About the Author

Dave Feschuk

Books by this Author
Every Highway

Every Highway

Riding Shotgun in the Big Rigs
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I am no trucker. I am a sportswriter. But the occupations have their similarities. I occasionally spend consecutive days, sometimes weeks, away from home in service to my employer. I have deadlines that ­don’t meet with my definition of reasonable. I eat beige meals under fluorescent lights alongside disgruntled colleagues whose complaints about the business, some certified beef, some crotchety folly, are constant and peppered with humour and genuine hurt. Just like a truck stop, the press room has foul mouths and large bellies in quantity; failing marriages and failing bodies; successful entrepreneurs and pseudo business types; hangovers heaped with coffee and storytellers fuelled by the alco-­caffeine buzz.

But, as my cousin says, “Driving truck’s like nothing else.” And I ­don’t claim to know the fine points of the pavement. The most truck-­like vehicle I have ever driven is the rusty 1983 Volvo sedan I recently left for dead at a garage after a frustrating three-­day span in a particularly harsh December during which the brakes failed, the radiator burst, and, worst of all in teeth-­chattering throes of a northland winter, the heater blew cold. I had purchased said Volvo three years earlier for $1,000 on the recommendation of a friend who swore by the Swedish-­built boxes because they were easy to fix, and because he had once been driving one — a baby blue coupe circa 1978 — on the day he survived a head-­on crash with a truck on a two-­lane high­way. Just as my friend began the search for another Volvo the next day, I replaced my beloved ’83 with a ’92.

Since travelling, and not necessarily driving, is a passion, I will be more than happy to occupy the passenger seat, seeing the world through the high-­riding windshield of a four-­hundred-­horsepower mammoth. I have chosen to travel with truckers, to mine their stories and probe their feelings, because their work is more important than most people know. Although the railroad built North America, joining it from coast to coast, the roads renovate it, feed it, clothe it, and employ it. Trucks dominate the transportation business in Canada, moving about 90 per cent of all domestic consumer products and foodstuffs, shipping out about 60 per cent of our exports to the States, bringing in more than 80 per cent of the imports. Truck driver was the most common occupation of Canadian men according to Canada’s 2001 census. Somewhere — everywhere, it seems — there is a truck rumbling down a highway, and another truck riding its bumper, and probably another riding yours. But while trucks are as ubiquitous as the potholes they chew — and while their drivers are often resented for clogging our automotive arteries — most people ­don’t know much about the goings-­on inside those massive cabs.

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Leafs AbomiNation

Leafs AbomiNation

The dismayed fan's handbook to why the Leafs stink and how they can rise again
tagged : hockey, reference
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Chapter One
Blame History

“The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and I thought the only way I’ll probably see a Stanley Cup in my lifetime is if I write it.”
—Mike Myers, writer, director and star of The Love Guru, a box-office bomb of a comedy wherein the Leafs finally win

Imagine a little kid growing up in a dilapidated row-house in a joyless city crowded with horse-drawn carriages and pony-carts. His father is a teetotalling vegetarian and failed businessman. His mother has drunk herself to death at the tender age of thirty-eight. The kid is a scrapper and a go-getter. No, this is not the opening chapter of a long-lost Charles Dickens novel. It is the childhood of Leafs patriarch Conn Smythe.

The Smythe family lived on North Street, a stretch of road north of Bloor that is today part of Bay Street, only a few city blocks up the hill from where the Air Canada Centre now sits. Far removed from the luxury suites and on-demand shrimp of the pampered generations to come, Smythe’s was a hardscrabble existence in a hard era. “The greatest fight I ever saw was one day going home from school when a fight started between three St. Mike’s kids,” Smythe enthused in his autobiography, referring to the Catholic boys’ school. “One fought the other two up a lane and then along street after street, always with his back to the wall, or he never would have been able to hang on. It was a lesson I didn’t forget: if you looked after your rear, you could keep going. It works in fights, war, business.” Smythe’s trademark phrase would come to be among the most famous quotations in hockey history. “If you can’t beat ’em in the alley,” went a mantra that doubled as the title of his posthumously published memoir, “you can’t beat ’em on the ice.”

Clawing to carve out a legacy and a fortune, Smythe left marks you could still see long after he died in 1980. Smythe didn’t drink, citing his mother’s addiction as his reason for abstinence. Maple Leaf Gardens, perhaps at least partly because of the great builder’s feelings on the evils of the sauce—and certainly because of Toronto’s well-earned reputation as a conservative burg that tolerated fun only in small doses—didn’t serve beer until 1993. If today’s Leafs crowds are castigated for their sit-upon-hands reserve, blame Smythe for setting the tone. In a time before the sideboards were topped with Plexiglas, Smythe was said to strut along them in his spats, peering down and inspecting the wardrobe of the season-ticket holders and generally ensuring order. But then, his walkabouts may have been no more than keeping an eye on the rabble. During the years when Smythe ruled the Gardens, a Toronto police officer once told a newspaperman that illegal activity declined significantly on the nights of Leafs games. The implication seems to be that if the people running the Gardens were a bunch of crooks, so were the fans.

If he came off as holier-than-thou—and almost everything you can read about him suggests he was among the more insufferable and self-righteous men to occupy a seat of power in the sports sphere—politely acknowledge your respect for his sacrifice as a veteran of both World Wars. He was captured by the Germans in the First World War and wounded badly in the Second, absorbing a burst of shrapnel that caused him no end of pain until his dying day. He was also the benefactor of a charitable foundation that still raises boatloads of money to help children with disabilities. The Conn Smythe Dinner remains a fixture on the social calendars of the Toronto sports community.

But Smythe had warts that belonged to his era just as much as his heroism and philanthropy. He, like all NHL owners of his day as a rule, underpaid his players while pocketing massive profits. “I never shared things well with anybody, all my life,” he once admitted, albeit referring to his sister, for whom he had little time. He wasn’t above cheating; he acknowledged in his memoir that he’d once been a party to attempting to fix a horse-race at Toronto’s old Hillcrest racetrack. He had a fear and disdain of Jews and Catholics that makes Don Cherry’s hate-on for French Canadians and Europeans seem downright quaint. “We sincerely believed if we were captured by the priests, we’d never be seen alive again,” Smythe wrote in his autobiography.“I’ve always thought that Catholics have it pretty easy—do anything they like, then confess, and be forgiven. It’s the opposite of, ‘as ye sow, so shall ye reap.’ I know that there is no such thing as being forgiven.” And indeed, he held grudges. Long of the opinion that one of his best players, Busher Jackson, was a disgrace to the game because Jackson was said to enjoy women and alcohol more than most, Smythe lobbied tirelessly to keep Jackson out of the Hall of Fame, going as far to resign as the Hall’s president when Jackson was finally inducted.

Armed with only limited experience with a handful of amateur hockey teams for which he’d played and coached, Smythe landed the GM’s job with the New York Rangers in 1926 on little more than a friend’s recommendation. Smythe used his knowledge of the Canadian hinterlands to put together a roster that would win the Stanley Cup in 1928, but not before the Rangers would relieve him of his managerial duties in favour of Lester Patrick. Smythe took his severance pay along with some gambling winnings and cobbled together a group of investors to buy the Toronto St. Patricks.

Legend has it that he also talked the previous ownership out of accepting a higher bid from a buyer that intended to move the team to Philadelphia by appealing to the Torontonians’ civic pride (whether the pre-Smythe owners did Toronto a favour or a disservice depends on your outlook). Either way, showing civic pride meant showing a remarkable profit. The four men who sold the team to Smythe’s group—one of whom, J.P. Bickell, retained his stake in the club—had bought it a few years earlier for a measly $5,000. On February 14, 1927, they allowed it to be taken off their hands for $160,000. Precisely two years later, seven gangsters in Al Capone’s Chicago would be gunned down in a mass slaying that would become known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Call the sale of the St. Patricks, with its 1,600 percent cash return, a plain old St. Valentine’s Day Killing. From the beginning, Toronto’s NHL franchise has carved out a reputation for providing its overseers with exponential riches.

Smythe, with money on his mind, understood the team needed a more universally appealing image, one that wasn’t so specifically catholic in origin. In short order, he changed the colours from green and white to blue and white, and changed the name to the Maple Leafs (leaving it to generations of parents to explain to their kids why their heroes weren’t “Leaves”—though often a target of rival fans’ mockery, the name was already in use by other Toronto sports teams; Merriam-Webster’s dictionary even today considers “leafs” a valid pluralization of “leaf ”). He also understood the necessity of a grander stage than the 8,000-seat Mutual Street Arena in which the St. Pats (and their previous incarnation, the Arenas) had played since the NHL’s founding in 1917. A few years into his tenure as the team’s owner, he undertook the unlikely project of building what would become, for a couple of generations, the country’s best-known building. Maple Leaf Gardens was built in a flurry in the throes of the Dirty Thirties against almost all logic and a backdrop of grim prognostications.

As Foster Hewitt, the game’s very voice, would later write: “When Maple Leaf Gardens was only an idea the critics said, ‘You can’t finance it.’ When the plans were drawn the doubters declared, ‘You can’t have it ready for opening night.’ When the building was completed the pessimists prophesied, ‘You can’t fill it.’ But every prediction was false, for on November 12, 1931, the largest crowd in Toronto’s history to witness an indoor event of any kind packed into the new ice palace.”

The story goes that Smythe coveted a bedrock player to build a champion around. He recognized that King Clancy, the gutsy defenceman who’d been at the heart of the Ottawa Senators’ Stanley Cup wins in 1923 and 1927, was that man. Smythe also knew he was short of the cash that would be required to secure Clancy. By this time, the irascible owner had gone from simply betting on horse races to owning racehorses. He had a filly, Rare Jewel, running in the Coronation Futurity at Woodbine and, in a gamble to meet the Clancy price, he bet heavily on her despite the fact that she was a 100-to-1 shot. Whether it was improbably good luck, or another instance of the uncanny Smythe arranging the outcome at the racetrack, as he was not above doing, Rare Jewel won the race, Smythe won almost $15,000, and Clancy became a Leaf. Perhaps it was both good luck and shrewd planning. What’s for sure is that Smythe, as the controlling owner and effective general manager, had more luck or skill or both at building Maple Leaf rosters than almost every other man who’d inhabit the role.

The Clancy-led Leafs—teamed with Red Horner, Hap Day, Lorne Chabot, et al, and with Dick Irvin as coach—won the Cup in Clancy’s second year in Toronto, the team’s first season at the Gardens. The teams Smythe governed would win six of ten Stanley Cups from 1942 to 1951, and plenty of glorious lore would be etched in the winning. The 1942 Leafs, for instance, coached by Day and captained by Syl Apps, became the first pro sports team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit to win a best-of-seven series, defeating the Detroit Red Wings in four straight elimination games to win the Cup. (That feat wouldn’t be matched until the 1975 New York Islanders came back from three games down to the Pittsburgh Penguins to reach the final).

How’d they pull it off?

“It was pretty easy to get up for every game in the old days,” said Gordie Drillon, a member of that Leafs squad. “You know how we got up? Mr. Smythe would walk in the dressing room and reach in his pocket and hold up three tickets. He’d say, ‘See this? There are three going to [the farm club in] Syracuse tonight and three coming back.” If you think Ron Wilson is a cruel task-master for sitting Jason Blake for a few shifts or skating his squad without pucks after a loss, keep in mind that Wilson would come off like a kindly uncle in the Smythe regime.

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.

Money, of course, was at the heart of the sickness that infected the Leafs after Conn Smythe gave up the reins. Stafford Smythe was also charged with plundering the Gardens’ treasury, though he would die before the trial at age fifty. (Bassett would eventually bow out after repeated disagreements with Ballard.) And at one point Ballard found himself running the club from a minimum-security prison outside Kingston, where he was doing time after being convicted of using the publicly traded Gardens’ money as if it were his own. He was found guilty of forty-eight counts of fraud and theft, but he was never brought before a judge for running the Leafs into the ground.

Ballard’s anything-for-a-buck lust knew few boundaries. Concerned about a loss in revenue from program sales when the NHL mandated that teams emblazon jerseys with the players’ surnames, Ballard obeyed the ordinance to the letter: he saw to it that white letters were sewn on the backs of white jerseys, so fans couldn’t possibly read them. He sold the Stanley Cup banners that hung from the Gardens rafters. He once made inquiries with the arena superintendent as to how many cucumbers would fit in the 30,000-gallon tank that held the mixture that circulated through the refrigeration pipes beneath the rink floor. “He said he wanted to make dill pickles to sell at games,” rink managerWayne Gilespie told the authors of the book Forever Rivals. “He’d dream up these schemes—anything to make a buck—then he’d forget about them.”

Part petulant mogul, part malicious buffoon, Ballard seemed capable of just about anything. His quirks were many. A speed boat racer in his youth, in his old age, when he lived in an apartment in the Gardens and would occasionally stumble into employees wearing only his underwear, Ballard was said to occasionally indulge in the sport of nude Zamboni driving. And his bluster was often beyond belief—no surprise from a man who counted “Bullshit baffles brains” among his favourite maxims. “Pal Hal,” as he was known by those who admired him—and there are always willing admirers of sports owners, no matter how wayward or bizarre the honcho may be—once promised to trade his entire team. Another time, he chalked up centreman Laurie Boschman’s slump to the player’s faith as a born-again Christian. He called the Soviets “savages,” and at one point barred them from his building. He called players who defected from the Eastern bloc “traitors,” yet still employed them. He banned women from the locker room, defying league rules and common sense. “Women will be allowed to go in the locker room if they undress first,” Ballard quipped. He once tussled in a phone interview with Barbara Frum, the esteemed CBC radio broadcaster, punctuating the call with an assertion that women belonged “on their back.” When journalist William Houston informed him of his intention to write his biography, Ballard approached Houston after a game in Chicago in 1984 and said, “If there’s one word about me, you’ll get your throat cut.” Houston wrote the book and lived to retire from his job as a Globe and Mail columnist some twenty-five years later, though that should not be taken to mean that Ballard got along well with reporters, or even that he wanted to. The team’s media guide described him as “one of the most loved and most hated people in Canada” and “master promoter and manipulator of the media.”

But writing about Ballard was a walk in the park compared to being related to him. His youngest son, Harold Jr., was once arrested for breaking and entering at his father’s family home—after old Harold had kicked the boy to the curb. In another tender family moment, Ballard cancelled a peewee tournament scheduled to take place in the Gardens when he discovered that his estranged daughter’s son (yes, his grandson) was on the roster of one of the teams. And his oldest son, Bill, was once fired by his dad from the Gardens board. But then, Bill had his own role to play in the family drama. In 1989 he was convicted of assaulting his father’s “companion,”Yolanda, whose place in Leafs lore would come to be recorded with the kind of contempt usually reserved for Yoko Ono or Tammy Faye Bakker.

She had previously pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and perjury after it was alleged she had schemed with an accomplice to bilk a wealthy ageing man of some $3 million by altering the old sod’s will. Ballard once accused Yolanda of “trying to pull the same thing on me.” And indeed she may have. In 1987 she did legally change her name to Ballard from MacMillan, though she and her bumptious paramour never did tie the knot. In fact, while Ballard was recovering from a heart attack in 1988, he had the locks changed on his home, and had Yolanda’s possessions hauled away. Though the ugly soap opera continued until Ballard’s death, Yolanda was not invited to the funeral or the read ing of the will—thus ensuring that the drama would continue even after he was in the ground. Not to be so easily outmanoeuvred, Yolanda sued the Ballard estate for $381,000 a month, in part, so the rumour goes, on behalf of her dog.

Given Ballard’s tempestuous relationship with members of his family, Darryl Sittler should have heard alarm bells go off when the Leafs owner called him “the son I never had.” Though Pal Hal never called the police to arrest the best player of the Ballard years, he did trade away heart-and-soul forward Lanny McDonald to the Colorado Rockies in a move deliberately calculated to upset the Leafs dressing room—and Sittler in particular—a provocation that worked all too well. Sittler ripped the captain’s “C” from his sweater in protest, and was eventually traded away himself. The Leafs sent their captain, an eighth-overall pick, Team Canada sniper and prototypical power forward whose name appeared in the scoring race alongside the likes of Guy Lafleur and Brian Trottier, to the rival Philadelphia Flyers for some guy named Rich Costello and a couple of draft picks.

But then, Ballard often treated his coaches and players with similar disrespect. And the better the player, the rougher the ride. Dave Keon, the Leafs’ perennial scoring leader, winner of four Stanley Cups in blue and white and of a Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable playoff performer in the Leafs’ last Cup run, was not only not re-signed in Toronto in 1975—he was essentially barred from playing anywhere else in the NHL because Ballard was demanding so much in compensation from any team that signed him that other teams had no choice but to shy away. Keon ended up suiting up for the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association, and had little difficulty lighting up the new league. But when the franchise ran into financial trouble, and Keon tried to get back into the NHL, Ballard, who still controlled his rights, blocked him once again. He finally ended up playing out his career with the Hartford Whalers, but only after Ballard had killed a deal between Keon and the Cup-contending New York Islanders.

To this day, the Hall-of-Famer who was ranked 69th out of the top 100 players of all time by The Hockey News in 1998 still has nothing but contempt for the team that has botched not only its own legacy so badly, but also the lives and careers of its players. Thanks, Harold Ballard.

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.

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Steve Nash

Steve Nash

The Unlikely Ascent of a Superstar
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tagged : basketball, sports
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