The kind of media circus that welcomed Steven Stamkos for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Dec. 15th game in Toronto was the most intense in a regular season since Mats Sundin returned as a member of the Vancouver Canucks in 2009.
And Sundin plays a small role in why the end result of this most recent Toronto media circus is of vital importance to fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs – that Steven Stamkos becomes a member of the 2016 Toronto Maple Leafs upon becoming an unrestricted free agent on July 1st.
Leafs fans (and especially those that double as Toronto Raptors fans as well), need a significant off-ice (off-court) victory of ANY kind. The successful pursuit to bring Mike Babcock to coach their beloved Maple Leafs has only fed their insatiable appetite for more.
And who could blame them. Examine the evidence!
Bernie Parent – arguably the best young goaltender of the 1970s chooses to ditch the Leafs in his prime and sign with the World Hockey Association. He leaves for more money and the fact his wife is from the Philadelphia area and not enthralled with Toronto.
Dave Keon – arguably the greatest Maple Leaf EVER leaves for the WHA in 1975. His disdain for Leafs owner Harold Ballard is personal and he is NEVER able to mend fences with the organization in any significant manner. He could have brought the house down when Maple Leaf Gardens closed in 1999 but chose not to attend.
Darryl Sittler – succeeds Keon as the Leafs’ captain and is clearly their best player as well as one of the best in the NHL in the ’70s and early ’80s. He signs a long-term contract to stay with the Leafs despite being offered much more money to jump to the WHA. Leafs general manager George “Punch” Imlach makes it a personal battle with Sittler when Imlach returns for his second stint as Leafs general manager 1979. Sittler leaves with bitter feelings in 1981. Unlike Keon, Sittler manages to mend fences with the organization and has been a valued member of the front office for the past 25 years.
Wendel Clark – even though Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher makes a great trade for the Leafs in June, 1994, the fact that their beloved Wendel is heading to the Quebec Nordiques leaves fans emotionally devastated. Though Mats Sundin, who goes Toronto’s way, is far and away the best player in the deal, fans can’t forgive management.
Wendel Clark (again) – Leafs owner Steve Stavro has had enough of the daily onslaught of fans’ – many of them being his Knob Hill Farms grocery customers – constant suggestions that he bring back Wendel Clark as the Leafs have struggled since he was traded (although Mats Sundin is proving to be a star in the making). Stavro orders Fletcher to get Clark back. Clark is now with the New York Islanders.
Their general manager, Mike Milbury, knows that he has Fletcher over a barrel with the pressure from the Leafs’ owner. Unlike his last trade, a home run (though unpopular publicly), Fletcher has to give up too much to satisfy Stavro. Quality young defenceman Kenny Jonsson and a high first round pick that nets the Islanders Roberto Luongo are included in the deal.
Wayne Gretzky – Fresh off of bringing Clark back to the fold, Fletcher has his biggest Leaf bombshell all set to explode on July 1, 1996. Wayne Gretzky is a free agent after finishing up his contract with the St. Louis Blues. He has agreed to finish his career as a Maple Leaf for a relatively not-outlandish figure (since Leaf ownership is very cost conscious at the time).
Fletcher can envision a Leaf centre ice trio of Doug Gilmour, Mats Sundin and Wayne Gretzky. He is almost giddy with excitement. At the 11th hour, Stavro puts the kibosh on the Gretzky contract as he is struggling to maintain his control of the Leafs for financial reasons. Fletcher has to say “no deal” to the Great One and he finishes his career in New York.
Doug Gilmour – Not only does Stavro veto the Gretzky signing, he also orders Fletcher to shed salary as the Leafs are experiencing a cash crunch (hadn’t Harold Ballard died six years earlier?). Fletcher is forced to move players like Dave Andreychuk, Todd Gill and Mike Gartner for well below their market value.
It is an insult to the Leafs’ veteran players who had believed in the commitment to get back to the successes of a few years earlier and move even deeper in the playoffs. Gilmour is one of those who is only too happy to have the Leafs trade his rich contract. He is traded to the New Jersey Devils in February of 1997.
Doug Gilmour (again) – Same as Wendel Clark. A chance for Gilmour to finish his career in Toronto is welcomed with open arms by all parties. Gilmour returns to Toronto on March, 2003. Fan euphoria returns as it did with the return of Wendel Clark. Unfortunately, Gilmour injures himself in the second period of his first game back as a Leaf. His career is over. He never plays a home game for the Leafs in his very brief return stint.
Curtis Joseph – Arguably the best ever free agent signing by the Leafs, Joseph brought four years of excellent goaltending and strong playoff appearances to Toronto. Apparently he was the only member of the gold medal-winning 2002 Canadian Olympic team who wasn’t pleased with the Olympic experience. His Team Canada coach was Pat Quinn. His Leafs coach (and general manager) was Pat Quinn.
Exit Joseph to the Detroit Red Wings – with bad personal feelings towards the Leafs. He also was able to mend fences years later.
Gary Roberts – What in the name of John Ferguson Jr. was he thinking when he lowballed Roberts upon the NHL returning to action from a year long lockout in 2005. Roberts had been the consummate Leaf: a skilled player and warrior who had especially upped both elements of that game whenever the Leafs were in the playoffs. A move that still doesn’t make sense.
Mats Sundin – How could there possibly ever exist any bad feeling towards the Leafs and one of their greatest players ever? But that is exactly what happened in 2008 as Sundin would neither commit to the Leafs with a new contract nor allow them to trade him (by virtue of waiving his no-trade clause). This was Sundin’s right contractually and no player had given such a level of excellence both on and off the ice for so many years wearing the Leafs’ sweater as did Sundin.
Unfortunately, it would tarnish his ending as a great Leaf. Fortunately, all was restored and forgiven when his number was honoured in 2012.
So this is the environment that longtime, and long-suffering, Leafs fans desperately hope for a move of a positive variety in the possibility of Stamkos wearing the blue and white.
Raptors fans can add the decisions by Tracy McGrady (2000) and Chris Bosh (2010) to leave as unrestricted free agents while the Raptors received practically NOTHING in return. Add the negligible amount received in the Vince Carter trade to New Jersey once he decided that his style would change from “Air Canada” to indifferent and petulant!
Add in the 2015 NHL Draft Lottery where when it came to the final lottery ball to be drawn, the Leafs had the best odds at 4/11 as the first few balls had gone their way.
Leafs fans love Mike Babcock behind the bench. Now they dearly hope for Steven Stamkos on the Leafs’ bench. I say the odds are much better than 4/11 that will happen!