It was a confession, it was an apology. It was an envelope full of chunks of masonry, delivered by courier to Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens last month. During a tour of the Gardens last summer, a souvenir-hungry fan from British Columbia had chiseled a few brick fragments from the walls of the storied building and smuggled the rubble off the premises.
After the season began and Toronto sank to the bottom of the NHL standings, the thief had a change of heart. Fearing that he'd somehow desecrated the old barn, thereby jinxing the Maple Leafs, he returned the fragments with a note of apology. What the fan didn't know was that the Gardens, once described by Toronto owner Steve Stavro as hockey's "mother temple," home of 11 Stanley Cup champions and 44 Hall of Famers, had already been desecrated, repeatedly and obscenely.
Just when the soft, slow, old, underachieving, last-place Maple Leafs thought things couldn't get worse, the ghastly secrets of 60 Carlton Street began coming to light. On Feb. 18, Toronto police arrested Gordon Stuckless, 47, a former Gardens maintenance man, and charged him with "indecent assault of a male" and "gross indecency" for allegedly performing lewd sex acts on a minor. Three days later they arrested John Paul Roby, who had worked as a Gardens usher since 1971, on 11 counts of sexual assault against six boys, although detective Dave Tredrea, the lead investigator, told SI on Sunday that he had received complaints from 49 alleged victims.
By week's end police were preparing a separate investigation involving five other alleged perpetrators, two of whom may be former Gardens employees. The alleged assaults, not all of which occurred in the Gardens, took place over three decades, ending in 1993. The details that have emerged are chilling: Adolescents were lured with hockey sticks and game tickets given out by Gardens workers and then assaulted behind Zambonis, in saunas and boiler rooms.
Coming less than two months after former junior hockey coach Graham James of Calgary was convicted of sexually assaulting two of his players (SI, Jan. 13), news of the Gardens scandal rocked Canada, where the Maple Leafs have a strong national following. With the Montreal Forum recently razed, the Gardens, with its dun-colored bricks and cantilevered roof, may be Canada's most recognizable and beloved building. When the Maple Leafs held their disgracefully belated press conference to address the scandal on Feb. 24, two Canadian television networks interrupted their regularly scheduled programs to carry it live.
One day later the Leafs jolted Toronto again by trading 33-year-old captain Doug (Killer) Gilmour, the scrappy, highly skilled center who had been Toronto's emotional leader and best player this decade. Gilmour was dealt to the New Jersey Devils along with 32-year-old silver-haired defenseman Dave Ellett and a draft pick for a trio of players so young that, according to one Canadian columnist with a penchant for black comedy, "they'll need to be chaperoned around the Gardens."
The shipping of Killer to East Rutherford amounted to an admission by the Maple Leafs, who through Sunday had the worst record in the league (24-37-2), that their 1996-97 season is over. Toronto has endured a stunning reversal of fortune. Four years ago the Leafs were an overtime goal away from reaching the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since winning the trophy in 1967. The next season they appeared in their second consecutive Western Conference finals. But Toronto coach Mike Murphy, who was an assistant back then, recalls, "It was pretty clear that we'd gotten from that group of guys as much as we were going to get. It was time to retool."
Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher became a retooling fool, pulling the trigger on 29 trades over the next two seasons. Among the players he dealt or didn't resign were veteran forwards Dave Andreychuk, Dave Gagner and Mike Gartner. Still, he was unable to prevent Toronto from tumbling to the bottom of the Central Division standings. The Gilmour deal last week was another splash of Grecian Formula for one of the NHL's oldest clubs. "Three years from now, when Gilmour and Ellett are retired, we're going to have three guys who are 26, 25 and 22," says Fletcher. "We're paying now, but we'll get paid off later."
While he awaits the payoff, Murphy must work with a roster featuring a bunch of guys who are past their primes and a bunch of guys hoping that they'll have a prime. Says Murphy, "We're a team under reconstruction." So pardon their appearance.
In their first game after "the Dougie trade," as many Maple Leafs players glumly referred to the Gilmour deal, Toronto somnambulated through a 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals. Afterward, some Leafs were asked if they believed they could make the playoffs. "Hey, there are still 20 games left," said left wing Nick Kypreos. "Sometimes when an animal is wounded, that's when he's at his most dangerous."