THN Archive: Former Leafs Coach and GM Spared Nothing When Discussing Volatile Relationship

 

We’re settling into our duty as curator of The Hockey News Archive – don’t forget, you can have full access to the archive when you subscribe to the magazine – and in today’s file, we’re going back more than 35 years to our coverage of a Canadian team in disarray.

No, not the Ottawa Senators, who were in the news for parting with their GM this week and forfeiting a first-round pick. Instead, we’re talking about the 1985 Toronto Maple Leafs, who fired GM Gerry McNamara on Feb. 7, 1988, amid a very public battle between McNamara and Buds coach John Brophy.

In this curated story – written by then-Associate Editor (and eventual editor in chief) Steve Dryden, as part of our Feb. 19, 1988 issue – THN examines exactly what went wrong for both the Leafs as an organization as well as McNamara, who held the GM position in Toronto for more than seven years, an eternity in the current NHL.

Neither McNamara nor Brophy holds back at all in providing their perspective on the end of McNamara’s reign as chief architect of the Leafs – or at least, the theory of McNamara being the chief architect. In practice, McNamara told Dryden, it was team owner Harold Ballard who decided who would be a Leafs player and who wasn’t, and who was good enough to be Leafs coach and who wasn’t.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t have the authority to pick a person to lead the players on the ice,” McNamara said, directly referencing Brophy and the coaching position, then discussing Brophy and his relationship with the Leafs coach. “Let’s say we didn’t see eye-to-eye.”

Brophy also spoke candidly about his working relationship with McNamara.

“Well, I don’t think we’ll be having dinner,” Brophy said sarcastically. “How could (we) be? He tried to fire me last year.”

Can you imagine the eruption from the hockey internet today if a coach and GM went after one another the way McNamara and Brophy did? Social media would be aflame with reaction to the outburst we saw with the Leafs three-and-a-half decades ago.

But wait, it gets even more unreal when we’re talking about McNamara in particular. He flat-out denied he was the reason for the sad state of the Leafs, who had won just once in 21 games leading up to McNamara’s dismissal. “I refuse to take responsibility for what’s happened on the ice,” McNamara said. “I tried to guide (Brophy) a bit but unfortunately he didn’t listen.”

McNamara’s successor, Gord Stelick, lasted less than one-and-a-half years as Leafs GM, and the team suffered greatly until Cliff Fletcher took over in June of 1991. But as this THN feature hints at, Brophy was also on the hot seat – and while Toronto made the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1988 despite their terrible losing streak, Brophy could not lead them past the first round of the post-season, and he was fired in December of 1988. No one, it seemed, was safe from the axe from the infamous Ballard.

“Look, I don’t enjoy doing these things,” Ballard told the Toronto Sun after firing McNamara. “(B)ut in view of Gerry’s record, we had to do something. It’s a terrible record. In fact, it’s so bad I didn’t even want to mention it to him. That’s why we could no longer stand still.” The Leafs never stood still under Ballard, but they didn’t win many games, and that’s the ultimate metric that Toronto could not thrive under. The Senators are in better hands under new owner Michael Andlauer, who already is notably more open than most NHL team owners, but he and former GM Pierre Dorion have nothing on McNamara and Brophy when it comes to volatile relationships. Without further ado, here is that original story from 1988.

 

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