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Video: Wendel Clark | Steve "Stumpy" Thomas | Al Iafrate | Ed Olczyk

Punch Imlach’s second stint as general manager of the Leafs started off with fireworks. In one of his first moves, Imlach prevented captain Darryl Sittler and goalie Mike Palmateer from participating in the ‘Showdown ‘series for Hockey Night in Canada intermissions. That began a yearlong feud with his star players. By the time the 1979-80 season was over, Imlach had traded nearly half the roster including fan favourite Lanny McDonald. Imlach also reached into the past signing one time nemesis 39-year old Carl Brewer in a move that infuriated the players and raised eyebrows around the league.

Despite the turmoil, the Leafs still managed to make the playoffs but were eliminated in the opening round vs. Minnesota in three-straight games. The Toronto Maple Leafs continued in disarray through most of the 1980’s.  Inexperienced Gerry McNamara replaced Punch Imlach as general manager in September of 1981.  On April 28, 1988, youthful Gord Stellick was named by Ballard to take over from McNamara.  Floyd Smith then replaced Stellick on August 15, 1989.  Usually, Harold Ballard was in the middle of any controversy during that time, as the cantankerous Leafs owner seemed to lose track of reality as the years went by.

Wendel Clark was a huge favourite in his time in Toronto 

The coaches were changed often as well throughout the decade. Imlach’s first choice for coach was his former player Floyd Smith. But Smith didn’t last the 1979-80 season, having been involved in a car accident. Joe Crozier then took over behind the bench to be succeeded by Mike Nykoluk who ran the bench from January 10, 1981 to April 2, 1984. Nykoluk had been recruited from the radio booth. Dan Maloney and then excitable John Brophy were the next two Leaf coaches and they had little success as well.

In January of 1982, Darryl Sittler eventually quit the team, asked to be traded and was.  Rick Vaive, who along with Bill Derlago was acquired from Vancouver for Tiger Williams and Jerry Butler in one of the few good trades that Imlach made, was named captain. Vaive was also one of the few bright spots in a dismal decade by being the first Leaf player to score 50 goals in a season and repeating the feat the next two years.

The Leafs did not experience any real success until later in the decade when they won a few playoff series. The Leafs missed the playoffs entirely in 1982, 1984 and 1985 and earned the
right to draft early in the annual amateur draft because of their low finishes. The Leafs’ first round selections were Jim Benning, sixth overall in the 1981 draft, Gary Nyland, third overall in 1982, Russ Courtnall, seventh overall in 1983 and Al Iafrate, fourth overall in 1984. But the prize was a tough junior from the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League named Wendel Clark.  The quick-fisted Clark, drafted 1st overall in 1985, brought more excitement to Maple Leaf Gardens than any other player in the 1980’s. 

The 5’11", 194 pound combative left-winger became an instant crowd favourite with his quick and accurate wrist shots and punches. He took on all comers, including heavyweights Behn Wilson and Bob Probert. He was a breath of fresh air to a team that was unable to properly develop the early first-round draft picks that should have turned the franchise around.

With Wendel Clark, the Leafs did achieve some playoff success by winning their opening rounds in 1986 and 1987, but they failed to go past the second round each time. The Leafs lost in the first round in 1988, and in 1989, the Leafs missed the playoffs entirely.

For the 1989-90 season, new coach Doug Carpenter installed a run-and-gun type of offence that made the Gardens fans hop. The Leafs achieved a .500 record for the first time in the 1980’s and the team scored a whopping 337 goals, which was the second highest in the NHL. The number one line of Mark Osborne, Ed Olcyk (obtained in a trade for Rick Vaive) and Gary Leeman had career years with Leeman scoring 51 goals, the second Leaf to reach the magical 50-goal mark.

But unfortunately, the Leafs also allowed 358 goals against that season which was the third highest in the league. The team was undisciplined defensively and had weak goaltending, which was a recipe for disaster in the playoffs. Not surprisingly, the Leafs were eliminated in the first round in five games to the St. Louis Blues to end a decade of futility.

The Leafs of the 1980’s were lacking in many areas from ownership to management, coaches, scouts, development of their draft picks and ill-advised trades - the worst being the incomprehensible trading in 1989 by general manager Floyd Smith of the Leafs’ first round draft choice in a year where future franchise type players such as Eric Lindros and Scott Niedermayer were available. Smith traded this pick for journeyman defenseman Tom Kurvers.

The end of the 1980’s was also the end of the Harold Ballard era as the owner of the Maple Leafs passed away on April 11, 1990.

Heading into the 1990’s, the Leafs were looking for their white knight to arrive and somehow elevate the Leafs franchise back to its legendary status. And this savior did arrive in the name of Cliff Fletcher. Finally, there was some hope again. The 1980’s had been a long dreary decade for Leaf fans.