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For me it’s Mike Walton (and now Phil Kessel), but who was/is the most “exciting” Leaf you’ve ever seen?




One of the common debates in sports, and certainly in hockey, is an age-old one:  Is the Most Valuable Player award for the player most valuable to his team, or is it actually for the “best” player in the league.

I know for a fact that the Maple Leafs, for their part, have not had a Hart Trophy (MVP) winner since I’ve been following the team in the late 1950s, unless I'm missing somebody.  And I’m not even sure we’ve ever had the “best” player in the league either, at any point in time.  (We’ve had some really outstanding ones in my time—Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour, Wendal Clark, Mats Sundin and many others—but not one who was ever the very best in the game for a period of time, at least none that have ever been acknowledged as such.)

But there is, for me, another category, if I can call it that.  It is designated, in my mind, for the most exciting player in the game.  Now, exciting does not mean the best, or the greatest, or the most valuable.  I’m referring to that ultra-rare ‘bring-you-out-of-your-seat’ quality that some players just have almost whenever they are on the ice. You know, you just never really know when they are going to do something memorable and spectacular.

Rocket Richard was probably “that guy” in the early 1950s, before my time  and before injuries and age dulled his impact. I've included a great old picture of Richard above, toward the end of this career in the late '50s.  He is cutting around fellow future Hall-of-Famer Pierre Pilote with another HOF'er, Glenn Hall, in the Chicago goal.   Opponents often were quoted as saying that Richard's eyes would "light up" as he he crossed the blue line.  He was a dynamic, hard-skating winger who was considered the best player in the game from the blue line in.  He was volatile and tough but as exciting as anyone who has ever played the game.  (Detroit's indefatigable Gordie Howe was the better all-around player, without question, but nowhere near as exciting as the Rocket…)

In the 1960s, I’d argue that the "most exciting" label (at least for me) belonged to Chicago’s high-flying winger Bobby Hull.  (See the great old picture of a very young Hull at left.)  He had that booming slapshot, but beyond that, was strong as any player in the history of the game and could fly up the ice, shift around defenseman, take hits—and keep on going.

Bobby Orr was the finest player I’ve ever seen (and he was exciting, no question), but the guy who really gave me chills in the 1970s was Buffalo superstar Gilbert Perreault.  He could absolutely fly and make those head-turning rink-long dashes.  Most often he would lose the puck along the way, but every once in a while he would weave his way, at high speed, through the entire team and deke the goalie and score.  He could be a one-man show.

In the ‘80s, Gretzky was the most dynamic player, though I’m sure Messier would get some people’s votes because of his style that combined raw speed and strength.  Still others would say the guy who created the most memorable and exciting moments was Mario Lemieux, whose career carried over, as did those other two, through the ‘90s as well.

From my perch, the most exciting player of that era was Vancouver's Pavel Bure.

More recently, individuals like Ovechkin and Crosby are wonderful, entertaining—and usually exciting— performers.

But what I wanted to ask today is, as a Leaf fan, who is the most exciting Maple Leaf you have ever seen?

In my experience, it was probably Mike Walton, the man they called “Shaky” during his short career with the blue and white.

Unfortunately, Walton was one of those enigmatic players who never seemed happy in Toronto, maybe for good reason given the iron will of unbending head coach Punch Imlach.  Walton first became a regular with the club in 1966-’67, and was a contributor in helping the Leafs win their last Stanley Cup in 1967.  But he clashed with Imlach, who didn’t like independent thinkers or non-conformist behavior.  Even though Walton at the time was married into the Smythe family, he was uncomfortable in Toronto, and that anxiety didn’t diminish even after Imlach was long gone from the organization.

Ultimately Mike was traded by Jim Gregory during the 1970-’71 season, along with goaltender Bruce Gamble, in a three-way trade that brought future Hall-of-Fame netminder Bernie Parent to the Leafs.  (It was a great deal for Toronto, or at least it would have been, if Parent had not subsequently jumped to the WHA…)

In any event, despite his issues with management, Walton (right, seen in action with the Leafs with Gamble in goal) was treat to watch in blue and white.  He was a tremendously fast skater.  I mean, the guy was explosive with a capital “e”.   Walton would sometimes have to play the wing, but he was a natural center who could get to very high speeds in a hurry.  I think he was faster than Keon, who was considered, in that era, one of the faster skaters in the NHL.  Walton also had a great shot, heavy and hard—and fast.

The Leafs were generally a plodding (albeit highly successful), defensive, stay-with-your-man team in the 1960s under Imlach.  Guys who could really skate, like Keon and Ronnie Ellis, were generally workmanlike, defensively conscientious players.  Keon was certainly exciting, but Walton was truly a go-for-it offensive player who could make things happen at high speed.

Leaf fans might argue that Darryl Sittler, throughout the ‘70s,  was the most exciting Leaf (and I was at the Gardens the night he put up 10 points against the Bruins), and he certainly was a fine player.  But I saw him more as a power forward, a leader who had some great individual moments.  That doesn’t  didn’t quite fit the definition I am referring to.

Probably the closest thing we have had through the years, until the arrival of Phil Kessel, was longtime captain Mats Sundin.  Wendal Clark was a hockey warrior, and beloved in Toronto, a guy who could do special things and yes, bring you out of your seat (we all remember Game 6 in LA against the Kings in ’93).  But while he might be in my “Top Ten", he’s not my number-one.

Same with Dougie Gilmour.  He was about as good a player was there was in the league while he was here in Toronto for a couple of seasons in the early ‘90s.  But while he accomplished some remarkable things and was undeniably invaluable (and there may not have been a more “exciting” moment than his OT goal against CuJo and the Blues in ’93), he wasn’t always exciting in the way I’m trying to define the term.  Passionate, determined, for sure- but the most exciting?  Not quite.

So  who is that guy for you?  That Leaf, in whatever era or decade,  who you couldn’t wait to see step onto the ice because he could flat out do things that would make you…well…excited?

Send your thoughts along…

5 comments:

  1. It's a difficult quality to quantify, isn't it? So many of the Leaf players have been "exciting", like Berezin on his end-to-way-deep-in-the-other-end rushes, but I don't think they quite fit your description.
    The first Leaf who comes to my mind is Alexander Mogilny. I loved to watch him play and, like Robbie Alomar, you could be sure you'd see him do at least one thing you'd never seen before.
    You mentioned Hull, and I'd say that Frank Mahovlich had that same effect on a very young me. Three long strides over the blue line and boom! The slap shot was a thing of wonder in those days!
    Early Wendel, for sure. I recall the air felt different in the Gardens when he took a shift.
    And, perhaps on the idiosyncratic side, I'd add Brian McCabe when he was smokin' with Kaberle. I always looked forward to the can-opener, a big hit, or a wicked shot from him. I wouldn't say he was out-of-your-seat exciting when he stepped on the ice, but the arena definitely got a little more electric when he was out there.
    And I'd add Guy Lafleur to the All Team list.

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  2. Long suffering Leaf fanOctober 19, 2011 at 1:47 PM

    Walton was an amazing player. I have a sting in my heart, just thinking how good the Leafs could have been if Walton, Selby, Carleton and McKenny had lived up to their potential in the late sixties. Maybe the Stanley Cup drought wouldn't been so long. Anyhow, the most exciting Leaf in the seventies for me would have to be Borjie Salming. He could pick up the puck from the back end and stick handle through an opposing team with the best of them! Sadly, for we Leafs fans, Borjie discovered Toronto night life and that was the end for those sweet rushes. In the eighties love to see Ricky Vaive cruise in off the wing and take of his pattern slap shots...high to the corner of the net. The most talented player of those early eighties team was Miroslav Frycer, even the Great One said so himself! He could dangle the puck like it was on a string, and turn a defender inside out. Honorable mention through the years, Ian Turnbull, Mike Palmateer, Doug Gilmour, Felix Potvin, and Mat Sundin.

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  3. I'm really trying to twist a logical argument into making a case for Todd Gill, just because I've known him since I was 9 years old.
    Gerund is right- how do you quantify it? Schenn has had me positively giddy at times, along with Kessel, Berezin, Phaneuf, Sundin, Clark, Gilmour, Potvin and Belfour.
    I'm going with Grabbo just because he's my prototypical skilled and slightly crazy Russian. Those 2 shootout goals last season- who here didn't come out of their seats with those?

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  4. Of the current team, I think my choice for most exciting player is probably Grabbo. Kessel can be astonishing, especially so far this year, but after seeing all the insane things Grabbo did last year, my pulse kicks up a notch every time he carries the puck over the blue line.


    Also, just wanted to mention how much I enjoy this blog. Keep up the good work!

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  5. These are all great Leaf names (and memories!).

    Gerund O'...I likely have mentioned before that I was a Berezin guy, too. He would be good in the "new NHL". Mogilny had sublime skill, so smart (just a tad lazy, though, eh?). And I agree- "early" Wendel...

    Long Suffering...Walton was so skilled...I thought Selby was even better his second time around with the Leafs. Carleton had lousy knees but some really nice years with the Bruins after he left Toronto. Vaive and yes, thanks for mentioning Frycer! Such a highly-skilled forward.

    KidK, you'll never have to convince me of Todd Gill's guts. To me, he was a true Maple Leaf, someone who was so proud to wear the jersey. And now, Grabbo is up there, for sure.

    Malcolm W.- thanks for adding your thoughts, (you capture the way many Leaf faithful feel when Grabovski is "on his game") and for your kind comments as well...

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