As the upper crust of hockey talent in the NHL continues to vie for the coveted Stanley Cup, spare a thought for the poor lowly Toronto Maple Leafs, the owners of the worst record in the league this season. Sure, that designation will suit many in Leafs Nation just fine, with the focus firmly on a presently bright future with a brain trust of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock at the helm and tons of young talent on the horizon. But a potentially bright future doesn't totally forgive a barren wasteland of a past that has seen plenty of playoff-free seasons and - as any hockey fan in Hogtown will tell you - a Cup drought nearing 50 years.
You can't experience a half century of failure without a steady diet of mishaps and boneheaded mistakes along the way, and the Leafs are no exception. Unflattering books have covered the topic at length, but here we will examine 15 embarrassing-yet-true facts about the storied franchise that was once associated with greatness. Because of the litany of free agent duds (Jeff Finger), draft disasters (Scott Pearson ahead of Jeremy Roenick, Rod Brind'Amour and Teemu Selanne) and calamitous trades (Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft) that plague the club, this list has been limited to humiliating factoids that extend beyond the typical operating standards of a pro sports franchise.
Without further ado, these are the 15 most embarrassing facts about the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club. And yes, these really had significant, impactful roles in what is the NHL's most valuable franchise located in one of the world's biggest hockey markets!
15 The Franchise’s Original Players Were Acquired Via Theft
The four other team owners with teams in the original National Hockey Association so despised Eddie Livingstone, owner of the NHA's Toronto Blueshirts, that they created the National Hockey League as a way to get away from him. They invited the Toronto Arenas company to build a Toronto-based team, the precursor to the modern Leafs. And how did the Arenas find players for their team? By leasing them from Livingstone's Blueshirts and then reneging on an agreement to return them at the end of the season.
14 Their Most Promising Season in Recent History Resulted in a Last Place Finish
You can't say that Leaf fans aren't a patient bunch. Saddled with an under-performing group of players armed with big contracts and still no postseason hopes to show for it, the new Shanahan-led regime knew that a complete reset was needed. Therefore, even with Babcock behind the bench, the 2015-16 season became one more about rebuilding than winning. So Leafs Nation happily celebrated their team's stumble to the bottom of the league standings as a new class of young players offered small tastes of hope. Yes, this is what passes for a cause for celebration in Leaf land.
13 The Leafs Have Made the Playoffs Once Since 2003 - in a Lockout-shortened Season
No other team has fared worse since 2005 than the Leafs. After qualifying for the playoffs in each of the six seasons prior to a lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, Toronto has seen their point totals dwindle five years in a row. Their only respite from an idle spring in the last decade of play happened to come after another lockout cost the league nearly half of its season.
12 … And That Playoff Run Ended With a Monumental Collapse
The hockey gods had already put long-suffering Leaf fans through a seven-year playoff drought, but the 2012-13 season was supposed to be different. Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf led a hard-nosed group of young talent that was either in or entering their prime and backed by the hot hand of goaltender James Reimer. Against the big, bad Boston Bruins in the first round, Toronto rallied back from a 3-1 series deficit and even jumped out to a 4-1 lead while on the road for Game 7. From there, everything came crumbling down as Boston scored three times in the final 14:31 of the game before putting the series away in overtime.
11 Their Owner Asked Roger Neilson to Coach With a Paper Bag Over His Head
Legendary NHL coach Roger Neilson came to be known for many things during his decorated 17-year coaching career, namely his advanced use of videotape that earned him the moniker 'Captain Video' and the grace with which he confronted a bout with cancer that would ultimately cost him his life. A low point, then, came as head coach of the Leafs as owner Harold Ballard - we'll hear more about him - fired the popular Neilson part-way through the 1978-79 season. Amid objections from players, media and fans, Ballard brought him back, only to ask that he wear a paper bag over his head for his first game back. Unsurprisingly, Neilson refused and was then fired again at season's end.
10 Punch Imlach Traded Away Players for Spite
Let's give Punch Imlach his due. Beyond a great nickname (his first name was actually George), the Hall of Fame coach led the Leafs to their last four Stanley Cups. But Imlach was decidedly old school, a harsh taskmaster who didn't take kindly to modern social progress, including unions. When Leafs star Darryl Sittler got a little too involved with the league's player's union, Imlach took exception and opted to make his life hell. Sittler wouldn't waive his no-trade clause, so the coach engineered the spiteful exits of his friends, including Lanny McDonald and Joel Quenneville. Yes, this is the way they treated Sittler, one of the greatest Leafs of all-time.
9 Trading a First Round Pick for Phil Kessel and Finishing Second-last
General Manager Brian Burke certainly had a short shelf life in Toronto, but he was a breath of brazen, bold-faced fresh air while in power. His signature move as GM came when he acquired All-Star sniper Phil Kessel from the Bruins for draft picks. The thinking was that Kessel would carry them to new heights, thereby making the picks diminish in value. This didn't quite work out, as Kessel failed to carry an otherwise inept Leafs team that ultimately wound up with the No. 2 over-all pick, allowing Boston to select Tyler Seguin and establishing a career-long comparison between the two.
8 Their Jerseys Had Blue on Blue and White on White
In 1977, the NHL passed a rule that officially required teams to stitch the names of players on their jersey alongside their number, an uncontroversial move that was unlikely to garner any detractors. But the rule did bring about one voice of dissent: Ballard, the Leafs cheapskate owner. Worrying about potentially diminishing program sales, Ballard fulfilled his club's obligations by stitching blue names onto the blue road jerseys and white names onto the white home jerseys. The lack of contrast made the names nearly impossible to see, completely going against the spirit of the rule and making the team look bush league.
7 They Rank Dead Last Among All Big Four Franchises in Value Delivered
While it's hardly an exact science, ESPN has found a largely effective tool in measuring the over-all value for fans of each team among the big four (NHL, NBA, MLB and NFL) in North American professional sports. Their annual list takes into account things like titles, talent, affordability and bang for your buck. Given the high cost of tickets to see a losing team, it's no surprise that the Leafs have ranked dead last in three of the past four years. As ESPN notes, "No franchise in the four major sports leagues charges more for delivering less."
6 They Didn’t Have a Single Winning Season in the 1980s
You might hear younger Leaf fans deride this current one playoff round in 11 years playoff drought as the worst stretch in franchise history, but sadly a quick history lesson would prove them quite wrong. The 1980s brought big hair, Cabbage Patch dolls and some truly abysmal Leafs teams. In fact, not a single team from the entire decade was able to even piece together a winning record. Over-all, the Leafs amassed a 266-448-91 record over the decade. While that hardly warrants playoff inclusion, they actually made the postseason six times in the decade because everyone and their mother got into the NHL playoffs at the time.
5 Sittler Cut Off His Captain’s “C”
Darryl Sittler remains one of the greatest Leafs of all-time, but even as they continue to trot him out to ovations at legends functions at the ACC, his history with the team wasn't always a proud one. During a feud with Imlach that included the aforementioned jettisoning of Sittler's friends and numerous public salvos from the coach directed at Sittler and his teammates, Sittler finally had enough of the oppressive behavior. He took a trainer's scissors and cut the "C", a revered symbol of leadership in the hockey world, off of his jersey. In a letter of resignation, he said he could no longer lead the team amidst the present environment.
4 They Remain One of the Wealthiest Teams Despite Lack of Winning Culture
For all of the embarrassment and losing that defined the Harold Ballard era, it also represented a time of unprecedented financial power for the franchise as the notoriously cheap Ballard kept costs down by any means necessary and demand from the hockey-mad city of Toronto continued to rise despite the deplorable state of the team. This trend has continued into the modern day, as the faceless Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment continues to reap the rewards of a team that annually ranks in the top five in the NHL on the Forbes' franchise value list.
3 They Haven't Earned Many Individual Accolades
The Stanley Cup drought is the most talked about component of Leafs history, but a nearly 50-year drought in a 30-team league isn't as incredulous as their stunning lack of individual awards. Despite celebrating players like Mats Sundin, Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark, the sad reality is that they haven't had any elite NHL stars for the vast majority of their 98-year history. No Leaf has led the NHL in point-scoring since 1938 and no Leaf has been recognized as the league's most valuable player since Ted Kennedy in 1955. Even a club that has routinely finished near the bottom of the league rankings hasn't had a Calder winner for top rookie since Brit Selby in 1966.
2 Their Most Famous Owner was a Villainous Crook
We've discussed the murky, infamous legacy of Harold Ballard already here, but it's hard to over-state his negative impact on the Leafs over the 29 years he owned the club prior to his death. Most notably, Ballard remains remembered for a checkered criminal history that saw him convicted on 47 charges of fraud for which he served three years in prison - while still running the Leafs. He had used funds from Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. to pay for personal home and cottage renovations, limousine service at his daughter's wedding and motorcycles for his sons.
1 They Haven’t Won a Stanley Cup Since 1967
If the sole goal of a sports franchise is to win their league's championship, then it doesn't get much worse than going a half century without a title. The NHL that the Leafs last reigned in was a very different one, with just six teams involved compared to the current 30. Since their 1967 Cup victory, every other Original Six franchise has etched their name onto the most famous trophy in sports and 12 clubs that didn't even exist then have done the same. It isn't uncommon to hear fans of rival teams derisively chant "Sixty-Seven!" when the Leafs are in town.
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