The Big “What If”: Bassett’s Maple Leafs, Part I


April 11th, 1990


When the owner of a beloved sports franchise dies, the city in which he operated his team can sometimes go into mourning. Following the death of Harold Ballard, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, no such mourning occurred. Instead, Leaf fans across the city (and the country) were only capable of uttering one phrase: “Good riddance.”

Once one of the league’s signature teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs had gone from a dynasty on the ice to one of the doormats of the NHL. As teams like Edmonton, Philadelphia, Boston, and Calgary dominated the ‘80s, the Leafs floundered. Virtually all of their woes can be directly attributed to Harold Ballard’s ownership strategy, which minimized cost and maximized profit. Not only was Ballard a penny-pincher when it came to the Maple Leafs, but he also embroiled himself in constant scandal. He had offended several minority groups, and gotten into wars of words with a number of media members. Worst of all, during his time as owner, three sexual predators were allowed to carry out multiple instances of abuse at Maple Leaf Gardens, victimizing several young boys and girls.

Harold Ballard has a place among the worst owners in sports history, and probably has a good claim to be the very worst. But for one decision by a man named John Bassett, he could have never had sole ownership of the Leafs in the first place.

John Bassett was part of the “Silver Seven”, the group that managed the Leafs throughout the late 50s and 60s. In 1961, he, along with Ballard and Stafford Smythe, would purchase majority shares in Maple Leaf Gardens, Ltd. from Stafford’s father, Conn Smythe; this gave the three control of both the Maple Leafs, and the arena in which they played. Late in the decade, the younger Smythe, as well as Ballard, were both charged with tax evasion, as well as using company money for personal expenses. Bassett forced a vote to remove the other two owners from their jobs with MLG (Smythe as president and Ballard as vice-president), but never forced the two to sell their shares in the company. A year later, both Ballard and Smythe would use their money and shares to buy out Bassett, giving them control of the team. With Stafford’s death in 1971, Ballard would take sole ownership of the club.

But what would have happened had John Bassett been more aggressive in his campaign to remove his business partners from the company? Would the Maple Leafs have still regressed into one of the worst teams in the NHL during the ‘80s? Would the team recover in the ‘90s, setting up two near-misses at a Stanley Cup Final? In fact, would they even NEED to recover? Probably most importantly regarding the team, would their Cup drought never become the albatross that still hangs around their neck to this day?


WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: At the time of the clash between Smythe, Ballard, and Bassett, the former two had been charged with tax evasion, and were awaiting trial. It was during this time that Bassett, then chairman of the board at Maple Leaf Gardens, forced a vote to have Smythe and Ballard removed from their positions at the company. Though both were fired, they still retained their shares in the company, and over the next couple of years, they would instigate a proxy war at MLG. Eventually, both men would return to the company, buying out Bassett’s shares in 1971. Only six weeks after Bassett sold his shares, Smythe would die of a bleeding ulcer, leaving Ballard as the sole majority owner of the company.

The vote that removed both Ballard and Smythe from the MLG board was extremely narrow, 8-7 in favour. But at the time, there would plausibly have been enough heat on both men for John Bassett to force the two into selling their shares. Instead of simply voting on the firing of both Ballard and Smythe, he could have used the pressure that the two were under to force them out completely, rather than just removing them from the board. As a guess, had he applied even more pressure, both of the two could very well sell their shares, making Bassett the sole owner of the Maple Leafs.

As the 1969 season looms, the off-ice turmoil surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs seems to be growing more and more. Once one of the NHL’s model franchises, the Leafs were now the centre of a massive battle between three owners: John Bassett, Stafford Smythe, and Harold Ballard. The latter two had been charged with tax evasion following a raid of Maple Leaf Gardens the previous year, and were awaiting trial. Bassett, feeling that the presence of Smythe and Ballard only hurt the club’s reputation, would force a vote to remove them from the board of directors at Maple Leaf Gardens, Ltd., as well as contacting Stafford’s father, Conn Smythe, in order to convince the two to sell their shares of the club.

Bassett’s play for a controlling stake in the team and arena was well-measured, and with the adding of the elder Smythe to his cause, as well as the pressure on Stafford and Harold Ballard following their charges, he had public opinion well on his side. In private, battle lines had been drawn; though Conn Smythe was a beloved figure in Toronto for the success he brought to the club, there were concerns that the immediate sale to Bassett would destabilize a Maple Leafs team that had already seen former head coach and GM Punch Imlach shockingly dismissed in the past year.

In the end, the board votes 8-7 to remove Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard from their positions at MLG, Ltd., as well as forcing them to sell their shares of the company. John Bassett would become the majority owner of MLG, while Conn Smythe retains a small stake for the next five years in order to make the transition easier for the new owner, as well as the board, team, and city. Despite the ownership change, Bassett vows that little will change regarding the on-ice product, as he waits to see just how well the Maple Leafs perform before he alters anything.

1969-70: For all intents and purposes, the Maple Leafs are an entirely new team. They have a new majority owner in John Bassett, a new General Manager in Jim Gregory, and a new head coach in John McLellan. But for all the changes off the ice, the team on the ice was not much different, and that was a problem. Many of the team’s star players were well into their 30s, with blue-liner Tim Horton now 40 years of age. Johnny Bower, now 45, would play only one game this year, which would turn out to be his last.

The Maple Leafs were too old, and had too little skill to catch up with the rest of the teams in the East Division. Horton, once one of the team’s enduring presences, would be traded to the New York Rangers in exchange for forward Denis Dupere. Toronto had given up on the season, finishing last in the East with 71 points – a total that would have them as the second seed were they in the West Division, which was made up of all of the 1967 expansion clubs. Despite the poor results, Neither Jim Gregory nor John McLellan were let go from their roles, as John Bassett was more interested in staying the course for now.

Toronto would have the 8th Pick in the 1970 Amateur Draft, selecting forward Darryl Sittler from the OHA’s London Knights.

1970-71: Jim Gregory was set on building the Maple Leafs back into a contender, and was looking for some younger players to add to the roster. Brad Selwood and Rene Robert had been brought in from the WHL, while Darryl Sittler would find himself pencilled in on the main roster immediately following his selection in the Draft. By far the most significant acquisition, however, was a veteran goalie: Jacques Plante. Plante, now 42, had still been a capable NHL goaltender, though he wasn’t getting as many games as he was in his heyday with Montreal.

Nonetheless, Plante proved to be a fantastic goalie in a 1a role with the Maple Leafs, putting up a 1.84 goals against average and a league-best .944 save percentage in 40 games. Though his back-up, Bruce Gamble, had been sub-par, Toronto would acquire a replacement in February in the form of Bernie Parent. Parent had been the starter for a young Philadelphia team, and would come in to give Plante a bit of time off down the stretch, performing well with his new club with a .918 SV% in 18 games of work. Plante wasn’t the only older player who performed well this season, as 35-year-old Norm Ullman would lead the team with 85 points.

Toronto hadn’t exactly become a contender just yet, but they were at least good enough to make the playoffs, finishing 4th in the realigned East Division. In addition to the reshaped divisions, the playoffs had been changed as well; the 1st-place team in each division would face the 3rd-place team, while the 2nd place team would square off against the 4th-place side. This meant that Toronto would face the New York Rangers, who had finished 2nd in the East. The Maple Leafs got some good goaltending from Parent, but even he wasn’t enough to stop the duo of Bob Nevin and Vic Hadfield, who combined for 9 goals in the series. The Rangers would win in six games, but things were beginning to look up for Toronto, who were mired in off-ice controversy almost two years prior.

The off-ice talk, however, wouldn’t end. Despite the fact that they were both awaiting sentencing for their criminal charges, Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard were plotting their next move. During the 1971 off-season, a new professional league was announced, to be called the World Hockey Association. Ballard and Smythe had applied for, and were granted, an expansion club in the upstart league, to be called the Hamilton Tigers, reviving the name of the franchise that once played in the National Hockey League in the 20s. They were set to begin play in the league’s inaugural season the next year, setting up camp at the old Hamilton Forum.

The Maple Leafs would not have a pick in the 1st Round of the 1971 Draft, having traded their selection to Philadelphia in the Bernie Parent deal. Their first pick of the draft would be in Round Two, where they would select Rick Kehoe with the 22nd Pick.

1971-72: The spectre of the Hamilton Tigers was now beginning to loom over the Maple Leafs, as John Bassett scrambled to make sure that nobody of consequence jumped over to the World Hockey Association following this season. The Tigers, however, were dealing with issues of their own; Stafford Smythe had died in October due to a stomach ulcer, while Harold Ballard was sentenced to prison time following his conviction on theft and fraud charges. Harold’s son Bill was now operating the Tigers, and seemed to be less of a threat to lure players over to the WHA.

On the ice, things seemed to be going… okay, at least. The goalie tandem of Parent and Plante was back once more, and both were still very good, combining to give the Maple Leafs the fourth-best save percentage in the NHL. Their shot-stopping proved incredibly important for a team that seemed to be unable to score, as the Leafs’ total of 209 goals put them only nine ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers for worst in the league. The team also struggled in killing penalties, as they finished with the fourth-worst PK percentage in the league at just under 78%.

As mentioned, though, the goalie tandem had done enough to at least keep the team competitive. Toronto would earn the 4th-place spot in the East Division with 80 points. Once again, however, the playoff format was changed, and now, the Leafs would be facing the 1st-place Boston Bruins, who were a major test for even the world’s best goalies thanks to their core of players such as Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr, and Johnny Bucyk. Bernie Parent did everything he could to keep Toronto competitive, but the Bruins were just too good. Both Esposito and Orr would get nine points each in the series, as Boston would go on to win it in five games.

As the WHA approaches its’ inaugural season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are busy in negotiations with several of their players, eventually reaching deals with almost everybody who was approaching the end of their contracts. Only three players decide to make the jump to the WHA, as Guy Trottier, Larry Pleau, and minor-leaguer Ted McCaskill would sign contracts with teams in the rival league. Pleau was of little concern, as he had been acquired by the Leafs in the 1972 intra-league draft, with Brad Selwood going to the Montreal Canadiens as compensation. (Selwood, incidentally, would also sign in the WHA, joining the New England Whalers.)

Toronto would get the 11th pick in the 1972 Amateur Draft, selecting George Ferguson from the OMJHL’s Toronto Marlboros.

1972-73: The Maple Leafs had navigated the potential danger of the WHA well enough that their core of players was hardly touched. Virtually everybody was committed to playing for the Maple Leafs, and of those that did leave for the WHA, only one – Guy Trottier – would join the Hamilton Tigers. Though John Bassett might not have enjoyed having to pay a little extra money to players who would never be true stars at any point, he was comforted with the fact that the Maple Leafs were still selling out the Gardens, no matter how bad the team might have been in recent years.

The stability of the team was seen both off the ice and on it, for better and for worse. It was once again the duo of Parent and Plante that were expected to carry the team through the season, as despite breakout years from both Darryl Sittler and Rick Kehoe, the Leafs were still offensively inept otherwise – not as bad as the previous year, but still bad enough that they were on the outside looking in when it came to the playoff race. So far behind the likes of Buffalo and Detroit were the Leafs that they were sellers late in the season, with Jacques Plante being traded to Boston for a 1st-Round Pick in ’73, as well as future considerations.

Toronto would miss the playoffs, finishing 6th in the East Division with 72 points. Their disappointing finish was the nail in the coffin for head coach John McLellan, who would resign to take a job as the team’s assistant GM. Jim Gregory was not going to wait long to improve the team, and he would go to a length no Maple Leaf executive before him had gone in order to do so. He would make the team’s first-ever European signings, picking up winger Inge Hammarstrom and defender Borje Salming from Sweden; this unorthodox move earned Gregory some criticism, with the harshest barbs coming from newly-released WHA owner Harold Ballard. Ballard vowed that his team, now relocated to Toronto, would never play any Europeans as long as they existed, and appealed for Leaf fans to switch allegiances.

The Leafs would have two 1st-Round Picks in the 1973 Amateur Draft. Their natural pick at #4 would be used on Lanny McDonald of the Medicine Hat Tigers, while their pick from Boston, the #15 selection, would be used to select blue-liner Ian Turnbull of the Ottawa 67’s.

1973-74: With some resentment beginning to creep into the Maple Leaf fan base over John Bassett’s inability to turn the team into a contender once more, as well as his supposed desperation in signing players from Europe. With a new team in town, the WHA’s Toronto Toros, there were whispers of fans beginning to switch over to the WHA club, spurning the Leafs. Though Bassett would commit to playing the Swedish duo of Salming and Hammarstrom, he would extend an olive branch of sorts to Leaf fans by signing former Cup-winner Red Kelly has the new head coach.

Very quickly, the Maple Leafs would turn their fortunes around, as Kelly focused on making the team better at both ends of the ice. One of his key moves was to give more playing time to Bernie Parent, who rewarded his coach with a league-leading .932 SV% in 58 games. Also notable was his use of several younger players, as well as the two Europeans; Darryl Sittler would lead the team with 38 goals and 84 points, while both Rick Kehoe and Inge Hammarstrom would break the 40-point mark. Rookie defenders Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull also proved effective, as both managed more than 30 points, with Salmings plus-minus rating of +38 leading the team by a wide margin.

Toronto was back in the post-season, with their 95 points putting them 3rd in the East Division. This would set up a clash with none other than the Montreal Canadiens, their long-time rivals dating back to the earliest days of the National Hockey League. The Habs may not have had the legends that they once had, but they were still one of the league’s powerhouses, with players like Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, and Larry Robinson having recently started their NHL careers. At the very top, however, was former Leaf Frank Mahovlich, who had been cast off several years ago. The series would go the distance, as the Leafs and Habs battled fiercely, but in the end, it would be Montreal that advanced, claiming Game Seven by a score of 5-4.

The Leafs were out at the first hurdle, but there was a renewed sense of optimism in Toronto. With a very solid young scorer in Darryl Sittler, an emerging core of blue-liners including Salming and Turnbull, and a superstar goalie in Bernie Parent, Red Kelly and the Maple Leafs now had the foundation needed to become contenders very soon. Salming, in particular, helped convince both John Bassett and Jim Gregory that Europeans could survive in the NHL, and they would take their plan a step further in the ’74 off-season, getting Vaclav Nedomansky and Richard Farda to defect from Czechoslovakia and sign with the Maple Leafs.

Toronto would also have the 14th Overall Pick in the 1974 Draft, selecting Dave Maloney from the OMJHL’s Kitchener Rangers.

1974-75: The signing of Vaclav Nedomansky (and, to a lesser extent, Richard Farda) generated international headlines, and was a sure-fire conversation starter in Toronto. Reactions were somewhat mixed, but among Leaf fans, there was less trepidation than there normally would have been, considering Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom had come in and done well in their first year in the NHL. More old-fashioned hockey fans were incensed that the Leafs were bringing in players from overseas, and were even more angered when the team released Jim Harrison and Rick Ley to make room for their new arrivals. Though most hockey journalists in Canada added to the outrage, some reported about a belief that prior to signing with the Leafs, Nedomansky had a claim to be the best player in the world not in the NHL.

Nedomansky had a target on his back, but he was still able to play very well at the NHL level, appearing in all 80 games for the Leafs, and registering 29 goals and 28 assists in his “rookie” year. Many of Toronto’s younger players continued to develop, as Darryl Sittler would put up another 80-point year, while George Ferguson would have a breakout year with 49 points in 69 games. Rookie Lanny McDonald would play 64 games, picking up 44 points. Once again, Bernie Parent was the goaltender of choice, playing 64 games in goal, and leading the league with a 2.04 goals against average.

Thanks to the 1974 expansion (and the subsequent re-alignment of the NHL), Toronto was now in the Adams Division with Boston, Buffalo, and California. The Leafs would finish 3rd in the Adams with 93 points, which put them 6th Overall in the league. They would, as a result, be seeded in the preliminary round against the New York Islanders, who were slowly building their team with young players, having already given significant playing time to the likes of Denis Potvin, Bob Nystrom, and Billy Harris. Toronto would sweep the best-of-three series, taking advantage of their multiple scoring lines, as well as the goaltending of Bernie Parent to stymie New York.

The Quarter-Final was an all-Adams match-up, with the Maple Leafs facing off against the defending Cup champions, the Boston Bruins. The Bruins still had many of their major stars, including Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, and Johnny Bucyk, who was approaching 40 years of age. Toronto kept each game close, making sure that neither of Orr or Esposito could tilt a contest in Boston’s favour. Try as he might, rookie head coach Don Cherry could not find a way to break down Red Kelly’s Leafs, who would take the series in six games.

Next up were the Philadelphia Flyers, who the Bruins had defeated in the Cup Final a year ago. Philly played an even meaner game, earning the nickname “Broad Street Bullies” thanks to their playing style. They also had a good luck charm of sorts in the form of Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America”; so effective was it for the Flyers that Red Kelly brought in a superstition of his own, “Pyramid Power”, setting up a pyramid in the Leafs’ locker room before games. The strange trick almost worked, as the Leafs held strong, and very nearly pulled off the series victory, but Philly’s 4-2 win in Game Seven meant that Toronto would miss out on their first Cup Final appearance in eight years.

Despite a few obvious frustrations due to the fact that they had missed out on making the Stanley Cup Final, the Maple Leafs, and their fans, had even more reason to be optimistic. Many of the moves that the team had made over the past two years had worked well, with the European imports all playing key roles on the team. It didn’t hurt that Toronto also had a star netminder in Bernie Parent, who gave the team a chance to win every time he got the start. Red Kelly was being credited with rejuvenating the Toronto locker room, and making them believe they could beat anybody, no matter who may have been wearing an opposing sweater, be it a Bobby Orr, a Guy Lafleur, or a Bobby Clarke.

But despite all the warm and fuzzy feelings, there was a battle brewing off the ice between the Leafs and their WHA counterparts, the Toronto Toros. Harold Ballard’s club had been doing decent attendance numbers, averaging about 10,000 fans a game, a very close second behind the Edmonton Oilers. Ballard wanted to bring the numbers up to match those of the Leafs, while also doing something to bring the NHL club down a peg. He would target impending free agent Dave Keon, making a massive offer to the long-time Leaf. John Bassett would have none of it, declaring that “there will always be a place for Dave Keon on the Maple Leafs”. Keon himself would hear nothing of the offer from the Toros, agreeing to a pricey extension with the Leafs just before his contract expired.

Toronto would have the 13th Overall Pick in the 1975 Amateur Draft, selecting goalie Gordon Laxton of the WCHL’s New Westminster Bruins.

1975-76: After two seasons of noticeable improvement, there was a belief in Toronto that 1976 would be the year that the team got back to the Stanley Cup Final. Any anger that was generated by the signing of European players seemed to have been nullified, as while many of the fans that complained did indeed switch to the Toros, there were still more than enough people in the city to make every home game a sell-out. Bassett could well have stopped spending on the team, knowing that the Leafs were becoming a cash cow, but he stated that he had too much pride in the team to simply let them stagnate.

Disaster would strike the Leafs early on in training camp, as Bernie Parent would suffer a back injury that would keep him out for most of the season. In response, Jim Gregory would strike a deal with Montreal, trading the team’s 1st-Round Pick in 1976 to the Montreal Canadiens for Wayne Thomas. Thomas would provide a reasonable stop-gap, putting up a .900 SV% in 64 games of work, but for once, the team would not need to rely on goaltending to win. The top line of Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, and Errol Thompson would break out huge, with each player breaking the 80-point mark, and Sittler topping out at 100 points – including an NHL-record TEN in a game against Boston on February 7th. In addition to those three, all of Stan Weir, Dave Keon, Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull, and Vaclav Nedomansky would grab 50 or more points, with Nedomansky tallying 38 goals and 28 assists in his second year in the NHL.

Thanks to the Big Bad Bruins, and the French Connection in Buffalo, Toronto was still stuck in 3rd in the Adams, but their total of 99 points was good enough for 6th in the league once more. The Leafs would be pitted against the Atlanta Flames, now in their fourth year of play in the NHL. The Flames were no match for a Leaf team that had several scoring options, as Toronto would win the preliminary round series two games to none. Next up were the Boston Bruins, who had traded away Phil Esposito, and had lost Bobby Orr for the season due to injuries. Despite those setbacks, the Bruins were still a formidable opponent, and made life for Wayne Thomas hell, forcing Bernie Parent in from Game Four on. The Maple Leafs would manage to take the series to a deciding game, where Errol Thompson’s OT winner would send Toronto on to the Semi-Final.

The classic match-up of Toronto and Montreal was on the cards once more. The Habs had finished at the very top of the league, and most of the young players that the Leafs faced a couple years earlier were becoming true-blue stars. If it wasn’t enough that the Leafs had to contend with the likes of Lafleur, Shutt, and Guy Lapointe, the Canadiens had Ken Dryden back in goal, making victory a tough sell. Toronto would make a good effort of it, but just couldn’t find a way past Dryden; the teams would play four over-time games, with Montreal winning each of them for a 4-1 series victory.

It was a two-year streak of near-misses for the Maple Leafs, but the window was far from closed for Toronto. In fact, thanks to the moves Boston had made, there was reason to believe that the Leafs could eclipse the Bruins, and maybe even do the same to the Sabres. The price for their playoff run, though, was their 1st-Rounder, which was now in Montreal’s hands following the trade that brought Wayne Thomas to Toronto. The Canadiens would use that pick on Sudbury Wolves winger Rod Schutt, not believed to have any relation to Steve Shutt.

Off the ice, there was some additional good news for the Maple Leafs. Despite their attendance still being among the best in the league (still around 10,000), the Toronto Toros were headed out of town. Harold Ballard had publicly complained about the team’s inability to make money despite being located in a supposed hockey hotbed, and would move his franchise to Birmingham, Alabama, re-naming them the Bulls. Though there was still a collection of fans that were unsatisfied with Leaf management, and still a few junior teams to go and watch, the Leafs were once again the only game in town as far as major league hockey was concerned, and the Gardens were still sold out game after game.

1976-77: Having made the Semi-Final twice in a row, the goal for this season was now a Stanley Cup berth. With Bernie Parent healthy once more, and Wayne Thomas proving himself capable enough to hold the fort, the Leafs once again had a reliable goalie tandem, with prospect Mike Palmateer waiting in the wings should either of the two NHL goalkeepers be injured.

The Maple Leafs’ 76-77 season would be a story with two sub-plots: the tale of a pair of blue-liners that finally became full-fledged stars, and a veteran that just wouldn’t quit. The pairing of Ian Turnbull and Borje Salming had blossomed into a true top duo that could not only shut down opposing forwards, but contribute offensively, as both managed over 70 points, as well as combining for a rating of +91. Dave Keon, meanwhile, may have been turning 37 during the late part of the season, but he was still playing like he was in his mid-20s, registering 61 points in 75 games – a total that ranked him third among forwards behind only Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald, who had 90 points each.

Despite the improvement of the top defensive pairing, the Leafs still couldn’t get past either the Bruins or the Sabres in the Adams Division. They would finish 3rd in the Adams (and 6th in the league) once more with 98 points, setting up another preliminary round battle with the Atlanta Flames. Unlike last year, Toronto would rely heavily on their first unit of players to overwhelm the Flames; whatever strategy Red Kelly used, it was bound to work against an over-matched Atlanta team, as the Leafs would sweep the Flames in two games. Toronto would move on to face the Boston Bruins once more, but this time, the Bruins were out for revenge. Jean Ratelle and Brad Park had come over from New York in the Esposito trade the year before, and filled in nicely for both he and Bobby Orr. The two would take advantage of the Leafs’ lack of depth to take control of the series, which Boston would win in six.

Having dropped out of the playoffs a round earlier than the past two years, the Maple Leafs were faced with a serious choice behind the bench. Though Red Kelly had made the Leafs a solid contender during his tenure, his coaching decisions during the 1977 playoffs would turn out to be his undoing. Kelly would be informed that he would not be signed to an extension, instead watching his four-year contract expire at the end of June. In his place would be former Dallas Black Hawks bench boss Roger Neilson, a man known for his unorthodox coaching strategies, as well as his creative use of loopholes in the rulebook.

Thanks to their trade with Pittsburgh back in 1974, the Leafs had two 1st-Round Picks in 1977. Their first pick would be the Penguins’ selection at #11, which the Leafs would use on winger John Anderson of the Toronto Marlboros. Their second pick of the round, their natural pick at #13, would be used on Sudbury Wolves centreman Ron Duguay.

1977-78: Roger Neilson knew the expectations were high for his first NHL season, but if his coaching career had revealed anything about him, it was that he was determined to win, and would do whatever he had to make sure his team came away with a victory. His methods led to some high-profile players being cast out from the team, as the likes of Inge Hammarstrom, Errol Thompson, and Vaclav Nedomansky all found themselves dealt during the year. In fact, Thompson and Nedomansky would both be packaged in the same trade with Detroit, as they were sent to the Wings, along with a 1978 1st and 2nd-Rounder, for Dan Maloney and a 1980 2nd-Round Pick.

Say what one would about Roger Neilson’s tactics, but they worked. Toronto had finally surpassed both Boston and Buffalo in the standings, finishing 1st in the Adams Division, and 2nd in the NHL, with 115 points. They had earned a bye through the preliminary round, and would start their post-season in the Quarter-Finals against the Chicago Black Hawks. Though Chicago has an All-Star goalie in Tony Esposito and a solid group of young players, Toronto is the better team pound-for-pound, and they utterly obliterate the Hawks in a four-game sweep. Toronto is back in the Semi-Finals, and once again, they have to deal with the Boston Bruins, who have become somewhat of a roadblock for the Leafs in the past few years. The Leafs split the first two games, but after a humiliating loss in Game Two, Bernie Parent is removed from the starting job in favour of rookie Mike Palmateer. Palmateer would force another split at home, then stymie the Bruins over the course of the next two contests, as the Leafs would win it in six.

After eleven years, Toronto has finally advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, and standing in the way are none other than the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal has continued to be the class of the league, and their core of players has truly reached their prime. Their top scorer, Guy Lafleur, had racked up 60 goals and 132 points, both of which led the NHL. Defeating the Habs would be a monumental achievement, but if any team in the league was up for it, it was Toronto. The Leafs would stun the Canadiens in the first two games at the Montreal Forum, before splitting the two-game series at Maple Leaf Gardens. With a chance to win the Stanley Cup on enemy turf, Toronto would strike once more, with Darryl Sittler’s second-period goal holding up in a 4-3 win.

The Maple Leafs had finally won their first Cup of the Expansion Era. Eleven years after their last victory, their names were on the Stanley Cup again, with even the most hard-line detractors in the city finally won over. Thanks to his outstanding play in the playoffs, Ian Turnbull would be awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. Smythe – who had sold his shares in the club a few years ago to Bassett’s son, John F. Bassett – would not be in attendance to award the trophy himself, as he had suffered a heart attack a month or so prior to Toronto’s Cup win.

The Leafs would not have a pick in the 1st Round of the Amateur Draft in 1978, having traded their selection to the Red Wings earlier on in the year. Detroit would use the pick on Hamilton Fincups winger Al Secord. Prior to the draft, they did make a couple of moves, though, making trades with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings. Their trade with the Penguins saw Randy Carlyle and George Ferguson leave Toronto in exchange for Dave Burrows and a 6th-Round Pick in 1978 (used on Mel Hewitt), while their trade with L.A. would see Brian Glennie, Jerry Butler, Scott Garland, and a 1979 2nd-Rounder go to the Kings for Dave Hutchinson and Lorne Stamler.

1978-79: The Maple Leafs were once again at the top of the league, but the expectations now sitting on their shoulders would grow even more. Toronto would have every team in the league gunning for them, and would have to make sure that they could keep the pace with the Bruins and Sabres so as to hold on to their playoff bye. Early on in the season, the Leafs would add to their forward core, bringing in veteran Walt McKechnie from the Minnesota North Stars in exchange for a 3rd-Round Pick in 1980. Though he had struggled the year prior with Washington and Cleveland, McKechnie still felt he had something to give, and would be pencilled in as the team’s #2 centre.

McKechnie did indeed have something to give, as fate would have it. Walt would put up 61 points, enough for 4th amongst Leaf forwards, behind Darryl Sittler (87 points), Lanny McDonald (85 points), and Ron Duguay (63 points). Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull were once again a solid duo both offensively and defensively, and Mike Palmateer had permanently secured the starting job in goal. Though he earned the role on merit, he would finish the season as starter by default, as Bernie Parent would suffer a career-ending eye injury during a game against the New York Rangers in February.

Toronto was once again a playoff team, but thanks to a resurgent Boston, the Leafs would finish in 2nd in the Adams with 99 points. The Leafs would get a preliminary round match-up against the Vancouver Canucks, who had zero players with more than 60 points, as opposed to Toronto’s five. It was, as expected, a sweep for the Maple Leafs, who won both games by a combined scoreline of 10-2. This set up a clash with the Philadelphia Flyers, who were growing desperate for a Stanley Cup, and were not going to give the Leafs an easy time. There was just no stopping a motivated Philly team; not even “Pyramid Power” could prevent the Flyers from winning the series in six games.

Toronto was out in the quarter-final, but there was little fear of regression for a Leaf team that had kept themselves in the thick of the race for the Adams Division. Things were about to change, though, due to the dissolution of the World Hockey Association, which would see four teams migrate from the defunct league to the NHL: The Edmonton Oilers, the Winnipeg Jets, the Quebec Nordiques, and the New England Whalers (which would be re-named the Hartford Whalers). The Oilers, in particular, looked to be a dangerous opponent, as they had several good, young players, including teenage superstar Wayne Gretzky, who finished 3rd in the WHA in points last year.

Thanks to the work required in the NHL’s absorption of the Whalers, Oilers, Nordiques, and Jets, the newly-renamed Entry Draft was delayed to August 9th. Toronto would have the 14th Overall Pick in 1979, and had their eye on Brandon Wheat Kings winger Brian Propp. Brian would hopefully give the Leafs a stable presence to go alongside the duo of Sittler and McDonald, as they didn’t seem to have a solid first-line left winger since Errol Thompson had left.

THE MAPLE LEAFS AFTER TEN YEARS: The Maple Leafs of the late ‘60s were a team in turmoil. Their owners were feuding, their position in the standings was slipping, and their core was aging. By flexing his boardroom muscle following the announcement of charges against Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard, John Bassett had at least rectified the first problem. As the years went on, he would slowly but surely resolve the second and third issues as well, using any method he could to improve Toronto’s roster. He would take adventurous measures in his quest to build a new Toronto team, including signing players from Europe – a gamble that worked brilliantly.

By the end of the ‘70s, Toronto is once again a perennial playoff team, and manage to grab a Stanley Cup along the way. A new group of Leaf legends has been born, with Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull, and Mike Palmateer among those who have been brought in to lead the way over the next few years. There are also a couple of veterans sticking around from the last glory days; though Bernie Parent has hung up the gear, Dave Keon is still kicking around and wearing the captain’s “C” at the age of 39, and Ron Ellis is still kicking around for his 15th year with the team.

If it wasn’t enough that the Leafs were one of the most competitive clubs in the NHL at this point, they have a ton of young players ready to make their mark very soon in the league. Prized prospect Brian Propp is already skating alongside the likes of Sittler and McDonald, while Ron Duguay has established himself as an offensive presence on the team at the age of 22. Dave Maloney has become a steady presence on the blue line at 23, and adds a defensive punch to a team chock-full of talented offensive blue-liners. With players like Propp, Duguay, and Maloney already on the team, and a few more prospects on the way, Toronto has everything they need to ensure that they remain competitive in the 80s, even as new teams threaten their standing.

On opening night of the 1979-80 season, Toronto’s line-up looks like this:

F1. Brian Propp – Darryl Sittler – Lanny McDonald

F2. Tiger Williams – Ron Duguay – John Anderson

F3. Dan Maloney – Walt McKechnieRocky Saganiuk

F4. Pat Boutette – Dave Keon – Ron Ellis

D1. Borje Salming – Ian Turnbull

D2. Dave Maloney – Bob Dailey

D3. Joel Quenneville – Dave Burrows

G1. Mike Palmateer

G2. Vincent Tremblay

The hope for both GM Jim Gregory and Leaf fans as a whole is that Brian Propp can be a good fit alongside the dynamic duo of Sittler and McDonald. He has earned his shot already due to his incredible performance in training camp, and if he performs well in the regular season, he could be the left winger that the Leafs have needed for the past year or so. The winger core is okay, with all of Williams, Anderson, Maloney, and Saganiuk possessing some skill. The centre depth, however, is ridiculous, with captain Dave Keon relegated to the FOURTH line thanks to the impressive stats of Duguay and McKechnie. The Maple Leafs may not dominate offensively, but they have enough talent to secure more than a few wins.

The blue line is incredibly deep, with the first two pairings having been set for years, now. Salming and Turnbull form one of the most impressive unitsin the league, with both expected to register over 60 points. The second unit of Dailey and Maloney bring a good mixture of grit and skill, with Dailey regularly around the 40-point mark, and Maloney earning himself a good chunk of penalty minutes. The third pairing is a mix of youth and experience, with veteran Dave Burrows accompanying second-year pro Joel Quenneville. In goal, Mike Palmateer is expected to get the lion’s share of starts, but Vincent Tremblay may be expected to play a few games straight out of juniors. Though rumours have popped up about a potential goalie signing from Czechoslovakia, Tremblay will have to hold the fort until Toronto makes such a signing.

Of the bolded players, all but two of them come from the 1st Round of the Entry Draft. Propp is a 1979 1st-Rounder, replacing Laurie Boschman, while Ron Duguay would be selected in place of Trevor Johansen in 1977. The third of those is Dave Maloney, who gets taken instead of Jack Valiquette in 1974. The other two bolded players are here through different circumstances; Bob Dailey would be traded to Toronto in 1977, as the Leafs drafted Larry Goodenough, and can thus trade him to the Flyers in this timeline. Dave Keon, meanwhile, would never leave the Leafs like he did in the OTL, as without Harold Ballard to cast him out, there was likely no way he would have left Toronto.

As one final point in this section, I would like to address the first two years, as virtually nothing changes from 1969-71 from what happened in the OTL. This is because without Harold Ballard to rule over the team, there isn’t much that he affects during this point. His first real effect on the team comes in 1972, when he is forced to renegotiate several contracts due to the looming threat of the WHA. In the OTL, a few important players leave the club for the new league, the most notable of which is Bernie Parent. The resentment that Ballard holds for the WHA in the OTL leads him to trade away Parent’s rights when he announces his intent to return to the NHL. Without Ballard as owner of the Leafs, Parent is re-signed by the team, and the trade never happens.

Originally, I was planning for this to be only one post, but in tracking the Leafs throughout the years, I found myself putting in enough work for a second part, which will be posted next week. I will cover the rest of Bassett’s tenure, as well as the new Leafs up to this point in time, and in addition, I will cover every change that takes place in this new timeline (of which there are many).