intimidating reputation and their best players, Ballard coached an amateur team, the Toronto Sea Fleas, taking over behind the bench after Harry Watson stepped down in 1932. Ballard acknowledged he "didn't know any more about coaching a hockey team than Saint Peter knows about African golf."

"Dress up the Keystone Kops in hockey uniforms, throw in several scenes from the movie Slap Shot and you get an idea of what Ballard's attempt at coaching a hockey team was like," wrote William Houston. Sounds a lot like his work as a behind-the-scenes general manager too.

The Sea Fleas might not have done much worse in the NHL than the Leafs if Ballard had sent them over the boards. Toronto fans are disappointed that their team missed the playoffs yet again in the spring of 2009, but at least they won some games over the course of the season. The 1987-88 version of the team actually went fifteen straight games without a victory and ended the campaign going 1-8 to wind up with a .325 winning percentage (though, since the Norris Division was so weak that year, they actually ended up making the playoffs, bowing to the Detroit Red Wings in six games). And that dismal season was typical of the Ballard years. Between 1980-81 and 1989-90, the Leafs finished last in their division an incredible eight times.

There was a joke at the time that Leafs goalie Ken Wregget was once so depressed after a bad loss that he tried to put an end to it all by jumping in front of the team bus-only to watch in horror as the bus squeaked between his legs. But everyone knew the problem wasn't Wregget, it was Ballard. When he fell ill, Gardens stock rose. When he recovered, it fell. When he went into the hospital for a quintuple bypass a few months later, it rose again. "We know he has diabetes," a Toronto investor told a reporter as Ballard neared his end. "We know he doesn't follow his diet. We know he's eighty-three. That's why I started buying stock."

When the Gardens concrete floor was re-poured in the 1980s, Ballard took the liberty of marking the concrete below centre ice with imprints of his hands and feet, thereby furnishing Leaf fans with a metaphor that happens to be literally true. Ballard really did leave his paw prints all over the franchise. And his meddling quite literally made things worse-the imprints were said to have compromised the quality of the ice for years. And yes, one of the new regime's first acts was to remove Ballard's prints from the concrete of the Gardens ice pad, solving both practical and symbolic problems in fairly short order.

Of course, nothing is that easy. Ballard's will had hardly been read before a byzantine, four-year boardroom tumult for control of the Gardens broke out, as friends, enemies, investors and corporations as big as Molson got their elbows up to lay claim to what was still one of the sporting world's great properties, even at the end of the Ballard years. Lawsuits were launched, favours and loyalties were invoked, millions of dollars changed hands, and when the dust settled grocery baron Steve Stavro, a longtime friend of Ballard's, was at the helm. For a while.

Attending a Leafs game these days, of course, you would be forgiven if you came away believing that the club was never associated with a Smythe, let alone a Ballard-a looming personality that could impose his vision on a team and a city for better or worse. The idea of an owner like that-particularly in an era when there is no identifiable owner at all-seems as quaint as tube skates and fans dressed in jackets and ties.

But those are the guys who got the Leafs here, and it seems strange that they are so close to being totally forgotten. Perhaps that is because MLSE sells naming rights to everything in its purview, and doesn't have anything left to name after the owners who stamped the team so completely with their personalities. The arena cannot be named after Conn Smythe (because it's named after an oft-teetering airline), the dressing room cannot be named after Conn Smythe (because the folks at UnderArmor, the sports-gotchies giant, have paid dearly for their share of that real estate, and can hardly be expected to share it), and the media room cannot be named after Harold Ballard, even if it would be an ironic nod (because a telecommunications company, Rogers, holds sway on the nameplate). Perhaps there is a water fountain somewhere in the ACC as yet unnamed, waiting for a plaque. Or a urinal.

It's been suggested a statue be erected to honour Smythe, if not Ballard. But anyone who knows anything about the folks who run the Maple Leafs know they're saving their bronze for a monument to Richard Peddie, the CEO who, in more recent Leafs history, commiserated after a defeat with then-Leafs coach Paul Maurice about a "tough third quarter." One supposes when you operate quarter to quarter, in the fiscal sense of the word, history begins and ends every three months.


AUGUST 25, 1977
: Harold Ballard is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

JUNE 9, 1965: With their NHL goalies Terry Sawchuk and Johnny Bower at age 35 and 40, respectively, the Leafs allow the Bruins to pluck Gerry Cheevers, 24, from their minor-league system in the intra league draft. He'd go on to backstop two Stanley Cup teams and reside in the Hall of Fame.

MARCH 3, 1968 : Leafs trade Frank Mahovlich, Pete Stemkowski, Garry Unger and the rights to Carl Brewer to Detroit for Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith and Doug Barrie. The outgoing players go on to tally 1,850 points; what comes back yields 848 points. Oh, and Mahovlich goes on to win two Stanley Cups as a member of the Montreal Canadiens.

JUNE 1969: Leafs select Ernie Moser with the ninth-overall pick in the amateur draft. Moser never plays in the NHL, while no fewer than twelve players selected after him, among them Bobby Clarke and Butch Goring, play at least 400 NHL games. 

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.