Gilmour trade ushered in era of big-spending Maple Leafs

Doug Gilmour talks about his grueling seven-game series with Detroit in the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs.

In those days, news travelled a lot more slowly.

So in Fussen, Germany on Jan. 2, 1992, it took a little while for the news that Doug Gilmour had been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs to cross the ocean. Twenty-five years later, when news is communicated in half-seconds, that seems hard to believe.

But that’s the way it was before the internet, back when we filed by fastening couples to a telephone handset.

For me, a 30-year-old journalist for the Toronto Star in my third year as a beat reporter covering the Leafs, that specific time was a bit unusual because I wasn’t in Detroit when the trade was announced. Frank Orr was covering the Leafs that day for their game against the Red Wings, and our hockey columnist, Bob McKenzie, was covering the blockbuster trade from Toronto.

McKenzie wrote it was a “killer” of a trade for the Leafs, using Gilmour’s nickname to make his point that this was an earth-shaking deal for both Toronto and the Calgary Flames.

Me, I was in Germany at the 1992 world junior hockey championships, and from there, the Gilmour trade wasn’t on the top of my agenda. The day before, the Soviet Union’s hammer-and-sickle flag had been removed from the main tournament arena, and it was announced the team would henceforth be referred to as the Commonwealth of Independent States.

We felt like we were in the middle of history, not just a hockey tournament. On Jan. 2, meanwhile, Canada was blasted 6-1 by Czechoslovakia. Team Canada had airlifted Eric Lindros, Kimbi Daniels and goalie Trevor Kidd into Germany days after the team had arrived in Europe to bolster the lineup, but instead, the team went downhill and ended up finishing a disastrous seventh.

So those of us covering the world juniors were a little busy, and you just didn’t have the same access to news reports and opinion when you were thousands of miles from home.

As soon as we returned to North America, however, it became clear the impact the Gilmour deal would have on the Leafs in the win-loss column, and it opened one of the most exciting and successful chapters in the modern history of the team which, depending on your perspective, may or may not mean much.

What’s taken the passage of a quarter-century to understand, however, is that while the 10-player trade was clearly a lopsided one in favour of the Leafs, it also marked a turning point for the Leafs that had very positive, but also very negative, consequences.

Throughout the 1980s, the Leafs had gone through a rebuilding period in which they accumulated high draft picks under general manager Gerry McNamara, ostensibly to reconstruct what had been built during the 1970s by Jim Gregory and then ripped apart by Punch Imlach in his ill-fated second tour of duty running the Leafs.

In 1990, with a high-scoring young team, the Leafs had made the playoffs, losing in the first round to the St. Louis Blues. Partway through that series owner Harold Ballard died, and it was unclear what impact this would have on the future of the team. Maple Leaf Gardens had for decades been referred to as the “Carlton Street Cashbox,” but despite all those revenues, the Leafs had never been a high-spending organization.

That summer after Ballard’s death, the St. Louis Blues signed Washington defenceman Scott Stevens to a five-year, $5.145 million contract, and to their everlasting regret, the Capitals decided not to match the offer and accepted five first round draft picks as compensation. It was the kind of aggressive financial move the Leafs, despite their wealth, had never been known to make while Ballard was running the team. Four years earlier, in fact, Chicago had signed away Gary Nylund, the third overall pick in his draft year, from the Leafs, and the Leafs had received Ken Yaremchuk, Jerome Dupont and a draft pick as compensation.

With Ballard gone, a battle ensued for control of the Leaf organization between the executors of his will – Steve Stavro, Donald Crump and Don Giffin. Crump sided with Stavro, while Giffin gained temporary control of the organization and in the summer of 1991 hired Cliff Fletcher away from the Flames to run the Leafs. Stavro was opposed to Fletcher’s hiring, and told him so to his face, but for the start of the 1991-92 season Fletcher was in charge and started to make aggressive moves.

It was clear that while the Leafs hadn’t spent under Ballard, Fletcher very much intended to use the team’s financial muscle. In September, he acquired the expensive contracts of Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson from Edmonton in exchange for youngsters Vince Damphousse, Luke Richardson, Peter Ing and Scott Thornton.

Fletcher’s intent was to think short-term and to spend, at least partially to try and win Stavro’s confidence by improving the team quickly.

Gilmour, meanwhile, had lost an arbitration battle with Calgary – he asked for $1.2 million, the Flames offered $570,000, the arbitrator gave him $750,000 – and demanded to be traded. Fletcher, who had acquired Gilmour for Calgary, knew what an outstanding two-way player he was, and that the rise of young forward Theoren Fleury on the Flames depth chart had pushed Gilmour out of the core group.

After a New Year’s Eve victory over Montreal, Gilmour walked out. Less than 24 hours later, he was a Leaf in a spectacular deal that quite clearly was partly about an unhappy hockey player, but mostly about the Leafs being willing to spend money for the first time and become one of the league’s higher payroll teams.

It wasn’t just Gilmour, who within two years was making more than $2 million a season under a new deal he signed in Toronto. Rick Walmsley wanted to play more so he could get a new contract. Ric Nattress was playing out his option. Jamie Macoun wanted more money.

And the Leafs, as they’d shown in acquiring Fuhr and Anderson, were willing to take on salary. It was a sea change in Toronto; under Ballard in the early 1970s they’d let good players leave for the World Hockey Association rather than pay them. But this was the beginning of a new era with the Leafs in which the team would use money, great gobs of it, to try and end a Stanley Cup drought that was then only 25 years old.

Another 25 years has passed, and still no Cup. Fletcher’s short-term thinking produced the thrilling playoff runs of 1993 and ’94, getting the Leafs to the Final Four twice. It was the first good hockey the city had seen in 15 years, and people loved it. Fletcher was a hero, Gilmour was a hero, and the Leafs were suddenly one of the most interesting teams in hockey.

All that said, this much is also true; the Gilmour deal ushered in a new wave of thinking in Toronto that may have set the team back for two decades.

Remember, under McNamara the Leafs were terrible, but they were building with kids and high draft picks. The problem was that under the erratic Ballard – he hired Gord Stellick as GM, then wouldn’t let Stellick choose his own coach – the team lacked the capacity to develop those young players.

After the Gilmour trade, the Leafs kept spending and moving prospects and picks for players, although Gilmour was traded away to New Jersey for young players. Fletcher tried to sign Wayne Gretzky as a free agent, and brought back Wendel Clark in 1997, giving up a fourth overall pick that the New York Islanders used to acquire Roberto Luongo.

Soon after, Fletcher was gone, and a new group led by Ken Dryden and Pat Quinn took over.
That group continued to spend, starting with signing free agent goalie Curtis Joseph, and over the next few years the Leafs became one of the higher spending teams in the sport along with the New York Rangers, Detroit and Philadelphia.

The organization still struggled to draft well and develop a productive farm system, so trades to bring in expensive veterans and free agent signings were used to plug holes as the team again edged towards being a contender. In 2003, Owen Nolan was acquired from San Jose for Brad Boyes, a former Leaf first round pick, along with Alyn McCauley and a first round draft pick.

Then came the institution of the NHL salary cap in 2005, and the financial power of big-spending clubs was diminished considerably. The Leafs suffered worse than any other team because they didn’t have a cupboard of affordable young players and the ownership was unwilling to take a major step back and start over with young players.

In other words, the short-term thinking that Fletcher had brought to Toronto in 1991 lasted through Dryden and Quinn, through the John Ferguson Jr. and Brian Burke regimes, and until Tim Leiweke hired Brendan Shanahan to run the team in 2014.

Now, the Leafs are back to doing what McNamara tried to do in the 1980s, albeit with much greater stability at the ownership level. The team still spends – $64 million on Mike Babcock, a big swing-and-a-miss on Steven Stamkos – but is otherwise totally committed to a plan of losing that has netted top prospects like Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.

It would be wrong to say the Gilmour trade hurt the franchise. He was one of the best players to skate for the team in the post-expansjon era, and you had to be there to understand how exciting those few years were with No. 93 leading the charge.

But the Gilmour deal was part of a period in which the direction of the team was altered dramatically, and in significant ways, for the worse.

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