Leaf fans of my generation all remember with fondness the years that Johnny Bower tended goal for the Maple Leafs from the late 1950s until early 1970. We won a fair bit and those four Cups along the way created some great memories for all of us.
By the summer of 1964, after the Leafs had won the first three of their four Cups that decade, Toronto General Manager Punch Imlach knew that Bower, already approaching 40, was slowly nearing the end of the road. So he picked up veteran Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk in the NHL’s intra-league draft to provide insurance. Sawchuk was also near the end of his brilliant career.
Together, they won the Stanley Cup for Toronto—our last—in the spring of 1967 against the vaunted Montreal Canadiens.
Though Imlach is often criticized for going to the wall with his elderly goaltenders (and the rest of his squad) and not planning for the future, the truth is he was always bringing in and looking at younger players and upcoming goalies. Just in terms of goaltenders, Cesare Maniago was with the Leafs in the very early ’60s and he went on to have a fine and lengthy NHL career elsewhere. A bit later, Gerry Cheevers came up with the Leafs before becoming a stalwart and winning two Cups with the Boston Bruins.
Al and Gary Smith (not related) were both talented young goalies, and both spent considerable time in the NHL from the mid-’60s well into the 1970s with other organizations.
But the goalie who ended up playing more games in a Leaf uniform than all the other goalies I just mentioned, combined, was the late Bruce Gamble.
I first remember Gamble with the Boston Bruins in the early 1960s. He had played a couple of games with the Rangers in the late 1950s, but I only recall his time with the Bruins. (We’ve included a picture of Gamble above in action against the Hawks in the early 1960s at the old Boston Garden.) This was the era when the Bruins were really struggling. They had been a solid team in the latter 1950s, with Harry Lumley or Don Simmons (who later played with the Leafs) in goal, and some excellent players like Fernie Flaman, Leo Boivin, Jerry Toppazzini, Bronco Horvath and Johnny Bucyk leading the way.
But as the ‘60s arrived, Lumley retired and the Bruins went through a string of young goalies. I remember a number of names—Don Head, who went on to have a great minor-league career, Bob Perreault, who similarly had a lengthy and successful run as a minor-league goalie, and Gamble. (Eventually, Eddie Johnston won the job full-time and stayed with the Bruins right through their Cup run in the early ‘70s.)
An interesting twist in the story is that Gamble was one of those players traded to—and marooned—in Springfield, playing for the legendary yet and notorious Eddie Shore in the AHL.
Twenty-three games under Shore in 1963-’64 was apparently enough for Gamble. He refused to play for Shore the following season, and was suspended for his efforts. (In those days, Springfield was owned by Shore, and when you were traded to him, he owned you, and he didn’t have to play you or move you even if you were unhappy.)
So Gamble didn’t even play in ’64-’65, but Imlach pried him away from Shore in September of ’65 in return for two minor-league players.
Gamble went on to fill in for Bower (pictured) and Sawchuk when the venerable ‘tenders were injured, playing 10 games in his first season in Toronto, and 23 more in the 1966-‘67 regular season—the year the Leafs won their last Cup, though he didn’t see any action in the playoffs. (I think it was Al Smith, not Gamble, who was dressed as the “third goalie” for game 6 of the finals against Montreal that spring, but I’m certain about that. I do recall that while Bower was dressed, he was too injured to play if something happened to Sawchuk, so Imlach had another guy ready to do, in case.)
Sawchuk went to LA in the expansion draft after that season, and since Bower was well into his 40’s at this point, Gamble became the co-number-one guy, playing 41 games in ’67-‘68. The following year Bower was injured a lot and Gamble became the undisputed top guy, playing more than 60 games and being the go-to guy in the Leafs ill-fated playoff appearance against the powerful Boston Bruins.
In 1969-’70, under new coach John McLellan, Gamble played more than 50 games again, sharing time with Marv Edwards, a longtime minor league goalie, and Bower, who played his final NHL game that season (’69-’70) against Montreal, the only time he was healthy enough to play all season, at the age of 45.
Gamble played some good hockey in Toronto. I remember him fondly. He wasn’t the best goalie in the world on breakaways, but he could be acrobatic and he sure was gutsy. I remember a slap shot cuffing him on the head on at least one occasion—I’m thinking it was at the Boston Garden. He didn’t wear a mask at that point in his career and he was bleeding profusely. He got stitched up, and came back in the game.
Jacques Plante came in for the 1970-’71 season and Gamble was part of the big trade with Boston and Philadelphia in January of 1971 that saw talented center Mike Walton end up in Boston, Gamble and future superstar Rick MacLeish in Philadelphia and Bernie Parent in Toronto.
Unfortunately, Gamble’s career ended abruptly because of his health, in 1972, when he was only 33.
He is a bit of a footnote in Leaf history, but he was a talented competitor, who often kept some poor Toronto teams afloat after their final glory in 1967.