Before I go too far, I should make clear that this is not a full-blown piece about Joe Colborne. I used Colborne’s name in a headline of a post a while back about one-time Leaf Garry Unger and some readers were expecting more information about the budding Leaf center prospect. In that column, I was thinking out loud as to whether Colborne could be the guy that emerges as the real long-term impact player of the trade, as Unger did to a certain extent those many years ago. (Unger, among other accomplishments, went on to become the NHL ironman for consecutive games played...)
So to be clear, this is not an in-depth assessment of young Colborne.
That said, from what I saw of him at the end of last season with the Marlies, and from the many accounts I’ve read about him, I do legitimately wonder if the young man has a bit of another former 1960s Maple Leaf centre, Pete Stemkowski, in him.
I will try to explain.
Stemkowski was, for his era (mid-1960s through to the late ‘70s) a big guy, at six foot one and about 200 pounds. Colborne comes to us as, for this era, another "big" guy who can skate a bit and make plays. (Colborne stands about 6 feet 5 inches, and will likely add some eight to his current 215 pounds or so...)
In Stemkowski’s case, he wasn’t shy to use his size to advantage. (I’m not sure if young Colborne is exactly that kind of player, or ever will be. He may in fact be more like Unger in that regard. We'll see.) Pete was a bit like fellow Leaf Bobby Pulford, in that he liked to run through guys and really finish his check on occasion. (I've included one of those wonderful old Harold Barkley photos above, showing Stemkowski crashing through Montreal defensemen Jacques Laperierre and Terry Harper to get to Rogie Vachon in goal. You can also see #18 Jimmy Pappin and Pulford looking for a rebound...)
Now “Stemmer”, as he was known, is probably best remembered for two things as a Leaf: centering a line with Pulford and Pappin that was key in the Leaf Cup run in the spring of ’67, and the huge trade he was a part of the following season. (That deal saw Frank Mahovlich, Stemkowski, young Garry Unger and Carl Brewer’s rights dealt to the Wings for Norm Ullman, future Team Canada hero Paul Henderson and future Leaf coach Floyd Smith).
But interestingly, Stemkowski first arrived on the scene full-time with the Leafs a bit earlier. During the 1964-’65 season, he joined fellow rookie Ronnie Ellis (a bit later than Ellis, who made the team right out of camp as a 19-year old) on the Leafs. Both had been part of the Marlies Memorial Cup team the year or so before, I believe.
While he spent some time with the Toronto AHL affiliate in Rochester, he played with the Leafs as they lost back-to-back years in the playoffs to Montreal.
But in 1966-‘67, Stemkowski’s ice tine—and prominence—grew as the often difficult season wore on. The Leafs had some good yound players like Ellis, Stemkowski and Mike Walton, but were largely an aging team with no big stars, other than a sometimes struggling Mahovlich.
After a 10 game winless skid (and coach Punch Imlach ending up in hospital suffering from exhaustion) the Stemkowski line with Pulford and Pappin took off. I think King Clancy, who subbed for Imlach as coach while Punch was in hospital, brought the line together for good, but I could be wrong.
In any event, they were a tough line to play against, especially so as the playoffs got underway against Chicago. The Leafs were heavy underdogs, but took out the much more talented Hawks in 6 games.
They then did the same against the high-flying Habs.
Stemkowski was a big part of it, along with his linemates. He was physical, earned 12 points in 12 tough playoff games, and was the guy who created havoc in front of Montreal goaltender Gump Worsley in Game 6 at the Gardens, when Pappin scored what turned out to be the winning goal in the game—and the series. (See another great Barkley photo at right, with Stemkowski holding the Cup along with teammate and long-time Leaf captain George Armstrong.)
After the trade to Detroit, 'Stemmer' started to get even more ice time and really flex his offensive muscle. He scored more than 20 goals two years running, but the Wings were struggling in 1970-'71 under a new (former college) coach, Ned Harkness- and they essentially gutted the team.
In the process, they made the Rangers a lot better. Stemkowski, Bruce McGregor and Dale Rolfe were three Wings who went on to have several fine years with a really good team in New York.
Stemkowski especially had some excellent years on Broadway. He helped the Rangers beat the Leafs in the playoffs in 1971 (I’m sure that was sweet for him) and was instrumental in the Rangers making it all the way to the finals against Bobby Orr and the Bruins in 1972, again netting 12 points in the playoffs for Emile Francis’ team that spring. (Interestingly, Stemkowski never jumped to the WHA after that, like many other former Leafs did at the time, because Francis made sure he paid out big salary increases to his key guys to keep them around…)
Eventually, in 1977-‘78, Stemkowski was dealt to the Kings, where he played his last NHL season at the age of 34. (I think he then played one final year in the minors…)
Overall, he scored over 200 goals with about 350 assists and was considered a third-line checker. Pretty darn good for a checker who could fight and kill penalties.
So back to Colborne. I’m not sure if people are projecting him as a second-line center, or a high-end third-line guy, which is pretty much what Stemkowski was throughout his career.
But if Colborne were to turn out to be like Stemkowski, my guess is Leaf fans would be pretty pleased—especially if he won a Cup in Toronto, too…