"Q. What do the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Maple Leafs have in common?

"A. Neither can play hockey."

This type of humor, widely circulated here via newspaper and radio, has bedeviled the Maple Leafs all winter. Some say it derived from their ineptitude on the ice; others claim it is a contributing factor.

Whatever, the Maple Leafs have become the "Maple Laffs" to many in this one-time citadel of hockey tradition. Where once the citizens were hockey-mad, now they are just plain mad at the antics of owner Harold Ballard that have transformed the proud Stanley Cup champions of 1967 into the National Hockey League's worst team.

Good or bad, the Leafs are big news. The current issue of Maclean's, which bills itself as "Canada's weekly newsmagazine," features a story on Washington's wartime plans for Canada. The cover, however, has a picture of Ballard with the caption "Harold Ballard's Slapstick Leafs."

Ballard, now 81, takes delight in outrageous comments that demean virtually everyone -- women, blacks, born-again Christians, fellow owners, his players.

For years, he refused to permit visiting Soviet teams to play in Maple Leaf Gardens. Then, on a recent tour by Moscow Dynamo, he relented, only to order the following message flashed during a game against Canada's Olympic team:

"Remember Korean Airlines Flight 007 shot down by the Russians. Don't cheer, just boo. Harold."

That earned Ballard unwavering criticism from all areas of Canadian life, which hardly upset him. No doubt, he was satisfied that he had at least diverted attention from his hockey team for a few days.

The Leafs, who entertain the Washington Capitals here Tuesday (WDCA-TV-20 at 8 p.m.), are the only club in the NHL with a better record on the road than at home. They have won one of their last eight games here, while losing one of their last seven away from home, and the players are not reluctant to admit that they prefer life on the road.

In fact, they have become virtual prisoners in their Toronto homes and apartments, reluctant to venture forth in public because of the derision with which they are greeted.

Defenseman Borje Salming admitted he no longer walks the city's streets. Right wing Rick Vaive said he wished the team could play all its games on the road. Said Coach Dan Maloney when the Leafs left town last week: "They were a different team. I could see it in their eyes. When you're losing, Toronto is not the city to be in."

Although Leafs' games continue to be reported as sellouts of 16,182, ticket buyers do not necessarily bother to occupy the seats. During a January "sellout" against Vancouver, reporters estimated 4,000 in the stands. Some of them wore bags over their heads.

For those who grew up in Ontario during the salad days of the '60s, the Leafs' demise is hard to stomach, although not difficult to understand.

"All across Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs were legendary," said Washington winger Bob Gould, a native of Petrolia, Ontario. "Obviously, everybody compared Montreal and Toronto, and these days the comparison isn't good."

"Kids dreamed about playing in the NHL, but playing with the Leafs was just a far-fetched idea," said Capitals winger Mike Gartner, who grew up in Barrie, Ontario. "We watched them every Saturday night on TV and just to go to Maple Leaf Gardens to see a game was a bit of a dream.

"It's sad to see the situation there now. Toronto has such a great hockey history, it's unfair to the people there to have to put up with this."

Defenseman Mike McEwen played junior hockey in Maple Leaf Gardens with the Marlboros, but he had no desire to graduate to the Leafs.

"Not with Harold Ballard there -- I knew his act," McEwen said. "I'm not surprised the way things have gone down. Ballard travels with them, he's always in the dressing room and at practices. Who's running the hockey team? I guess it shows."

Winger Craig Laughlin went to high school on Jarvis Street, a block from the Gardens, and wanted to wear the Leafs' sweater, although he said the idea has since worn thin.

"We'd stop and watch them at practice and it was everybody's ambition to play for them," Laughlin said. "There were only six teams then and watching the Leafs on Saturday night was a ritual.

"Even today, the Leafs are big news, good or bad. Look at the mob of writers who came with them last week. Hey, they may not be going anywhere this season, but they played great against us. They're young and they work hard, and that gives us a problem."

"Q. Can the Leafs see a light at the end of the tunnel?

"A. Yes, that's a train going through their goaltender's legs."


"I'm not laughing too hard, not after they came into Capital Centre and took a point away from us," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray, referring to Friday's 3-3 tie . . . Defenseman Darren Veitch is a likely starter Tuesday, although he said after today's practice that his sore ribs were "still a little tender."