OK, nobody really thinks that will happen. But you’ve probably heard some jokes about the possibility, since it plays into an old stereotype about Leaf fans — that they arrogantly assume that every star player is destined to wear the blue and white before their career is up, and anyone who doesn’t wind up in Toronto must have just missed.
Like most stereotypes, this one is hurtful and untrue. So just for the record: No, Maple Leafs fans don’t actually believe that every single star player to ever grace the league was this close to playing in Toronto.
Just almost all of them.
Seriously, it’s kind of a thing. And in fairness to Leafs fans, it’s not like we’re all just engaging in wishful thinking. There’s a long history of star players being linked to the Maple Leafs. Whether it’s a trade, a free-agent signing, or something more nefarious, the list of hockey legends linked to the Leafs is a long one. And most of those stories don’t come from delusional fans, but rather from media, executives or even the players themselves.
How long a list? Well, long enough to fill out a full roster. Which is what we’re going to do today. Consider it a warmup as we head towards the trade deadline and the Maple Leafs hype train revs up. And also a reminder that every Leaf fan you know might not be as crazy as they sound.
Centre: Wayne Gretzky
Our first pick is an easy call. Gretzky was rumoured to be headed towards Toronto pretty much since he first arrived on the hockey scene, although much of that was admittedly just the fever dream of desperate 1980s Leafs fans. But the Great One really did almost become a Maple Leafs during the 1996 off-season. He was an unrestricted free agent and wanted to finish his career in Toronto. Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher was on board, but the Leafs’ board of directors shot the idea down for financial reasons.
Winger: Rocket Richard
The idea of Richard in a Maple Leafs’ sweater seems unthinkable — the sort of sacrilege worthy of 100 million moths. But while Richard would become the Canadiens’ most iconic superstar, there was a time early in his career when he was viewed as an injury-prone disappointment, and the team was reported to be shopping him to Toronto, among other teams. The Leafs missed their chance at the time, but GM Conn Smythe would later set his sights on The Rocket, offering a ransom to pry the winger away in both 1949 and 1951. The Canadiens resisted the temptation, and Richard finished his career in Montreal.
Winger: Ted Lindsay
The Maple Leafs were the first team to get wind of the future Hall of Famer’s prowess, and they dispatched a scout to put Lindsay on the team’s negotiation list. But an injury led to a mix-up, and the Leafs ended up adding the wrong player. That opened the door for the Red Wings, and the rest was history.
Centre: Eric Lindros
This one might be a little controversial, since Lindros actually did end up playing for the Maple Leafs. But that was post-lockout Lindros, in 2005, and by then he wasn’t much more than a depth piece. No, we’re talking about prime Lindros, when he was still considered an unstoppable force and among the best players in the league. The Leafs very nearly landed that version during the 2000-01 season, when Lindros sat out the entire season partly in an effort to force a trade to Toronto.
The two sides even reportedly agreed in principle on a trade, one that would have sent Lindros to the Leafs in exchange for a package that included Nik Antropov and Danny Markov. But the deal fell apart in a very public and ugly fashion, and Lindros eventually ended up in New York after missing an entire season.
Wingers: Henrik and Daniel Sedin
We’re going to shift Henrik to the wing, since this team ends up being pretty deep down the middle. The twins made it to the verge of unrestricted free agency back in 2009, and the Maple Leafs dispatched GM Brian Burke to Sweden to meet with them. Burke, of course, had a history with the brothers, orchestrating the draft-day deals that had brought them to Vancouver in 1999. Now, he was reportedly ready to ring their doorbell the minute free agency opened and make his pitch. Given how persuasive (and stubborn) he could be, it’s hard to imagine Burke would have left empty handed.
But he never got his chance; with Burke lurking nearby, the Sedins re-signed with the Canucks in the hours before the market opened, leaving the Leafs to pretend that their GM was in Sweden for Jonas Gustavsson all along. In the end, chasing the Sedins left the Leafs with nothing but a dent in the travel budget and a tampering charge.
Centre: John Tavares
Burke didn’t just miss out on the Sedins during the 2009 off-season. He’d also set his sights on Tavares, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the draft. Never one for subtlety, Burke publicly called his shot: He was going to trade up and get the Islanders’ first-overall pick and use it on Tavares. It seemed like a long shot, but as Burke was quick to remind everyone, he’d done it before. But this time the Islanders held firm, Burke missed on trading for Brayden Schenn, too, and the Leafs wound up with Nazem Kadri at seventh overall.
By the way, Burke wasn’t even the first Leafs GM to try to bring Tavares to Toronto. Way back in 2007, two years before he was even draft eligible, John Ferguson Jr. reportedly tried to sign the teenaged star to an AHL contract to suit up for the Marlies. The league shot the idea down, and Tavares never did sign with the Leafs organization. (Well, at least until this summer.)
Winger: Steven Stamkos
He liked a tweet! Come on, that’s basically a legally binding contract, right?
Winger: Vincent Lecavalier
Chemistry matters, so we’ll pair the two Lightning legends on the same line. While Lecavalier’s status as a French-Canadian star meant he was often linked to Montreal, the Leafs actually had a deal done with Lightning GM Rick Dudley back in 2001. Toronto would have sent a package that included Antropov and Tomas Kaberle to the Lightning for the 21-year-old former first-overall pick, pending a trade call with the league. That call never happened after Dudley was overruled from within, and Lecavalier ended up playing another dozen years in Tampa.
Centre: Jeff Carter
Say the words “Muskoka Five” to a Leaf fan and you can expect to hear a few choice curse words hurled back at you. While much of the angst from the failed 2008 trade-deadline rebuild was centred on Mats Sundin’s no-trade clause, Kaberle’s decision may have been more costly. Sundin would have reportedly gone to the Habs for an underwhelming package built around Christopher Higgins and draft picks, while the Leafs had a far better deal in place to send Kaberle to Philadelphia for Carter and a first. It didn’t happen, and Carter had his breakout 46-goal season the very next year.
Winger: Markus Naslund
Naslund is one of the greatest Canucks of all time. But he was nearly a Leaf in 1997 when the Canucks considered sending him to Toronto for Doug Gilmour. That’s according to Gilmour’s recent book, Killer, in which he explains that he told Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher that he didn’t want to be moved to a west-coast team. Gilmour ended up going to New Jersey instead, and Naslund developed into a 40-goal scorer within three years.
Winger: Keith Tkachuk
Just as that potential Lindros trade was falling apart in 2001, the Leafs turned their attention to another power forward. The details of the trade even leaked out; it was Tkachuk, Travis Green and Jyrki Lumme coming to Toronto for Antropov, Markov, Sergei Berezin and Adam Mair. There was probably some truth to it, since Green and Lumme both found their way to Toronto in separate trades within a few months (with Markov going to the Coyotes). But Tkachuk wound up in St. Louis.
Defenceman: Bobby Orr
Orr grew up in the Leafs’ backyard, and they had an early first crack at signing him. Very early.
Way back in 1960, Orr was emerging as a 12-year-old phenom when his coach Anthony Gilchrist wrote a letter to Toronto GM Punch Imlach. Sensing that Orr was about to become a sought-after talent, Gilchrist urged Imlach to place Orr on the team’s negotiating list before another team beat him to it. But Imlach passed the letter onto chief scout Bob Davidson, who sent a polite response indicating that the team didn’t see a way to get a player that young on their list. Not long after, the Bruins swooped in and got Orr to sign a C-form, and the rest was history.
Defenceman: Paul Coffey
Coffey made his name with the Oilers, but by 1987 he wanted out of Edmonton. Leafs coach John Brophy reach out to express his interest, and Coffey recently admitted he was thrilled with the idea of playing for his boyhood team. But the Leafs couldn’t close a deal (and may not have been willing to pay Coffey if they had), opening the door for the Penguins to step in and get it done.
Defenceman: Chris Pronger
Pronger was traded four times during his career, so the Leafs could have had a few shots at him. They took at least two, starting in 2006 when Pronger forced his way out of Edmonton. Ferguson reportedly could have worked a deal to acquire Pronger in exchange for Kaberle, Alex Steen and a draft pick. He decided to pass, and Burke brought Pronger to the Ducks. Years later, Burke was in Toronto when Pronger hit the market again, and the rumour mill put two and two together. Pronger himself didn’t think it made much sense, and by then it probably didn’t.
Defenceman: Rob Blake
Man, the Leafs were in the mood to land a star at the 2001 deadline. In addition to Lindros and Tkachuk, they were also reported to be closing in on a deal for Blake. Instead, Blake ended up going to the Avalanche. And in case you’re wondering, after all that the Leafs’ big acquisition at the 2001 deadline ended up being… Aki Berg.
Defenceman: Kris Letang
Back in 2013, the cap-strapped Penguins were rumoured to be weighing the possibility of trading Letang. And while the defenceman wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, he reportedly had a Plan B: the Maple Leafs. Instead, he ended up re-signing for a giant pile of money. Hey, speaking of which…
Defenceman: A giant pile of money
OK, so I couldn’t come up with a decent sixth defenceman for our roster. Even in fantasy land, the Maple Leafs still don’t have enough depth on the blue line. So instead, we’ll just force the opposition to skate around a giant pile of cash.
How big a pile? How about the record-breaking $1 million that Harold Ballard and the Maple Leafs almost got from Chicago for Frank Mahovlich back in 1962. Hawks owner James Norris agreed to the deal — it won’t shock you to learn that there may have been a few drinks involved — and it was even reported in the national media before cooler heads prevailed and the sale was called off.
Starter: Patrick Roy
The idea of the Canadiens sending Roy to their arch-rivals seems unthinkable, until you remember that the two teams were still in separate conferences back in 1995. And according to Roy himself, the Leafs were one of four teams in the running for his services after he walked out on the Canadiens. Granted, Cliff Fletcher says he doesn’t remember even talking to Montreal about Roy. Still, when has a Toronto fan let a minor detail like that get in the way of a good “almost a Maple Leaf” story?
Backup: Roberto Luongo
Back in 2012, Luongo heading to the Leafs was viewed as such a sure thing that there were whispers the deal was actually done, and just had to wait for the lockout to end before being announced. At the very least, Burke and Mike Gillis would surely work something out before the season start. Even when Burke was fired before opening night, his replacement was Dave Nonis, the same GM who’d brought Luongo to Vancouver years earlier. Instead, the Canucks swerved everyone by trading Cory Schneider, leaving even Luongo “shocked and surprised” that he didn’t end up in Toronto.
Honourable mentions: We’re not counting guys the Leafs missed out on by trading draft picks away, so Tyler Seguin and Scott Niedermayer don’t make the team. (We’re also not counting stars the Leafs merely passed over in the draft, since we’d be here all day.) There’s too much talent here to worry about guys like Mike Cammalleri or Valeri Filppula, and we also overlooked Martin Brodeur, since his Maple Leafs near-miss came at the end of his career.
And then there’s the deal that stands as probably the biggest “what if” in NHL history: The time that Toronto almost pulled off a blockbuster trade for the Edmonton Oilers. Yes, all of them. According to Peter Pocklington himself, he made a deal with Ballard back in the early ’80s that would have seen the Leafs and Oilers switch cities.
And you thought modern Maple Leaf fans came up with crazy ideas….