The Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club has a storied history with thirteen Stanley Cups, all won in the first half-century of the NHL. It’s been 47 years since the last one and it begs the question – do the Leafs have a curse? Like one of those damaging sports curses like the Bambino or the Billy Goat?

The Leafs have experienced at least one brush with a curse. Bill Barilko was brought up from the Hollywood Wolves and helped win Stanley Cups in 1947, ’48, ’49, and ’51. His story is told in the Tragically Hip song 50 Mission Cap on their 1992 album, ‘Fully Completely’. In it, lead singer Gord Downie aligns the Leaf defenseman with WWII fighter pilots in a rock song fit for heroes.


Bill Barilko disappeared that summer

He was on a fishing trip

The last goal he ever scored

Won the Leafs the cup

They didn’t win another till nineteen sixty two

The year he was discovered

I stole this from a hockey card

I keep tucked up under

My fifty-mission cap

I worked it in

I worked it in to look like that

It’s my fifty-mission cap

It’s his fifty-mission cap

And I worked it in

I worked it in

And I worked it in to look like that

And I worked it in to look like that


People have questioned whether it was Barilko or the Leafs who was cursed through those years, considering the Stanley Cup finals wrapped up seven weeks before the wreckage was finally found that summer. Either way, the Barilko tragedy cemented the legacy of #5 and marked the end of curses in this city.

I submit we are under no curse and that it has been other less ethereal issues that have plagued the team for years.

The Leafs won the Cup again in ’63, ’64, and their last one in 1967. They’re a team capable of winning cups, but a decades long string of formidable impediments to that end, have endured. For example, the era of Harold Ballard was curse-like and he was an embarrassment, but it was not a curse.

In the early days of his tenure Ballard was convicted on 47 of 49 charges of fraud, theft, and tax evasion. He had money on his mind. As owner of the Gardens, one night he jacked up the heat and made crowds wait an hour for their concert to start, all while selling drinks at triple the regular price.

He made enemies of some of his players including multi-Lady Byng-winner Dave Keon and when he was eager to leave the team, Ballard raised his buyout price to an unaffordable level. (In 1975, the New York Islanders had interest but were deterred by the cost – that team would win four Stanley Cups from 1980 – 1983.) Ballard brought no championships, and the club was not a threat in the league again until he was gone.

The nineties were spotted with good runs with Burns and Gilmour, and then with Quinn and Sundin, but before, between and after those highlights, and especially since the lockout, they’ve been terrible. Not curse-terrible, they’ve just been fraught with bad management and bad luck – it seems they need to try harder to get to a position to take advantage of the good vibrations when they circle.

Perhaps they need a more inspiring coach or captain. Do Carlyle’s last three minutes in the dressing room get the Leafs jacked before they step on the ice? Does Phaneuf lead his players? Neither is apparent. Toronto is a fish bowl for sure, but management should be taking more care to ensure the bowl’s got at least a couple of serious Siamese fighting fish – to bolster team passion, not fisticuffs.

Fans occasionally wonder, ‘Why me? What could I possibly do differently?’ This connects to that feeling of guilt that pangs when your team loses because you missed a game, or is scored on while you were in the bathroom – and then you think, ‘Did I really need to go?’

Though the Leafs and their fans are experiencing a pesky 47-year drought, there doesn’t seem to be any discernible ghost. This is a surmountable problem free from curses. It’s up to the team and its management to make a serious go at Stanley, and it allows fair-weathers and diehards alike to watch and hope that one day, with the right combination, the dry spell may be broken.


Image sources: & Michael Doyle (Smiles from Ear to Hear – Dentures and Hearing Clinic 888 College Street, Toronto)

The Tragically Hip’s 50 Mission Cap

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