Friday, January 01, 2016

previewing the maple leafs' 1977/78 season

hny 1977-78 cover
The WHA! The original Jets! Willi Plett!
Some people treasure pristine mint editions of old books and magazines. I treasure ragged copies that were well-loved, which display the repeated wear-and-tear of an owner who regularly flipped the pages (just as long as none of those pages are missing).

This is one of the most worn items in my collection: The Hockey News 1978 Yearbook, previewing the 1977/78 NHL and WHA seasons. Part of its weary appearance is due to little Jamie's use of it as something to press down upon while scribbling maps, fake hockey cards, or whatever else entered my brain. Part is my childhood fascination with a season just slightly before I followed pro hockey, spotlighting a league (the WHA) which was gone by the time I started watching Hockey Night in Canada and collecting sports cards.



hny 1977-78 maple leafs 1
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The yearbook consisted of several introductory articles, followed by season previews for each of the 18 NHL teams and 8 WHA franchises, then a back section featuring a European roundup, junior/minor league statistics, and a full list of picks in the 1977 NHL amateur draft (number one went to the Detroit "Dead Things," who chose Dale McCourt, nephew of Maple Leafs hall-of-famer George Armstrong).

hny 1977-78 maple leafs 2
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The team previews dredge up several teams now lost to the mists of time. There's the Cleveland Barons, the last NHL team to fold operations (they merged with the Minnesota North Stars following the 1977/78 season). There's the Colorado Rockies, a franchise now mainly known for being Don Cherry's last NHL coaching stop, a team whose colourful logo I occasionally wear. And there's a slew of long-deceased WHA clubs: the Cincinnati Stingers ("Good organization has paid handsome dividends" its preview headline proclaimed), the Houston Aeros (which had just lost the Howe family to the New England Whalers), the Indianapolis Racers (a season away from being Wayne Gretzky's launchpad), and the Birmingham Bulls (the relocated Toronto Toros). 

hny 1977-78 maple leafs 3
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Hopes were high for the 1977/78 Maple Leafs. A maturing group of young stars were placed under the direction of new head coach Roger Neilson, who'd spent a decade guiding the Peterborough Petes. He was known as "Captain Video" for his then-innovative use of videotape to analyze competitors. Unfortunately, Neilson had to deal with the meddling of obnoxious team owner Harold Ballard, who never warmed to the coach's extreme dedication to the sport. In one of the franchise's low points, Ballard attempted to fire Neilson after a slump during the 1978/79 season. Unable to find a replacement, and receiving criticism from all over, Ballard wanted Neilson to return to the bench wearing a paper bag over his head . Neilson refused and coached as normal.

hny 1977-78 maple leafs 4
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The 1977/78 Maple Leafs finished third in the Adams Division, behind the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres. They had a good playoff run, losing in the semi-finals to the eventual Stanley Cup champion, the Montreal Canadiens. After falling in the quarter-finals the following year, Neilson was given the sack, ushering in a long period of darkness for the boys in blue.  

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