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A history of Maple Leafs mid-season firings

The fiery John Brophy was dismissed in December 1988 and replaced by George Armstrong behind the Maple Leafs’ bench. The Blue and White failed to make the playoffs that season.  TORONTO SUN FILE
The fiery John Brophy was dismissed in December 1988 and replaced by George Armstrong behind the Maple Leafs’ bench. The Blue and White failed to make the playoffs that season.  TORONTO SUN FILE

A year almost to the day that St. Louis fired Mike Yeo, brought in Craig Berube and saw all of that eventually pay off in a Stanley Cup, the Maple Leafs are trying for a little Gloria of their own.

Actually, just getting in the win column would suit them short-term as Sheldon Keefe was re-routed from Coca-Cola Coliseum and his Marlies game against Laval, to the Arizona desert as Mike Babcock’s replacement on Wednesday.

Has firing a Leafs coach in-season ever worked in getting a playoff spot back? Well, it’s happened seven times since the 1967 expansion, with almost all of the dismissals coming on the road and three times the Leafs getting to the post-season.

But each episode also had unique circumstances …

MARCH 1979: Harold Ballard fired Roger Neilson right on television, TV host Dick Beddoes breathlessly telling viewers after cameras saw him huddling with the Leafs owner after a loss in Montreal. But Ballard couldn’t find a replacement and had to bring Neilson back two days later. He wanted Neilson to wear a bag over his head as a gag and take it off for the faceoff of a home game against the Flyers. Neilson wisely refused.

RESULT: The Leafs made the playoffs, beat Atlanta in a best-of-three, but were swept by the Canadiens.

JANUARY 1981: In the second coming of Punch Imlach as GM, marred by the war with Darryl Sittler, Imlach fired Joe Crozier as coach with the team 17th in a 21-team league. Mike Nykoluk, who had been Fred Shero’s assistant with the Flyers, was hired out of the Leafs’ radio booth and got them to .500 hockey (15-15-10).

RESULT: The Leafs squeezed into the playoffs, but ran right into the Islanders, bent on revenge for their seven-game loss to Toronto in 1978. They swept a best-of-three, outscoring the Leafs 20-4.

DECEMBER 1988: From a hot start that put them near first overall, feisty John Brophy’s team hit a wall in November. Against the backdrop of Ballard trying to undermine GM Gord Stellick, team icon George Armstrong reluctantly agreed to coach as long as assistant Garry Lariviere did all the work and no one told Ballard.

RESULT: Once more, the Leafs did well in the forgiving playoff system of the time to need just one win in the final two games of the weekend to qualify. But they lost both in overtime to division rivals St. Louis and Chicago.

OCTOBER 1990: Ripped 7-1 by Winnipeg on opening night, Doug Carpenter’s Leafs just won one of their first 11. ‘Doug and the Slugs’ were turned over to assistant Tom Watt.

RESULT: Many of the players who would help the Leafs to back-to-back conference finals were on this team — Wendel Clark, Dave Ellett, Peter Zezel, Todd Gill, Mike Foligno and Mark Osborne. But until the 10-player Gilmour trade the following season, the Leafs won just 22 of the next 69 games.

MARCH 1996: Pat Burns was near the end of his rope after only six wins past New Year’s Day and the promise of a Cup long gone. There were some semantics about whether he was fired or quit, but the Leafs tabbed director of pro scouting Nick Beverley as the interim coach. With a record of 9-6-2, seven of them in the closing three weeks of the schedule, the Leafs were in.

RESULT: Toronto didn’t play well in the series against the Blues, prompting Beverley to call them “a bunch of nimrods” after one game. Gilmour had his last series as a Leaf, but an injured Mats Sundin didn’t help matters in a six-game loss.

MARCH 2012: Ron Wilson had not made the playoffs in his four years and was not a crowd favourite. So when the Leafs went nearly a month without a regulation win, GM Brian Burke had to dump his old friend. Another former Leafs defenceman, Randy Carlyle, was between jobs and brought aboard.

RESULT: Other than a huge debut win in Montreal, Carlyle had just as much trouble lighting a fire under players such as Phil Kessel. It came down to the last weekend, but the Leafs failed to qualify.

JANUARY 2015: It was Carlyle’s turn in the ejection seat with GM Dave Nonis pressing the button. Assistant coach Peter Horachek got the gig after seven road games produced two victories. Horachek won his opener against Columbus and was given the Canadian Forces camo jacket as MVP. But 11 losses later, he still had it, at one point snapping at his players in the media that the “give-a-s–t meter needs to be higher.”

RESULT: Horachek was swept out with many others at season’s end as Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and new coach Mike Babcock moved in.

lhornby@postmedia.com

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