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01-26-2013, 01:47 PM
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Why did the Maple Leafs decide against signing Wayne Gretzky as a free agent in 1996?

It seems there has long been something inevitable about a Gretzky/Maple Leafs union. As a young hockey phenom in Brantford, Ont. — an hour’s drive from Toronto — Gretzky idolized the Blue & White. I can still close my eyes and see him sitting next to his first hockey agent — Gus Badali — at Leaf games in the mid-to-late-’70s. Badali had season tickets in the south-mezzanine blues at Maple Leaf Gardens, a dozen or so seats to the left of my own ducats in Sec. 30. During the era of Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming and Tiger Williams, Badali would often be accompanied by a gangly, long-haired kid with a big nose and lots of acne. People around me would point to the kid and talk about the things they were hearing and reading — that he would one day become the greatest hockey player who ever lived. It seemed improbable at the time, but we all know how it turned out.

In the summer of 1996 — long after he had re-written the NHL record book — Gretzky wanted to finish his playing career as a member of the Leafs. Fletcher, in his first coming as Toronto GM, had all but worked out the details of a free agent contract with Barnett when Leafs’ owner Steve Stavro put the kibosh on the deal. In the ensuing years, two stories have made the rounds. The first, and most prominent, is that Stavro denied approval on the grounds that Gretzky could not possibly fill any vacant seats at the Gardens. Stavro was in a financial crunch at the time and had recently slashed the Leafs’ payroll. But, Stavro, himself, had a different take — one he relayed to me on a long flight from Vienna to Toronto after the 2005 World Hockey Championships. The owner, who would pass away just more than a year later, claimed that Gretzky and Barnett wanted equity in the Leafs — a demand that he and his board of directors were unprepared to meet.

Whatever the case, the situation didn’t pan out, and Gretzky signed with the New York Rangers — the club with which he finished his career three years later.

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