When I was a boy, the Toronto Maple Leafs and McClelland and Stewart (don’t look for them, they’re not there anymore) published a cloth cover book on the upcoming 1979-80 Leafs' season.
I read that book so many times the spine is broken, the pages are frayed and the dust jacket is a nothing but a long-lost memory.
It was published at a time of real optimism for the Leafs. The team was just two years removed from their playoff upset over the New York Islanders and, even though they had gone down four straight to the dreaded Montreal Canadiens in the Quarter Finals, game 3 had gone to double OT and game 4 was lost in OT on a questionable call against Dave “Tiger” Williams.
This was a time when Sittler still wore the C, MacDonald patrolled his wing, an optimistic Ron Wilson started the season on IR and a porn ‘stached Palmateer protected the pipes.
As thoughts turn to this year’s training camp with its new coaches and new rosters, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this book and its in-depth player profiles including expectations for the 79-80 season and a day-by-day précis of the Leafs training camp.
Now, I’m not suggesting this year’s Leaf season will have any resemblance to that horrible one 30 years ago.
First of all, the year ahead for the 2008-09 Leafs certainly isn’t starting off with the same patina of optimism. Secondly, I seriously doubt the Leafs could hit the same low points as that fateful year that saw the MacDonald trade, Sittler ripping off his C and the start of a twelve year run of the team posting a losing record (yeah, you read that right – the Leafs were under .500 for twelve straight seasons: 1979-80 to 1992-93. Keep that in mind when the media wring their hands over the past three years.).
That summer also saw Ballard and Imlach pursue legal action all the way to the Ontario Supreme court in an effort to keep Sittler and Palmateer from participating in Showdown - a televised skills competition between NHL players. (There's a great collection of Showdown videos from the CBC archives here. Man I LOVED this show as a kid.)
With that caveat out of the way and in anticipation of the Leafs training camp to come, I thought I’d go back through one of my favourite childhood books, violate all sorts of copyright laws, scan a few photos, and have a look at some interesting quotes, thoughts and anecdotes from the Leafs 29 years ago this September…
The World From on High: An Interview with Harold Ballard
The book begins with a long, very wide-ranging interview between Time Magazine reporter John Gault and Harold Ballard, including a lengthy discussion between Gault and Ballard on the Neilson firing, re-hiring (the infamous paper bag incident). I promise I’ll post that whole exchange soon.
There are some interesting echoes in this interview - meddling owners, bad trades and the need for better scouting, as captured in the exchange below:
John Gault: Who’s been traded away, in the past five years, say, that you wish you had back?
Harold Ballard: Well, Rick Kehoe for instance, who went to Pittsburgh. Carlyle should have been kept here. And I think that probably Jack Valiquette should have stayed.
Gault: The return on players you’ve sent to other teams hasn’t been that great in the past while, has it?
Ballard: No. We’ve traded away some pretty good hockey players.
Gault: Yes, and it could be argued that you didn’t exactly get your return on your dollars
Ballard: You don’t have to argue about it, it’s a fact.
Ballard: I don’t think our scouting system was that good or they wouldn’t have agreed to make those trades. Now you’ve said that I try to run everything. I don’t. When they were going to make a deal, I’d say to [former GM Jim] Gregory ‘Are you sure you’re going to do it?’ You see, they would have gotten rid of Turnbull if I hadn’t asserted myself last year and stopped it. Roger and Gregory wanted to get rid of Turnbull and I wouldn’t allow it. He couldn’t get along with the coach, so the coach wanted to get rid of him. As a matter of fact, Roger was quite adamant about it and I said: ‘Look, if he’s going to go, you’re going to go to.’ It was that bad.
Gault: I doubt that Neilson would have argued that Turnbull wasn’t a good hockey player
Ballard: Well he did. He had these ‘points’ He was a great guy with those replays, those little pictures you know. And he used to pick out all the bad things Turnbull did, but he didn’t pick out many good things...
I love that Ballard seems totally put off by Neilson’s use of video replay, or as he calls it: “those little pictures.”
A Guide to the Opposition
The late Frank Orr, formerly of the Toronto Star, provides an overview of all 20 NHL teams the Leafs would face in 1979-80, including the four new WHA teams that joined the NHL: Edmonton, Quebec, Hartford and Winnipeg.
Here are a few of the highlights:
The Sabres are trying something new with a “coaching staff” approach - Scotty Bowman hired Roger Neilson and Jim Roberts as Assistant Coaches. Don Cherry said of the approach: “Scotty wants assistants so he’ll have someone to blame if something goes wrong.” Bowman’s take: “I agree with the Europeans. They can’t understand why NHL teams have figured one coach could do the job. It’s just too complex for that now.”
1979-80 was the first season for the Oilers and they sold 14,600 season tickets within 11 days of tickets going on sale. Coach Glen Sather says he has his highest hopes for young Swedish forward Bengt Gustavsson [who never played a game for the Oilers, the Capitals claimed him at the expansion draft in June, 1979.]
The Whalers roster included a 51 year old Gordie Howe and coach Don Blackburn says he wants to experiment with moving left-wing Mark Howe (42-23-65 in 1978) back to defence.
The New York Islanders (that season’s Stanley Cup champs) only had one skater over 28 on their roster and their entire core (Trottier, Bossy, Gillies, Potvin, etc.) were under 25.
The Penguins were having attendance problems and were facing red ink.
In the 1970s, free agents were anything but. The Red Wings signed “Free Agent” goaltender Rogie Vachon from the LA Kings and had to compensate the Kings for the signing. The teams couldn’t agree on fair compensation and the Kings asked for, and were awarded, Dale McCourt – the Wings’ leading rookie scorer. McCourt refused to report to LA and the dispute ended up in the US courts. The lower court upheld the original compensation. McCourt and the Wings appealed the decision, but before a second court date was set, the Wings and Kings agreed to an alternate compensation and McCourt was “dealt” back to the Wings.
The Flyers got a first round pick for what has to be the oddest named twosome ever dealt: Orest Kindrachuk and Ross Lonsberry.
Training Camp September, 1979
Leaf veterans arrived in camp with a new coach (Floyd Smith) and a new GM (Punch Imlach) as GM Jim Gregory and Coach Roger Neilson were both fired over the summer.
When Nielson returned to the Gardens as the assistant coach of the Sabres for a pre-season game, the Leafs refused to let him sit in the press box. Imlach said, "If Neilson wants to coach, let him coach from behind the bench. He won't be able to do it from our press box." (You stay classy Imlach!)
Looking to add some grit to the line-up, Imlach offered Jim Dorey a try-out with the Leafs. Ten years earlier, Dorey set an NHL record with nine penalties - four minors, two majors, two 10 minute misconducts and a game misconduct - in just two periods of play. [After being cut by the Leafs, Dorey would go on to play 32 games that year for the Nordiques and then call it a career.]
The Leafs played 12 exhibition games including matches in Moncton, NB; Ottawa, ON, Kitchener, ON; and against the Canadian Olympic team in Calgary (the Leafs lost to the Olympians 6-5, Lanny had a hat-trick. Apparently the Leafs had trouble with the Olympians speed. And no, I didn't just make that up...)
The Leafs played the Habs in game 11 of their pre-season and actually won. It was the first time the Leafs had beaten Montreal in 25 straight meetings. The Leafs hadn't beaten Montreal in an exhibition, regular season or playoff game since November 1, 1976.
Future Washington Capitals coach Bruce Budreau was amongst the Leafs last cuts at camp, getting sent to Moncton on day 17.
Interesting to note that this club would produce at least four NHL coaches in Quennville, Anderson, Boudreau and Ron Wilson (and one cottage-country bar owner in Walt McKechnie).
"I guess having a new coach always creates a little feeling of unrest because you wonder about the style of hockey he'll want the team to use and how you'll fit into it." - Ron Wilson.
"There are some holes in our team, aren't there?" - Floyd Smith
Each of the 24 Leafs who made the team out of training camp are profiled at the end of the book. It's the standard 20 questions format - why hockey, what would you be doing if you weren't in the NHL, superstitions, activities away from the rink, personal goals...Here's a look at the highlights:
"I like the hours. It's not a nine to five job. You have the summers off to do what you want and, of course, the money isn't bad." - John Anderson on the Pros and Cons of Sports Celebrity.
"I would have liked to get into a veterinary line of work or work with wildlife" - Dan Maloney on alternate career prospects.
"I never set personal goals for myself; the only goal is the Stanley Cup. When you start setting personal goals you're putting pressure on yourself and that kind of pressure you don't need. When I get my first goal I'll go for number two and so on. You take whatever comes. Winning the Stanley Cup and playing international hockey: that's the ultimate, to play for your country. I've already done one and, hopefully, befoer the end of my career, I'll accomplish the other." - Lanny MacDonald
"Amityville Horror and Penthouse are favourites." - Joel Quennville on what he likes to read.
"Mr. Ballard. Yeah, I'm serious." - Dave "Tiger" Williams on his favourite opponent
"I'll just play until I stop enjoying it. If I don't play a lot this year or next year I may hang up the game because it's no fun sitting on the bench." - Ron Wilson