The Toronto Maple Leafs were the biggest joke in Canada last year. Everyone was snickering at the Maple Laffs .
A popular joke was: What do the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays have in common? Neither team can play hockey.
"It wasn't easy," said right wing Rick Vaive, the Maple Leafs' leading scorer and captain. "No one likes to lose. No one likes to hear themselves joked about."
The Maple Leafs finished with the worst record in the 21-team National Hockey League last season, 20-52-8.
"The organization bottomed out last year, there's no question about it," Toronto Coach Dan Maloney said. "This year we wanted to get off to a good start but we didn't."
The Maple Leafs had the No. 1 pick in the 1985 NHL entry draft and picked Wendel Clark, a left wing-defenseman from Saskatoon, Canada. Clark made the team, but he's out now after breaking his foot.
Last season was quite a comedown for a team that has won 11 Stanley Cups and was one of the NHL's six original teams.
Bad hockey in Los Angeles isn't unusual, but it's cause for concern in hockey-mad Toronto.
"In a lot of ways, people feel that Toronto is the hockey capital of Canada," goalie Don Edwards said.
Fans started to complain about Harold Ballard, the team's crusty 82-year-old owner who lives in an apartment in Maple Leaf Gardens, where the team plays. Ballard was a part owner of the team when they were winning championships, but since he took over complete control of the team in 1971, the Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup.
The baseball Blue Jays pushed the Maple Leafs off the front sports pages of newspapers in Toronto, which went crazy over its American League East championship team.
And the scalpers who hang around Carlton Street outside Maple Leaf Gardens took a beating. It used to be impossible to get tickets to Maple Leaf games because season-ticket holders had them all.
Until last season, the Maple Leafs had announced sellouts at every home game since 1946, a league record. And every game is shown on local TV. But there were lots of empty seats last season. The fans stopped showing up when the team stopped winning.
But some of the laughing has stopped this season, since the Maple Leafs are no longer the worst team in hockey. The Kings and Detroit Red Wings are, each with only 18 points.
Toronto not only has moved out of last place in the Norris Division, but if the season ended today, the Maple Leafs would make the playoffs for the first time since 1983.
Even attendance at Maple Leaf home games is up.
"This year we were down a bit when the Blue Jays started," said Gord Stellick, the assistant to the general manager. "But now we're back to selling out and standing room only. We could sell three times as many golds and reds (the top-priced tickets) It's the grays we have problems with."
Since their horrendous start, when the Maple Leafs went 1-12-3, they have compiled a 6-5-2 record in their last 13 games. They'll bring a three-game unbeaten streak into tonight's game against the Kings at the Forum.
Toronto has made its move without making any big trades, but the team did send its assistant coach to the minors last month. John Brophy was sent to St. Catharines, where he replaced Claire Alexander. Alexander took Brophy's place with the Maple Leafs.
Right wing Steve Thomas has 13 points in his last eight games since he was recalled from the minors. Right wing Miroslav Frycer has seven points in his last five games, center Danny Hodgson has 11 points in last seven games and Jim Benning has 11 points in his last seven games.
"Things are starting to come together," said goalie Edwards, who was traded from Calgary to Toronto last season. "We played well at the start. I think we lost seven of our first 11 games by one goal. But now we're winning, and the guys are playing with a lot of confidence. We've got a lot of kids and the coaches have been very patient with them."
Defenseman Al Iafrate, 19, the fourth player taken in the 1984 entry draft, is one of the Maple Leafs' top young players. Iafrate, who played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, looks as if he's on his way to becoming one of the top defensemen in hockey.
"We're starting to realize that we're a pretty good team," Iafrate said. "We have a chance to win every game if we play well. I think we're over .500 in our last 15 games.
"We know what it's like to be in the cellar and we don't want to be there. Last year was tough because we were 21st overall. It was a rough year. Even if we played well we would lose a lot. Last year the kids on the team made a lot of mistakes, but Dan Maloney stuck with us."
Center Russ Courtnall, 20, is another of the young players who is playing well. Courtnall played for the 1984 Canadian Olympic team and was the seventh player selected in the 1983 draft.
"We've been playing really well in our last three games," Courtnall said. "Last year was awful and that's one of the big things for us. No one wants it to be like it was last year. Our morale is really high."