Tuesday, September 1, 2015


While there was little controversy associated with Gerry McNamara's playing career, that all changed when he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs front office. But it took time for the avalanche to make its way down the mountain.

Prior to getting back on the saddle, McNamara was employed by Wellinger & Dunn (equipment manufacturer) as their pro representative.

On his way home from a business trip, he stopped off in Sudbury, Ontario and made a call home.

"My wife said Jim Gregory had called and was looking for me, something about a scouting job," McNamara recalled of the conversation. "I could hardly sleep. I got up at five-o'clock in the morning and went back to Toronto."

The next step in the process was to meet with the Leafs general manager.

"I went down to see Jim Gregory and he offered me the job."

To this day, McNamara is thankful to have been given a chance to return to the game.

"It is the greatest thing that ever happened to me, I was walking on air," McNamara proudly said. "Jimmy Gregory was the best thing that ever happened to me. He and Joe Kane."

In his new position, McNamara was given one task which led to his greatest find as a scout.

"Jimmy gave me the opportunity to be the special assignment scout, which gave me the opportunity to be called into his office and be told, 'Gerry, we want you to go over to Sweden and look at a goaltender'."

During his scouting mission in 1972-73 to Sweden, McNamara not only took a look at the goalie, but he came across two players who played for Brynas.

"I saw these players and I couldn't believe what I was watching. Inge Hammarstrom scored 5 goals and Borje Salming scored 2."

His chance to approach Salming came with three-minutes remaining in the third period. The native of Kiruna, Sweden was tossed from the game for making contact with the referee.

"Borje walked in front of me with the trainer and walked around the glass to the dressing room in the corner."

That is when McNamara made his move.

"I knocked on the dressing room door and the trainer opened it. I handed Borje my card and said, you play for the Toronto Maple Leafs."

Standing guard by the locker room, McNamara engaged Hammarstrom as he came off the ice. He delivered his pitch to the Brynas forward and arranged to talk later on the phone, as Hammarstrom had a better command of the English language than Salming.

"I told him that I thought both he and Borje could play for us and would they be interested. He said, 'yes', and I told him we would be in touch with him."

Not wanting to leave the door open for his competitors, McNamara called the Leafs hockey office and instructed them to add Salming and Hammarstrom to their protected list.

At the 1973 World Hockey Championships in Moscow, McNamara and chief scout, Bob Davidson, were on the prowl for additional talent. In addition to Salming and Hammarstrom, the Leafs had their eye on another Swede - Anders Hedberg.

To McNamara's dismay, things didn't go as planned.

"The only thing I'm disappointed in a little bit, Bob Davidson, and I don't mean to criticize him, but he didn't understand the Swedish mentality. One of the things you can't do is criticize the Swede's. They lose confidence in what their doing."

He provided an example of how Davidson's harsh tone may have influenced Hedberg.

"Davidson sat there and he talked to Hedberg. He asked him, 'what makes you think you can play for the Toronto Maple Leafs'?"

Based on this line of questioning, McNamara wasn't surprised when Hedberg didn't sign with Toronto.

On May 12, 1973, Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom inked contracts with the Maple Leafs.

"I remember Johnny McLellan (the Leafs coach) saying to me over the summer, 'Gerry you better be right'," McNamara stated concerning his appraisal of the two imports. "Bob Davidson was sitting right there and never said a word. I was taking the heat, but I didn't care because I knew what they were going to show."

"I remember the first practice they skated in and the jaws dropped. They (the Leaf brass) couldn't believe what they were seeing. The way they could skate and the way they could handle the puck. At that time, those guy's could do things with the puck that we couldn't do."

Looking back over Salming's time in the NHL, McNamara talks like a proud dad.

"I think he is one of the all-time best defencemen that has ever played in the National Hockey League. I would take him anytime and maybe over anybody, except for Bobby Orr."

Under the direction of Jim Gregory and the coaching of Roger Neilson, the Leafs were steadily improving and upset the New York Islanders in the 1978 playoffs. But that all changed the following spring.

"Mr. Ballard's biggest mistake was that he fired Jim Gregory," McNamara pointed out. "Everything changed at the Gardens, then."

Gregory was dismissed following a first-round exit in the 1979 post-season. In his search for a replacement, Ballard turned to the past and hired Punch Imlach as his new general manager.

"I'm sure "King" (Clancy) probably talked Mr. Ballard into bringing him in. Punch was a disaster. He got rid of all the players. He traded Lanny McDonald out of spite because he couldn't trade Sittler."

On the eve of training camp in 1981, Imlach suffered a heart attack.

"I was over in St. Catharines at camp and Mike Nyklouk (the Leafs coach) sort of took over. I went back to the Gardens because I had some scouting stuff to do. I was sitting at my desk and Mr. Ballard came walking by."

His chat with Ballard produced a positive result, but ultimately his rise up the chain of command put him directly in the path of a roaring avalanche of controversy.

The Leaf owner, while offering McNamara a promotion, laid his cards on the table.

As McNamara explains it, Ballard told him, "Gerry I want you to take over and if you can't do it, I will bring in someone else that can do it." McNamara told the boss, "I can do it."

At the start, McNamara was named acting general manager and prior to the 1982-83 campaign the acting portion of the title was removed.

It was a time of highs and lows for McNamara.

"One of the things about Mr. Ballard was he never allowed me to hire my own coach."

As though ready for detractors, who would question him for agreeing to this, McNamara quickly defended his position.

"I know some of you might say how could you do that, but I loved my job. I loved where I was and I loved the money. I wasn't about to say no I don't agree with it and I quit. I said you own the club and you have the right do whatever you want with the club."

This didn't mean McNamara stayed clear of suggesting coaching changes to Ballard.

One potential coach McNamara had in mind is currently employed with the Maple Leafs.

"I thought of Lou Lamoriello, he was coaching in Providence and I had a relationship with him," McNamara said of Lamoriello, who was hired as the Leafs GM on July 23, 2015. "I mentioned him (to Ballard) and he replied that, ' I don't want any college coach in here coaching this team'. And that was the end of that. Lou doesn't know that, I never mentioned it to him."

Despite the restrictions imposed by a bombastic and interfering owner, McNamara is proud of his performance.

"I grew into the job and I think I did a darn fine job if I must say so myself."

He pointed out his ability to evaluate young talent.

"Go take a look at my drafts and take a look at the drafts since I left. Tell me that we didn't draft well. In my last draft, six players went to the National Hockey League - Richardson (Luke), Marios (Daniel), McIntyre (John), Sacco (Joe), Eastwood (Mike) and Rhodes (Damian)."

One of the best junior players selected by McNamara was Wendel Clark in the 1985 Draft held in Toronto.

"I was enamoured by Wendel Clark," McNamara said of Clark, who is one of the most popular players ever to wear a Leaf uniform. "I didn't like the way he was up ice all night. I said to myself there is no way he was going to play defence for us. I'm going to make him a forward. He could shoot the puck, skate and he was tough. He had no sense of danger when it came to carrying the puck."

Once Clark arrived in Toronto, McNamara knew he had a gem.

"He made a world of difference to our team. He made the other players better. He made them tougher. And pound for pound, as tough as a guy as I've ever seen. Wendel Clark's not a big guy, but he took on everybody."

Not mentioning a name, McNamara revealed that someone in the hockey department wanted to take Craig Simpson over Clark.

"I said, I'll tell you what, it's my neck on the line. I'm going to make the decision this time and we're taking Wendel."

Gerry McNamara's run as general manager came to an end on February 7, 1988. His downfall came when he lost a power struggle with John Brophy, who coached the Leafs at the time.

"We needed a change and I spoke up," McNamara told reporters after getting the boot. "I did battle inside. I had to fight. I thought I could convince Ballard, but I lost."

No longer pinned against the ropes, McNamara came out swinging.

"I didn't have the authority to hire or fire coaches, so don't pin the won-and-lost record on me."

As sometimes happens, a story can take on a life of its own and involve innocent parties. In McNamara's case, he wanted to set the record straight on a couple of tales where he is falsely mentioned.

McNamara returned to scouting after getting his walking papers from Ballard. As a member of the Calgary Flames staff, he won a Stanley Cup in 1989. He wanted to make it clear he never recommended to the Flames that they make the Doug Gilmour-to-Toronto deal on January 2, 1992. When crunch time came, McNamara was on the road and couldn't reach a phone to voice his opinion.

On another matter, McNamara stated he had nothing to do with the 1972 scouting report on Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak. The report supplied to Team Canada indicated that Tretiak couldn't stop a balloon.

"Johnny McLellan and Bob Davidson went to see Tretiak," he said in identifying the two responsible for the miscalculation.

A tall man, McNamara stood up after his lengthy talk and took advantage of the chance to move about. He seemed pleased to have taken a trip down memory lane and at the same time straighten out some curves in the road along the way.

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