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April playoff memories—Bobby Baun’s heroics in ‘64 avenged Tony Leswick and the Wings

Leaf fans, even those who weren’t around to see it, know the story of rugged defensive defenseman Bobby Baun scoring a playoff overtime goal on a “broken leg” against the Detroit Red Wings.

It’s a true story, a great moment in Leaf history. It also masked just how close the Leafs came to not winning the Cup in the spring of 1964. The Wings likely deserved to win that game, and that series. I remember the game well because I was glued to my little, old-fashioned radio, and have seen the film “replay” (it was “blacked out” on television where I lived at the time, on the Canadian side of the Detroit border) of the contest many times since. It was simply a great hockey game.

As an aside, a few facts should be reinforced. It was Game 6, not Game 7. Baun’s goal did not win the Cup, but it did force a seventh game, which the Leafs won 4-0 in Toronto. And despite final score, Game 7 was not a cakewalk. The Leafs clung to a 1-0 lead through most of the game, and the Wings had numerous chances to tie the score—including a Normie Ullman goal post—before the Leafs broke it open.

In terms of Baun’s broken ankle goal in Game 6, it was a heroic effort, to be sure. He had been hit on the ankle with a shot in the third period, then his leg buckled after a face off in the Toronto zone. He was carried off on a stretcher though he did come back to play in the dying minutes of the third period, I believe. Then, he scored on his first shift in overtime. The goal itself was a fluke, a shot from the point that bounced off Bill Gadsby’s stick and behind Red Wing goalie Terry Sawchuk.

Ironically, earlier in that playoff year, in another elimination game, Baun scored a key goal in a 3-0 win over Montreal in the Game 6 semi-final at the Gardens (see photo above). It was also an odd goal, as Baun lost control of the puck the puck as he went in on goal and it went past Montreal goalie Charlie Hodge as Hodge came out to challenge the Leaf defenseman. That goal helped set up another famous Game 7 in Maple Leaf history, the night Dave Keon scored three goals against Hodge and the Habs.

But how, you might ask, did Baun’s fortuitous marker against the Red Wings “avenge” anything?

Well, from a Leaf perspective, it really didn’t. But from an overall Canadian hockey fan perspective, it sort of, kind of, did.

You see, ten years earlier, in the spring of 1954, the two best teams in hockey were the Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens. They met in the Stanley Cup finals, with the series going down to a seventh and deciding game at the Detroit Olympia.

The series saw Doug Harvey (pictured) go against Red Kelly—the two best defensemen in hockey. It pitted the fiery “Rocket” Richard against the man who would one day trump his goal-scoring records, Gordie Howe.

The series involved two teams that truly hated one another.

My Dad was actually at the Olympia that spring night in 1954, with a standing room ticket. (I was not yet one year of age, so I was not on hand. Had I been, I would have been cheering for Detroit.) Dad, as those of you who have followed this site will know, was an avid Montreal fan, deeply passionate. His loyalty was beyond what might be called normal.

Cheering for the Canadiens was, for Dad, a cultural, religious and very personal experience. They represented his French heritage, his religious faith, his values in general, I guess.

In any event, dad died in 1985, but when I was a youngster, he spoke many times of the painful night he went to see his beloved Habs play the Wings in April of ‘54. The game went into overtime, and a most unlikely hero emerged that night for the Red Wings.

Tony Leswick, a forward more known for being a pest (at least that’s the way my Red Wing hating father described him to me), took a harmless shot that Montreal’s all-star defenseman Doug Harvey tried to knock down with his glove. Now, Harvey was, as I mentioned earlier, the finest defenseman in hockey- perhaps the best all-around player in the game. He could control a game, carry the puck, pass like few others and he was tough as nails.

But instead of batting the puck out of danger, Harvey inadvertently knocked the puck into his own net, behind goaltender Gerry McNeil (I think it was McNeil, hopefully someone will post if it I'm wrong)—ending what my Dad, despite his disappointment, always told me was “the best hockey game” he had ever seen.

In fairness, I just looked up Leswick’s career stats, and it’s not like the guy never scored a goal before. He actually put up some solid “numbers” for the time. But he was primarily an agitator—who scored one of the biggest goals in hockey history.

Some people speak of the recent gold medal game between Canada and the U.S. as one of the great games in history. Others will say the best ever was the 3-3 tie between Montreal and the Soviet Red Army team on December 31, 1975. For others still, it was probably Game 8 of the ’72 Canada-Russia Summit Series, or one of the last games in the 1987 Canada Cup.

For my Dad it was the Game 7 overtime tilt in 1954, won by the Red Wings on a flukey goal by Tony Leswick.

So, the Wings won one Cup on a “lucky” goal against Montreal—and essentially lost one in similar fashion 10 years later against the Leafs.

I’m pretty sure was Dad didn’t feel any better about it, but as a young Maple Leaf fan in 1964, I wasn’t complaining when the bounces evened out.

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