Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Jiri Crha

The Toronto Maple Leafs of 1980 were a team in turmoil and transition. Having in 1978 beating the New York Islanders in the quarter finals, the Leafs went on to be swept by the Canadiens in the semi-finals AND the 1979 quarter-finals. As well, captain Darryl Sittler was feuding with owner Harold Ballard, and once he was re-hired, GM Punch Imlach. When Imlach stated he was open to offers of trade for his captain, Sittler's agent Alan Eagleson said it would take $500,000 for him to waive his no-trade clause. Instead, just after Christmas 1979, Imlach traded Sittler's best friend and line mate Lanny McDonald to the lowly Colorado Rockies. In response to this, Sittler decided to remove the captain "C" from his sweater. Even with all this going on, he managed to pot 27 goals in his final 40 games and the team flirted with a .500 record until March. They finished in 11th place overall with 75 points before being swept by the Minnesota North Stars.

In his post-mortem of the season, Ballard, with infinite idiocy is quoted in the March 21,1980 Hockey News as saying,"We will definitely win the Cup next year". He also said it would take some trade to get rid of Sittler. Apparently less than two years later the definition of "some trade" turned out to be Peter Ihnacak, Rich Costello and Ken Strong, some trade indeed.

A large part of the Leafs future hope rested on the back of Czechoslovakian goaltender Jiri Crha. The Leafs had won a bidding war with Montreal and Philadelphia for the 29 year old veteran. Crha was a regular on the Czech national squad, usually the back-up in addition to posting solid numbers in league action for Pardubice. Incumbent star Mike Palmateer was on the outs with management, having demanded a five year deal worth $500,000. Imlach shipped him to Washington in June of '80 in essence handing the reigns to Crha.

Having been unfamiliar with the NHL style of goaltending, Crha spent the first half of 79/80 simply practicing with the Leafs and learning from Palmateer and Johnny Bower. He was quoted in the 1980/81 Pro Hockey Book as saying, "Goaltending is different in the NHL, you must move out to cut off shooting angles and you must play the puck outside of your crease. These were things I had to learn. I had never done them."
Quite the pickup for the Leafs you might say? After impressing in the AHL for Moncton, Crha was summoned to the big club in mid-February after injuries had ravaged four Leaf tenders (see earlier blog entry about Bower almost being called upon). The Czech import wasted little time impressing winning 8 of 15 games in posting a respectable 3.61 average.

In Ballard's Cup guaranteed year of 80/81 Crha went 20-20-11 with a 4.07 average. The Leafs posted 71 points and were once again first round sweepees by the eventual Cup champion Islanders. Perhaps this is the premonition that Ballard had the previous year, he just misinterpreted it...silly old codger. Anyhow, that would be it for Crha's NHL experiment, although he'd play until his early forties in the German League. The Jiri Crha era in Toronto was over.

And that was the beginning of the end for the Leafs, or at least the continuation of it. Over the next dozen seasons the Leafs floundered, never finishing over .500 and winning but two playoff series. In 1992-93 they made their first of four league semi-finals over ten seasons, but the Leafs are still Cup-less into a fifth decade. Sigh.

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