Greatest Sports Franchises - Toronto Maple Leafs

One of the NHL’s most valuable teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs hold the record of having the second-most Stanley Cups in the league. Toronto has been a hockey town from the start, with their team being one of the NHL’s Original Six clubs. While the team’s history has been full of ups and downs, there is no question of the fans’ loyalty. Dubbed Leaf Nation, Toronto hockey fans are notoriously loyal to a fault, cheering their team despite the result. With a Cup drought spanning into its fifth decade, those fans could use a boost. In this video, continues our series on the Greatest Sports Franchises of All Time with a look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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Always A Hockey Town

Toronto’s reputation as a hockey town predates the establishment of the National Hockey League in 1917. Toronto became one of the Original Six NHL clubs, with a team that went by many monikers. From the Arenas to the St. Patricks, they finally settled on the Maple Leafs in 1927, under new owner Conn Smythe.

Maple Leaf Gardens

Maple Leaf Gardens opened November 12th, 1931 with a 2-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. However, the club went on to win its third Stanley Cup that season, led by legendary coach Dick Irvin.

First All-Star Game

The NHL’s first all-star game was held by the Maple Leafs on February 14th, 1934 to honor their player Ace Bailey, who had nearly died when Boston Bruin Eddie Shore checked him into the boards earlier that season.

Losing Dick Irvin

At the end of the 1939-40 season, Coach Irvin left the team to revive the Montreal Canadiens, who hadn’t won the Cup since 1931. That move would haunt the Leafs: They saw their bitter rivals win in 1944, ’46 and again in ’53, before winning a record five consecutive Cups under Irvin’s successor Toe Blake.

The Barilko Curse

Meanwhile, the Leafs didn’t do too badly after Irvin’s departure: The club took home the Cup in 1942, and 1945, from ’47 to ’49 and again in 1951. Then they hit a rough patch, not winning again until 1962. Some labeled this drought the “Barilko Curse,” after the mysterious disappearance of defenseman Bill Barilko. After scoring an overtime winner in the finals in ’51, Bashin’ Bill was lost in a plane crash, and his body was only found in the summer of 1962.

Smythe Sells His Shares

In 1961, Conn Smythe sold his shares to a group that included his son Stafford, as well as newspaper owner John Bassett and Toronto Marlboros president Harold Ballard.

Leafs/Habs Rivalry

The Leafs/Canadiens rivalry saw the two Canadian squads win every single Cup between 1962 and ’69. The Leafs won three straight from ’62 to ’64, led by future Hall of Famers Frank Mahovlich, Tim Horton, Dave Keon, Andy Bathgate, Red Kelly and Johnny Bower, as well as coach and GM Punch Imlach.

The Cup in '67

In 1967, the team faced the heavily favored Montreal team, but went on to win the series in six games. Dave Keon won the Conn Smythe Trophy, handed out to the playoffs’ MVP.

A Downward Spiral

From there, it was all downhill. The club traded Mahovlich to the Detroit Red Wings. Stafford Smythe fired Imlach. Horton was dispatched to the Rangers. After Smythe’s death, Harold Ballard bought his shares, taking over majority control. With the NHL expanding from six to 12 teams, the Leafs lost key players. This, combined with Ballard’s abrasive management style, led to an exodus of talent.

Full of Talent

Despite a roster that included Borje Salming, Dave Williams, Lanny McDonald and Darryl Sittler, the team went nowhere during the 1970s. Things went from bad to worse in ‘79 with the return of Imlach as General Manager. He would go on to trade the popular McDonald, and the club’s long-time leading scorer Sittler, who still holds the record for most points in a game with ten. Sittler’s all-time Leafs scoring record was only broken in 2007 by then-captain Mats Sundin.

The Bleak 1980s

The 1980s were a bleak period, though their poor record did help the club land high draft picks, including the popular Wendel Clark. By the time Ballard died in 1990, the club had nowhere to go but up, and it did.

Still No Cup

The Leafs hired Calgary Flames GM Cliff Fletcher, who had won the Cup in 1989. He groomed draft picks, signed free agents and traded to improve his team. But, despite players like Doug Gilmour and Felix Potvin, the best the team mustered was a semi-final exit against Wayne Gretzky’s L.A. Kings in 1993.

Leaf Nation

Throughout the Leafs’ history, the team has won 13 Championships, including 11 Stanley Cups, coming second only to the Montreal Canadiens. Today, the Leafs play their games at the Air Canada Centre, and count their loyal fans as their strongest asset. Dubbed Leafs Nation, the faithful remain devoted no matter how their team plays.

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