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The untold story of the curse of the Toronto Maple Leafs

With every year that passes by, it gets increasingly more difficult to suggest that the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t cursed. Not only has the franchise been subjected to over fifty years of futility, but they’ve found increasingly shocking, almost comical ways to elude success. For most teams, losing to a Zamboni driver would be a franchise defining failure, but for Leafs fans it felt unavoidable.

However, if the franchise truly is cursed, where did it originate? The Leafs don’t have their own Billy Goat, Bambino, or Black Sox scandal to point the finger at and blame for their misfortune and until now have had to accept their hardships as being the product of their own failures. That simply won’t do. As such, I took it upon myself to save the franchise and figure out who or what cursed the Maple Leafs and how we could exorcise those demons.

My journey sent me searching through records and archives of what was going on in Toronto and Canada across 1967. What could have possibly changed following their May 2nd Stanley Cup Win that would shift the Leafs fortunes from dynasty powerhouse to a decades-long punchline? Could the debut of GO Transit on May 23, 1967, have symbolized the Leafs becoming a trainwreck? 

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Or possibly Lester B. Pearson stepping down as Prime Minister and handing the leadership over to Pierre Elliott Trudeau is what cursed the Leafs? After all, since Pearson’s resignation, no Ontario serving Member of Parliament has led the country, mirroring the faltering of Ontario’s hockey teams. For a moment I considered that breaking the Leafs curse may involve Pierre’s son, and current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau handing over the country’s leadership to an Ontario-based leader in the way that carrying Madame Zeroni’s grandson up the mountain broke the Yelnats’ curse.

Of course, there’s always the possibility of a beleaguered former player who wished disaster upon the disrespecting team. The Toronto Maple Leafs even have a prime candidate for this option in Larry Hillman who claims to have put a hex on the franchise after he was fined $2,400 for a contract holdout following the 1967 cup win. Upon leaving the team, Hillman said the Leafs would never win another cup until he was paid back the money with interest.

For decades, many believed the Hillman Hex was the source of the Leafs curse, until 2017 when Brendan Shanahan paid back the $2,400 plus fifty years of compound interest. Larry Hillman finally lifted his curse and yet… the Leafs continued to lose. Much like the second act of a movie, we thought we found the solution only to be thrown right back into the fire.

Then there’s Bruce Boudreau, who recently confirmed that after getting released from the Leafs, Bruce’s father was so mad at his son being disrespected that the team would be cursed to never win again until he returned. The only problem with that is Bruce Boudreau left the team following the 1983 season, so the curse was already well into effect by that time. Following their 1967 cup win, the Leafs didn’t win another best-of-seven playoff series for over a decade, suggesting that this ancient curse must have manifested soon after that last championship run.

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Perhaps we’re thinking too small here, maybe it’s bigger than Toronto, Canada, or Earth entirely. After all, in 1967 Uranus passed Pluto in Virgo. I don’t know what that means, but at this point, I was desperate for answers that not even the stars had. There had to be some explanation on why one of the richest hockey teams in the world couldn’t ever win.

I started to wonder if the city of Toronto had angered a pantheon of gods in some way. Upon discovering that Pizza Pizza was founded in December of 1967 just down the road from Maple Leaf Gardens, I considered that maybe we were being punished for creating the monstrosity that dares call itself pizza. There’s even the case of Pizza Pizza acquiring Alberta’s Pizza 73 in 2007, spreading the curse to both Calgary and Edmonton with neither able to advance past the second round since despite Stanley Cup Finals appearances in 2004 and 2006. As Pizza Pizza franchises rapidly spread throughout the country, Canada’s Stanley Cup drought spreads with it.

As fun a theory as that was, something about it just didn’t seem to fit. While there’s no doubt that the pizza gods are angered by the existence of Pizza Pizza, it seems unlikely that the punishment for that blasphemy would come in the form of hockey. The sports gods are their own fickle beast, and historically lash out hardest at those who disrespect them directly.

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Then it happened. While researching the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1967 I was brought to the most unexpected of places. 

Baseball.

Residents of Toronto may know that there’s more than one Toronto Maple Leafs in town. An independent baseball team playing out of Christie Pits Park also dons the Maple Leafs moniker as well as the blue and white colour scheme. In fact, when the Toronto St. Patricks became the Maple Leafs in 1927, they did so despite the baseball club having claim over that name since the late 1800s. The Maple Leafs were a baseball team first, and it was decades before the name became synonymous with hockey.

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However, unbeknownst to many, the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club they’re familiar with these days isn’t the same one that first began operations over 120 years ago. Nowadays, the semi-pro team plays as part of the independent Intercounty Baseball League, but for most of its history, the Maple Leafs were part of the International League, serving as a high-level minor league baseball club for a number of MLB teams.

The Maple Leafs baseball club found plenty of success on the field, having been home to fifteen future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame and winning ten championships. Just one year removed from back to back titles, the team’s ownership was looking to sell the franchise on a high note and sure enough Maple Leafs Gardens Ltd. (the ownership group which would later rebrand as MLSE) was in talks to buy the team. However, concerns over the cost of repairing Maple Leafs Stadium, the ball club’s historic lakefront home, led to Harold Ballard and co. deciding that keeping the original Maple Leafs in Toronto wasn’t worth the cost of investment.

Soon, the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club would be sold for $65,000 to a real estate developer who moved the team to Indiana. Less than a year later, Maple Leafs Stadium would be demolished. The date of the sale that saw Toronto lose one of its oldest pro sports teams and the original Toronto Maple Leafs?

October 17, 1967.

Is it possible that the NHL team’s refusal to save the original Maple Leafs angered the sports gods and cursed the franchise for decades to come? Consider that when the Maple Leafs were sold, they were serving as the AAA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Since those Maple Leafs left town to become the Louisville Colonels, and eventually the Pawtucket Red Sox (who continue to operate to this day), Toronto has struggled against Boston across all sports.

Prior to 1967, the Maple Leafs had a 55.5% win rate against the Bruins and won 8 out of 10 playoff series between the two Original Six clubs. Since then, the Leafs win rate against the Bruins sits at a measly 36.2% with Boston winning all six playoff series matchups between the teams following expansion. The trend continues outside of hockey as well. The Blue Jays hold a 44.3% record against the Red Sox, good for 7th worst against any opponent while the Raptors have won only 41.2% of their matchups against their rival Celtics, most recently continuing the Toronto tradition of losing to Boston in seven games.

Sure enough, all additional evidence points to the Toronto Maple Leafs being cursed by none other than the original Toronto Maple Leafs. The only question left now is how do we break the curse? Could a $65,000 donation by MLSE to the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club be the solution? Maybe we need to resurrect Maple Leafs stadium in a “build it and they will come” style way of appeasing the sports gods and ghosts of Toronto-past.

Since becoming the Pawtucket Red Sox, the former Maple Leafs have gone on to win four titles. The revived Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club who joined the Intercounty Baseball League in 1969, have won eight championships themselves. In a story of three different franchises, each of which has borne the name of the Toronto Maple Leafs, only one has had success elude them for over half a century.

For the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs to break their curse, they’ll have to figure out what went wrong between them and the original Toronto Maple Leafs.