Life as a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs can certainly be a trying endeavour; from moments of elation, to disappointment, frustration, tears, anger and dreaming.
In 1957 John Bassett was named to the “Silver Seven,” a committee that oversaw the hockey operations for the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 1961 Conn Smythe sold most of his shares in Maple Leaf Gardens (which owned the Leafs) to a partnership of his son Stafford, Harold Ballard and Bassett.
Bassett was part owner of the Toronto Telegram, founded Baton Broadcasting in 1960 which ran Toronto’s first commercial television station, CFTO-TV, and owned the Toronto Argonauts. Bassett also fought in WW11, so he was clearly a Smythe “kind of guy” when named chairman of the Gardens Board of Directors, after Smythe resigned shortly following the 1962 Stanley Cup victory.
In 1969, Ballard and Stafford Smythe were charged with tax evasion and were accused of using Maple Leaf Gardens’ funds to pay personal expenses. Bassett persuaded the Board to fire Smythe and Ballard as President and Executive Vice President while they consequently named Bassett as new President.
Instead of forcing Smythe and Ballard to sell their shares; in what would become a serious strategic blunder on Bassett’s part, he didn’t. They remained on the Board, and Smythe was still the largest shareholder. A year later, a messy proxy fight ensued that ended with Bassett resigning, selling his shares to Ballard and Smythe leaving the two men in charge again.
Now is when we let our imaginations run wild and say, “What if?”
Let’s pretend Bassett forced Ballard and Smythe to sell their shares, removing them from running the Leafs, well, how would the fate of the Leafs played out?
Bassett’s son John Jr. in 1973 purchased the Ottawa Nationals, a struggling franchise in the newly formed WHA, moved the team to Toronto, naming them the Toros. The league struggled financially lasting until 1979 when four of the franchises merged with the NHL.
John Jr. tried to convert the old Coliseum on the CNE grounds in to a home for the Toros when a deal couldn’t be worked with Ballard to play at the Gardens. ($15,000 a night for the building and an additional $3,500 to have the lights turned on). Today it’s the Ricoh Center, home to the Marlies. He challenged the age of majority ruling in Canada, signing 18-year old Wayne Dillon to a professional contract. Bassett didn’t stop there; signing other under-age players such as Tom Edur and Mark Napier; Czech National star Vaclav Nedomansky, former NHL stars Frank Mahovlich and Paul Henderson. He moved the team to Birmingham and convinced a group of 19-year old’s to forfeit there last year of junior hockey and play for $50,000 a year. The seven of them became known as the “Baby Bulls” including future Leafs captain’s Rick Vaive and Rob Ramage. He also tried to sign Wayne Gretzky.
The point of this exercise is to imagine Bassett working with his father and running the Leafs. The father was a no nonsense minded businessman with a penchant for taking risks. John Jr. inherited those qualities, but they reminded me more of the previous owner of the Leafs; Conn Smythe. Smythe was a risk taker and in 1927 used money he won gambling on football and hockey games to purchase the Leafs, formerly known as the St. Pats. He aggressively spent and moved players to build his team, using his own money to a build a farm system to develop young players. He built the Gardens during the Great Depression and at the same time paid a stratospheric sum of money, $35,000 for King Clancy, using $10,000 of his own money won betting on a horse named Rare Jewel. The Leafs were 10 time Stanley Cup Champions under Smythe’s leadership. You could make a very strong argument that the 1967 Cup win was built on the foundation left by Smythe.
The common traits amongst these men were vision, creativity and the willingness to take risk. Instead, as Leaf fans today, we were left with management of incompetence, poor judgment, buffoonery and zero visibility.
In 1979 two of the biggest stars in the WHA, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg were free agents and Leafs GM Jim Gregory had them verbally agree to play with the Leafs. Ballard said no and that he couldn’t afford them. Ballard, who childishly held grudges, particularly against anyone associated with the WHA, was probably the real reason he said no. Darryl Sittler almost signed with Bassett’s Toros in 1973, and was called a “traitor” and a “cancer” by Ballard.
Ironically, John Bassett Jr. had offered Nilsson and Hedberg more money to play for the Toros in 1974, but they wanted to play with Bobby Hull. They signed with the Jets instead and now 5 years later they wanted to play for the Leafs.
Can you imagine the Leafs with a nucleus of Palmateer, Salming, Turnbull, Sittler and McDonald with Nilsson and Hedberg a part of that group? Do you think John Bassett would have let that opportunity slip by?
That was a defining moment in Leaf history, because instead of being on the chase and giving away first round picks, players would have begged to play with a core group like that.
John F Bassett Jr. was operating from a position of weakness during his time running the Toros and Bulls because of the financial instability of the league. Again, putting our dreaming cap on, what would the possibilities have been for the Leafs with a young, aggressive and smart hockey mind running the club instead of what we were left with?
If only John Bassett Sr. had made the right move back in 1969.