This series of articles will celebrate (or laugh at) some of the worst professional sports teams of all time. I will focus on teams within my lifetime so expect the worst from the 1970s to present day.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the legendary sports franchises in Canada. Their rich history and tradition has made them the most popular and most hated team in Canada. Only the Montreal Canadiens have won more Stanley Cups than the Leafs. However, the Leafs haven’t won a cup since 1967, and have gone through some lean times. No season was worse than 1984-85 edition of the Blue and White.
The Leafs were dreadful in 84-85, finishing last overall in the NHL with a measly record of 20-52-8 for a grand total of 48 points. They were routinely booed by the faithful that continually sold out Maple Leaf Gardens. The Leafs were the punchline to many jokes for Canadian comedians. So how did it happen?
The main person to blame is Harold Ballard. The cantankerous owner of the Leafs was simply put, the worst owner in sports at the time. Yes, worse than George Steinbrenner. Ballard was a cheap, surly, corrupt, atrocious, demonic human being who gouged fans with promises that the team would be better, while raising ticket prices, knowing full well the team would be terrible, so he could make a profit. Ballard raked in millions while the Leafs languished on the ice. His behaviour was worse.
Ballard couldn’t take criticism from anybody, so when venerable Hockey Night In Canada announcers, Dave Hodge and Brian McFarlane were scathing of Ballard’s ownership, Ballard barred both Hodge and McFarlane from Maple Leaf Gardens for life. McFarlane worked in Montreal and Winnipeg, while Hodge went to Vancouver to find gainful employment during their banishment from 60 Carlton Street. Ballard had many run-ins with sportswriter Jim “Shaky” Hunt, that led to memorable press conferences and numerous tirades from Ballard, directed towards Hunt.
Ballard’s list of indiscretions is a mile long. He was given a 9 year prison sentence for fraud, for which Ballard only served 3 before being released on parole. He was very anti-union which led to a bitter dispute with team captain Darryl Sittler, who was a leading force of the NHLPA at the time. Sittler was dealt to Philadelphia, ending a brilliant, but frustrating career in Toronto. I could go on, but that’s another blog post for another day.
Because of Ballard’s penny-pinching ways, the Leafs plummeted in the standings, and their performance on the ice suffered greatly. Leading scorer Rick Vaive was the best of the Leafs in 84-85, leading the team with 35 goals and 68 points. John Anderson and Bill Derlago were solid contributors as well for the Leafs, but after that, the depth was indeed lacking.
Defensively the Leafs were abysmal, surrendering 358 goals for the season, which is an average of 4.475 goals per game they allowed. Borje Salming was the top blueliner for the Leafs, but he had no support surrounding him. Salming had to do it all by himself, which led to him getting drained and beat up by opposing forwards. Salming deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, for putting up with so much misery in Toronto.
The worst on the blueline had to be Jim Benning. A first round pick in the 1981 entry draft, Benning did put up OK offensive numbers for a defenseman, scoring 9 goals while adding 35 assists. In his own end though, Benning was a nightmare. His -39 was the worst on the Leafs, as he treated the puck like a hand grenade in his own zone. Which usually led to goals for the other team. Benning was just another first round bust for the Leafs.
The goaltending wasn’t much better. The Leafs tried 4 goalies in 84-85 to little or no success. Tim Bernhardt appeared in 37 games in 84-85, compiling a 13-19-4 record with a 3.74 goals against average. The sad part is, that he led the Leafs goalies in wins, appearances and goals against average.
Allan Bester recorded the only shutout for the Leafs that season, and that happened on opening night. The rest of the season wasn’t so great for Bester. The diminutive netminder collected a 3-9-2 record with a 4.22 goals against average. It also didn’t help that Bester looked like he was 14 years old, playing a man’s game.
Ken Wregget had an excellent junior career, but his first year in the NHL didn’t go so well. The former Lethbridge goalie only had 2 wins in 23 appearances while having a laughable 4.84 goals against average. Wregget did have a decent NHL career, but he’d rather forget his first year.
Veteran Rick St. Croix was brought in to help out the youngsters in the net. He wasn’t much help. The former Philadelphia Flyer goalie posted a 2-9 record with an astronomical 5.16 goals against average. In other words, the Leafs would have been better off without a goalie, than if St. Croix was tending the pipes.
There were many long nights in Toronto in 84-85 but none longer than on October 20, 1984 when the Quebec Nordiques showed up at the Gardens for a Saturday night tilt. The game was broadcast on Hockey Night In Canada, so millions of Canadians got to witness the horror that was the Maple Leafs. After two short-handed goals by the Nordiques in the first period, the game turned into a slaughter. Quebec just piled on the offense while the Leafs were getting pounded like John Bonham’s drum kit during a Led Zeppelin concert. After the bleeding finally ended, and there was lots of blood, the Nordiques emerged with a 12-3 massacre over the Leafs that fateful Saturday night in October. The rest of the season spiralled downward into an abyss that only a select few, know about.
Their was some good that came out of that season. With the Leafs finishing last overall, they were rewarded with the first pick of the draft, which they selected Wendel Clark from the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League. Despite battling numerous injuries throughout his career, Clark became a folk hero in Toronto for his aggressive play, and his clutch goal scoring.
Meanwhile, Ballard’s health declined over the years, until he passed away in 1990 at the age of 86. After his death, the Leafs fortunes improved drastically, as they made playoff runs in 1993 and 1994 that thrilled Leaf fans throughout Canada. Many of them were willing to forget, the disgrace that was the 1984-85 Toronto Maple Leafs.
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