Brophy’s Popularity Highlighted Dreadful Leafs Era

You know how we look at a couple sometimes and sarcastically say, “well, there’s someone out there for everyone?”.  Kind of a mean thing to do, right, but it’s human nature, and sometimes our snark factor shoots up a degree or two, but there’s some harshness to reality sometimes – that goes without saying.

Well, there was an NHL team made for John Brophy to be a head coach for, and a bizarre, shrewd, and fundamentally cruel (and crude) owner he was perfect for, and an era of hockey, which he was ideal for. Strangely, it netted some results.

With the passing of John Brophy at age 83 over the weekend in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, it’s worth a look back at just why he meant so much to a large degree of Maple Leafs fans.  Yes, I know, I get it, we do this when people die – it’s human nature, we emphasize more of their accomplishments than their failures, and more of their strengths than weaknesses.  But in a time when being a Maple Leafs supporter meant a ton of long and cold winters of lots of losing, the fact Brophy took a 70-point team in 1987, which gave up 33 more goals than it scored, in hockey’s worst division, within one game of a marquee Conference Finals matchup against the high-octane Edmonton Oilers, it does stand out as being memorable.

What leaps off the page for me about Brophy is just how many excellent players from the 1980s era had him as their first pro coach.  There’s even a Toronto link given the WHA Toros (the very first team I regularly watched, barely older than a toddler when Global carried the games with Mike Anscombe!) moved to Birmingham to become the Bulls (mild tweak to the logo).

Two future Leafs captains played for Brophy in his first year as head coach in Birmingham in 1978-79, the final year before the NHL/WHA merger – 19-year-olds Rick Vaive and Rob Ramage.  Craig Hartsburg and Gaston Gingras also played their first pro hockey that season for Brophy in Birmingham.  

When Brophy got to Nova Scotia and coached the Voyageurs, Montreal’s AHL farm team, Claude Lemieux, and Brian Skrudland played their first pro games for him, as well.  John Chabot, Guy Carbonneau, Bill Root, Ric Nattress also played their AHL years for him, before being called up and eventually being part of the 1986 Canadiens Stanley Cup champion team.  When the Voyageurs missed the playoffs in spring 1984, Steve Penney was called up and worked some magic for a few weeks, getting the Habs out of the Adams Division, winning two rounds, before being beaten by the four-time defending Cup champion Islanders.

Brophy was brought into the Leafs organization in 1984 to be the assistant coach for Dan Maloney, promoted from assistant coach, and just 2 1/2 seasons removed from playing as a Maple Leaf.  With Maloney only 36 years old, and Brophy at the tender age of 50, no one’s quite sure who was supposed to be the “good cop” in that equation, but the Leafs did so much losing that 84-85 season; maybe a good cop wasn’t necessary.  The team won only 20 of their 80 games, but the losing paid off in the #1 overall pick (sound familiar) and just as Wendel Clark began his Leafs career, Brophy was quickly deployed up the QEW to coach the St. Catherines Saints, the Leafs’ AHL affiliate. 

When Maloney bolted to coach the Winnipeg Jets over a contract dispute with Harold Ballard (Ballard? Money dispute? Acrimony? Seems far-fetched!), Brophy got the call. After a 20-year minor league playing career (mostly spent on Long Island with the Eastern League’s Ducks), and 11 years as a minor league head coach, Brophy finally had one of the most coveted 21 jobs in all of the hockey world.  

Not that the Leafs weren’t a “tough” team for Maloney’s two years as head coach, but the ante was upped with Brophy.  You would fight if you were a Maple Leaf and the 86-87 team gave you fights, and gave you goals (well, for and against).  Very rarely would you go to Maple Leaf Gardens for a contest and not see plenty of both. According to hockeyfights.com’s 1987 NHL Fight Log, the Leafs led the league in fights, squaring off a now unthinkable 122 times in 80 games, leading the league.  Many of these fights were against a terrible Red Wings team in eight yearly Norris Division battles (Detroit was second in fights with 118).  For contextual purposes, the Leafs have had 82 fights in their past three full seasons, spanning 246 regular season games.  Gary Leeman fought four times.  So did Russ Courtnall.  You just have to believe me. 

So much for protecting the #1 overall pick Wendel Clark. He led the team with 29 fights in his second season, and as we all know, cemented his early reputation as an inspiring leader who could do it all, scoring 37-23-60 in a full 80 game season (Clark would never again play more than 66 games in a season, sadly).  But Brophy didn’t just embrace pugilism, he loved special teams, loved teaching defensive strategy, and loved letting the show ponies loose to score goals — Brophy’s teams had no elite goaltending of any kind, and a blueline far too young and inexperienced, but it had the skill to burn.  The 86-87 Leafs had seven 20-goal scorers, all under the age of 28, including 18-year old rookie Vincent Damphousse potting 21.

The Leafs were facing a Norris Division regular season champion Blues team that finished under .500 (despite an unbalanced schedule, playing 32 of 80 games against their seemingly just-as-crappy division opponents). So, while it seemed Toronto SHOULD be notable underdogs, and having lost to the Blues in Game 7 of the Norris Division Finals the year before, this was not going to be a walkover.  

Despite weaker regular season numbers, Brophy went with the slightly more experienced Ken Wregget instead of Allan Bester for the duration of the series, while Blues’ rookie head coach flip-flopped between Greg Millen and Rick Wamsley.  The series was an emotional one for Brophy, coaching against two of his former “Baby Bulls” in Rob Ramage and Ric Nattress, but after splitting the first four games, the Leafs got the critical Game 5 win in Missouri by a narrow 2-1 margin, and two nights later, walloped the Blues in a 4-0 close-out win in Game 6.

Now to the Red Wings, who surprisingly to many, swept out a Chicago Blackhawks team that seemed deeper and certainly had been more consistent.  The Leafs played the first two games at Joe Louis Arena better than anyone could have imagined — when the smoke cleared, and the Leafs headed home, they led 2-0 in the series, with three of five games left at a joyous Maple Leaf Gardens, after outscoring Detroit 11-4.  Red Wings head coach Jacques Demers made a calculated switch from Greg Stefan to Glen Hanlon in net for Detroit and simply had to do it, given how terrible Stefan was in those first two games (two goals were scored on slapshots from beyond the blue line).  

The Red Wings won Game 3 in Toronto 4-2, but one of the most under-discussed Maple Leafs playoff OT winners of all-time still goes to former Ranger Mike Allison, scoring on a backhand wraparound through Hanlon’s legs, to give Toronto a 3-2 win, and a 3-1 lead in the series.  But as anyone of my vintage remembers, it all fell apart for Toronto after this triumph. Glen Hanlon was the biggest story, playing out of his mind, shutting out the Leafs in Games 5 and 7. The Leafs would only score 2 goals on 86 shots the rest of the series, and the Leafs first semi-final berth since 1978 would have to wait (and it would wait until 1993!).

All summer, it was debated (even before sports talk radio) whether the Leafs had “choked” or overachieved by getting to Game 7 of the second round (for a second straight season, no less). Brophy was an easy target given his combative relationship with many writers in Toronto, and his gruff demeanour.

Though the ramifications wouldn’t be felt for years to come, the Maple Leafs with the 7th overall pick in the Draft went through a battle of their own, instigated again by Brophy at the team’s draft table (in Detroit, ironically enough).  Brophy was animatedly insistent the team get tough and big on the blueline, and general manager Gerry MacNamara (soon to be embroiled with Brophy in various feuds in front of the media, and behind closed doors as well) agreed, and Luke Richardson was to be the team’s pick.  Former Sabres and Leafs head coach Floyd Smith was the team’s head scout at the time and was equally forceful the team should draft Joe Sakic from the Swift Current Broncos. According to then Leafs assistant-GM at the time, Gord Stellick, the argument became so vocal between Smith and Brophy, that it created quite the disturbance on the arena floor.  

Easy to say now Sakic was the better pick – of course, but the Nordiques didn’t even take him two picks later — they drafted troubled D-man Bryan Fogarty, an OHL scoring phenom, and Sakic was still there at 15th overall and Quebec snagged him.  Sure, the Leafs passed on a future HHOFer, but several other teams did as well, including Norris Division rivals Detroit and St. Louis.

The Leafs waited until just before training camp and made a very brazen move on September 3rd, dealing for long-coveted Ed Olczyk out of Chicago.  They got a Brophy player if there ever was one in Al Secord.  Secord had 68 total goals in his prior two seasons and was only 28 years old, and the sky was still the limit for the 20-year old Olczyk. But the trade came with a hefty price as Rick Vaive, Steve Thomas (who’d become a real crowd favourite) and tough blueliner Bob McGill were sent back to the Windy City as payment.  

Brophy also got his way, adding even more fighters to the roster in Dave Semenko and Brian Curran, thanks to minor trades.  But something was just askew, and the Leafs had a disastrous season, with only 52 points, one ahead of dreadful Minnesota. So, at the 1988 NHL Draft, the North Stars pick first and take Mike Modano, the Leafs draft 6th and take Scott Pearson, but they got three extra home playoff games! OF COURSE!

Lots of things went wrong in 87/88. The goaltending got even worse. Wendel Clark only played 28 games. Vincent Damphousse had a tough sophomore season, scoring only 12 times. Borje Salming missed a couple of months with an injury, and Miroslav Frycer, not a Brophy favourite in any way, missed half the season’s games.  Olczyk delivered as advertised, scoring 42-33-75, but none of it was enough to create any first-round playoff upsets as had happened the previous two springs.

The Red Wings and Brophy’s nemesis, Jacques Demers, weren’t going to be denied, and there wouldn’t be a need for a furious comeback.  Despite a 6-2 Toronto win at Detroit in Game 1, the Wings won the next three games, by a combined score of 20-5, including an 8-0 blowout loss on Easter Sunday at Maple Leaf Gardens, which had the angry fans throwing garbage on the ice near the end of the third period.  Toronto had one last triumph in the tank, though, as a playoff hat-trick by Ed Olczyk in Game 5 on the road, including an OT winner, forced the series back to Toronto for Game 6.  The Leafs played a little more valiantly than in Game 4, but still lost 5-3.  Detroit was deeper and better than the previous spring, and the Leafs didn’t seem as strong.  The franchises were going in two different directions, and the Wings were a couple of transition seasons away from beginning the current playoff streak now potentially heading into a 26th postseason.  Since 1990, meanwhile, the Leafs have missed the playoffs 14 times and made them 11.

Brophy would be on a short leash entering the 1988-89 regular season, and everyone knew it.  Gord Stellick was named general manager after Gerry McNamara was finally fired over the summer, and Stellick was only a month into his run when he made the disastrous “Courtnall-for-Kordic” deal while the Leafs actually had a winning record of 8-6-1!  Soon after, Toronto went into a 1-12-1 death spiral, in the middle of which Brophy was fired, and Leafs legend and scout (at the time) George Armstrong was coerced back behind the bench, despite publicly acknowledging he really didn’t want the job.  Ballard things were happening again!

Brophy would never again get an NHL opportunity, signing on to be the head coach with the Hampton Roads Admirals of the ECHL. In his second, and his third year, won the Kelly Cup, cementing his status there. It was a gig that made him happy, gave him better weather, and he’d keep it from age 54, until age 65, when he’d move to Wheeling and coach the Nailers for two seasons.

It always was a strange legacy Brophy left behind in Toronto, though. Those were popular years, despite the regular season losing, the playoffs were always a roller coaster — and the Leafs found their way in for three straight seasons, winning the first round those first two years.  Outside of the Pats (Burns and Quinn, also sadly no longer with us), has there been a more popular coach than Brophy until the current one in Mike Babcock, arrived just over a season ago?  All of Paul Maurice, Ron Wilson, and Randy Carlyle brought confidence, achievements, and knowledge to the Maple Leafs in various forms, yet were any as well-received as Brophy among the fanbase?  

As noted at the beginning, Brophy fit the era and the team. Even without the bright lights of retrospection, his Leafs tenure seemed like that of a rock band who you know is the talk of the music scene, but isn’t going to maintain the level of success or stay together to see a third or fourth album.  Brophy was that, but his wild ride behind the Leafs bench is hardly something anyone had ever forgotten, if they lived through it.