1979-80: The Worst Toronto Maple Leafs Season Ever

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 21: Lanny McDonald #9 of the Colorado Rockies skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during NHL game action on October 21, 1981 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 21: Lanny McDonald #9 of the Colorado Rockies skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during NHL game action on October 21, 1981 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images) /

The worst season in Toronto Maple Leafs history was the 1979-80 season.

As the Christmas season rapidly approaches, Toronto Maple Leafs fans should count their blessings and be grateful. As members of Leafs Nation, we support a team which is clearly a Stanley Cup contender despite recent years of playoff disappointment. The Leafs brass appears determined to do whatever it takes to ice a Stanley Cup winner in the near future.

A scant few years ago, it would have been considered laughable to believe that our beloved Buds could contend for anything besides a first-overall draft pick. This negativity surrounding the team and the its fans was born out of the woeful 1979-80 season when this burgeoning team was ripped apart in a vindictive act by its general manager.

The Toronto franchise during the NHL’s original six era was among the most venerable professional sports teams in all of North America, and had collected thirteen Stanley Cup championships. This all changed with league expansion and the coming of the Harold Ballard era.

The Toronto Maple Leafs at the Dawn of the 80s

By 1971, Harold Ballard had taken over complete control of Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. and the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club. Leafs fans could scarcely have seen the fall from grace that the Ballard era was going to bring.

Following an inauspicious start to the decade, the Leafs acquired a quality core of players that Included Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Ian Turnbull, Dave “Tiger” Williams, Borje Salming, Errol Thompson and Mike Palmateer.

By 1976, the Leafs were beginning to look like legitimate Stanley Cup contenders for the first time in a decade. During the next three seasons, the Leafs enjoyed a fair modicum of playoff success, and during the 1977-78 season the Leafs managed to make it to the final four before suffering defeat at the hands of the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens in the semi-finals.

If this edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs had been allowed to remain together, further playoff success and Stanley Cup contention would have been assured well into the 1980s. Sadly, owner Harold Ballard’s capricious nature would not allow this to be so.

During the summer of 1979, Ballard fired Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, Jim Gregory, the man who had built the squad. He then hired back his friend, former Leafs GM, Punch Imlach, as Gregory’s replacement. Imlach had been the Leafs GM during the teams’ final dynasty-one that won four Stanley Cups during the 1960’s.

Sadly, however, instead of reinforcing and trying to improve the team that faced the mighty Habs in the semi-finals a year before, he tore the team apart.

Imlach was hell-bent on taming the increasingly union-involved captain of the Leafs, Darryl Sittler. Tensions concerning Sittler’s involvement in the NHLPA grew between the player and GM, and Imlach decided that the captain simply had to go. However, because Sittler had a no-trade clause in his contract, Imlach couldn’t trade him. If Imlach couldn’t trade Sittler, he would have to find another way to punish him. Imlach figured he could do so by trading Sittler’s line mate and best friend on the team, right winger, Lanny McDonald.

Just after Christmas of 1979, Imlach traded McDonald to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for Pat Hickey and Wilf Paiement. Imlach also traded the feisty right-winger Pat Boutette to the Hartford Whalers and fan-favourite, Tiger Williams, to the Vancouver Canucks. Ballard stood by and allowed his buddy Imlach to swing the wrecking ball.

The act of trading McDonald caused great resentment among the teams’ players, and it had the desired effect on the captain. Sittler ultimately ripped his captain’s C from his jersey in sheer frustration with the team’s situation. Ballard publicly criticized Sittler, stating that his act was akin to desecrating the Canadian flag.

By January of 1982, Sittler had had enough. He waved his no-trade clause and requested to be sent to either the Minnesota North Stars or Philadelphia Flyers. As it turned out, Sittler was traded to the Flyers for Peter Ihnacak, Rich Costello and Ken Strong. Of the three players acquired for the captain, only Ihnacak would see regular duty in the blue and white. Soon thereafter, stalwart defenceman Ian Turnbull was off to the L.A. Kings and the Leafs promising core was history.

The Toronto Maple Leafs finished the 1979-1980 season with a record of 35 wins and 40 losses. In terms of point production, this is far from being the worst showing the Buds have made in a season. However, the vindictive actions of GM Imlach that season set the stage for years of suffering.

The departure of McDonald just days before the onset of the 1980s was a sad portent of what was to come for Leafs Nation-the worst decade in the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was a decade in which the team posted a losing record every season, and had only a sniff of playoff success.

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The ridicule that often follows die-hard members of Leafs Nation was born out of that miserable decade. All that misery grew from that  horrid 1979-80 season, and it remained for twelve long seasons until a guy named Gilmour came to town.