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Ex-Leaf Bryan McCabe didn’t invent the “can-opener”—remembering Leaf legend Carl Brewer

Modern-day Maple Leaf fans recall that, not that many years ago, Bryan McCabe patrolled the blue line for the Buds.

McCabe became an end-of-season All-Star back in 2004, I think it was, no small achievement.  You can probably count on one hand the number of Leafs who have been on the end-of-season All-Star team (first or second squad) since 1967.  So that means something.

Now, one of the little twists in his career earlier in the 2000s was his much-discussed propensity for slowing down opposing forwards with a move that became known as the “can-opener”.

McCabe would slide his stick in between the legs of opposing players and, at precisely the right moment, turn to ensure the players would get caught up in his stick.  Most Leafs fans will remember that such was his skill in deploying this tactic, the league actually stepped in and began calling that particular move a penalty.

Interestingly, I was watching a game on Leafs TV from 1969 recently. Maple Leaf play-by-play man Bill Hewitt referred to then Red Wing (and former Leaf) defenseman Carl Brewer, shown in the late 1950s with the Leafs at right, as being well-known for his move of slipping his stick between the legs of opposing players to ensure they couldn’t move forward easily.

Yes, Brewer was a master of that move before they called it the can opener, though he was also heavily penalized during his Maple Leaf career, so it’s not as though he always got away with stuff.  (Early in his career, Brewer was also known to cut the palms out of his gloves so he could grab on to the sweaters of opposing forwards without being detected.)

But there was much more to Brewer than the old-time “can-opener”.

Brewer was a young Leaf when from I was a very young Leaf fan back in the late 1950s.  I think he was a Marlie Junior (as opposed to a St. Mike’s kid, where the Leafs also got their players) but I could be wrong.

I do know that I remember him, as do tens of thousands of Leaf fans of that generation, as the guy who played alongside Bobby Baun for half a dozen or so years, night after night. (See the photo at the top of this story, which shows Brewer, #2, defending with Baun and goalie Johnny Bower against the Red Wings at the old Olympia in Detroit.)

Brewer was a very talented guy.  He could rush the puck, headman the puck well and was a really fine skater. In his own zone he was smart, very quick and quite nasty with his stick.  He was not a fighter, but he started a lot of stuff that teammates sometimes had to finish.  Still, there is no denying he was a gifted player, and walked his own path.

I raise this last point because, while he was a major factor in Toronto winning successive Stanley Cups between 1962 and 1964, by all accounts he never liked Punch Imlach.  In fact, unless I am forgetting things, he was the guy, along with Bob Pulford, who brought lawyer (and later famous player agent) Alan Eagleson around  to try to convince Leaf players that they were being unfairly treated by Imlach.

For his part, Imlach loathed the idea of agents and lawyers and he and Brewer crossed swords, on this and other issues.  My sense is that Brewer, a pretty mature, thoughtful guy, always felt Imlach treated players like children, instead of as adults.

Such was Brewer’s dissatisfaction that, at training camp in the fall of 1965, Brewer left Leaf camp and walked away from the game.  He flat out retired.  He went on to get his degree, played for the Canadian National team (he had to be re-instated as an amateur to be able to compete at that level), then came back to play in the NHL with Detroit and St. Louis, after being a playing-coach in Europe. 

Ironically, Imlach, of all people, had come back to the Leafs as General Manager before the 1979-’80 season.  He hired Brewer to come out of retirement (again) to play for the struggling Leaf team Imlach was in the process of dismantling.  Brewer was 41 at the time, not in great shape and some players seemed to think he was an Imlach “guy” brought in to inform on disgruntled players.  That was likely an unfair assessment, but whatever Punch's rationale at the time, it was odd that Imlach chose to bring a guy back who hadn’t played in years—and who he had a terrible relationship with 15 years before.  Brewer did earn a handfull of assists, I think, in the 20 or so games that he actually played.

In any event, Brewer was an elite talent, a very bright and able guy who, as many folks know, was hugely instrumental in bringing down Alan Eagleson in the late 1980 and early ‘90s and also successfully fighting for the pension money owed to hundreds of former players.

Brewer passed away some years ago, too young, for sure.  Leaf fans of my generation will remember him as an indispensible talent on some of the best Leaf teams of all-time.


  1. He was tough as nails ... and about as articulate as same. Still, there was something laudable in watching him play. He gave no quarter and never asked for any back -- in many ways, a real throwback player. He went to Detroit and St. Louis for a little while but he never seemed comfortable in those uniforms. He was the type of guy you wanted on your team but he made you nervous in the process. I always had the impression that he was a guy who might blow sky high someday and take on an entire team. I am not sure I would have bet against him.

  2. Funny, I only really remember Horton/Stanley and Brewer/Baun as Leaf defensive pairs from my childhood - sorry 6-Cupper Larry Hillman! And like yesterday's poster, McCabe/Kaberle hearkened back to my Brewer/Baun memories, though I can't say Kaberle has the Brewer mean streak mentioned above. He does have the slickness, though, and it's a commodity in short supply on the Leaf's D today.