In any discussion of the worst teams in North America, you often hear the usual suspects like the Knicks, Raiders, and any team based in Cleveland. None of these teams remotely compare to the open sewer that is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Because they are based in Canada, and because hockey gets much less coverage than basketball, football, and baseball, the truly remarkable underperformance of the Leafs over the past 30+ years has not gotten anywhere near the attention it deserves.
Even those who have no interest in hockey should be interested in the Maple Leafs, not so much as a sports story but more from the perspective of organizational mismanagement. Toronto is easily the biggest market in the National Hockey League, it’s stadium has been sold out for generations, it has more endorsement opportunities than any other hockey city, and more players in the NHL grew up as fans of the Leafs than any other team, not because of past greatness but because so many players were born within a 3 hour drive downtown Toronto. Yet despite all of that, the Toronto Maple Leafs have never signed a star free agent in his prime. The Minnesota, a relative hinterland that has already lost one NHL franchise, seem to have no trouble attracting top talent.
It isn’t just that the richest, largest market team cannot sign top free agent stars; they can’t draft them either. The Maple Leafs have by far the worst scouting and drafting system in all of professional sports. Their futility in the draft stretches back almost three decades. To put in in perspective, if you took all of the 1st round picks made by the Leafs in the 28 years, Luke Schenn would be in 4th place in total career goals scored in a Leafs uniform. He scored 14 goals in a Leaf uniform. Scoring 14 goals in your career with a team would be like a receiver racking up 250 career receiving yards. Not a single 1st round pick scored 30 goals in a season for the team. That would be like a basketball team having 28 years of first round picks and never finding a player who could average 15 points a game.
The reason why the Leafs have been so bad for long, and the reason why even non-hockey fans should pay attention, is that the team has operated as a monopoly for much of its existence. Toronto is the biggest city in the most hockey mad country in the world and there is just one NHL team in the city. The nearest other NHL team, Buffalo, is in a different country. It isn’t just that there are so many hockey fans in the city, it is that the city has, proportionally speaking, far more corporate head offices than any other city in the league. There are 7 million people that live within a few hours of downtown Toronto, and 95% of them are hockey fans. There is a single NHL team in the city and their stadium has just under 20,000 seats, and all of the corporations based in Toronto buy large numbers of season tickets to entertain clients, so there is an incredible supply/demand imbalance in the market for hockey tickets in the city. It doesn’t matter how the team plays, people will continue to show up.
The monopoly situation that the team finds itself was actually aided by the rise of the Quebec separatist movement in the early 1980s. During the peak of the separatist movement between the early 80s and the mid-nineties, when there were two referendums and breaking up the country, huge numbers of corporations moved their head offices from Montreal to Toronto. With more head offices came more companies buying more season tickets. With a huge waiting lists for individuals hoping to buy tickets, even the most disgruntled fan will hold onto his seats as he knows he will likely never get season tickets again if he were to give them up.
The reason why the Toronto Maple Leafs have not been any good for the past three decades is that they don’t need to be any good. Most other sports franchises at least need to give their fan bases some hope for the future. The Leafs could literally buy a bunch of size 18 skates and put the Raptors out on the ice and they would still sell out. As long as people line up to pay scalpers twice the face value of tickets to watch one of the worst teams in all of sports, there is little hope that the Leafs will become a competently run organization any time in the foreseeable future.