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Video: The Greats In '78 | Darryl Sittler

For the 1969-70 season, the new coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs was former Leaf player John McLellan, while Jim Gregory took over the general manager’s role. The first season after the Imlach era was a learning curve for both the rookie coach and general manager as the Leafs finished out of the playoffs. As a result of their low finish, the Leafs were able to draft a young centremen from the London Knights whose hero was Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens. With their first pick (8th overall), the Leafs selected Darryl Sittler who would prove to be one of the greatest Maple Leafs in the history of the Toronto hockey club.

The 70's saw the emergence of the Sittler era

The 1970-71 season saw the Leafs’ young defencemen start to mature. Rick Ley, Brad Selwood, Mike Pelyk, Brian Glennie and Jim McKenny were all progressing under the tutoring of the reacquired Bob Baun, who the Leafs had lost in the great expansion of 1967. 1970-71 also saw the changing of the guard as veterans Tim Horton and Bob Pulford had been traded away.

On February 1, 1971, in a steal of a trade with Philadelphia, Jim Gregory managed to acquire a potential Hall of Fame goalie in Bernie Parent. The previous summer, the Leafs were also fortunate to have obtained the veteran Jacques Plante, who would act as the mentor for the young Parent.  Besides the young and maturing defence, the Leafs now had some firepower up front including centres Dave Keon and Norm Ullman who both had their greatest offensive seasons in 1970-71.  As well, the Leafs had speedy wingers Paul Henderson and Ron Ellis together with the vast potential of Sittler.

For the first round of the 1971 playoffs, the new-look Leafs were pitted against the New York Rangers, a powerhouse team at the time. Although the Leafs put up stiff resistance, the Rangers won the bitterly contested series four games to two, which was highlighted by one of the wildest scenes involving hockey players in a long while. In Game 2 of the series, in one of the many fights that took place, the Rangers’ Vic Hadfield tossed Bernie Parent’s mask into the Madison Square Garden’s hostile crowd. Leafs executive King Clancy bravely, but vainly appealed to the partisan fans to return the mask, which was never seen again. 

The following year it was the eventual Cup winning Boston Bruins who ended the Leafs 1971-72 season in the first round. But, for all their success and promise on the ice, things were starting to unravel off the ice. Leafs president Stafford Smythe and vice president Harold Ballard were arrested and charged for tax evasion. Smythe never made it to trial having died in October of 1972, but Harold Ballard was convicted and spent a year in Milhaven Penitentiary. Ballard ran the team from his jail cell having acquired majority ownership after his partner’s death. With Ballard in charge now, the historic Maple Leaf franchise - Canada’s team, made famous by Foster Hewitt, and the winner of 11 Stanley Cups - was on the road to ruin.

During the summer of 1972, the newly formed World Hockey Association was raiding NHL rosters and the smarter NHL teams like the Rangers signed and kept their important players. Not so the Leafs. Ballard did not believe the WHA would succeed in getting off the ground, and that attitude allowed star goalie Bernie Parent, young Leafs defencemen Rick Ley and Brad Selwood as well as their lone combative forward Jim Harrison to jump to the WHA. NHL great Bobby Hull also defected to the WHA giving credibility to the maverick league. It was disaster for the Leafs.

The remaining Leafs were undermanned and demoralized and all the previous shrewd deals by Jim Gregory went for naught as the 1972-73 Leafs turned out to be one of the weakest Leaf teams ever. Toronto finished with the fourth-worst record in the entire NHL.

The Leafs needed a miracle now to start its climb back to respectability. But with the intelligent maneuvering by Jim Gregory along with some creative thinking, the Leafs turned around sooner than could have been expected.
That summer, with the Leafs first-round choice in the draft (4th overall), the Leafs selected westerner Lanny McDonald who would eventually become a popular star in Toronto. With the 10th overall pick that Gregory had obtained in a trade with Philadelphia, the Leafs chose tough junior defenceman Bob Neely from Peterborough. And finally in the first round, with the 15th overall pick obtained from Boston in a trade for Jacques Plante, the Leafs were fortunate enough to draft defenceman Ian Turnbull from the Ottawa 67’s.

Borje Salming was one of the first European players in the NHL

But that wasn’t all. Because of the 1972 Summit series, NHL executives were now aware that there was a potential pool of players on the other side of the Atlantic. The Leaf scouts, in a rather pioneering move, went to Sweden and brought back with them a superbly skilled 26-year-old winger named Inge Hammarstrom as well as a shy by supremely talented 21-year old defenceman named Borje Salming.

So, for the 1973-74 season, Gregory had managed to bring to the team the equivalent of five first round picks! With those five new players, together with an emerging Darryl Sittler, and new coach Red Kelly, the Leafs were on the upswing again. They did lose to Boston in the 1974 playoffs but the young Leafs showed much promise. The Leafs, though, were still lacking in toughness and that was especially apparent in a league being dominated by the brutally rough play of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Although the Leafs bulked up by adding players like Dave ‘Tiger’ Williams to the roster, they were still eliminated in three playoff seasons in a row by the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ from Philadelphia. The Flyers won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975 with the immense assistance of their intimidation. The Leafs did give the Flyers a rough go losing in seven games in 1976 and six games in 1977.  During the 1976 Quarterfinals against the Flyers, Red Kelly utilized his ‘Pyramid Power’ theory as a psychological ploy. Kelly had his players believe that pyramids were a source of energy and strength. The Leaf coach then placed small pyramids under the bench and in the dressing room. All this was to no avail as the hated Flyers won the bitter quarterfinal series in 7 games.
For the start of the 1977-78 season, the Leafs hired Roger Neilson as their new coach. Under Neilson’s coaching, the Leafs combined a mix of strong defensive systems with their own brand of physical intimidation and had their greatest success since 1967 by winning the quarterfinals in Game 7 of 1978 on Lanny McDonald’s overtime goal. But this gritty team, a mixture of skill players and grinders, were no match for the Montreal Canadiens of that era and were knocked out of the playoffs by the Guy Lafleur led Habs both in 1978 and 1979.

Although the Leafs on the ice were a close-knit and talented team led by captain Darryl Sittler, the off-ice escapades of owner Harold Ballard unfortunately continued. Late in the 1978-79 season, Ballard fired Roger Neilson then reinstated him a few days later when the players appealed to Ballard, who also could not find a replacement coach. Fortunately, Roger Neilson declined ‘Pal Hal’s’ suggestion of wearing a paper bag over his head when he returned to coach after he was rehired.

After the 1978-79 season, Roger Neilson was again fired and this time Ballard dismissed general manager Jim Gregory as well in a surprising but ill-advised move. Then Ballard made another huge mistake when he rehired Punch Imlach to become the general manager of the Leafs again. Another ‘Imlach era’ was about to begin.