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

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This is Part II of my look on what would happen had John Bassett been the sole owner of the Maple Leafs instead of Harold Ballard. For Part I of this series, click here.


THE REST OF BASSETT’S TENURE: The arrival of the WHA teams, and the Oilers in particular, marks a sea change in the game of hockey. While the ‘70s were marked by teams that could bully their opponents into submission, the new dominant style would be one where offensive play was king. Creativity, speed, and shooting ability would become the hallmarks of the new game, with Wayne Gretzky at the centre of the movement. As the new game took shape, the Maple Leafs were a team on the verge of being left behind if they didn’t adapt; doing so, however, meant alienating a few fans in the Toronto area, who had demanded their players work hard AND hit hard.

The changes to the NHL game don’t come immediately, and it allows the Leafs to stick to their historical game plan, winning the 1980 Stanley Cup after defeating the Flyers in the Final. The new order takes place over the next couple of years, as the Leafs advance to two straight Cup Finals against the New York Islanders, losing both times to the young, skilled team. By the middle part of the decade, it becomes clear that the Leafs are falling behind. Their major stars – including Sittler, McDonald, Salming, and Palmateer – are aging, and though they have some talent in reserve, including the likes of Rick Vaive and Brent Sutter, they don’t have nearly enough to compete with the big teams anymore.

In 1984, the first big change is made. Though he was the captain for a couple of years following the retirement of Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler is traded to the Detroit Red Wings for Murray Craven and Joe Paterson, with Rick Vaive being named the new captain in his place. Despite his reasoning for the trade, GM Jim Gregory is excoriated in Toronto media for making the deal, and come the end of the season, he, as well as head coach Roger Neilson, are both fired. Gerry McNamara and Lorne Henning would take their places, respectively; McNamara would make his mark in a unique way in the 1985 Entry Draft, using his team’s 11th-Round Pick to take Alexander Kozhevnikov, the first-ever Soviet player drafted by the Leafs.

The news of John F. Bassett’s brain tumours would put a damper on the next year, but also serve as a rallying point for a young Toronto team. Though the son of the elder John Bassett would die in May of 1986, the Leafs would use his passing as motivation for a couple of decent runs in the playoffs over the next two years; at this point, considering the quality of teams in the Norris Division, the Leafs were a virtual shoo-in for a playoff spot, no matter how bad they might have been. Though the Leafs had some emerging young talent in the likes of Brent Fedyk, Pat Elynuik, and Gary Roberts, they would attempt to add a superstar to the mix, as Bassett and McNamara would negotiate with the Edmonton Oilers for a trade involving Wayne Gretzky. In August of 1988, Gretzky would make his decision, choosing to join the Los Angeles Kings instead. Though the Leafs miss out on the “Great One”, they continue their now-lengthy playoff streak, completing the ‘80s without missing the post-season even once.

Whether out of genuine concern for the team, or out of desperation to win a Cup in his advancing age, John Bassett shakes things up in late 1990, dismissing head coach Lorne Henning after an awful start to the season; Gerry McNamara would follow him out the door after another first-round playoff exit. Taking over the GM role would be Cliff Fletcher, only two years removed from a Stanley Cup with Calgary, and he would waste little time making a gargantuan impact on the team. He would trade captain Brent Sutter to the Edmonton Oilers in a trade that saw the likes of Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson join the Leafs, then would swing a mammoth trade with Calgary to bring Doug Gilmour and Jamie Macoun, among others, to Maple Leaf Gardens.

With the addition of Pat Burns as head coach, the 1992-93 season looked like the Leafs’ best opportunity in years to win a Stanley Cup. They had a “killer” first line, with Gilmour centring Gary Roberts and Dave Andreychuk, who would be acquired mid-season from Buffalo in a trade that saw Grant Fuhr join the Sabres. With tons of secondary scoring, a strong blue-line, and an emerging goalie in Felix Potvin, the Leafs would advance to the 1993 Campbell Conference Final, only to be eliminated by Los Angeles in controversial circumstances. The next year, they would reach the re-named Western Conference Final once more, only to lose to the Vancouver Canucks in five games.

Having missed out on a Cup Final two years in a row, Fletcher would make another gamble in the 1994 off-season, sending Gary Roberts, Sylvain Lefebvre, and David Cooper to the Quebec Nordiques for Mats Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner, and a slight upgrade in 1st-Round Picks in 1994. Sundin was the centrepiece of the deal, a 6’5” forward who was effective in all areas of the ice. Though the hope was that adding Sundin would bring Toronto that much closer to a Stanley Cup, the 1995 lockout-shortened season would end with the Leafs bounced in the first round.

After another first-round exit in 1996, Cliff Fletcher attempts a Hail Mary. Having already brought in the likes of Mats Sundin, Larry Murphy, and the effective-but-often-injured Wendel Clark, Fletcher has his eyes on a marquee free agent like no other: Wayne Gretzky. The “Great One” had been acquired by the Blues that year, but never meshed with Mike Keenan, and let his contract expire rather than stay with a coach he didn’t like. Fletcher would prepare a massive offer for Gretzky, and would table it to John Bassett. Despite having money tied up in a new arena for the Maple Leafs, Bassett approves Fletcher’s proposal; whether out of genuine concern for the team, or a desperate attempt to see one more Stanley Cup in his last years, Bassett makes Gretzky’s signing priority #1.

If, indeed, Bassett would want to see another Cup before he passed, he would get his wish. The signing of Wayne Gretzky proves to be just the tonic needed for Toronto to battle through the Western Conference, then advance to the Cup Final in 1997, beating the Flyers at the final hurdle just as they had done in 1980. For the Leafs, it ended a 17-year drought, their longest to this point, and for Gretzky, it ended a drought of nine years; he had not won a Cup since leaving Edmonton, coming close on one occasion with the Kings. After the animosity that had surrounded him for so many years in the city had disappeared, and he had become a Toronto legend.

The next year, the Leafs would not get the chance to defend their Cup, being eliminated in the first round. But that was not the worst news of the year, as after 29 years as majority owner of the club, John Bassett would pass away at the end of April. He would be mourned across the city, as he had remodeled the Leafs into one of the league’s premier clubs during his tenure; they had a streak of 25 years of playoff hockey at the time of Bassett’s death, which was still ongoing, and in that time, they had captured three Stanley Cups in an ever-growing NHL.

THE LEAFS FROM BASSETT’S DEATH TO TODAY: A group of minority partners in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, including Kilmer Sports (a company owned by Larry Tanenbaum), Toronto-Dominion Bank, and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan would take over the team, and to show that they were serious about continuing the success of the franchise, they invested heavily in the 1998 off-season. Though both Cliff Fletcher and Pat Burns had resigned following the season, they would be replaced by Ken Dryden and Pat Quinn, respectively. Also coming in was free agent goalie Curtis Joseph, who believed Toronto had a great chance at winning another Stanley Cup.

The next few years saw a Maple Leaf team in the middle of a transformation; Gilmour and Clark would both leave as free agents, while Wayne Gretzky would call it a career in 1999. Mats Sundin had assumed the captaincy, and would now lead a team that included Curtis Joseph, Sergei Berezin, and Igor Korolev, as well as a young defensive core, and forward prospect Todd Bertuzzi. The team as a whole also has a new home in the Air Canada Centre, moving in the middle of the 98-99 season. Even through the next few years, the Maple Leafs continue their lengthy playoff streak. They would reach the Stanley Cup Final once more in 2002, beating the Red Wings in a tight series. Though most of the younger talent took the spotlight in that Cup run, one notable player on that team was Gary Roberts, who had returned to the Leafs in free agency in 2000, acting as a mentor and protector of sorts to Sundin.

In 2003, John Ferguson Jr. is introduced as the new General Manager, replacing Pat Quinn, who had taken a dual role as GM/coach over the past couple of seasons. JFJ would immediately turn the Leaf fans against him; in 2003, Toronto had acquired Doug Gilmour at the trade deadline, only for him to get injured in his first game back with the Leafs. Ferguson would state that the team had no intention of bringing him back, setting off a barrage of angry calls to Toronto sports radio stations calling for his firing before he had even started his job. His first season did see some success, as the Leafs would reach the Eastern Conference Final in 2004, only to narrowly lose out to the eventual champions Tampa Bay.

As the league came out of the 2004-05 lockout with a brand new salary cap, Toronto was in a bind. John Ferguson Jr. would make veteran signings in the 2005 free agency period, bringing in the likes of Jason Allison, Eric Lindros, and Mariusz Czerkawski on short-term deals to try and shore up the roster. The signings had mixed results, but the biggest takeaway from the 05-06 season was that the Leafs were stuck playing a game better suited for five years ago. For the first time in over 30 years, the Maple Leafs would fail to reach the post-season, leaving both ownership and the management group scrambling for a solution.

The first move made following their playoff miss would be to fire Pat Quinn, replacing him with former Carolina coach Paul Maurice. Though Maurice would slightly modernize Toronto’s style of play, he would not be able to make them a playoff team off the bat. This would lead to the Leafs making a desperate play for San Jose goalie Vesa Toskala, who would be acquired by Toronto to fill the void left by a departing Curtis Joseph. Toskala was somewhat decent in his first year, but the team in front of him was far from it; by the end of the 2007-08 campaign, all of John Ferguson Jr., Paul Maurice, and captain Mats Sundin would leave the team, as Toronto was now spiraling into the depths.

The 2008-09 season would start with former Leaf Ron Wilson as bench boss, and Cliff Fletcher as interim GM, eventually making way for Brian Burke mid-way through the campaign. Burke would state that he wanted the Maple Leafs to be a “truculent” hockey team, one built more for checking and aggression than speed or skill. Though he would remodel the club in that image, the results would be disastrous in the 2009-10 season, as Toronto would finish well out of the playoffs once more; even worse, they would not have their 1st-Round Pick in either 2010 or 2011, giving both up in a trade with Boston for Phil Kessel. Needing to win immediately in 2011, Toronto would barely sneak into the post-season, getting eliminated by the Washington Capitals in five games. They would make an even deeper run the next year, only to be bounced by Philadephia in the second round.

Going into the 2013 lockout-shortened season, Toronto seemed a pretty good bet for a playoff spot. They had some decent scoring punch in the likes of James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, and Phil Kessel, some bruising D-men in Jared Cowen, Dion Phaneuf, and captain Niklas Kronwall, and a brilliant goalie tandem in James Reimer and Tuukka Rask. Though the Leafs would reach the second round in 2013, they would not be able to do so again the next season, suffering a late-season collapse despite the stellar play of Rask, who would win a Vezina Trophy for his efforts. A similar collapse in 2015 would ultimately claim both the jobs of Ron Wilson and Brian Burke. Leaf President Brendan Shanahan, who had assumed the job in 2014, would stress the need for a full-scale re-build; despite tons of debate from the board at MLSE as to the merits of a full tear-down as opposed to a build-on-the-fly approach, Shanahan would get his wish.

2015 would see the Leafs make the biggest free agent signing, but not for a player. Instead, they would sign a new head coach in Mike Babcock, who was sold on building a new team from scratch. Also coming in would be a new management team, with Lou Lamoriello as GM, and young Kyle Dubas as his apprentice. Babcock would preach that “there will be pain”, knowing that it could be a few years before Toronto has really hit their stride. Unlike the blip of the late 2000s, this would be a sustained down period, with Toronto finishing well out of the post-season over the course of Babcock’s first three years with the team.

His work as a mentor for Dubas done, Lou Lamoriello would depart the GM job in 2018, leaving the former Soo Greyhounds and Toronto Marlies GM to take his place. Dubas comes in with some silverware to his name, having built the Marlies team that had just won the Calder Cup. With fans and media skeptical that he would make the Leafs a playoff contender once more, he would make a massive move in free agency, securing an extension for multi-time 30-goal scorer James van Riemsdyk, as well as bringing in former #1 Pick John Tavares from the Islanders. Tavares, who was born in Mississauga, would instantly make himself a Leaf fan favourite by posting a pic on Twitter of him as a child, sleeping under a Maple Leafs blanket.

THE LEAFS TODAY: After a few years without post-season hockey, the Maple Leafs are gearing up for a playoff run in 2019, hoping that the moves they have made over the past few years will finally work out. Expectations are higher, with a few media members predicting Toronto to at least clinch a Wild Card berth, as with the duo of John Tavares and James van Riemsdyk on their first line, the scoring that has eluded the team for so long could finally be coming back. For the first time in a while among Leaf supporters, there is a sense of hope. The last few years had seen season ticket renewals drop, though, and what was once a thirty-year waiting list for season tickets has dropped to about ten years by this point.

Brendan Shanahan has overseen a rather tumultuous time for the Leafs as President, but he has made it clear from the start that things would not be easy. The team under his watch includes a GM in Kyle Dubas who just added an AHL championship to his resume, as well as Mike Babcock, who has won at virtually every level he has coached. Though Babcock has come under some fire for not taking the Maple Leafs to the playoffs yet, he has yet to truly find himself in the hot seat, having preached patience throughout his Toronto tenure.

On opening night of the 2018-19 season, Toronto’s roster looks like this:

F1. James van Riemsdyk – John Tavares – Kasperi Kapanen

F2. Zach Hyman – Patrick Marleau – Andrei Svechnikov

F3. Andreas Johnsson – Casey Mittlestadt – Connor Brown

F4. Tyler Ennis – Par Lindholm – Brendan Perlini

D1. Noah Hanifin – Cody Ceci

D2. Jake Gardiner – Nikita Zaitsev

D3. Travis Dermott – Niklas Kronwall

G1. Tuukka Rask

G2. Garret Sparks

Toronto isn’t exactly blessed with offensive superstars, but what they have could at least be called adequate. The top line will be relied upon to score a majority of the team’s goals, with van Riemsdyk and Tavares expected to add around 30 each over the course of the year. Beyond the first line is a mix of talent; there are hard workers like Hyman and Brown, skilled prospects such as Mittlestadt, Perlini and Svechnikov, and players like Kapanen and Johnsson who have a mixture of both. Tyler Ennis and Patrick Marleau are there for veteran presence, while scratches Fredrik Gauthier and Jesse Puljujarvi are lost in the shuffle. Puljujarvi, in particular, has come under fire for his inability to take the next step at the NHL level, and with a few more decent prospects waiting with the Marlies (including Jeremy Bracco, Trevor Moore, and Carl Grundstrom), his time could be running out.

Defensively, the Leafs are very good. Though nobody would call Cody Ceci a sure-fire top-pairing blue liner, he is at least good enough to maintain a spot on either of the first two units. Next to him is Noah Hanifin, who has steadily developed his game under Mike Babcock, and looks ready to become the #1 D-man that the Leafs were hoping he would be. Jake Gardiner is a solid shot suppressor who is prone to mistakes, but seems to have found a good match in Nikita Zaitsev, who was effective in his rookie year in 16-17. The third pairing is a mix of grit and skill, as well as youth and experience; long-time captain Niklas Kronwall has been a feared presence on the ice for years, and now serves as a mentor to Travis Dermott, a talented blue-liner who is starting his first full season with the team.

In goal, Tuukka Rask is once again called upon to start most of the games for the Leafs. He has been a servant to the club for the entire decade, and may be sticking around for a few more years yet. Behind him is Garret Sparks, one of the heroes of the Toronto Marlies’ Calder Cup run last year; having been stuck behind Curtis McElhinney in the depth chart the past couple of years, this is finally his chance to show the Leafs what he can do in the NHL.

Of all of the bolded players, almost all of them come via the Entry Draft, with one and a half exceptions. Niklas Kronwall is the longest-serving Leaf, having been drafted in 2000 instead of Brad Boyes. Other Leafs draftees in this timeline include Cody Ceci (drafted instead of Morgan Rielly in 2012), Brendan Perlini (replacing William Nylander in 2014), Noah Hanifin (who is taken instead of Mitch Marner in 2015), Casey Mittlestadt (replacing Timothy Liljegren in 2017), and Andrei Svechnikov (who is taken in place of Rasmus Sandin in 2018). As mentioned, Jesse Puljujarvi is also taken by Toronto, being selected 4th Overall in 2016 in place of Auston Matthews.

The other two bolded players, James van Riemsdyk and Tuukka Rask, are Maple Leafs who stay with the team a while longer. Rask, drafted in 2005, is never traded for Andrew Raycroft the next year, while van Riemsdyk re-signs with Toronto, who now have the money (and the need) to keep him around in 2018.


CHANGES IN TORONTO, AND THE HOCKEY WORLD AS A WHOLE

With fifty years passing in this new timeline, it is inevitable that more than a few things are going to change. But when the first alteration is switching up Maple Leafs ownership, even more things are bound to happen. Removing Harold Ballard from the team has a profound effect; Ballard was so central to the Maple Leafs of the ‘70s and ‘80s that it would drastically alter Toronto’s fortunes, as well as those of other teams as a result. It also leads to several other major and minor changes far beyond the scope of those decades, with the effects ranging all across the hockey world. To start with, let’s get the Stanley Cup-related changes out of the way.

THE LEAFS WIN MULTIPLE CUPS UNDER JOHN BASSETT’S OWNERSHIP, AND ONE MORE AFTERWARD. The Maple Leafs of the 1970s, in the OTL, were a decent team that was always sure to be stopped by the likes of Boston, Montreal, and Philadelphia. With John Bassett spending more to keep great players around longer, Toronto is able to keep up with those teams, and even score a few major victories. They never quite get it done during Red Kelly’s tenure, but when Roger Neilson comes around, they finally put it all together, resulting in two Cups over the span of three seasons.

The team enters a sort of “down period” in the 1980s, still managing to keep a lengthy playoff streak going, but as the ‘90s begin, Cliff Fletcher comes in to mold the team into a Cup contender once more. His changes pave the way for a couple of near-misses in the early part of the decade, but the addition of veteran Wayne Gretzky is enough to give Toronto a third Cup under Bassett’s watch in 1997. Many of the changes made during that period also lead to the Leafs winning the Cup in 2002, which is their last in this timeline to date.

THE “BROAD STREET BULLIES” ARE THE GREATEST TEAM THAT NEVER WON IT ALL. The Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s were as iconic a team as there could possibly be. While they had a good amount of talent, they were marked primarily by their bruising style that pummeled opponents into the ice. But one of the most important pieces of their Cup-winning teams was their star netminder, Bernie Parent. With Parent never going to the WHA, and then to Philly, the Flyers are deprived of their #1 goalie, which make all the difference when they have to face Boston and Buffalo in the Stanley Cup Final.

Speaking of which…

THE “BIG BAD BRUINS” ARE THE DEFINING TEAM OF THE 1970s. Sure, the Canadiens would be very good in this era, and would come to rule the latter part of the decade, but when one talks about a team that encapsulated the ‘70s, the “Big Bad Bruins” rule the conversation. They would win three Cups in five years from 1970-74, then cement a place on top of the Adams Division for the next few years. Their 1974 Cup-winning team is remembered as the one that perfectly captures the spirit of the rough-and-tumble hockey that seemed to rule in that time.

THE “FRENCH CONNECTION” GET THEIR DAY IN THE LIMELIGHT. Once again, the absence of Bernie Parent creates a golden opportunity for the Buffalo Sabres, and even with Wayne Stephenson in goal for their 1975 Cup run, Philadelphia is just not able to stymie the Sabres and their top line of Rene Robert, Gilbert Perreault, and Richard Martin. Buffalo now has a Stanley Cup to their name, but it stands as their only one to date in this timeline.

THE ISLANDERS’ DYNASTY IS DELAYED. The Islanders looked well on their way to being the dominant force of the early 80s, but with Toronto rising to prominence in the late ‘70s, New York has to wait their turn. The Isles would still manage three straight Cup wins, with two of those coming against the Leafs.

THE RED WINGS ONLY WIN ONCE IN THE LATE 90s AND EARLY 2000s. The Red Wing teams of the mid-‘90s dominated the regular season, but could never get it done in the playoffs until 1997. With Toronto making their move for Gretzky in 1996, Detroit loses out on that first Cup, as well as losing out once more to the Leafs in 2002 in the Final itself. Their 1998 victory, however, is still intact. (Not winning the Stanley Cup in 1997 has other effects on the Red Wings, but I’ll get to that later.)

As it stands, those are the Stanley Cup changes. As for other effects on the hockey world, let’s sort them out by decade…

The 1970s

THE OTTAWA NATIONALS ARE REPLACED BY THE HAMILTON TIGERS. In the OTL, the Ottawa Nationals were a WHA team owned by John F. Bassett that started play in the league’s inaugural season. They would eventually move to Toronto to become the Toros, only to relocate to Birmingham, Alabama just a couple of years later. Even with the younger Bassett now connected to the Leafs, there is still an Ontario-based team in the WHA, only with Harold Ballard at the helm.

If one can glean anything from Ballard’s Leaf tenure, it is that spite was a hell of a motivator for him. It led him to cast off Bernie Parent after the goalie left for the WHA, it led him to make the Toronto Toros’ life hell when they played out of the Maple Leaf Gardens in the mid-‘70s, and it led him to send Lanny McDonald packing in order to offend Darryl Sittler, who was then the captain of the team. Being thrown out of the MLG board would certainly motivate him to start up a WHA franchise as an attempt at revenge, one which might not pan out all that well, but would at least do a little bit of damage to the Leafs in the short term.

BERNIE PARENT, AMONG OTHERS, NEVER LEAVES FOR THE WHA. Harold Ballard’s reluctance to raise his negotiating price for potential WHA defectors led a few players, not the least of which was Parent, to jump ship to the upstart league. Bassett would not be so arrogant enough to make the same mistake, locking up pretty much anyone he could so as to deny the WHA any Leaf talent. A few slip through the cracks, but the likes of Parent, Jim Harrison, and Rick Ley stick around for a few years.

Parent not leaving is key. It not only gives the Leafs security in goal for the next few seasons, but also deprives the Philadelphia Flyers of one of their cornerstones of the decade, and a huge part of their two Cup runs, which are now wiped out.

THE LEAFS DON’T STOP AT SWEDISH PLAYERS, AND CONVINCE TWO CZECH PLAYERS TO DEFECT. In 1974 in the OTL, John F. Bassett was looking for any way to give the Toronto Toros a leg up on their NHL counterparts. The Toros would make a gamble that no other professional team had made at that point, convincing Vaclav Nedomansky and Richard Farda to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain to play in North America. Nedomansky instantly became one of the Toros’ star players, and would eventually find his way to the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings.

With John F. Bassett now part of the Maple Leafs’ ownership group, he is still willing to go to these lengths. Nedomansky and Farda would end up with the Leafs, spending a few years there. While he would produce at a decent rate (even coming close to 40 goals at one point), Nedomansky would be derided for his “soft” play, and eventually traded to Detroit.

DAVE KEON NEVER LEAVES, AND FINISHES HIS CAREER WITH THE LEAFS. Despite being the captain of the club, and one of the remaining stars from the ‘60s Cup-winning teams, Keon was cast off after the 1974-75 season. Feeling that Keon was only going to decline, Harold Ballard publicly stated there was “no place” on the Leafs for the veteran centre, and let him walk. Keon would sign in the WHA, eventually making his way back to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers, who joined the NHL after the closing of their old league.

With Bassett in charge, the Leafs never make the same mistake. Keon is signed, and given the no-trade clause he had asked for. The prevailing belief is that nobody in their right mind would throw away someone as important to the club as Keon, and he continues to be a regular Leaf even into his 40s. He retires in 1982, having played 22 years in the NHL.

ROGER NEILSON IS A TORONTO HERO. As it stood in the OTL, Roger Neilson found himself becoming quite popular in Leafland, but clashes with the owner led to his firing. At one point, Harold Ballard allowed him to return to the club as head coach, provided he wore a paper bag over his head. Though he would win that battle (returning to the team sans paper bag), he would lose the war, being fired after the 78-79 campaign.

Without Ballard to feud with, Neilson sticks around, but even before anything like the “paper bag incident” could happen, he would win the Stanley Cup in 1978, ending an eleven-year drought for the Leafs. He would win another one in 1980, eventually lasting until 1985. To this day, he is remembered fondly as the man who brought Toronto back to the “promised land”, and has done what no Leaf coach has done since: win two Stanley Cups with the Maple Leafs.

And speaking of heroes…

“ONCE A LEAF, ALWAYS A LEAF” BECOMES UNOFFICIAL TEAM POLICY. In this new timeline, long-serving Maple Leafs would stick around much longer than they did in the Ballard days. Without the feud with Ballard, both Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald last pretty much to the end of their careers. When Sittler is traded to Detroit in 1984, it becomes somewhat of a city-wide scandal, eventually costing GM Jim Gregory his job. The new GM, Gerry McNamara, never makes the same mistake with McDonald, who remains a Leaf until his retirement in 1989.

Other symbols of the decade, including Brian Propp, Brent Sutter, and Joel Quenneville, stick around for virtually the entire decade, with only Sutter leaving the team anywhere close to his prime. This mentality sticks around for years, as the likes of Richard Matvichuk (1992-2004) and Niklas Kronwall (2003-present) find themselves as long-time fixtures for the team.

The 1980s

GARY ROBERTS REPLACES WENDEL CLARK AS A MAPLE LEAF DEITY. Because of their results in the mid-‘80s, the Maple Leafs never get the chance to draft Wendel Clark. Instead, 1984 draftee Gary Roberts works his way into the Leafs’ line-up, eventually becoming a star with the team in the early ‘90s. His combination of skill and sandpaper makes him a legend of the time, held up by Leaf fans the same way the Clark is held up in the OTL. Because of this, though, he takes Clark’s place in the deal that brings Mats Sundin to the Maple Leafs, which is treated as a Toronto tragedy for a year or two – at least until Sundin ends up becoming captain for ten years.

Roberts would miss a large part of the 94-95 season, as well as the next two years, thanks to neck injuries, but eventually returns to the league in 97-98. And in 2000, he would return to Toronto in free agency, receiving a hero’s welcome. He would be one of the key players in the Leafs’ Cup victory in 2002, winning a well-deserved Conn Smythe Trophy for his efforts. That moment becomes iconic in Leaf fandom, as the final shot of the “Gary Roberts: All Heart” video posted on YouTube a few years later.

As an aside, Wendel Clark does eventually find his way to Toronto in 1996, and in two stints with the Leafs, he becomes a fan favourite, but not quite the figure of legend that he is in the OTL.

THE MAPLE LEAFS DRAFT SOVIETS. Harold Ballard HATED Russia. While he could at least tolerate Czechoslovakian players (including the likes of Jiri Crha, Miroslav Frycer, and the Ihnacaks), he would never so much as allow a Soviet player to set foot on Toronto ice. During his tenure as Leafs owner, his team would never play in any of the exhibition games held against Soviet teams, and would not draft a player from the U.S.S.R. until 1990, when Alexander Godynyuk was taken in the 6th Round.

With John Bassett in charge, there is never any such restriction. Not only would the Leafs participate in games against Russian teams, but in the mid-‘80s, they would begin drafting Soviet players. They would select three Soviets that decade: Alexander Kozhevnikov (11th Round, 1985), Alexander Semak (10th Round, 1987), and Sergei Starikov (1989, 8th Round). While Kozhevnikov would never come over to the NHL, and Starikov would only play a single season with the Leafs (being the first Russian to do so), Semak would spend a few years with the team, having a pretty decent season in 1992-93 with 79 points.

COURTNALL-FOR-KORDIC NEVER HAPPENS. The Leafs never get the chance to draft Russ Courtnall, so they can’t make this trade. Winnipeg gets Courtnall instead; not having a need for an enforcer due to not being in the Norris Division, they don’t make this trade, either.

GORD STELLICK NEVER BECOMES LEAF GM, NOR DOES FLOYD SMITH. Because the Leafs are still making regular playoff appearances in the late ‘80s, and because there is no Harold Ballard to make decisions on a whim, Gerry McNamara sticks around for a few more years than he does in the OTL. He would be fired in 1991, replaced by former Calgary GM Cliff Fletcher.

The 1990s

THE KURVERS-FOR-NIEDERMAYER TRADE NEVER HAPPENS. It just doesn’t, okay?

WAYNE GRETZKY BECOMES AN EVEN BIGGER VILLAIN TO LEAF FANS, AND THEN A HERO. John Bassett has the money to attempt a trade for Wayne Gretzky in 1988, but unlike Ballard, he has the will. Though he and Gerry McNamara put together a plan to acquire the “Great One”, Gretzky isn’t interested, and on the advice of his father, chooses Los Angeles. Wayne’s rejection of Toronto makes him a public enemy for a few seasons, and his high-stick on Doug Gilmour in the 1993 playoffs leads to Wayne being booed mercilessly at Maple Leaf Gardens for the next three years…

Until 1996, when he does the near-unthinkable, and signs with the Leafs. Now an ailing man, John Bassett was running out of time to see his team win one last Cup, and he was willing to do whatever it took to get that championship – even signing someone who had become reviled in the city. When Cliff Fletcher proposes his plan to bring Gretzky to the Leafs, Bassett approves it; he makes sure the deal is better than that of the Rangers, but also makes sure not to put too much pressure on Wayne to make a decision. His moves pay off, and Wayne would sign with the Maple Leafs, despite the protestations of a few Toronto fans.

The three-headed monster of Gretzky, Gilmour, and Sundin proves to be more than even the juggernauts of the Western Conference can handle, leading to the team winning the Stanley Cup that Bassett had hoped for. Though he would not be the “Great One” he was in Edmonton or L.A., Wayne would still lead the league in assists for two straight years, then finish with 62 points in 70 games in 98-99, which would be his final year. He would retire a Leaf hero, having helped lead them to the Cup that ended their longest-ever drought to that point.

DOUG GILMOUR IS NEVER TRADED AWAY. With a little bit of work, the Leafs still have the pieces necessary to bring Doug Gilmour to the team. Gilmour still becomes an icon in Toronto, and still gets that high-stick from Gretzky that denies the Leafs a shot at the Cup in 1993. But when 1997 comes around, the Leafs are still in the thick of the playoff race, and never have a reason to trade away their captain. Gilmour sticks around, winning that elusive Cup with the Leafs before leaving in 1998 as a free agent.

He still comes back via trade in 2003, and still ends up getting injured in his first game back. The less said about that, the better.

THE 1996 CLARK TRADE STILL HAPPENS, BUT THE BLOW IS LESSENED. The Maple Leafs couldn’t stay away from Wendel Clark for too long. When he became available in 1996 in the OTL, Toronto would acquire him, Mathieu Schneider, and D.J. Smith for Darby Hendrickson, Sean Haggerty, Kenny Jonsson, and a 1st-Round Pick in 1997. Unfortunately for the Leafs, they would be extremely poor in the 96-97 season, and the 1st-Rounder would turn into Roberto Luongo, who stands today as a virtual lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In this timeline, sentimental value aside, the Leafs still make this trade, but the 1st-Round Pick is different. Instead of giving up Luongo, the Leafs give up Mike Brown, who would go on to play all of 34 games in the NHL. Toronto still does rather well with what they have; not only do they win the Cup in 1997, but they flip Schneider for Alexander Karpovtsev, who is then traded for Bryan McCabe a couple of years later. McCabe would be one of the team’s key blue-liners over the course of the 2000s, even playing on the Canadian Olympic team in 2006 in Torino.

VLADIMIR KONSTANTINOV IS A HALL-OF-FAMER. I’ve talked about Konstantinov’s story a couple of times before, but because the Red Wings never win the 1997 Stanley Cup, the limo ride that critically injures the Russian blue-liner never happens. He sticks around for five more years, winning a Norris Trophy, as well as the 1998 Stanley Cup. In the late 2000s, he is inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame, remembered as one of the best defensemen of his day.

The 2000s

2002 IS A GOLD AND SILVER YEAR FOR PAT QUINN. The “Big Irishman” had been a head coach in the NHL for many a year, but save for his Cup Final appearance in 1994 with Vancouver, he had yet to come close to glory. Quinn’s success with the Maple Leafs leads to him being selected to take over the 2002 Canadian Olympic team, which results in Canada winning gold in Salt Lake City. With the likes of Richard Matvichuk and Todd Bertuzzi added to an already-strong Leaf squad, Quinn would add another accomplishment to his name that year, finally getting his chance to drink from Lord Stanley’s Mug after defeating Detroit in the Cup Final.

CURTIS JOSEPH NEVER LEAVES. After a few good years as Leaf starter, Curtis Joseph would leave for Detroit in the OTL, citing his desire to win the Cup as his primary motivator for joining the Red Wings. With Toronto beating Detroit in 2002, he never makes that move, instead staying with Toronto long-term. He would remain the Leafs’ starter until 2007, eventually leaving for Calgary in free agency.

THE OWEN NOLAN TRADE IS NEVER MADE. In 2003 in the OTL, the Maple Leafs traded Alyn McCauley, Brad Boyes, and their 1st-Round Pick in 2003 to the San Jose Sharks for former #1 Pick Owen Nolan. In this timeline, two of those pieces would be missing, as the Leafs would never get McCauley or Boyes; McCauley came to the Leafs from the Gilmour trade (which now doesn’t happen), while Boyes was Toronto’s 1st-Rounder from 2000 (which, in this timeline, is used on Niklas Kronwall). Without those two players, this trade cannot be made.

TODD BERTUZZI NEVER SUCKER-PUNCHES STEVE MOORE. The infamous Bertuzzi-Moore incident was the explosion of a powder keg, for which the fuse had been lit by the Colorado forward earlier in the season. Steve Moore’s hit on Markus Naslund angered the Canucks, who felt that Moore was trying to make his name in the NHL by injuring one of the league’s star players. Though the re-match between the two sides would go without incident, the next game between the Canucks and Avs would see Bertuzzi assault Moore from behind, driving him into the ice. Whether it was a result of Bertuzzi’s actions, or a result of the ensuing pile-up of bodies, Moore would suffer fractured neck vertebrae, a major concussion, and several other injuries. He would never play in the NHL again following the incident.

With Todd now in Toronto, he never has any involvement in this feud. The original hit still happens, but the response to it from the Canucks depends on who you believe was the true instigator. A few years after the attack, Bertuzzi would allege that he punched Moore on orders from coach Marc Crawford, a claim that Crawford would deny. If, indeed, he had ordered retribution on the Colorado player, then it is conceivable, and even likely, that someone else would have taken Bertuzzi’s place in hockey infamy. In any case, Bertuzzi would finish out the 2003-04 season, and play the rest of his career without further incident.

RASK-FOR-RAYCROFT NEVER HAPPENS. As mentioned, Curtis Joseph sticks around with the Maple Leafs until 2007. With no need for a starting goalie, the Leafs never make the Raycroft trade at the 2005 Entry Draft. Instead, Tuukka Rask develops in the Leafs’ system, and eventually becomes the starting goalie – a job he holds to this day.

(On a side note, my goodness, how I’ve come full circle here.)

THE KESSEL DEAL HAPPENS, BUT THE BLOW IS LESSENED. Because of the Maple Leafs not being as piss-poor in 2010 and 2011, the picks that end up going to Boston aren’t quite as good as they were in the OTL. Now, instead of selecting Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, the Bruins select Jeff Skinner and Sven Baertschi. Skinner is very good, but runs into injury problems during the middle part of the decade, while Baertschi never really clicks with the Bruins, and ends up getting traded to Vancouver in 2015.

The 2010s

THE 4-1 COMEBACK IS ERASED FROM HISTORY. So much about the Boston-Toronto series in the 2013 playoffs is affected in this new timeline. Firstly, and most importantly, Tuukka Rask is wearing a Maple Leaf sweater, not a Boston one, so the Bruins no longer have any goaltending edge – a factor which may even prevent that notorious Game Seven from happening in the first place. And even if it does go that far, the Leafs are coached by Ron Wilson in this timeline, not Randy Carlyle, so their tactics in the last part of the game would be noticeably different. But if it does get to the point where the Bruins mount a comeback, one only has to look at Rask again; the Finnish netminder has shown himself able to keep his team alive in a game all on his own, and could thrive in the kind of situation that Reimer had to face in the OTL.

THE BERNIER TRADE NEVER HAPPENS. With a tandem of Tuukka Rask and James Reimer, the Maple Leafs never need to make the deal that brings Jonathan Bernier to Toronto. (Probably a good thing, too, since now, Bernier never has to attend any Toronto events honouring Nelson Mandela.)

THE MAPLE LEAFS’ RE-BUILD IS SLOWED SIGNIFICANTLY. Because of their standing changes in the 2010s, the Maple Leafs are unable to draft several players who have been key to their re-build during the course of the decade. They miss out on Morgan Rielly (who goes to Anaheim), William Nylander (who joins Winnipeg instead), Mitch Marner (who is now in Carolina), and most of all, they miss out on Auston Matthews, who is instead selected 2nd Overall by the Jets in 2016.

There is one final scenario I want to address, one that I glossed over in the intro, but I think is probably one of the most important that should be brought up when discussing anything related to Harold Ballard and the Maple Leafs…

THE SEXUAL ABUSE SCANDAL STILL HAPPENS, BUT BECOMES NEWS MUCH EARLIER. The three men who were involved in the abuses at Maple Leaf Gardens – George Hannah, Gordon Stuckless, and John Paul Roby – were all working at the arena in different capacities at the time of the boardroom battle between Bassett, Ballard, and Smythe. There would likely be nothing to suggest that the three men would act any differently in the event that Bassett takes over the company instead of Ballard and Smythe, but with a new owner at the helm, reaction within MLG to their conduct would be much harsher and swifter.

During the 1970s and ‘80s, while Hannah, Roby, and Stuckless were perpetrating their acts, there were reports that Harold Ballard himself not only knew of what was going on, but actively participated in the abuse. Those reports were unconfirmed, but millions of dollars were paid by MLSE to settle with victims of those crimes over the years following the first public allegations. With Bassett now in Ballard’s place, the circumstances change; I know little about Bassett himself, and can’t be completely confident in my assumptions, but I find it extremely unlikely that he would stand idly by and let these atrocities happen like Ballard did in the OTL.

With Bassett stepping in as soon as he could, the press would get wind of what was going on, and it wouldn’t take twenty or so years for the news to break. There might still be hushed settlements in the years following the scandal, but at the very least, with Hannah, Stuckless, and Roby out of the way that much earlier, fewer victims would ever find a way into their grasp.


Well… that was, in many ways, a doozy. There might be a few changes that I may not have covered, but if you have any questions, I’ll try and answer them.

In the meantime, next month, the potential re-shaping (or even salvation) of a franchise:What if Eric Lindros said “Yes” to the Quebec Nordiques?

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