After an impressive performance in the 1966-67 NHL season, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Larry Hillman sought a modest increase on his yearly salary. He had been earning around $15,000 at the time, but knowing that many of his teammates made significantly more, Hillman asked for no less than a $5,000 salary increase given his valuable assistance in the Leafs’ latest Stanley Cup victory.
The Leafs’ General Manager at the time, Punch Imlach, a scrappy former hockey player and WWII veteran, countered Hillman’s request and offered $19,000 instead. When Hillman declined, Imlach increased his offer to $19,500, but began deducting $100 from Hillman’s pay for every day he didn’t sign. Hillman eventually caved to the offer, but by then had lost $2,400.
Humiliated by Imlach’s negotiation tactics, Hillman left the team 55 games later to join the Minnesota North Stars, but not before bestowing a curse upon the Leafs now known as the Hillman Hex. After the way they treated him, Hillman swore, the Leafs would never win a Stanley Cup again.
So far, the curse appears to be working.
The collapse of Toronto’s hockey empire
This season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are celebrating their centennial year of existence. Founded in 1917 under the name the ‘Toronto Arenas’, Toronto became one of the first four teams to play in the NHL, along with the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators, and a short-lived franchise by the name of the Montreal Wanderers.
In 1918, the NHL team became the first to win a Stanley Cup and, subsequently, a dominant force in the increasingly popular sports league. The Leafs won three championships in a row between 1947–1949 and again between 1962–1964, eventually solidifying their legacy as the team with the second-most Stanley Cup wins behind the Montreal Canadiens.
But the glory days have since concluded.
Following the Leafs’ 1967 Stanley Cup victory, the success of the team crumbled almost instantly. In the 1967–1968 season, the Leafs failed to make a playoff spot for the first time in a decade. The franchise owner at the time — a notoriously grouchy businessman named Harold Ballard — overhauled the management team, fired the coaches despite the players’ wishes, and slowly ostracized star players that refused to comply with Ballard’s low wage offers.
Ballard then left the team after being convicted on 49 counts of fraud, theft, and tax evasion — he was sentenced to serve nine years in the Kingston Penitentiary and Millhaven Institution — but by then he had already caused enough damage to the Leafs’ standing that the remains of the team resembled a pile of rubble.
It’s been 50 years since the Leafs last won a Stanley Cup. In that time, the Montreal Canadiens have won 10 Stanley Cups, and Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s greatest player, has started and finished his career.
Disco has come and gone. Saturn has made an orbit of the sun. Biggie and Tupac have lived and died.
And the Leafs have accomplished nothing. In the last 10 years, they’ve made the playoffs only once.
The irrational optimism of the fanbase
Given the recurring failures of the Toronto franchise, we’re led to wonder how such an underwhelming team continues to attract an abundance of devoted fans. While the Leafs have been pummeled by rivals and eaten alive by mediocre expansion teams, the Air Canada Centre continues to sell out consistently. As successful as the Raptors or the Blue Jays may be, Leafs games remain by far the most lucrative. Why?
In short, the answer resides in the illogical yet unbreakable optimism of Leafs fans, invoked by a sort of recreational purgatory to which the team is seemingly forever confined.
Allow me to explain.
Statistically speaking, the Leafs aren’t the worst of the NHL’s 30 teams. In fact, the Leafs lie somewhere in the middle of the best and the worst. On average, since their playoff run in 2003–2004, the Leafs have placed eleventh out of the 15–16 teams in their conference — not good, but not bad either. The Leafs usually land within one or two spots of making the playoffs, barely missing the cutoff.
This, however, is the worst possible scenario for a hockey team. In the NHL, being statistically mediocre is actually worse than being the worst. This is because, while the teams that perform best in a season are rewarded with a playoff run, the teams that perform worst in a season are rewarded with a better chance of acquiring a first or second round draft pick the following season.
This leaves the teams that finish in the middle struggling the most, as they don’t have a team strong enough to make the playoffs, nor one that’s weak enough to be compensated with better draft picks. In a nutshell, this is why the Leafs keep sucking.
But this is also why Leafs fans are left in a perpetual state of cautious optimism. To be mediocre in the NHL means that the mediocre team must demonstrate at least some strength prior to self-destruction, and it’s that demonstration of strength that gives Leafs fans hope.
This manifests itself in the trajectory of a Leafs season. While the team often performs admirably at the start of any given season — in turn, drumming up support from a rabid fan-base — the Leafs are prone to devolving into infamous, full-blown breakdowns midway through the season.
In turn, the Leafs cope with their losses by entering what’s commonly known in Toronto as a ‘rebuilding year.’ This is where the team rids themselves of their current management and, hopefully, the bad habits they picked up along the way. But the rebuilding years have had little success, as demonstrated by the four coaches and four general managers that the team has let go in the past 10 years.
Nonetheless, the rebuilding years are Leafs fans’ perfect fodder for false optimism. During every year that the team rebuilds, they recruit new household names that give Leafs fans something to talk about. In 2005, it was former star Eric Lindros; in 2006, it was goaltending-hopeful Andrew Raycroft; in 2008, it was General Manager Cliff Fletcher; and in 2009, it was Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. Each aforementioned name entered Leafs Nation with extraordinarily high expectations from Leafs fans and each proved incapable of meeting them.
Which brings us to this season.
Like every other season for the past 10 years, the 2016–2017 season has been conveniently labelled a rebuilding year, with much of the same characteristics. Old managers and coaches have been swapped for new ones. The team roster has been remoulded significantly. A first-round draft pick — Auston Matthews — has been added to the lineup along with hometown kid Mitch Marner, the prior year’s fourth round overall draft pick. As usual, Leafs fans have been gifted with a familiar reason for hope.
But perhaps there’s another reason to restore our collective faith in the Leafs.
On the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Hillman Hex, Hillman was asked if he would ever lift the curse he had burdened his former team with so many years ago. Hillman, who by then had ample time to cool off, said yes, but not yet. Only after 50 years, he said, would the curse be lifted officially.
This year, we celebrate 50 years of the Hillman Hex.