But Ballard may be slowing down. Diabetes has led to circulation problems in his feet and, it seems, to a growing sense of his mortality. Asked how he was feeling last Tuesday night in St. Louis, Ballard fired back a fastball: "You writers aren't going to get rid of me that easy." But the heater doesn't pop the way it used to, and those close to the team say that in the last year Ballard has left much of the running of the club to general manager Gerry McNamara and coach Dan Maloney. And while speculation is rampant that either or both may be booted if the Leafs keep losing, Ballard said, "I'm convinced we have the right coach and the right general manager." Words to start packing by?
If only one man goes it will probably be Maloney (rumored replacements include ex-Leaf coach, now scout, Floyd Smith, ex- Chicago coach Orval Tessier and ex-Washington coach Gary Green). Yet Maloney seems to have done the best he could given his paucity of scorers. The Leafs are losing, but they are not getting blown out. Ten of their 12 losses have been by one or two goals. The question is: Has McNamara given Maloney the horses?
In dealing away Sittler, all McNamara got in return were Rich Costello and Ken Strong, who have spent most of their careers in St. Catharine's, and a draft choice that turned out to be Peter Ihnacak, an average forward. He also traded Laurie Boschman to Edmonton for Walt Poddubny. Boschman is now with Winnipeg and in a three-way tie as the Jets' leading scorer. Poddubny was with St. Catharine's until being recalled last Thursday. And in trading John Anderson and Bill Derlago this year, McNamara gave up 63 goals from a team that needs all the scoring it can get.
McNamara appears to have fared well in the '85 draft, No. 1 overall pick Wendel Clark having shown that he's a tough kid who can score (eight goals). But the 1982 first-rounder, defenseman Gary Nylund, still makes mistakes in his own zone, and the top 1983 selection, forward Russ Courtnall, had only 12 goals in 69 games last year. McNamara claims Courtnall, Nylund and the team's 1984 first-round pick, defenseman Al Iafrate, will develop into top players. "Looking back I don't see anything I would've done differently," he says. But McNamara admits, "What we're going through isn't heartbreaking, it's heartrending."
That was certainly the case last Tuesday night. With 2:03 left in what appeared to be a sure 3-3 tie (and a much-needed point) in St. Louis, Leafs forward Miroslav Frycer broke a cardinal rule of hockey—don't overhandle the puck in your zone when you're the last man out—which led to a breakaway game-winning goal to the Blues' Joe Mullen. As some Leafs smashed their sticks on the ice in frustration, Ballard drew a deep breath and, just for a moment, looked down on his chest where he might have read the inscription on his tie clasp: STANLEY CUP 1962. Twenty-three years and forever ago.