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Sports This Week: Book reflects on memorable Leaf season

The distance of decades also gives the book insights of reflection.
Revival: The Chaotic, Colorful Journey of the 1977-78 Toronto Maple Leafs by the duo of by Damien Cox, and Gord Stellick.

YORKTON - It’s not easy being a Toronto Maple Leaf fan.

They last won a Stanley Cup when I was seven, the TV was black and white, and I had not yet become the sport fan I would become, so the actual memory is scant, more from books read later than watching games on the tube.

Since then the Leafs have been generally disappointing – even today as great as Auston Matthews is, a few more playoff games would be appreciated.

But, on occasion – rare as they have been – the Maple Leafs have risen above their norm of bare mediocrity to offer fans something more.

Such was a team some 10 years distant from the Stanley Cup, still years before the full yoke of decades of cup-less hockey was upon the team.

The 1977-78 Maple Leafs were exciting, dangerous, on the verge of greatness, and I was by then old enough to enjoy the ride.

So it was a joy to receive Revival: The Chaotic, Colorful Journey of the 1977-78 Toronto Maple Leafs by the duo of by Damien Cox, and Gord Stellick.

The book looks back on that near cup-raising season and rekindles memories of what might have been had things been just a little different.

As the teaser for the book notes the team was not exactly tagged for greatness; “eleven years after their surprising Stanley Cup victory in 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs once again managed to do something special—despite themselves.”

But again as the teaser notes it was a turbulent time for pro hockey.

“By the spring of 1978, the NHL was in chaos and spread thin, having exploded from the Original Six to eighteen teams in just seven years. Talent was hard to come by, made worse by the advent of the World Hockey Association, which was poaching players. The game was suffering and had descended into violence. Teams and the league were in mayhem. The NHL had become the Wild West on skates.

In Toronto, the Leafs faced their own challenges. Their bombastic, controversial owner, Harold Ballard, had been released from jail and was back to his meddling ways; star players had been haplessly traded away or pilfered by the WHA; and the team had to share the sports spotlight for the first time, with the brand-new Toronto Blue Jays.”

But the team emerged through the chaos to be one quite special.

“Somehow, the Leafs were able to turn the 1977-78 season into one shining moment in the team’s history. At the core were young draft picks now coming into their own, including Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Dave ‘Tiger’ Williams, and Ian Turnbull. And in a stunning coup a few years before, the Leafs had managed to land Swedish stars Börje Salming and Inge Hammarström, pioneering talents who would change the North American game.

“Backstopped by acrobatic goaltender Mike Palmateer and led by visionary coach Roger Neilson and GM Jim Gregory, this team was on a mad, memorable ride like no other, delivering the first real season of promise since the 1967 Cup win.”

The book is one timely in nature, the players involved beginning to leave us – Salming a rather obvious example. Waiting longer would have reduced the authors’ ability to talk directly with players for their memories.

The ability to talk to players today was important, Cox told Yorkton This Week, adding it gave them the base for a personal look at the history of the team, and history is important.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in history,” he said.

Author Cox said the idea for the book came about because there were long held questions about the team.

“It was a remarkable team in many ways,” said Cox.

“There were a lot of ‘what ifs’ about this team,” he said, adding they included how far the team might have gone with a key addition that never came, largely because of hands-on owner Harold Ballard.

Ballard was a huge personality, but the authors here left him largely on the periphery.

“The less about Ballard the better,” said Cox, adding he has been written of extensively and Revival chose to be more about the team.

Cox said because of the lens so often on the bombastic Ballard they felt it unfair “some really good stories about that team” had long been overlooked.

The distance of decades also gives the book insights of reflection.

Cox said he appreciates that looking at sport from the past through a current day lens adds perspective.