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The Official Site of the Toronto Maple Leafs

Grass Isn't Always Greener

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

Did you hear the one about the guy who stunk before he landed in Toronto and starred when he got here?

Neither has, couriers of a fun piece that named 10 athletes whose fortunes improved dramatically when they said goodbye to The Big Smoke.

To save you any suspense, the piece listed Tuukka Rask as the most important player who got away followed by Chauncey Billups, the Rangers’ Michael Young, Brad Boyes, former Raptor Marcus Camby, one-time Jay Jayson Werth, the unlamented Hal Gill, Doug Christie, Chris Carpenter and Steve Sullivan.

Pretty good list, even if it overlooked Larry Murphy, booed all the way to Detroit where he won two more Stanley Cups and Tracy McGrady who would be a two-time scoring leader after shedding the purple.

There are plenty of mitigating factors, of course. Billups did indeed find the perfect situation in Detroit, but he was drafted by the Celtics. In addition to Toronto he could not catch on in Denver, Orlando and Minnesota. There is no doubting his abilities but the Raptors were far from the only team to drop the ball.

Christie wasn’t traded just to make room for Vince Carter. Off-court friction between a member of his circle and people from other players’ entourages helped punch his ticket.

I could split an atom easier than I could explain how Gill went from such a pedestrian defenceman in Toronto to such a valuable player in Pittsburgh and Montreal. If we lived in a land whose entire citizenry believed in the Toronto curse, Hal Gill’s face would be on the currency.

But the good folks at haven’t seen the other side: players whose careers fell off when they left town, players and in one case a manager whose best days came in Toronto. The great hope in these parts, of course, is that Dion Phaneuf’s name will be on top of any future list.

Here is my top 10.

1. Damon Stoudamire, Raptors, 1995-98. Stoudamire has often said he regretted the heavy-handed way he demanded a trade and a glance at his career stats shows why. In three years with Toronto, Stoudamire averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 assists. But Stoudamire’s totals backslid as soon as he went to Portland and by the midway point of his career, Stoudamire was just an average player.

2. Doug Gilmour, Leafs, 1994-1997.
Gilmour won a Stanley Cup in Calgary but his best two statistical seasons, 127 and 111 points came as a Leaf. A tremendous player with the Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues, Gilmour hit his apex with the Leafs and then nicely treaded water for eight more seasons.

3. Vince Carter, Raptors, 1998-2004. Carter was never more important than in the six full seasons he spent in Toronto. He was on par with Richard Jefferson and Jason Kidd in New Jersey and Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson in Orlando. As for the championship he left town to win: nope.

4. Felix Potvin, Leafs, 1992-1999. Potvin was stellar for the Leafs and the winner of 24 playoff games until he was usurped by Curtis Joseph. His career divides neatly, 369 regular season games with the Leafs, 280 with the Islanders, Bruins, Kings and Canucks. He would win only 10 playoff games in the second half of his career and steep declines in everything from wins to goals against average and save percentage proves what everybody already knows: his best years came with the Leafs.

5. Darryl Sittler Leafs, 1970-1982. Now a member of the Leafs front office, Sittler was one of the game’s best centres and the linchpin of the club through the turbulent 1970s. But constant warring with owner Harold Ballard and the ravages of time saw Sittler fall swiftly after his time in The Big Smoke. Yes, he scored 43 and 21 goals in Philadelphia but he played only one more season before retiring.

6. Jerome Williams. Raptors, 2000-2003. The interesting thing about the Junkyard Dog is this: his statistics in Toronto were pretty much the same as they were in Detroit. What was different was the public’s adoration of Williams as an always-hustling rebounder and ball-hunter. The numbers may not point to Williams’ prime being played out in Toronto but he remains the people’s choice in Hogtown.

7. Antonio Davis. Raptors, 1999-2004. Davis’ best four offensive seasons, 11.5, 13.7, 14.5 and 13.9 points per game all came with the Raptors. His best four rebounding seasons also came in purple.

8. Pat Borders. Blue Jays, 1988-94. Borders won a World Series MVP and cemented his reputation as a durable catcher. But even though he enjoyed a 17-year big league career, he left his best work in Toronto. Borders hit 53 homers in his seven years with the Jays. While he would play 10 more seasons, he only homered 13 times the rest of the way.

9. Roberto Alomar, Blue Jays, 1991-1995. Alomar seems destined for the Hall of Fame and while he was a star in Baltimore and Cleveland after leaving Toronto, he won two World Series here and established himself as the most gloriously-talented second baseman of his generation.

10. Punch Imlach, Leafs. Remembered as a coach, Imlach did double duty as a GM as well. In 11 seasons with the Leafs, Imlach won four Cups and lost in the final on two more occasions. In eight seasons running the expansion Buffalo Sabres, he got his team to the finals once.
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