Off The Post: A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities
Leafs and Wings’ fortunes reversed after 40-year Cup droughts.

When the Leafs and Red Wings faced off last Thursday for the first North American game of the NHL’s 91st season, the event pitted two opposing teams whose relative performances in recent years are as different as the two cities on either side of the English Channel.

Toronto and Detroit are separated by roughly the same distance as London and Paris, and both Original Six cities have experienced both “the best of times and the worst of times”. The Maple Leafs and Red Wings can each point to an undignified period in their respective team’s history during which a Stanley Cup drought of over four decades exists. However, the similarities between each team’s fortunes come to an abrupt end at the 42-year mark of the timeline, at which point the paths of the two former Norris Division rivals diverge drastically.

Detroit’s drought, which ended in 1997 after forty-two years of futility, was punctuated with a four-game sweep of Philadelphia in the final, marking the beginning of a dynasty that would see four banners raised to the rafters of Joe Louis Arena in 11 seasons. Conversely, Toronto’s length of absence from the list of cities to host a Stanley Cup parade will reach the same duration at the conclusion of the current NHL season, with no immediate end in sight.

Glimpses of the following timeline illustrate both the similarities and differences between each team’s road to riches – or ruin – starting with both clubs’ most recent Stanley Cup prior to their prolonged periods of underachievement (Detroit – 1955, Toronto – 1967).

Years 1-8: (Det: 1956-63, Tor: 1968-75)
During the period after Detroit’s 1955 Cup win, the franchise traded away no fewer than four future Hall-of-Famers: Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, and Glenn Hall, with very little collective return. The deal involving the latter two players was a direct consequence of Lindsay’s attempt to form the first NHL Players’ Association. The mood in the Leafs’ dressing room was not much better after the team’s triumph in 1967. Frank Mahovlich – eager to escape the shackles of Punch Imlach’s tyranny – was dealt away to rejuvenate his career in Detroit, and later, Montreal. In later years, owner Harold Ballard’s feuds with players such as Bernie Parent and Dave Keon created an exodus out of Toronto in favour of the WHA. Both Detroit and Toronto were equally guilty of mismanaging their personnel, in the aftermath of their glory years.

Years 12-26: (Det: 1967-81, Tor: 1979-93)
In a twist of irony the Norris family, owners of the Detroit franchise, allowed the team to rot in the cellar of the basement of the division that bore the family name. The team’s best draft choice over the period, Marcel Dionne, was peddled off to Los Angeles. With an incompetent scouting staff, the team failed to capitalize on its high first-round selections afforded them by their low regular-season finishes. Dionne, and 1979 first-rounder Mike Foligno were certainly exceptions to a list that included long-forgotten names such as Willie Huber, Rick Lapointe and one of the biggest first-overall busts ever, Dale McCourt. It’s no surprise that the Wings missed the playoffs in 13 of these 15 years. Similarly, the Maple Leafs were becoming the laughing stock of the NHL during the era that eccentric owner Harold Ballard and dictatorial GM Punch Imlach controlled the team. Fan favourites like Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald were shipped out of town while the franchise spiraled into ineptitude. A 20-win, last-place finish in 1984-85 was the team’s nadir in all its storied history. Toronto failed to qualify for the playoffs five times during this 15-year span, suffering a first-round exit on 7 other occasions in this stretch.

Years 27-29: (Det: 1982-84: Tor: 1994-96)
The most pivotal event in leading the Detroit Red Wings to the proverbial Promised Land was the sale of the team to owner Mike Illitch. The owner of the Little Caesar’s Pizza empire and future Hall-of-Famer would restore pride to the decrepit organization, enlisting Jimmy Devellano as the team’s general manager. At the 1983 draft, the ghosts of all draft busts of the past were exorcised as the team selected the player who would go on to become the face of the franchise, Steve Yzerman. Contrary to the Red Wings’ direction at the same period in their Cup drought, the Leafs had begun to dismantle a group of veteran players while not having the benefit to replenish their roster, as a result of mediocre scouting. Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre and Bob Rouse, all key components to the team’s consecutive semi-final appearances in the 90’s, were traded away. Owner Steve Stavro tightened the purse strings on the team’s budget, nixing a deal that would have seen the game’s all-time best player, Wayne Gretzky, suit up in a Leafs uniform. Worst of all, the team’s drafting during this period was nothing short of a disaster, with first selections such as Eric Fichaud, Jeff Ware and Jason Sessa becoming mere footnotes.

Year 34: (Det: 1989, Tor: 2001):
The model for the Red Wings’ success, namely building though the draft, is best exemplified by arguably the best draft in history by one team, in one year. By the time the last name was called at the draft table at Minneapolis’ Met Center, Detroit had selected Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, and Dallas Drake, all of whom were chosen even before their first two picks of Mike Sillinger and Bob Boughner. The following year, Detroit drafted Keith Primeau (later traded for Brendan Shanahan) and Vyacheslav Kozlov. The nucleus for their Stanley Cup contending team was in place. Meanwhile, at the 34-year juncture of the Leafs’ Cup drought, 2001, Toronto selected Carlo Colaiacovo, Karel Pilar, Brendan Bell, Jay Harrison and Kyle Wellwood. Only the injury-plagued Colaiacovo remains with the current roster. While it may be unfair to expect to select two future Hall-of-Famers and a solid supporting cast in a single draft as the Wings did in their ‘Year 34′ of 1989, the disparity remains startling. Arguably the Leafs’ most successful draft choice of the 2000’s was Brad Boyes – selected a year before Colaiacovo – who was packaged in a deal to acquire Owen Nolan three years later. The Maple Leafs’ attempts to bolster their lineup by signing free agents such as Alex Mogilny and (one year earlier) Shayne Corson and Gary Roberts were met with lukewarm
success.

Year 42: (Det: 1997, Tor: 2009):
In June of 1997, Yzerman raised the Stanley Cup before a euphoric Joe Louis Arena as Detroit’s Stanley Cup curse was extinguished. Yzerman would repeat the feat twice more in the next five years, while Lidstrom – his successor as captain – did the honours this past spring.

By the time June of 2009 rolls around, the Maple Leafs will not only host no such celebration at Air Canada Centre, but will likely fail to finish above the bottom five teams in the NHL. While the Cup drought tale of these two cities embodies many similarities, recent history shows that solid management, with particular attention to scouting, is indeed “a far far better thing” that the Red Wings do – than the Leafs have ever done.

Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, a regular column at TMLfans.ca

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