He treated coaches and players abysmally. He angered fans who thought he drove the Leafs onto the bottom rungs of the NHL ladder. And he served a year at Milhaven Penitentiary for tax evasion.
But after Harold Ballard, full owner of the Maple Leafs upon Stafford Smythe’s passing in 1972, died himself in 1990 the Leafs underwent a renaissance.
Led by the joint ownership of Steve Stavro, Don Crump and Don Giffin the Leafs rejuvenated the team’s reputation.
On July 1, 1991 — Canada Day — Cliff Fletcher arrived on the stoop of Maple Leaf Gardens to take over the roles of chief operating officer, president and general manager. With right winger Glenn Anderson and goalie Grant Fuhr as his first two big catches, Fletcher went about orchestrating one of the most famous deals in Leafs history.
On January 2, 1992, not six months after his hiring, he called up his successor in Calgary, Doug Risebrough, and acquired centres Doug Gilmour and Kent Manderville, backup goalie Rick Wamsley, and defencemen Ric Nattress and Jamie Macoun for five Leafs players.
Eventually adding left winger Ken Baumgartner and journeyman forward Dave McLlwain from the Islanders, defenceman Sylvain Lefebvre from Montreal and left winger Mark Osborne via Winnipeg, the new-look Leafs would see the results of Fletcher’s genius in the 1992–93 season.
It helped to have new head coach Pat Burns, known for his take-no-prisoners demeanor.
With new faces on the ice, between the pipes and behind the bench, the Leafs turned around the previous season’s 30-43-9 record, finishing 44-29-11.
Also arriving midway through that season were left winger Dave Andreychuk and goalie Daren Puppa from Buffalo, Bill Berg — claimed off waivers from New York Islanders and John Cullen from Hartford for a second-round draft pick.
The acquisition of Andreychuk and Puppa was at the expense of Grant Fuhr. Regardless of the loss, the Maple Leafs earned themselves a trip to the 1993 conference final against Los Angeles in 1993. They would follow that appearance with a second conference final in 1994 versus Vancouver.
Both times however, Toronto would lose, missing a dance in the Stanley Cup finals two years straight.
By 1996 Maple Leafs Gardens Limited had grown to include Larry Tanenbaum, the co-founder of the National Basketball League’s Toronto Raptors.
Eventually the American Hockey League’s St. John’s Maple Leafs returned to Toronto and, with the addition of Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC in 2006, formed the fourth corner of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
Unfortunately, since the work stoppage in 2004–05, the Buds have not seen the playoffs. But another revival is anticipated as always by Leafs Nation.
Sponsored by The Canadian Experience and Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment, “Canada’s Hockey Experience: The Sport of a Country” is a unique, 20-week online series on the history of hockey.