Top 10 Scandals in the History of the Toronto Maple Leafs

Dumpster Fire: A fan burns a John Tavares jersey prior to the game between the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on February 28, 2019 in Uniondale City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Dumpster Fire: A fan burns a John Tavares jersey prior to the game between the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on February 28, 2019 in Uniondale City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /
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Two Toronto Maple Leafs fans wearing paper bags over their heads watch third period action against the Florida Panthers April 10, 2014 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) /

3. Fired and Rehired

Former Maple Leafs Owner Harold Ballard was a despicable man. There are many examples that point to this very conclusion. One of them was the treatment of his team’s head coach, Roger Neilson.

In 1979, Ballard publicly questioned his coach’s methods. It’s believed that there was a plan in place to dismiss Neilson. Following a loss in the Montreal Forum, that plan was expedited by TV host Dick Beddoes. With cameras rolling, he chased down Ballard in the arena hallway. The pair had a conversation, followed by Beddoes immediately telling his viewers live on air that Neilson was fired.

With the public already aware, Ballard wasn’t brave enough to deliver the news to Neilson himself. Instead, he tasked general manager Jim Gregory to do it and to also tell Assistant Coach Al Dunford that he too was no longer a part of the organization.

The decision appeared to be a hasty one. Ballard asked former coach John McLellan to take the job and he refused. McLellan had ulcers that he attributed to being a coach under Ballard, and he didn’t want to subject himself to that environment again.

When McLellan wouldn’t accept the role, Ballared approached Eddie Johnston, the Moncton, N.B., farm team coach. Since that club was associated with the Chicago Blackhawks, Johnston was not able to accept the Leafs job.

There were others like Gerry McNamara, a hockey scout who were also approached for the position.

Meanwhile, Ballard still hadn’t spoken with Neilson. The first conversation came when they ran into each other at Maple Leafs Gardens when the ex-coach was removing his belongings from the building. Neilson saw Ballard on a bench, being tended to in an unorthodox way, having his toenails clipped by the team trainer, Guy Kinnear.

The next day, after the players ran morning skate by themselves, captain Darryl Sittler accompanied by a few veteran teammates including Tiger Williams went to Ballard and asked for Neilson to return. The media and fans had also turned on Ballard for the firing.

The mounting pressure had the owner re-hire Neilson after just two days. However, in an effort to make the return a theatrical moment, Ballard tried to do something unthinkable. He wanted Neilson to wear a paper bag on the bench to hide his identity before revealing himself as the new Leafs coach to the crowd.

Gord Stellick who was a hockey assistant at the time shared, “Game time was coming up and Harold came out of his office in his bathrobe. That’s when I heard him tell Gregory he wanted Roger to wear the bag. No one would be standing behind our bench until just before puck drop, then Roger would come out wearing the bag and pull it off or have someone do it at the last second.”

When the GM didn’t want to go through with the plan, Ballard was enraged. Stellick explained, “[Ballard] just launched into this four-letter rant, yelling: ‘He’d better wear the f—ing bag or he won’t coach.”

Despite Ballard’s insistence, Neilson was advised by Dunford not to wear the bag because he would look like a fool doing so. Fortunately, Neilson took his assistant coach’s advice, and the bag was never adorned.