It feels like it’s been a while since I’ve been able to say this and really feel it, but the Maple Leafs right now have a back line that evokes warm memories of one of my all-time favorite Leaf teams.
The Cup teams of the 1960s were wonderful, to be sure. When we spoke of that blueline, Leaf fans of the era know the names so well: Tim Horton and Allan Stanley, Bobby Baun and Carl Brewer. Mix in Larry Hillman and (in ’67) Marcel Pronovost, and you pretty much have the core of guys who made things happen in front of Johnny Bower and later, Terry Sawchuk during Toronto’s early and mid-'60s “hey-day”.
But Leaf history is such that the franchise struggled after the ’67 Cup, and it took some time for Punch Imlach and his successor as General Manager, Jim Gregory, to kind of right the ship. For a while the team no longer had enough toughness. In the late ‘60s they had way too many small forwards, and an aging defense (Horton along with ex-Blackhawk great Pierre Pilote) mixed with rookies like Pat Quinn and Jim McKenny.
But by the time the 1970-’71 season rolled around, something really good was developing on the Maple Leaf blueline. Gregory was building a young defense (sound familiar?) with skill and plenty of toughness. I know comparing the Leaf defense corps now with those who played the position for the blue and white 40 years ago may seem a bit silly (the game is so different now), but I can’t help but see some similarities.
Our current defense is made up of Phaneuf and Gunnarsson, Liles and Komisarek (now injured but playing pretty good hockey prior to being hurt), Schenn and Gardiner and of course Franson. We have Holzer and Aulie sitting in the wings, chomping at the bit.
Liles, Franson and young Gardiner provide a lot of skating legs out of the back, and Phaneuf can skate and move the puck too. Gunner is awfully smooth back there, and Komisarek, Schenn and Phaneuf provide the requisite ability to jar opposing forwards most nights. It’s a pretty nice blend with only one guy, Komisarek, over the age of 30.
Back on the 1970-’71 team, it was pretty darn similar. Gregory obtained a popular ex-Leaf, Bobby Baun, very early during that ’70-’71 season. Baun went on to play some great hockey for Toronto that season, providing experience and a lot of leadership for what was otherwise a young and precocious bunch of young blueliners.
Who were these youngsters? Well, McKenny was still there, but by then an established young veteran. McKenny was 24 and playing his second “full” season with the Leafs in the NHL.
Brian Glennie was the guy, besides Baun, who delivered the classic open-ice hits for the Leafs. (I’ll never forget the night, in the early ‘70s, that I had a chance to sit in the old “reds” near center ice at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Leafs were playing the Oakland Seals or whatever they were named at the time. Glennie hit a guy so hard in the middle of the ice, right in front of me. that it was really eye-opening. I had never seen a hit like that, up close, at the NHL level. It left an impression, believe me…) Glennie was 24 and in his second season with the Leafs (having been with Canada’s national team earlier in his career). He was a bit slow afoot, but was the prototypical defensive-defenseman and good at it.
Mike Pelyk was kind of a jack-of-all trades rearguard. A defensemen, yes, but he could play the wing if needed and kill penalties as a forward. He was not great at any one thing, but he was a nice skater, could shoot the puck and hit enough that he was no push-over. As a 23 year of age, he earned 23 assists and was a plus 17 that season for the blue and white. Not bad at all.
Brad Selwood had a more modest role that particular year on the Leaf blueline. He had some skill but was always a pretty tough young guy, not afraid to mix it up. He was 22 that season and given his lack of NHL experience was a "healthy scratch" (they didn't use that term back then) during the playoffs that spring when the Leafs took on the Rangers.
And what Leaf fan of that time in our history will ever forget the ultra-rugged Jim Dorey (seen at right)? He was a Leaf that I loved, who played the game hard and took great pride in being a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Click to hear an interview I did with Jim a while back…) Dorey was tough as nails but also was a pretty good skater and moved the puck well. He scored 7 goals that season and took on all comers as the Leaf policeman.
So you had a great mix—Baun was a great open-ice hitter and sure-handed in his own zone. Glennie, who was a big man for his era, was pretty steady back there as well. Dorey was really a tough guy with mobility and skill, who had no hesitation to drop the gloves whenever needed or to protect a teammate. Ley was stocky but young and tough as nails as well. Each of Pelyk, Ley and Dorey could provide just enough offense to make them valuable at both ends of the ice. McKenny was not a hitter (at least not very often) but he could fight if provoked. He was offensively gifted, with a great wrist shot, a guy who could pass the puck (though he did have a propensity for passing it to the other team, but that’s a story for another day…)
All in all, I thought it was going to be the defense of the future, something to build on for years to come. They all grew together during a good 1971-’72 season, but couldn’t take out the superstar-laden Boston Bruins in the playoffs.
Yet as so often happens in life—and sport—things changed. Baun was seriously injured early that next season and had to retire. Dorey, for reasons I still don’t fully understand to this day, had been traded to the Rangers before the end of the 1971-'72 season. The World Hockey Association was formed and lured Selwood and Ley with offers that then Leaf owner Harold Ballard had no interest in coming close to, much less matching. (Interestingly, Dorey jumped to the WHA too, so we probably would have lost him anyway…)
Thankfully, Glennie stayed, as did McKenny. But it just wasn’t the same. The 1972-’73 season was awful, and that’s when Gregory made the bold move to sign Borje Salming out of Sweden. He also drafted Bob Neely and Ian Turnbull as rookie defensemen in the 1973 summer draft. They were all the backbone of some pretty good Leaf teams (and bluelines) through the rest of the 1970s.
To this day, though, I think about how good that Leaf 1971 defense might have been. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
But hey, we don’t have to worry about any of that today—there is no WHA lurking to grab our best young defensemen.