It was the early days of the 1990-91 NHL season, and the Maple Leafs were already in deep trouble.
General manager Floyd Smith was desperate to avoid finishing dead last in the NHL. A trade was made with Quebec in which the Leafs acquired veteran forwards Aaron Broten and Lucien DeBlois.
Two lines — one fictional, one real — became the stuff of press-box humour for several years after that deal.
The first was not true, but funny nonetheless. “As God as my witness, I thought he said Neal Broten,” was the fictional quip attributed to the overmatched Smith, suggesting he had confused the lesser Broten for his more talented older brother. It was a play on the line from the popular sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati” in which the radio station’s boss explained his disastrous decision to drop live turkeys from a helicopter as part of a Thanksgiving promotion by saying, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
OK, maybe you had to be there.
Leafs head coach Tom Watt, meanwhile, uttered the real quote on the Quebec trade. Over and over and over.
“DeBlois was my captain in Winnipeg, you know,” he would offer up any time the player’s name was mentioned.
DeBlois, unfortunately, wasn’t very effective in Toronto. The team only got worse. It was one of those many occasions in which the Leafs acquired a faded, or fading, veteran from another team, suggesting that player would add needed elements of “leadership” and “character” to the dressing room.
So perhaps it’s not that surprising how quickly GM Kyle Dubas has fallen into the habits of his predecessors.
Promising players such as Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnson are gone. Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds have arrived as replacements, formerly elite players signed at bargain prices to ease the salary-cap crunch but also to add character in lieu of the offensive stats they once produced.
If you know your Maple Leafs history, these manoeuvres are as old as the uniform itself. Once upon a time they even worked. Players such as Andy Bathgate, Red Kelly, Marcel Pronovost and Terry Sawchuk joined Punch Imlach’s Leafs in the 1960s after all-star careers with other NHL clubs. They helped the Leafs win multiple Stanley Cups.
As subsequent decades passed, however, these kinds of acquisitions have gradually taken the form of parlour tricks used by GMs to sell fans on the latest edition of the team. The idea was to find a player with a history of real success — sometimes a Cup winner, sometimes a former captain of another team — and bring him in.
In the 1968 off-season, for instance, the Leafs traded away young winger Jim Pappin, who had led the team in playoff scoring during the ’67 Cup run, in order to acquire 36-year-old defenceman Pierre Pilote, a former Norris Trophy winner and captain of the Chicago Blackhawks. It didn’t work. Pilote couldn’t play anymore and retired after one season. Imlach was fired.
In 1974, the Leafs acquired rugged 43-goal scorer Bill (Cowboy) Flett from the Philadelphia Cup winners. Flett scored 15 goals and moved on the next season.
In 1979, Imlach returned to Toronto as GM and brought back 41-year-old Carl Brewer. He lasted 20 games. Imlach was fired again.
A decade later, the Leafs acquired “character” defenceman Rob Ramage from Calgary and installed him as captain. Two seasons later, the Leafs were the NHL’s third-worst team. Ramage hadn’t been able to improve anything.
If anything, this type of acquisition — former captains, former key contributors to contending teams — has increased in frequency over the past three decades. Kirk Muller. Dave Manson. Owen Nolan. Joe Nieuwendyk. Mike Peca. The Leafs just didn’t realize none of those players could do what they once did.
Brian Leetch and Ron Francis both arrived in 2004, and left soon after. Eric Lindros played 33 games in the blue and white. Dave Bolland came in from the Chicago championship winners in 2013 to add grit and character. He lasted 23 games. David Clarkson arrived at the same time with a similar reputation. He was a disaster.
In 2017, Patrick Marleau was brought in on an expensive three-year deal, ostensibly to add maturity and character to a young Toronto team as a former Sharks captain. But the team couldn’t get out of the first round and Marleau’s skills didn’t allow him to play enough minutes to make an impact. Ditto for Jason Spezza, a former Ottawa captain who arrived last fall and contributed nine goals in 58 games.
Now come Thornton and Simmonds. The Leafs hope they can add character, along with a few goals. Maybe they can.
Simmonds has moved a lot late in his career — playing for Philadelphia, Nashville, New Jersey and Buffalo over the past two seasons. Thornton is a future Hall of Fame player, and has been one of the most approachable and amiable NHL personalities for years. Everybody loves Jumbo. The Leafs believe he’ll bring leadership and that elusive character, although the Sharks stripped him of the captaincy in 2014.
“The pressure and the stress, I felt, was getting to Joe,” San Jose GM Doug Wilson told season-ticket holders at the time. Thornton responded by saying “(Wilson) just needs to stop lying, shut his mouth.”
After removing Thornton as captain, the Sharks made it to the 2016 Stanley Cup final. His reputation as a first-rate team guy, however, survived.
Other teams do the same things. Everyone’s selling hope, and recognizable names make that task easier. Some really believe they’ve acquired their own version of Justin Williams, that veteran with unique intangibles who always seems to show up on winners.
So perhaps we should give the Leafs credit. They have never let a traditional lack of success in acquiring “character” stop them from trying again.