This isn’t quite a cliffhanger like we had in the olden days- say, the Lone Ranger or Zorro or even Dallas (or some more modern TV show), but when we last left off at the end of the 1950s, the Leafs had just come off two years in a row (under then “new” GM and coach Punch Imlach) of making it to the finals. They were ousted, not surprisingly, in each series by the powerful Montreal Canadiens, who were finishing up a run of 5 Cups in a row. That's something no team had/has done before—or since.
Though Montreal's run was remarkable and they were still a team with a very strong core, the NHL center of power shifted in the summer of 1960. Maurice “Rocket” Richard retired during training camp in the fall of 1960, and Montreal's spiritual leader wouldn’t be around to fight for an unprecedented sixth consecutive championship..
Meantime, the Bruins had shot their wad with a nice mix of veteran players (Jerry Toppazzini, Bronco Horvath and Vic Stasiak, for example, along with ex-Leafs such as Fern Flaman, Leo Boivin and the fine goaltender, Harry Lumley) and a few promising kids. After several playoff years and getting to the finals once, they were about to embark on a playoff drought. It would require the arrival of Bobby Orr (and Esposito, Hodge and Stanfield from Chicago) to take them to the top of the league.
The two teams who made the biggest strides in the late ‘50s had been the two franchises that struggled the most in the middle part of that decade, the Chicago Blackhawks—and the Maple Leafs. Interestingly, the Hawks had become the dumping ground for a lot of the guys who had tried to start a “players association” in the ‘50s, including some all-time greats like the fiery Red Wing winger, Ted Lindsay (left). But they also picked up some valuable ex-Habs like Ab McDonald and Dollard St. Laurent, and were grooming outstanding juniors in St. Catharines including Elmer “Moose” Vasko, Pierre Pilotte, Stan Mikita and of course Bobby Hull. They also acquired Glenn Hall from Detroit to backstop them in goal, and at one point, Hall played more than 500 regular season games in a row in net (without a mask). Can you imagine anyone doing that today?
As for the Leafs, Imlach kept re-tooling the team with a mix of incoming veterans and kids. He already had Horton, Mahovlich, Duff, Bower, Billy Harris, Ron Stewart and fellows like Allan Stanley (from Boston) and young defensemen Carl Brewer and Bobby Baun. These guys had all been together through those playoff losses to Montreal—and came up short.
Bert Olmstead, the ornery former Hab winger was around, too. Imlach brought in Eddie Shack from the Rangers and of course, made the famous deal to import defenseman “Red” Kelly from the Red Wings, after Kelly had earlier “retired”. (Kelly had refused a trade to the Rangers, and was suspended by his crusty Red Wing General Manager, Jack Adams…)
So the team was shaping up nicely. They had strength up with middle with Bobby Pulford, Billy Harris and Kelly (Imlach converted Kelly, a many-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman to center…that doesn’t happen every day, eh?). They had Bower in goal and the four-man defense corps of Stanley and Horton, Baun and Brewer. Throw in wingers like Frank Mahovlich, George Armstrong (the captain), Duff and Olmstead, and you had a strong foundation—with veteran leadership and some outstanding young players.
But what can’t be neglected is that Imlach added two pieces prior to the 1960-’61 season that went a long way toward solidifying the Leafs as legitimate contenders. He brought up former Marlie forward Bobby Nevin from the minors, and a 20-year old straight from junior hockey (St. Michael’s) by the name of Dave Keon. Keon wasn’t expected to make the team, but he played so well on a pre-season tour of the Western United States that Imlach penciled him in the line-up for opening night. And Keon stayed in the line-up for the next 15 seasons.
Nevin was a fine player, a smart, solid, two-way winger who went on to have a tremendous career in New York, LA and Minnesota. He finished second behind Keon in the rookie-of-the-year balloting that first season, despite earning more points than the Leaf center. But together they, including as penalty-killers, had a huge impact on the Leafs.
Interestingly, Toronto had a great regular season but lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Red Wings in 5 games in the spring of 1961. (That great young Blackhawk team won the Cup, ending Montreal’s run of 5 straight…) For the Leafs, it was a step back after two straight years in the finals. But it seemed to make the team take a look at itself, and the next season they were ready to go for gold, as it were.
Going forward, they added little but nice pieces along the way. Eddie Litzenberger came over from the Hawks/Red Wings. (He had been captain of the ’61 Hawk championship team). Gerry Ehman played some important hockey off and off for the big club through the early ‘60s, though he spent a fair bit of time with Rochester in the AHL. The Leafs won the Cup again in 1962-’63, with probably the best team I’ve ever seen in blue and white. They overwhelmed Montreal and then Detroit in only 10 games in the playoffs. It was also the only season in my lifetime that the Maple Leafs finished first in the regular-season. They haven’t done it since.
The Leafs won their third in a row in the spring of 1964, but it took a major comeback against the Habs (who were re-building another dynasty-type powerhouse) to win in 7 games in the semi-finals right in the old Forum. Then, it took Bobby Baun’s overtime winner (yes, on that famous broken ankle) in Game 6 in Detroit to stave off elimination and force a 7th game back in Toronto in the finals, which the Leafs won 4-0. Andy Bathgate, acquired in a deal weeks earlier for Duff and Nevin (and some key junior stars including Rod Seiling), scored the game’s first goal on a rink-long breakaway- a beauty against Terry Sawchuk.
The Leafs had won three in a row, but the next spring, they could not overcome Montreal, who took Toronto out in 6 games on an overtime goal at the Gardens. (I think it was either Claude Provost or Gilles Tremblay who scored for the Habs in extra time….whatever, it was depressing as a young Leaf fan. The Leaf “dynasty” was dead.)
The Leafs were kind of sliding backwards at this point. They were aging in spots and while they had brought up a fine young 19-year old winger (Ronnie Ellis), they were a bit stagnant, it seemed. Carl Brewer had a dispute with Imlach during training camp in the fall of 1965 and he quit the game temporarily. That left a gaping hole on the Leaf defense. While Toronto had always had some useful players like Larry Hillman, Al Arbour and Kent Douglas to fill in as needed over the years, Brewer was one of the elite defensemen in the game.
The Leafs made the playoffs that season but by the spring of ’66, they were cannon fodder for the Habs, who eliminated them in four straight games in the playoffs.
The following season, 1966-’67, things looked even gloomier. Mahovlich was hospitalized at one point, suffering from depression/anxiety, something people just didn’t understand or really talk about in those days. No one will ever know the full “story”, but the “Big M”, as he was called, was a thoughtful, sensitive guy who just didn’t mesh with Imlach’s demanding, often tyrannical approach. There wasn't a whole of of "communication" between players and coaches in those days.
Later that season, Imlach was hospitalized himself, suffering from, as I recall, much the same thing as Mahovlich. Meanwhile at one point in the second half of the season, the team lost 10 games in a row. Things did not look good. But when King Clancy, the former Leaf player turned referee/turned Leaf “executive” and all-around organizational handyman took over for Imlach behind the bench, the team started to play a bit better.
They hit the playoffs in the spring of ’67 running, and despite being shellacked in Game 1 of the semi-finals in Chicago, they went on to upset the heavily-favored Hawks in 6 games. (Chicago had run away with the league during the regular-season.) Brian Conacher, of the illustrious Conacher clan of Leaf lore (uncle Charlie was Canada’s athlete of the first half-century, I believe) scored two big goals in the deciding Game 6 against the Hawks. Larry Jeffrey, the former Red Wing, played really well, too, before getting hurt.
And, the line of Pete Stemkowski, Jim Pappin and Pulford came up huge, as did Bower and Terry Sawchuk, who had been acquired a couple of seasons earlier in a big deal with the Red Wings.
Two players who also were tremendous in the surprising ’67 Leaf cup run were Marcel Pronovost and Larry Hillman. Pronovost was a rugged two-way defenseman for more than a decade in Detroit, and came to Toronto in the deal that sent Bathgate and Billy Harris to the Wings in the mid-‘60s. Baun was not playimg much at this point, and Hillman and Pronovost were a wonderful tandem in helping the Leafs shut down the high-flying Habs in the 6-game final series.
Game 6 in Toronto will live forever in the memories of those of us who were fortunate enough to see it, either in person or on television. It really was an outstanding game by any measure—and regardless of what era of hockey we can conjure up. The game went back and forth. Gump Worlsey had replaced young Rogie Vachon in the Montreal net for Game 6, though Worsley was coming off an injury and hadn’t played in awhile. He was outstanding. But so was Sawchuk at the other end.
Ellis opened the scoring in the second period on a rebound of a Kelly shot, while Ellis was driving to the net. Kelly had rushed up the middle of the ice and wrested a quick shot after he pulled up inside the Montreal blueline. Just before the period ended Pappin made a rush on his off-wing and his pass bounced in off a Montreal defensemen. Stemkowski was crowding the net, and at first it looked like it went in off the man they called “Stemmer”. But I remember Stemkowski shaking his head at the referee that it did not touch him, and Pappin was eventually credited with the goal. (Classy move by Stemkowski.)
Former Leaf Dickie Duff scored on a beautiful rink-long solo rush in the third, and there were, to say the least, tense moments through the rest of the game. One of the most famous face-offs in Leaf history occurred with just under a minute remaining, to the left of Sawchuk. Imlach sent Stanley out to take the draw against big Beliveau. (Interestingly, Imlach liked having his defensemen take the draws in their own zone…). With the Habs loading up with six guys on the ice, and their net empty, Horton, Stanley, Pulford, Armstrong and Kelly were the “old-timers” tasked with keeping Montreal off the scoresheet.
The draw was scrummed to Kelly (who jumped on the loose puck first) who right away moved it to Pulford. By this point, Armstrong was already streaking toward the center ice red line and Pulford hit him with a perfect pass, in strike. Armstrong waited ‘till he was past the red line and shot at the empty net.
When the puck hit the back of the net, the Gardens erupted. Little did those fans in the building—or those of us watching on television or listening on the radio, kids and long-time Leaf fans alike—realize it was the last time we would feel that way.
The summer of ’67 brought immense change to the NHL, as the league expanded from six to twelve teams. That meant the Leafs, like every other “Original Six” team, would lose a number of players in the expansion draft because they had to supply six new teams. The Leafs eventually lost, as I recall, Sawchuk, Baun, Kent Douglas (who had been one of those valuable "5th defensemen"-types..teams mostly used only four defensemen in those days) and some long-time minor leaguers like Gerry Ehman. That summer they also traded some of their toughness away, when Imlach dealt Shack to the Bruins for center Murray Oliver, a nice but very small player. The Leafs also sold their Victoria-based Western Hockey League farm team, meaning they lost a valuable organizational asset.
Imlach has often been criticized for not bringing in enough young players, but that wasn’t completely true. I mentioned Ellis earlier, but there was also Pappin, Stemkowski, Mike Walton and young defensemen like Jim McKenny and Pat Quinn who all got a shot under Imlach. But yes, the team did grow stale, and the magical Cup run in ’67 covered up a bit of rot, I guess.
The Leafs missed the playoffs in the first year of expansion, though they had started the season quite well. They were swept in the first round of the playoffs the next season (1968-’69) by the Bruins, who were emerging as the most explosive team on the planet at the time, with Orr, Esposito, Sanderson, Green, Bucyk and ex-Leaf Gerry Cheevers (and also Eddie Johnston) in goal.
Punch was fired that night, and after 6 trips to the finals and 4 Cups in his 11 seasons at the helm of the franchise, the Leafs were starting a new chapter in their history.
This was a time of even more change in the game as we knew it. The NHL was moving away, for example, from decades of teams being able to sign players as young kids and also sponsoring entire junior teams to ensure they had the rights to the best young prospects. A "universal" draft would level the playing field for the new teams. And the Leafs were one of the old teams that had to adjust- not always well.
When next I post in this series, we’ll venture into one of my favorite Leaf decades, the 1970s.
When next I post in this series, we’ll venture into one of my favorite Leaf decades, the 1970s.