Yet he wasn’t one of my personal “favorites”.
I’m not really sure why. Mahovlich (pictured at right in the late 1950s with long-time Leaf captain George Armstrong) was a wonderfully talented player, a truly elite NHL talent from the time he joined the Leafs for the 1957-’58 season at the age of 20. And he came into prominence just as I was entering my childhood love affair with hockey in the late ‘50s.
Maybe it’s because you can really only have one “favorite”, and like thousands of other kids in that era, mine was Dave Keon. Then again, maybe it’s because Mahovlich seemingly fell into the category of the talented player who fans thought didn’t play hard consistently—a “floater” as Don Cherry used to say about Mario Lemieux in Mario’s early days.
But even that’s not fair, because Mahovlich really wasn’t a floater. I remember when I was maybe five years old, he was a rising player with the Leafs. (As an aside, I have vivid memories of a friend of my older sister’s making a fuss, in a nice way, about the fact that I had a difficult time pronouncing Mahovlich’s name.) He seemed lackadaisical at times, though even the great Jean Beliveau was similarly criticized by Montreal fans at various points in his NHL career. But that was Mahovlich's style. He was certainly the rising star in the eyes of Leaf fans in those days, who were desperate for the Leaf fortunes to turn around after a dry spell in the mid-1950s.
I remember some specific moments in big Frank’s career:
Frank came up the same year as Bobby Hull and actually nosed out Hull for the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie-of-the-year, if I’m not mistaken. Hull was an even flashier player and had a higher profile than Mahovlich over the years, but Frank may have been the better all-around player
He had that breakout season in 1960-’61 (48 goals) when he was still in his early 20s, which may have been part of the problem. He never came close to those numbers with Toronto again, and he may have tantalized fans too soon with his potential.
Everyone knows the story of the Black Hawks offering—and being quite willing to close the deal- one million dollars for Mahovlich in 1962. GM/coach Punch Imlach had to kill the deal after some Leaf execs’ had agreed to the transfer while nipping a bit too much the night before with colleagues from Chicago.
I believe he was twice hospitalized in his time with the Leafs because of exhaustion/anxiety. It was much publicized at the time but his condition was not well understood (such conditions were not publicly acknowledged terribly often in those days.)
However, one looks at Mahovlich, he certainly played a major role in Toronto winning those four Cups in the 1960s. Yet fairly or not, he seemed to increasingly infuriate his old coach and tormenter, Imlach, with his sometimes inconsistent play. Still, the “Big M” as he was called, was a classy Leaf.
As I posted some months ago, Mahovlich was a big enough name that I remember exactly where I was when I first heard about him being traded to the Red Wings in 1968. It was a shocking trade. He went on to score 49 goals, his career high, the very next season with Detroit, playing on a line with fellow future Hall-of-Famers Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio.
Out of the limelight in Detroit, Mahovlich reinforced for all to see the kind of player he was when he joined the Montreal Canadiens in another trade, in time for the stretch drive and the 1971 playoffs. He was a major ingredient in putting the Habs over the top, and their upsetting not only Boston but also Chicago to win the Cup. He earned 27 points in 20 playoff games that spring.
He helped Montreal win again in 1973, when he garnered 23 points in only 17 playoff games as he won his sixth Stanley Cup.
So he was a powerful presence for Montreal, as he had been in his ‘hey day’ with the Leafs. He was part of Team Canada ’72, and again in 1974 after he had jumped to the Toronto Toros of the WHA.
Many readers will know that for some time now he has been a distinguished member of the Canadian Senate.
The long strides, the rink-long dashes, the big slapshot off the wing, a physical player when so moved, Mahovlich was an all-time great. Just never quite great enough for Imlach, a lot of Leaf fans, or me, I guess.
At least not great enough to be my favorite.Michael Langlois' Vintage Leaf Memories Toronto Maple Leaf hockey blog