There have been several seasons in which the Toronto Maple Leafs were in disarray, but it would be hard to argue that the 1979-80 season tops all of them for dysfunction.
Punch Imlach, who was hired by the Maple Leafs in June 1958 as the coach and general manager (whether he had the actual titles or not), had been been fired by Stafford Smythe in April 1969, and then was rehired as general manager by Harold Ballard on July 4, 1979.
The bombastic Imlach was surprisingly subdued at the media conference announcing his appointment. There was neither bravado nor promises of immediate success, but he did instantly rankle his players when he stated, “The Leafs have five or six good hockey players, but the remainder of the talent on the team needs to be improved.”
Darryl Sittler recalled, “I had a lot of respect for Punch Imlach for winning the Stanley Cups and for being a successful hockey man, but I knew when he came back in 1979 that things weren’t going to be the same.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Imlach had enough of losing, but was fed up with Alan Eagleson, Darryl Sittler’s agent, and in a vindictive fit of anger, planned to emasculate Eagleson. Unable to move Sittler because of a no-trade clause, Imlach began to dismantle the team by trading away players close to the team captain.
On December 24, the Leafs sent Pat Boutette to the Hartford Whalers for Bob Stephenson. Then, on December 29, he shipped Lanny McDonald and Joel Quenneville to the Colorado Rockies, receiving Pat Hickey and Wilf Paiement in return. When McDonald was informed, doors were slammed and tears shed. “To this day, I believe I was traded out of spite. I think Punch really wanted to show who was boss. It didn’t matter how much he hurt the hockey club or tore it apart, he only wanted to make sure everyone knew who was running the team.” In his autobiography, Lanny added, “Punch Imlach stuck out his right hand and wished me good luck. I refused to accept either the handshake or his good wishes. My only regret was that I didn’t hit the general manager of the Maple Leafs when I had the chance!” In Denver, McDonald told the Rocky Mountain News, “Feel sorry for the guys staying behind on a disappointed, disorganized, disgruntled hockey team,”
Leaf fans were livid with the trade. Protesters, hundreds of them, protested outside Maple Leaf Gardens. Before the game that evening, Sittler removed the ‘c’ from his jersey. “They couldn’t get me so they traded my best friend,” he explained “The war between Mr. Eagleson and Mr. Imlach should not overshadow the most important matter – the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
An anonymous Leaf growled, “We don’t quite know what (Imlach)’s doing except that he is proving one thing: he’s the boss.” Another said, “It has become a madhouse. I guess Imlach is succeeding in doing what he set out to do from the start – tear the team to pieces.”
But Imlach wasn’t done. On January 10, he shuffled Dave Hutchison off to Chicago. A ’victory party’ was held to celebrate Hutchison’s good fortune at being traded away. He said, “I don’t like the idea of leaving the guys, but God, anything to get away from this situation.” Pinned to the pub’s dartboard at the party was a picture of Punch Imlach, riddled with holes.
February 18 brought yet another trade. Tiger Williams was packaged with Jerry Butler and sent to Vancouver for Rick Vaive and Bill Derlago. A shocked Pat Hickey was assigned to look after the newcomers. “My Dad was friends with a lawyer named Windy O’Neil who had played with the Leafs (was part of a Stanley Cup championship in 1945). He was a great old-time lawyer with messages sticking out of his pockets. He didn’t represent players but he just knew what he was doing. He passed away in 1973, but Windy had been Punch Imlach’s lawyer and one of his best friends. Because of this, Punch and I had a bit of a relationship when I got to Toronto, and one day, he pulled me into the Zamboni room and said, ‘I’m going to make a trade. I’ve got these two kids from Vancouver coming and you’re going to take care of them, Hickey!’ What was I? 27 or 28 at the time? I took on that role and Ricky, Billy and I became friends. We played on a line together and ended up being pretty productive. My goal production dropped off dramatically but my assists went up because those guys scored 30 goals (Derlago had 35 and Vaive 33 in 1980-81). I was pretty proud of that.”
And then, there was yet another trade. On March 3, Walt McKechnie was shipped to Colorado for a draft pick. McKechnie had originally been drafted by the Maple Leafs in the first-ever NHL Amateur Draft in 1963, and was now going to his eighth NHL team. He believed that the trade was prompted by comments he made about coach Floyd Smith. “Smitty’s practices were a joke, and I wasn’t the only player on the Leafs who thought that.” He added, “How does anyone treat a player and a man the calibre of Darryl Sittler the way the Leafs have treated him this season? Darryl is a very strong individual who has overcome all the garbage to continue to play great hockey.”
Each of these deals appeared to be vindictive moves to upset Sittler. Walt McKechnie had played junior with Sittler on the London Nationals in 1967-68, and Pat Boutette and Dave Hutchison were junior teammates with Sittler on the London Knights in 1969-70. Tiger Williams had been a linemate in Toronto and was a good friend. Lanny McDonald was his linemate and best friend. “Somehow, Sittler has managed to maintain his dignity and class while being strung out to dry for all to see,” commented the Toronto Star.
But the trades weren’t the only unusual roster changes that season.
Carl Brewer and Punch Imlach were both steadfast in their beliefs and stubborn in their countenance. The All-Star defenceman had feuded with Imlach through the early 1960s. He found the coach’s practices demoralizing and exhausting both physically and emotionally. He was not the only one. The grueling workouts impacted on the games, despite the fact they were at the start of a dynasty. “We’re just puppets,” he once claimed, telling the coach, “You expect us to dance when you holler.” But it was Brewer’s relationship with Alan Eagleson that most rankled Imlach. Brewer engaged Eagleson to negotiate his contract with Imlach, something that had not been done previously. Ultimately, Imlach had no choice, and it increased the feud between Imlach and Brewer to such an extent that Carl retired following the Leafs’ 1964-65 season. “My damaged psyche – destroyed by Imlach – would no longer allow me to accommodate playing hockey and being a hockey player.” Ultimately, Carl Brewer was able to negotiate getting his amateur status back, and he later played for the Canadian National Team.
Brewer had been retired from hockey for five seasons, his last playing season being 1973-74 with the Toronto Toros of the WHA. But after a random comment by a sportswriter suggested that, after watching Brewer play in an Oldtimers’ game, he could suit up again in the NHL, the bug was in Brewer’s head. He contacted Imlach, his old nemesis, and the two decided to give it serious consideration. Brewer briefly went to Germany to play himself back into shape.
“I went up on Wednesday, December 13 (1979) at 5:00pm,” he wrote with Susan Foster in The Power of Two. “The Leafs were playing that night and Imlach had been looking for me. I hadn’t even made up my mind, but Imlach had already made up a press release indicating that I would be starting back with the Leafs the next day. Upon considering the Leafs’ heavy schedule, I suggested that I would prefer to go to Moncton (the Leafs’ AHL farm team) for a week or so in order to avoid the pressures of the press, to play a few games and to work under coach Joe Crozier’s rigid and demanding conditions.”
The team was already in chaos and now, were suspicious of Brewer. He was seven years older than even the eldest player on the team (Ron Ellis), and 12 years older than team captain Darryl Sittler. He hadn’t played pro hockey in North America in five years. Many suspected that Brewer was serving as a spy for Imlach, but if you knew their rocky history, that certainly wasn’t the case.
“When Brewer participated in his first workout with the team, there were a few side-of-the-mouth comments from the Leafs, but they subsided quickly when it was obvious Brewer could skate with any of them while not breathing hard, and his puckhandling was crisp and slick,” noted the Toronto Star.
Yet, the players distanced themselves from Brewer. He played his first game in that 1979-80 season on December 26, partnered with Borje Salming, who refused to pass the puck to him. But it wasn’t just the players. “As for (coach) Floyd Smith, on several occasions, he said he didn’t want to play me ‘now’ because ‘those guys won’t even talk to you, let alone pass you the puck. They won’t come back when you’re on the ice, either,’ Brewer recalled in his memoir.”
Carl Brewer’s comeback consisted of 20 frustrating games, and once the post-season arrived, he was not dressed. But that wasn’t the closing chapter of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ story with Carl Brewer.
An ongoing battle between Brewer over unpaid salary continued into the summer of 1983. Brewer believed he and Imlach had verbally agreed to a contract on December 13, 1979, one that would pay him an NHL salary effective the next day. But in actuality, that salary didn’t commence until the date written in his contract – December 26, 1979. Brewer believed he was owed $8,287.32 for the time he spent preparing for his NHL return while playing in the AHL. The club disagreed. The lawsuit took years to settle, but on January 8, 1982, the judgement was handed down. The judge stated, “The Plaintiff is bound by the contract and Clause 21 does not permit the introduction of oral evidence as to any alleged agreement.” The action was dismissed, with costs. Brewer was forced to pay the team’s legal bills.
The team sued Brewer for the money, but he noted that the plaintiff was The Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club. An exhaustive search by Brewer’s partner, Sue Foster, uncovered that no such business was registered with the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations. So, on July 25, 1983, Carl Brewer incorporated a company called The Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club, naming himself the president and sole shareholder. The story, which had been quietly kept under wraps, finally broke, and made the front page of the Toronto Star on November 11, 1983: ‘Guess Who Owns the Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club?’
The team’s battery of lawyers filed objections. “Maple Leaf Gardens Limited was incorporated by Letters Patent on February 24, 1931, and thereafter continued under the corporate name Maple Leaf Gardens Limited. The Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club is an unincorporated association of professional athletes which has carried on business as a division of Maple Leaf Gardens Limited since February 24, 1931.”
A hearing was held in May 1984. In the end, the Ministry ruled that Carl Brewer was not able to keep the corporate name of Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club. The reason stated was that if a name had ever previously been in existence, even though it may have been deregistered or the registration had lapsed, should someone else incorporate the same name and the original owner objected, the name would revert to the original owner. Conn Smythe had deregistered the name Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club in 1946 and replaced it with Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd.
According to Brewer and Foster’s The Power of Two, the legal cost to the Maple Leafs was approximately $250,000. “Carl often shook his head and wondered why they simply hadn’t bought him out,” wrote Susan Foster. “On a lighter note, Carl joked, ‘I bought the front page of the Toronto Star for $320!’”