When old Maple Leaf fans gather (do we ever really gather?), certain names come up in conversation from those heady days in the early 1960s when the Leafs would win the Stanley Cup as often as not.
Of course, it was a different time, and a very different era in hockey. Six teams, with virtually all of the players born in Canada—and the Leafs holding the territorial rights of so many teams and players that they were virtually assured of at least being competitive every NHL season.
But it was still a tough league, and difficult to win the Cup. The Leafs struggled after winning the Cup in 1951 (that was the year of the famous Bill Barilko overtime winner against Montreal). Montreal and Detroit were the elite squads through much of the rest of the 1950s.
Boston had some pretty good seasons in the ‘50s, though the Rangers struggled. Chicago was awful through much of that decade but came on strong throughout the 1960s. After half a dozen also-ran seasons in the early-to-mid 1960s, Boston rebounded by the later '60s when they brought up Bobby Orr and traded for Phil Esposito.
For their part, the Leafs had their last glory period in the early 1960s, when they won those three Cups in succession, then added a surprise ‘bonus’ Cup in 1967 as they upset both Montreal and Chicago along the way that spring. They won their last Cup on May 2, 1967. (The picture above, from the early 1960s, shows Leaf stalwarts Johnny Bower, #2 Carl Brewer and #21 Bobby Baun in action at the Olympia in Detroit.)
My question is, when old-time Leaf fans say, “The Leafs couldn’t have won all those Cups without _____”—who are those players? Who are the guys who played on those teams that enabled the Leafs to be champions four times in six years? (GM and coach Punch Imlach was an influential figure, to be sure, but today I'm focusing on the players.) It was truly a dynasty of sorts, even by the standards of the time.
The truth is that—and this has never changed—you need every guy on the roster to contribute, including players called up throughout the course of the season. You can’t rely on just your scorers, or your goalie. Everyone has a role to play, and championship teams generally are filled with players up and down the line up who contribute in some way.
And the Leafs in that era certainly had their share of role players, individuals who contributed significantly to some, if not all of those Cups. Gerry Ehman, Ron Stewart, Larry Hillman, Jim Pappin, Bob Nevin, Dickie Duff (pictured at right in the late 1950s) and Kent Douglas are just a few names that were key members of at least two of those Cup championships. (Duff was an elite forward who went on to help Montreal win four Cups later in the '60s.) Carl Brewer was magnificent in helping the Leafs win the first three Cups before retiring unexpectedly in 1965. Brian Conacher, Pete Stemkowski, Ronnie Ellis and of course Marcel Pronovost and Terry Sawchuk were huge in ’67.
But for me, there is a core of guys that were indispensible in winning all four Stanley Cups.
In no particular order, they are:
Bob Pulford – He was a pile-driving center who hit, checked, killed penalties and scored huge goals (e.g. the short-handed game winner with two seconds left in Game 1 of the 1964 finals and the double OT winner in Game 3 of the ’67 finals). If you ever have a chance, look at some of those classic games available from time to time on Leafs TV. He was a standout in his prime. People have written to me in the past suggesting Pulford doesn’t deserve his spot in the Hall-of-Fame. But I saw Pulford play a lot, over many years, and he was an absolute rock for the Leafs.
Johnny Bower – Ironically, Bower was only the guy in goal in the final game for two of the four Cup-deciding contests. In 1962, back-up Don Simmons won Game 6 in Chicago because Bower was injured. In ’67, Sawchuk was the “man”, with Bower actually on the bench but too injured to play. Yet without Bower, the Leafs don’t go from doormats in 1957 to Cup champions in 1962 and beyond.
Allan Stanley – Stanley was one of those defensemen that didn’t look all that impressive because he wasn’t fast afoot, but he was a classic reliable defender. He had spent years in Boston and New York, but really found his niche playing under Punch Imlach with the Leafs. He played a role in all four Cups, and was one of the old guard on the ice for the key face-off when George Armstrong scored into the empty net to clinch the ’67 Cup.
Tim Horton – Horton was Stanley’s rugged partner who could rush the puck, had a blazing slap shot and provided some offensive punch, too. He was part of all four Cups and I don’t remember him missing a shift in any playoff game in those years.
Bobby Baun – The short, stocky defenseman hammered guys, blocked shots and anticipated the game so well. He and defense partner Carl Brewer were like a well-rehearsed orchestra. Brewer was finesse and chippiness combined, Baun the hard-rock partner. Baun had a diminished role in the ’67 playoffs, but there is no way the Leafs win all those Cups without Bobby, who scored that famous Game 6 overtime winner in Detroit on a broken ankle to keep the Leafs alive in 1964.
George Armstrong – I haven’t written nearly enough on this site about George Armstrong. The right-winger wasn’t a fast skater, couldn’t break a window with his shot, but boy, along the boards and in the corners you couldn’t very often get the puck off him. He was a true captain- and the leader of the Leafs when they won all those Cups.
Red Kelly – I think, as much as his overall play, Kelly gave the Leafs a mental edge after joining the team during the 1959-’60 season. Kelly had won four Cups as a great defenseman in Detroit. He had a presence about him. Remarkably, he became a fine center in his years with Imlach and the Leafs. Just a classy, consistent player right to his last day as a Leaf- the night the Leafs won the Cup in 1967.
Dave Keon – I’ve written about Keon often here. Suffice to say that no one player makes a team, and Keon was just one of many great players with the Leafs. But I don’t know if the Leafs win any of those Cups without him.
Frank Mahovlich – To this day, Mahovlich is an enigma in my mind. I think, in terms of playoff performances, he was much more impactful helping Montreal win Cups in 1971 and 1973 than he ever was in Toronto's best playoff years. That said, how can you not give the “Big M” a prominent place in defining who were key guys in those four Cup years?
I’m sure Leaf followers, and those who visit this site, have their own thoughts and memories on the above—or other—players who contributed to the Leafs during that wonderful era. By all means send your reflections along.