Unfortunately, they drew the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs, at a time when the Bruins were just hitting their stride as not only a talented but very tough squad.
They had Orr, the best player in the game, and an emerging Phil Esposito up front. But in terms of toughness, they were building a team with more than just an edge, they were in the midst of becoming “the big, bad Bruins”, as they came to be known. Orr was rugged and would fight, but Ted Green was the hard rock on the blueline, along with Don Awrey. Derek Sanderson was just a kid but played with a reckless confidence up front. Johnny Bucyk had always been a big winger, but he developed even more of a physical edge in that environment. A young Wayne Cashman was just on his way to becoming the tough winger Bruin fans now remember fondly. Johnny McKenzie played with a confidence he didn’t have in his earlier NHL stops in Detroit, New York and Chicago. (Other than Montreal’s Yvan Cournoyer, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player who seemed to love getting hit as much as McKenzie- and just kept going.) And of course ex-Leaf fan favorite Eddie Shack was running around as usual.
So the Bruins were hitting their stride and were on their way to winning Cups in 1970 and 1972. The Leafs were neither fish nor fowl.
Boston ran all over Toronto in Game 1 of the series in the tiny Boston Garden where the Bruins played with impunity. Leaf goalie Bruce Gamble was left defenseless often, and the Bruins won going away 10-0.
It was an embarrassing game for the Leafs—and for me as a then diehard 15 year-old Leaf fan. The Leafs looked intimidated and outmatched from the get go, and stood around and watched Orr and Esposito and all the Bruins, for that matter, waltz around them.
Until the third period, when the earth shook.
I can’t remember exactly when in that period, but Orr picked up the puck deep in his own zone, and started on of his patented rushes up along the (his right) side boards.
Quinn obviously saw what was happening, and as he liked to do when the time was right, he stepped up into the oncoming rush.
Just inside the Bruins blueline, with Orr still just really winding up and with his head down, Quinn hammered Orr into next week. Orr was down, seemingly unconscious. The place went quiet for a time, but as Orr was revived, the place went nuts.
Once they knew their teammate was OK, Bruin players were buzzing around. Quinn went to the penalty box but they had to get him out because the fans were enraged that their favorite son had been seemingly seriously injured. (I don’t think Orr missed any time in that series. In fact, when he finally got up from the hit, he went looking for Quinn.) The building was chanting “We want Quinn”…and not in a good way. Quinn was, unfairly, kicked out of the game.
Bruin fans went crazy—not to mention the Bruin players, led by Orr. Boston players essentially started to go after Quinn, and the game degenerated into a brawl from then on, with Forbes Kennedy (a former Bruin, not a big guy but a willing brawler) leading the charge for Toronto.
The whole scene was unpleasant, but the irony of the whole thing is that it was, in my view—then and now –a clean hit on Orr. (I had been watching the game at my friend Gary's house in my hometown of River Canaard, near Windsor and across from Detroit. My Dad picked me up and was furious that Orr had been "hurt"- as though I, as a Leaf fan, had something to do with it. While my Dad was a huge Habs fan, he really liked Orr. I simply said, "It was a clean check" and we went in the house and never discussed it again.)
Oh, Orr and the Bruins complained afterwards that it was a dirty hit- an elbow. But if you look at the film, and I’ve seen it dozens of times, Quinn hit Orr solidly with his upper arm and shoulder. After the contact, Quinn’s elbow did go up in the air. But that was a reflex, not a case of a player sticking his elbow out in advance.
In fact, it was the kind of hit Hall-of-Famer Scott Stevens made a career of in the 1980s and ‘90s. Interestingly, the next (1969-’70) season, I remember that during a game at the Gardens, Quinn nailed Orr with another big open-ice check. This time, Orr was carrying the puck through the center ice zone after getting a pass from Johnny Bucyk. The puck got caught up briefly in his skates, and as he looked down to see where the puck was, Quinn jumped up into the neutral zone and hammered Orr in the middle of the ice. Nothing came of it- it was a clean open-ice hit. Given what had happened the previous spring, though, I was a bit surprised the Bruins didn’t respond.
In any event, the Leafs won that particular battle and maybe even some of the fights but lost the playoff game in Boston that spring night in 1969. The Leafs went out in four straight- though they certainly played much better in the two home games in that series (they lost by a goal in both home games, after losing 10-0 and 7-0 in the two games in Boston). Imlach was fired right after Game 4. ending a long and successful era.
But back to the hit on Orr: It was, to me, as clean as they come.