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Leafs AbomiNation: The dismayed fan's handbook to why the Leafs stink and how they can rise again [Paperback]

Dave Feschuk , Michael Grange
2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 11 2009
Love them or hate them, they’re the most successful team in professional hockey … just not on the scoresheet.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are an exception to every law of the sporting jungle. They miss the playoffs and the sellouts keep coming. They haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, but the earning power of that blue-and-white maple leaf, no matter the chronic woes of the blue-and-white’s power play, never ceases to increase. In this description of failure and prescription for hope, Toronto Star sports columnist Dave Feschuk and Globe and Mail sports reporter Michael Grange draw the illogical roadmap that pinpoints how the once-proud Leafs got lost in the sporting hinterlands, who’s to blame for stranding them there, and how they might extract themselves from this historic mire.

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About the Author

Dave Feschuk is a columnist for The Toronto Star who has written on a variety of sports, from hockey to hoops. His work on hockey has been nominated for a National Newspaper Award, cited in The Best American Sportswriting and included in The Way It Looks From Here: Contemporary Canadian Writing on Sports. Michael Grange is a sports reporter for The Globe and Mail and an award-winning magazine writer, writing in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for much of his 14-year tenure at Canada’s national newspaper, the New York Times, and ESPN.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One
Blame History

“The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and I thought the only way I’ll probably see a Stanley Cup in my lifetime is if I write it.”
—Mike Myers, writer, director and star of The Love Guru, a box-office bomb of a comedy wherein the Leafs finally win


Imagine a little kid growing up in a dilapidated row-house in a joyless city crowded with horse-drawn carriages and pony-carts. His father is a teetotalling vegetarian and failed businessman. His mother has drunk herself to death at the tender age of thirty-eight. The kid is a scrapper and a go-getter. No, this is not the opening chapter of a long-lost Charles Dickens novel. It is the childhood of Leafs patriarch Conn Smythe.

The Smythe family lived on North Street, a stretch of road north of Bloor that is today part of Bay Street, only a few city blocks up the hill from where the Air Canada Centre now sits. Far removed from the luxury suites and on-demand shrimp of the pampered generations to come, Smythe’s was a hardscrabble existence in a hard era. “The greatest fight I ever saw was one day going home from school when a fight started between three St. Mike’s kids,” Smythe enthused in his autobiography, referring to the Catholic boys’ school. “One fought the other two up a lane and then along street after street, always with his back to the wall, or he never would have been able to hang on. It was a lesson I didn’t forget: if you looked after your rear, you could keep going. It works in fights, war, business.” Smythe’s trademark phrase would come to be among the most famous quotations in hockey history. “If you can’t beat ’em in the alley,” went a mantra that doubled as the title of his posthumously published memoir, “you can’t beat ’em on the ice.”

Clawing to carve out a legacy and a fortune, Smythe left marks you could still see long after he died in 1980. Smythe didn’t drink, citing his mother’s addiction as his reason for abstinence. Maple Leaf Gardens, perhaps at least partly because of the great builder’s feelings on the evils of the sauce—and certainly because of Toronto’s well-earned reputation as a conservative burg that tolerated fun only in small doses—didn’t serve beer until 1993. If today’s Leafs crowds are castigated for their sit-upon-hands reserve, blame Smythe for setting the tone. In a time before the sideboards were topped with Plexiglas, Smythe was said to strut along them in his spats, peering down and inspecting the wardrobe of the season-ticket holders and generally ensuring order. But then, his walkabouts may have been no more than keeping an eye on the rabble. During the years when Smythe ruled the Gardens, a Toronto police officer once told a newspaperman that illegal activity declined significantly on the nights of Leafs games. The implication seems to be that if the people running the Gardens were a bunch of crooks, so were the fans.

If he came off as holier-than-thou—and almost everything you can read about him suggests he was among the more insufferable and self-righteous men to occupy a seat of power in the sports sphere—politely acknowledge your respect for his sacrifice as a veteran of both World Wars. He was captured by the Germans in the First World War and wounded badly in the Second, absorbing a burst of shrapnel that caused him no end of pain until his dying day. He was also the benefactor of a charitable foundation that still raises boatloads of money to help children with disabilities. The Conn Smythe Dinner remains a fixture on the social calendars of the Toronto sports community.

But Smythe had warts that belonged to his era just as much as his heroism and philanthropy. He, like all NHL owners of his day as a rule, underpaid his players while pocketing massive profits. “I never shared things well with anybody, all my life,” he once admitted, albeit referring to his sister, for whom he had little time. He wasn’t above cheating; he acknowledged in his memoir that he’d once been a party to attempting to fix a horse-race at Toronto’s old Hillcrest racetrack. He had a fear and disdain of Jews and Catholics that makes Don Cherry’s hate-on for French Canadians and Europeans seem downright quaint. “We sincerely believed if we were captured by the priests, we’d never be seen alive again,” Smythe wrote in his autobiography.“I’ve always thought that Catholics have it pretty easy—do anything they like, then confess, and be forgiven. It’s the opposite of, ‘as ye sow, so shall ye reap.’ I know that there is no such thing as being forgiven.” And indeed, he held grudges. Long of the opinion that one of his best players, Busher Jackson, was a disgrace to the game because Jackson was said to enjoy women and alcohol more than most, Smythe lobbied tirelessly to keep Jackson out of the Hall of Fame, going as far to resign as the Hall’s president when Jackson was finally inducted.

Armed with only limited experience with a handful of amateur hockey teams for which he’d played and coached, Smythe landed the GM’s job with the New York Rangers in 1926 on little more than a friend’s recommendation. Smythe used his knowledge of the Canadian hinterlands to put together a roster that would win the Stanley Cup in 1928, but not before the Rangers would relieve him of his managerial duties in favour of Lester Patrick. Smythe took his severance pay along with some gambling winnings and cobbled together a group of investors to buy the Toronto St. Patricks.

Legend has it that he also talked the previous ownership out of accepting a higher bid from a buyer that intended to move the team to Philadelphia by appealing to the Torontonians’ civic pride (whether the pre-Smythe owners did Toronto a favour or a disservice depends on your outlook). Either way, showing civic pride meant showing a remarkable profit. The four men who sold the team to Smythe’s group—one of whom, J.P. Bickell, retained his stake in the club—had bought it a few years earlier for a measly $5,000. On February 14, 1927, they allowed it to be taken off their hands for $160,000. Precisely two years later, seven gangsters in Al Capone’s Chicago would be gunned down in a mass slaying that would become known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Call the sale of the St. Patricks, with its 1,600 percent cash return, a plain old St. Valentine’s Day Killing. From the beginning, Toronto’s NHL franchise has carved out a reputation for providing its overseers with exponential riches.

Smythe, with money on his mind, understood the team needed a more universally appealing image, one that wasn’t so specifically catholic in origin. In short order, he changed the colours from green and white to blue and white, and changed the name to the Maple Leafs (leaving it to generations of parents to explain to their kids why their heroes weren’t “Leaves”—though often a target of rival fans’ mockery, the name was already in use by other Toronto sports teams; Merriam-Webster’s dictionary even today considers “leafs” a valid pluralization of “leaf ”). He also understood the necessity of a grander stage than the 8,000-seat Mutual Street Arena in which the St. Pats (and their previous incarnation, the Arenas) had played since the NHL’s founding in 1917. A few years into his tenure as the team’s owner, he undertook the unlikely project of building what would become, for a couple of generations, the country’s best-known building. Maple Leaf Gardens was built in a flurry in the throes of the Dirty Thirties against almost all logic and a backdrop of grim prognostications.

As Foster Hewitt, the game’s very voice, would later write: “When Maple Leaf Gardens was only an idea the critics said, ‘You can’t finance it.’ When the plans were drawn the doubters declared, ‘You can’t have it ready for opening night.’ When the building was completed the pessimists prophesied, ‘You can’t fill it.’ But every prediction was false, for on November 12, 1931, the largest crowd in Toronto’s history to witness an indoor event of any kind packed into the new ice palace.”

The story goes that Smythe coveted a bedrock player to build a champion around. He recognized that King Clancy, the gutsy defenceman who’d been at the heart of the Ottawa Senators’ Stanley Cup wins in 1923 and 1927, was that man. Smythe also knew he was short of the cash that would be required to secure Clancy. By this time, the irascible owner had gone from simply betting on horse races to owning racehorses. He had a filly, Rare Jewel, running in the Coronation Futurity at Woodbine and, in a gamble to meet the Clancy price, he bet heavily on her despite the fact that she was a 100-to-1 shot. Whether it was improbably good luck, or another instance of the uncanny Smythe arranging the outcome at the racetrack, as he was not above doing, Rare Jewel won the race, Smythe won almost $15,000, and Clancy became a Leaf. Perhaps it was both good luck and shrewd planning. What’s for sure is that Smythe, as the controlling owner and effective general manager, had more luck or skill or both at building Maple Leaf rosters than almost every other man who’d inhabit the role.

The Clancy-led Leafs—teamed with Red Horner, Hap Day, Lorne Chabot, et al, and with Dick Irvin as coach—won the Cup in Clancy’s second year in Toronto, the team’s first season at the Gardens. The teams Smythe governed would win six of ten Stanley Cups from 1942 to 1951, and plenty of glorious lore would be etched in the winning. The 1942 Leafs, for instance, coached by Day and captained by Syl Apps, became the first pro sports team to ...

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Customer Reviews

2.7 out of 5 stars
2.7 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
I bought it, read it and regretted it.

The problem is that there are so many statistical errors, that I don't if I should believe the new information presented to me in this book. Below is a sample of the stupid errors.

P.xxii-xxiii
Re: Ducks Stanley Cup
"....Scott Niedermayer, the Ducks defenceman who was named the MVP of Anaheim's Cup-winning run in 1997...."

This is obviously a type-o (I hope), as the Ducks wont the cup in 2007

P. 64
Re: Gary Valk and Tie Domi's commentss
"Scoring the series winner in overtime in game six of the second round of the 1996 playoffs at Mellon Arena...."

Right situation, but the wrong year. Valk's goal OT winner was in 1999, making perfect sense as that was one four appearances for the Leafs in the Conference finals (since the league moved to a 16 team playoff format). In the `96 playoffs the Leafs went out in the first round to St. Louis. I find it difficult to understand how you could make such a glaring error. Your research is either poor, or you were writing based on memory. In any case, the inaccurate content is shocking.

P.112
Re: John Ferguson with Dallas Stars when the won the Stanley Cup
"....was promoted to the director of player personnel for the Dallas Stars during a successful string of seasons that culminated in the Stars; 1998 Stanley Cup....."

Dallas won the 1999 Stanley Cup. Detroit won the cup in 1998 (back to back cups from 1997)

P. 201
Re; Wendel Clark Game 6 Hat Trick
"While Clack was a reliable big-game player (and who will forget his hat trick in Game 6 of the '94 conference final?)....."

The Leafs were ousted in 5 games by Vancouver in the `94 conference finals.
Read more ›
Was this review helpful to you?
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Deconstruction of the Maple Leafs' Woes March 9 2010
Format:Paperback
"Leafs Abomination" is an informative and funny take on the languishing Leafs teams of the last four decades. For the most part, the authors do a good job of scouring old books and newspapers while conducting their own illuminating interviews. There are plenty of interesting stories that I had not heard. However, the end-of-chapter "The Leafs Do It Again" segments felt tacked on. Yes, they showed some good examples of ineptitude within the Leafs organization but they usually had nothing to do with their specific chapter.
Was this review helpful to you?
2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By Brian Maitland TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The book covers most of the ground as to why the Laffs fail season after season with a strong focus more on the post-Pal Hal era. This is both good and bad. I found the whole discussion of the current Ontario Teachers' Pension Fund ownership of the Leafs dull as reading any business report.

It's also laughable to learn that even 4th line plumbers are fawned over by women and men alike in T.O. The comparison with Cubs fans also worked for me as I've always considered Make Belief fans as such without the "lovable" losers part really but with that myopic faith in the blue and white.

Overall, though, this book really offers not much new, if you live anywhere in Canada, you get all the Leaf news you can stomach on TSN, Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Tarrana (oops, Canada).

I actually found the short blurbs on various Leaf trades far more interesting than the main text of this book. The main problem is although the cover shows the publisher had humor, the authors do not. It's written in such a dry style you now realize why newspapers are dying. This is the way these two sports journalists write anyway and it's not really riveting text.

Sort of like the Leafs themselves, a fascinating soap opera but in the end annoying to those of us who live outside of southern Ontario and can't escape news on the team no matter how hard we try.
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Book FULL of errors - who knows what else is just made up / speculation Sept. 30 2010
By RZNreader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I bought it, read it and regretted it.

The problem is that there are so many statistical errors, that I don't if I should believe the new information presented to me in this book. Below is a sample of the stupid errors.

P.xxii-xxiii
Re: Ducks Stanley Cup
"....Scott Niedermayer, the Ducks defenceman who was named the MVP of Anaheim's Cup-winning run in 1997...."

This is obviously a type-o (I hope), as the Ducks wont the cup in 2007

P. 64
Re: Gary Valk and Tie Domi's commentss
"Scoring the series winner in overtime in game six of the second round of the 1996 playoffs at Mellon Arena...."

Right situation, but the wrong year. Valk's goal OT winner was in 1999, making perfect sense as that was one four appearances for the Leafs in the Conference finals (since the league moved to a 16 team playoff format). In the `96 playoffs the Leafs went out in the first round to St. Louis. I find it difficult to understand how you could make such a glaring error. Your research is either poor, or you were writing based on memory. In any case, the inaccurate content is shocking.

P.112
Re: John Ferguson with Dallas Stars when the won the Stanley Cup
"....was promoted to the director of player personnel for the Dallas Stars during a successful string of seasons that culminated in the Stars; 1998 Stanley Cup....."

Dallas won the 1999 Stanley Cup. Detroit won the cup in 1998 (back to back cups from 1997)

P. 201
Re; Wendel Clark Game 6 Hat Trick
"While Clack was a reliable big-game player (and who will forget his hat trick in Game 6 of the '94 conference final?)....."

The Leafs were ousted in 5 games by Vancouver in the `94 conference finals. Clearly you must be talking about his game 6 hat-trick in LA during the `93 conference finals. I really fail to understand how you got this one wrong. In the last 20 years, that `93 playoff run is easily the most recounted in Leaf land. Clark's game 6 hat trick, the non-call on Gretzky's high stick (on Gilmour), everyone remembers watching that. The Fraser non-call is one of, if not the most famous controversial incidents in modern Leafs history

P. 247
Re: Capitals vs Penguins in "conference finals", 2009
"Perhaps the best came in the Eastern Conference final, when the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.......played an epic seven game series...."

The Pens and Cap's met in the Eastern Conference semi-finals (second round). The Pens took out the Canes in Eastern Conference finals that year,
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars depressing and hilarious even for non-Tarrana Make Belief fans Sept. 2 2011
By Brian Maitland - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The book covers most of the ground as to why the Laffs fail season after season with a strong focus more on the post-Pal Hal era. This is both good and bad. I found the whole discussion of the current Ontario Teachers' Pension Fund ownership of the Leafs dull as reading any business report.

It's also laughable to learn that even 4th line plumbers are fawned over by women and men alike in T.O. The comparison with Cubs fans also worked for me as I've always considered Make Belief fans as such without the "lovable" losers part really but with that myopic faith in the blue and white.

Overall, though, this book really offers not much new, if you live anywhere in Canada, you get all the Leaf news you can stomach on TSN, Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Tarrana (oops, Canada).

I actually found the short blurbs on various Leaf trades far more interesting than the main text of this book. The main problem is although the cover shows the publisher had humor, the authors do not. It's written in such a dry style you now realize why newspapers are dying. This is the way these two sports journalists write anyway and it's not really riveting text.

Sort of like the Leafs themselves, a fascinating soap opera but in the end annoying to those of us who live outside of southern Ontario and can't escape news on the team no matter how hard we try.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Decent Oct. 4 2009
By P. Strathearn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I am a Leafs fan in Australia. Isolated in my internet-centric fandom, it is reassuring to learn that there are others around the world who share my frustrated love of Toronto's NHL team.

Leafs Abomination sets out to describe in no uncertain terms just how the team with the most money and the biggest fan base has fallen in a hole 43 years deep. The authors begin to do so in a quite methodical and informative manner, and the 'The Leafs Do It Again' segments at the end of every chapter are great at making the reader squirm in horror (Tom Kurvers trade, anyone?).

The drive tapers off a little towards the end of the book, particularly as the authors chose to release the book complete with a chapter calling for hope in Brian Burke without waiting long enough to detail the major moves of the 2009 off-season; but still, if you're a long-suffering Leafs fan, it makes a painfully satisfying read.
3.0 out of 5 stars Fine for a Maple Leafs fan Sept. 30 2013
By L. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
Rating:
3 of 5 stars (okay)

Review:
Fans and even writers can feel frustrated when their favorite teams are performing poorly for a long period of time. For this author, he is frustrated that the Toronto Maple Leafs have not won the Stanley Cup since 1967, yet continually manage to turn a profit. This book is the author's take on why the Leafs have had such a long drought and the various players, coaches, general managers and other key personnel who have contributed to this long period without a championship.

It is an interesting book if one wants to learn a few things about running a sports franchise. It also does illustrate quite nicely how the "group think" mentality of running a team doesn't work as well as it does in the corporate world. The various groups who have overseen the team (including the administration of a teachers' pension fund) have been working against each other over the years. At times this was deliberate, at others it was simply not knowing what others were doing. The player transactions that seemed questionable are also used by the author in order to show the troubles the franchise has had.

While the reasons are numerous, the solutions do not seem to come as easily. Instead of offering solutions and what can the team do to improve its lot, the book reads more like a history of all the transgressions of the franchise. While that is okay, I was hoping to at least read about more solutions, even if they would be pie-in-the-sky wishes. After all, this was written from the perspective of a fan, and don't hardcore fans know what is best for their team? They certainly do - just ask them.

Therefore, the book overall rates as an okay read for learning a little history on the franchise and some insight into the inner workings of the front office. Otherwise, I felt that a lot was missing from a book that had the potential to be one that would generate conversation - instead I felt it just generated more questions.

Did I skim?
No.

Pace of the book:
Good. It moved along well and was entertaining.

Positives:
The inner workings of the front office of a professional sports franchise was illustrated quite nicely. It did get confusing at times, but that is because of the number of people involved in the decision, and in the case of the Maple Leafs, the committees and organizations such as the Teacher Pension that made it dizzying at times.

Negatives:
Because I follow another NHL team, I felt that this was far too Toronto-centric. The title would lead one to believe that, but from past reading experience, I felt that there would be more general discussions on how to improve the team, such as what other franchises did. But unless you followed the Maple Leafs closely, it was easy to get lost by all the talk of situations that were unique to only the Maple Leafs.

Do I recommend?
Yes, but only for Maple Leafs fans. Hockey fans that are fans of other teams may not be very interested in the inner workings of a rival team.

Book Format Read:
EBook (Adobe Reader)
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars wow Jan. 26 2010
By Larry - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Changed my mind about the Leafs. The complacent majority owners make the late Bill Wirtz look like a saint. No longer have any interest in the Maple Leafs.

Larry DiGangi
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