NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club, Rebuilding Since 1967

Aaron BalsillieCorrespondent IJune 12, 2008

Rebuilding is a word only spoken in a soft voice in Toronto, the "Center of the Hockey Universe".  Any time it is mentioned that Toronto needs to rebuild, maybe even tank it for a season or two, the voracious Toronto sports media will jump all over saying, "The Leaf Nation will not accept that, they can't just purposely lose for a high draft pick...that is ludicrous!" 

And to a degree, they are right. As professionals, I don't think anyone could convince any Toronto Maple Leafs, any NHL player, really, to purposely lose to throw games. 

However, as has been made perfectly clear in the last few years, Toronto is just not a very good team, and hasn't been for a long time. The last time the Leafs were even in the Stanley Cup Finals was they last time they won the cup, 1967. 

1967 was the last season the Original Six composed the NHL. It required eight wins (two rounds) to win the Cup. The number needed to win is double that now and the gradual increase to 30 teams did nothing but open the field wider and wider. 

With the exception of Atlanta, Nashville, Columbus, Phoenix/Winnipeg, and Toronto, every single team in the National Hockey League has at least been to the Stanley Cup finals since then (the Hartford Whalers made it in the form of the Carolina Hurricanes). All expansion teams, except for Toronto. 

I am a loyal Leafs fan, a certifiable citizen of the Leafs Nation. I have suffered through the bad years and enjoyed the good years, but one thing always puzzles me. Whenever a new player (at least Canadian ones) arrives in Toronto, they always go on and on about how proud they are to be a Leaf, that they remember watching the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada on cold Canadian winter Saturday nights during their childhood. 

It would seem, and Toronto seems to think, that every player in the NHL would want to play in Toronto. So why aren't players like lining up in droves in the GM's office asking for a trade to the Leafs? 

Playing in Toronto is not like playing anywhere else. If you're a Toronto Maple Leaf walking down the street and you sneeze, you will see Sportscentre leading off with a story that you have pneumonia and will be out 2-3 weeks. 

Sell a house (and buy a new one) and the sports media tells all who will listen that you are on the block and that a trade is imminent. Playing/living in a town under such scrutiny can't be easy and a lot of players want to focus on playing, not on what the sports page says. 

When times are rough, you hear the predictable, "I don't even read the newspaper."  Well, if you want to avoid hearing your name, better not turn on the TV, the radio, or log onto the internet. There is a reason putting together a championship team in Toronto is a challenge. 

In other hockey markets (think Chicago), consistent poor play results in a drop in attendance. Not in Toronto. The Leafs could be dead last in the league and the Air Canada Centre would still be full night after night. 

Leaf fans are sometimes described as sports maschocistics. They know what they'll see is painful, but yet they can't turn away. They have to watch!  Coincidently, Chicago is the only team to go cupless longer than Toronto.

In 1967, a long time ago, I would venture to guess most people reading this were not even born yet. I'm 31 and I'm 10 years late!

The 1967 team was one for the ages. They weren't exactly like the Montreal teams of the 1970's and the Leafs didn't exactly have the superstars like Maurice "Rocket" Richard or Jacques Plante, but they had players who were good when they needed to be.

Johnny Bower, Dave Keon, Frank Mahavolich, George Armstrong, Tim Horton, are all heroes in blue who are enshrined in the rafters of the Air Canada Centre.  Since then, other bright lights have played for the Leafs and got them close to the Stanley Cup finals. 

Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming. Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark came within one goal of the Stanley Cup finals in 1993. 

But there has always been something missing, that one player, or group of players to make Toronto championship grade. And the only way to do that is to draft well, develop younger players, and when the current plan isn't working, rebuild.

As much as people deny it, and as much as Toronto has failed at doing it, they've been rebuilding since the last time the Cup was raised in Toronto.