Yes, the Leafs suck, but do they have to be fixed?

Dave Feschuk & Michael Grange, Leafs Abomination: The Dismayed Fan’s Handbook to Why the Leafs Stink and How They Can Rise Again (Random House, 2009) and Al Strachan, Why the Leafs Suck and How They Can Be Fixed (Collins, 2009)

Another NHL season has concluded with the Toronto Maple Leafs not in the playoffs, and the rest of Canada can only smile. Paradoxically, Canadians’ passion for hockey is matched in intensity by Canadians’ disdain and loathing of the Leafs. After reading not one, but two, histories of the Leafs since last winning the Stanley Cup in 1967, I think this is more an extension of general anti-Toronto sentiment than of the hockey operations of the Leafs.

The two books obviously cover the same ground, but from different perspectives: Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange look at common scapegoats, as evidenced by such chapter titles as “Blame History” and “Blame the Fans”. Al Strachan takes a more linear approach, emphasizing individual incidents in the post-1967 history of the Leafs and expands on how each incident has contributed to the Leafs’ constant ineptitude. Indeed, a bulk of Strachan’s book summarizes each season from that Cup-winning 1966-67 campaign to 2008-09.

The reign of terror error of long-time Leafs owner Harold Ballard has, rightfully, been given significant emphasis in both books. Ballard’s exploits, some of which were legendary, seem nevertheless unbelievable in their scope and severity. The very-public battle for control following his death, and the team’s eventual partial ownership by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan are also covered to varying degrees of detail.

The actual on-ice product, such as it was, that the Leafs tried to bring to fans had its own drama, and while some of it was connected to Ballard, a lot of it had to do with poor management. These books were obviously written before Brian Burke decided to trade 1st-round draft picks to Boston for Phil Kessel, but there were definitely precedents in that deal. One example that’s relevant for Canucks fans: in March 1996, Leafs fan favourite Wendel Clark (and Mathieu Schneider) was reacquired from the Islanders for Kenny Jönsson and a first-round draft pick. The Islanders used that pick to select Roberto Luongo.

As for the parts of the books where the Leafs can be fixed, Strachan used a hypothetical situation involving starting from scratch and selecting draft picks that seemed too convoluted to follow properly. Feschuk and Grange use the Boston model, based on the successes of the Celtics and Red Sox in the 2000s as examples. Both books, of course, devote some time on Burke, but more in terms of his shortcomings in his previous GM positions, particularly in the playoffs (his 2007 Cup win with the Ducks notwithstanding).

I do recommend both these books as entertaining primers on the laughable Leafs, and the fact that the authors didn’t have the rose-tinted glasses when assessing Burke’s status as saviour of the team. And so the drought continues…

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