You can view the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs in two distinct periods — before Harold Ballard and after Harold Ballard.
Before the Leafs were owned by Ballard, they won 13 Stanley Cups in a half-century. But, since he took full control of the organization, they’ve won nothing. Central in the Ballard-led implosion of the Leafs was Punch Imlach.
Imlach had two tenures with the organization. First, he was the team’s head coach and general manager from 1958-59 to 1968-69, in which he led the Leafs to four Stanley Cups. His success at that time resulted in him being the winningest coach in Leafs history and helped him get inducted to the Hall of Fame as a builder.
And there’s also his second go-around with the Leafs, which didn’t go quite so well. In July of 1979, Imlach returned to the Leafs after spending the 1970s building the Buffalo Sabres. Imlach was brought in to be the right-hand man of his longtime friend, Ballard. Right off the hop, Imlach noted that the team wasn’t good enough to compete for a Stanley Cup and that he would bring back his tough, old-school style of management from the 60s that had resulted in so much success.
The Leafs, at the time, were loaded with young talent like Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming, Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams, and Ian Turnbull and, in 1977-78, had made it all the way to the NHL’s semi-final, where they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Montreal Canadiens. Despite this, Imlach wanted to come in, clean house, and build a Leafs team that would do things his way.
But the NHL in the late-70s had become much, much different than it was in the 50s and 60s. Players were now making salaries in six-digit figures, had proper representation from agents, and had a union protecting them from being forced into submission at the hands of the organizations that employed them. Imlach’s my way or the highway, drill sergeant style wasn’t going to fly.
As Imlach sought to re-shape the team in his image, a power struggle emerged between him and captain Darryl Sittler. Sittler, who had debuted with the Leafs in 1970, had become Toronto’s leader on and off the ice. He was their best player and a very popular player among his teammates.
Imlach viewed Sittler as an obstacle for gaining power over the rest of the Leafs, but there was also another rift between the parties. Sittler was represented by Alan Eagleson, who had been instrumental in putting together the NHL Players’ Association. Eagleson was a long-time adversary of Ballard and Imlach, so, by extension, Sittler was an issue too.
Though Imlach wanted Sittler gone, he had a no-trade clause in his contract, making it impossible to deal him away without permission. So, instead, Imlach dealt everybody around him.
The roster purge began shortly after Christmas in 1979. A few days before, the Leafs had suffered an embarrassing 10-0 loss at the hands of the Bruins at the Boston Gardens, which gave Imlach the motivation he needed to blow things up.
On Dec. 27, he sent Pat Boutette to Hartford in a one-for-one swap for Bob Stephenson. A few days later, on Dec. 29, Sittler’s best friend and linemate, Lanny McDonald, got dealt to the miserable Colorado Rockies along with defenceman Joel Quenneville for Wilf Paiement and Pat Hickey. Imlach also brought the 41-year-old Carl Brewer, who had been part of three Stanley Cup teams in Toronto in the early-60s, out of retirement to help on the blueline.
Fans protested the McDonald trade outside of Maple Leafs Gardens before a Saturday night game against the Winnipeg Jets. Irate from having his friend shipped away, Sittler ripped the “C” off of his jersey before the game.
Imlach wasn’t finished there. On Jan. 10, he shipped Dave Hutchinson off to Chicago for Pat Ribble. A little over a month later, on Feb. 18, Imlach traded Tiger Williams and Jerry Butler to Vancouver for Rick Vaive and Bill Derlago.
Despite the chaos, the Leafs would squeeze into the playoffs with a mediocre 35-40-5 record, though they were quickly dispatched in the first round in a sweep by the Minnesota North Stars.
In August of 1980, a few months after the season, Imlach suffered a heart attack, resulting in Ballard sliding in and acting as general manager. Imlach would return to run the Leafs before the end of the 1980-81 season, but another heart attack at the team’s training camp in September of 1981 put him out for good.
Even with Imlach gone, the damage between Sittler and the Leafs couldn’t be undone. Ahead of the 1980-81 season, Ballard and Sittler showed up at a press conference stating that the conflict had been put behind them. Ballard even stated that Sittler had just been caught up in the crossfire of the actual beef, which was with Eagleson.
That clearly wasn’t actually the case. In November of 1981, Sittler told Ballard and acting general manager Gary McNamara that he would waive his no-trade clause in order to be dealt to a team from a list of his choosing. By January of 1982, Sittler was mentally depressed and walked out on the team on advice from his physician. Before the end of the month, the Leafs finally struck a deal, sending Sittler to the Flyers in exchange for Rich Costello, a second-round pick, and future considerations, which became Ken Strong.
Sittler would go on to have a few productive seasons in Philadelphia. He scored 84 goals and 178 points over the course of 191 games with the Flyers before getting traded to Detroit, where he would play just one season before retiring in 1985.
In Toronto, none of the players received for Sittler ended up being difference-makers. Both Costello and Strong were busts, playing 12 and 15 games respectively in the NHL. The best player Toronto got in the deal was Peter Ihnacak, who they selected with the second-round pick. Ihnacak had a 66-point rookie season but never repeated that success. He would play 417 games in Toronto, recording 267 points before finishing his career in Europe.
Viewed in a vacuum, this trade isn’t that bad. I mean, Sittler was past his prime when he was dealt and only had a couple of good seasons left in him. Meanwhile, they got some good play out of Ihnacak. So, in terms of value received for value given, it isn’t terrible.
But the thing that makes this one of the worst deals in Maple Leafs history is the fact it didn’t need to happen. The players Toronto got back for Sittler don’t matter as much as the entire story of how he was treated by the organization. Having such little regard for one of the greatest players in franchise history is a major black eye in Leafs’ history and it perfectly personifies the disaster that was the Ballard era.
”I am not proud of having to leave the team like this,” Sittler said. “It would have been very nice to have retired a Maple Leaf.”