Like a lot of other kids in the early ‘60s, beyond being a big hockey/Leaf fan, I followed the other major sports, too.
At the age of nine (later than my fascination with hockey and baseball began) I fell in love with football. I recall distinctly when I became a Green Bay Packer fan. It was a fall day in 1962 and the Packers were hosting the Detroit Lions. I saw the game on TV because we lived near
, and all their “away” games were televised on the local Detroit CBS affiliate. (Home games were never shown in those days— they were always blacked out.) Detroit
I was at my friend’s house up the street. They were all Lion fans, so being contrary, I sided with the Packers that day. Some good fortune led to a late score by the Pack and they won the game on their way to the NFL championship in 1962.
It started a love affair with the Packers that lasted for decades.
The legendary Vince Lombardi was the coach of the Packers and he led the team to five championships in his ten seasons as head coach. He turned around what had been a poor club and made it into a contender, then a champion.
Many of his assistant coaches and former players, like Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, Willie Wood and others went on to solid coaching careers themselves. In the more recent era, someone like the legendary Bill Parcells is a coach who has influenced many others, including Bill Belichick, who have gone on to be successful head coaches themselves.
Now, I wouldn’t quite put Punch Imlach in the same class as Lombardi as a coach, but Imlach also turned around a moribund franchise in the late 1950s and he subsequently led the Leafs to four Stanley Cups in his ten+ years with
While Lombardi was revered by his players (though he treated them with constant “tough love”) Imlach did not seem to engender the same kind of response. He fought with many players, notably more sensitive individuals like Frank Mahovlich, Mike Walton and Carl Brewer.
I don’t believe he was ever universally respected as Lombardi was.
That said, Imlach had a presence, too. More of a showman than Lombardi, he was, like Lombardi, a motivator who pushed players to their limits and often was successful. He extended the careers of aging players such as George Armstrong, Johnny Bower, Allan Stanley, Red Kelly and others. In that way, at least, I sense there was loyalty toward Imlach, at least in the hearts of some of his veteran players.
And like Lombardi, a number of his former players became coaches after their tutelage under Punch. George Armstrong was very successful with the Junior A Toronto Marlboroughs in the mid-‘70s, though he wasn't later on in his short (he didn’t want the job) time coaching the Maple Leafs. "The Chief" as he was called, is pictured at right with Frank Mahovlich.
Bert Olmstead, the rugged winger who played for the Habs before ending his fine career in the early ‘60s with
, was an assistant coach briefly under Imlach (a playing coach, which was a rarity, even then) in the fall of 1958. But Olmstead quit that gig because he wasn’t really being consulted by Imlach. Olmstead coached for real, though, in the first year of expansion, with the Oakland Seals. He was a demanding coach, probably not cut out for that kind of a job. His standards and expectations may have been a little too high to be a coach. Toronto
Bob Pulford (left) had been a fine two-way forward for Punch, a Hall-of-Fame player, and had tremendous success in his early days as a coach with the LA Kings in the mid-1970s. He became a coach and GM in
for many years, though his reputation as a coach declined somewhat over the years. Chicago
center Billy Harris was an outstanding coach with the Toronto Toros of the WHA, and later became an assistant coach with the Edmonton Oilers for a while under Glen Sather, when the Oilers were building that great young team. Toronto
Ex-Leaf defenseman Bobby Baun also coached the Toros, though from what I remember, his tenure was unsatisfying as he had a difficult time dealing with the more laid-back attitudes of players in the ‘70s.
Dick Duff (shown with Pulford, above, back in the late 1950s) had various coaching stints in junior hockey and in the NHL with the Leafs, but if I remember correctly he did not have great success as a coach.
I’m trying to remember if Larry Regan, a good forward under Punch in the late '50s, ever coached, but I do recall him as a General Manager with the LA Kings in the late 1960s, I believe it was.
Johnny Wilson (right), Ron Wilson’s uncle, was for a time the NHL "ironman" and played briefly a Leaf under Punch. I remember Wilson more as a Red Wing player than a Leaf and he coached the Red Wings in the late 60s, if I’m not mistaken. (I believe Ron's dad, Larry, also later coached the Wings.)
Joe Crozier, who was also very briefly a Leaf under Imlach in the late ‘50s era, coached in the minors for years before getting the big job for a time in the 1980s with the Leafs.
Al MacNeil is someone that I remember most as a Chicago Black Hawk as a player, but he did play for Punch a bit in
. Interestingly, he later emerged as an NHL coach. In fact, MacNeil took over from Claude Ruel in Montreal during the 1970-’71 season and led the Habs to an upset win over Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins in the playoffs that spring. Montreal beat Chicago in the finals to win the Cup. (That season, after he was benched, Hab star Henri Richard referred to MacNeil as the most incompetent coach he had ever played for. Despite the team’s Cup triumph, MacNeil was not retained as the club’s coach at the end of that season by GM Sam Pollock. However, he did coach the Toronto Montreal farm team in for several years and has had a tremendous career in hockey, mostly as an executive, since that time.) Nova Scotia
One of the most famous ex-Leafs to coach after his playing days ended was Red Kelly. Kelly, a Hall-of-Famer as a player, helped the Leafs win those four Cups in the '60s and retired to take a coaching job with the expansion LA Kings. After his time in LA, Kelly went on to coach the Penguins, and eventually, the Maple Leafs for several seasons in the 1970s. He was
’s coach when Darryl Sittler earned 10 points against the Bruins in one game. Toronto
Another legend, Johnny Bower, was a goalie coach off and on with the Leafs for many years, though I don’t think he ever stepped behind the Leaf bench. Fellow goalie Gerry McNamara never coached in the NHL, but was the Leaf General Manager for a few years in the 1980s.
Gerry Cheevers didn’t play for the Leafs very long in the early ‘60s before moving on to be a mainstay with the Bruins, but he later coached those same Boston Bruins in the 1980s. Marcel Pronovost, a key cog for the Leafs in the ’67 Cup run, coached junior hockey, I know, and may well have coached with the Sabres in the NHL, but I don’t think he was ever an NHL head coach. I could be wrong.
Carl Brewer, an All-Star defenseman while playing for Imlach, coached in
Europe. Orland Kurtenbach, with the Leafs for a season after his time with Boston and before he went on to play in New York and , later coached the Canucks in the 1970s. Vancouver
Floyd Smith, who came over from Detroit in the big Frank Mahovlich trade in 1968, coached in both Buffalo and Toronto. (I'm trying to remember if Smith was the Sabres' coach when they went all the way to the finals in 1975 against Bobby Clarke and the Flyers.)
Pat Quinn played for the Leafs for a couple of seasons, one under Punch, and he has had a distinguished career as an NHL coach. His Flyers set an NHL record that still stands, going unbeaten for 35 games, I think it was, during the 1979-’80 season. Quinn is in the top five all-time winning NHL coaches, has been to the Cup finals twice, and has won gold medals with Canada’s 2002 Olympic team, the Under-18 Canadian side in 2008 and the World Juniors in 2009. He is another who has hired and influenced a large number of individuals (including Brian Burke and Ron Wilson) who have had success in the game
But perhaps the most successful former Punch disciple, in terms of a coaching career, was Al Arbour.
Arbour (left) had played for the Wings, Rangers and Hawks before helping the Leafs win the Stanley Cup in 1962. He had a fairly brief stint coaching with the St. Louis Blues (after he played for them) but was enormously successful with the Islanders, winning those four Cups in a row in the early 1980s.
All in all, whether they liked him or not, a significant number of guys who played for Imlach went on to coaching careers. A few may have utilized some of his methods while others likely ensured that they handled things completely differently than their former task master.