You know how sometimes things fall your way, but only by the narrowest of margins? And you realize that luck may have had more than a bit to do with the outcome? Well that was, in part at least, the story of the Maple Leaf dynasty in the early ‘60s, particularly as their tremendous run of three Cups in a row reached a climax in the spring of 1964.
I was awfully young at the time, still just 10 years of age, but I well remember the how close the Leafs came in the spring of '64 to not winning the Stanley Cup.
This is the way it has always been in sports. We mostly (sometimes only) remember who won, and even if they won by the tiniest—or, yes, “luckiest”—of margins, we call them (and remember them) as champions, forever.
And that’s how I remember the 1964 finals between two really good teams, the Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings. Toronto won in the end but boy, it could easily have gone the other way.
I have some vivid memories of that great series. For one, I recall Bob Pulford’s last-second (short-handed) breakaway goal in Game 1 that gave the Leafs an early lead in what was destined to be a very long and draining series. The goal against Detroit’s legendary Terry Sawchuk was certainly dramatic and has always stood out in my mind as one of those sporting moments that you never forget.
The man they called “Pully” was killing a penalty, with the play in Toronto’s defensive zone. Even though it was very late in regulation time, Alex Delvechhio was playing on the point, along with Gordie Howe, as one of five forwards on the ice for Detroit. Playing five forwards was the kind of thing former Red Wing great and then coach, Sid Abel, would try. He loved to have as much offensive firepower on the ice as he could in those situations. But it was a risk, on that occasion, that backfired.
Delvecchio’s point shot was deflected by Pulford, and the puck bounced past Delvecchio. Pulford was suddenly off on a breakaway, and sped in of Sawchuk with the game clock ticking down. Only Howe, who was on the point opposite Delvecchio, had a shot at catching Pulford from behind. But at the very last instant, Pulford pulled the puck away from where Howe’s waving stick could cause a problem, and backhanded the puck by Sawchuk with maybe 3 seconds (if that) left on the game clock. In fact, it might have been 2 seconds. What excitement. I wasn’t the only Leaf fan in Canada jumping up and down that April night. (And keep in mind that, unlike today, there were no replays, etc.. It was not only dramatic, but it was suddenly over. No long, post-game panels on TV. If you blinked and missed it, you may never find out exactly how it happened...)
The Wings won the next game in overtime (I don’t have any information in front of me, but the name Eddie Joyal comes to mind as the Detroit forward who might have scored the OT winner that night in Game 2. Some of you who were around at the time may have a clearer memory of that one.)
The series ultimately went back and forth, with Detroit eventually leading the series 3 games to 2 heading back to Detroit for Game 6. With a win, Detroit would be champions, and the Leafs would miss their shot at a Triple Crown of sorts. (We didn’t use terms like “three-peat", thankfully, in those days…)
Historians—and Leafs fans—always fondly remember Game 6 because of Bobby Baun’s shot in overtime bouncing past Terry Sawchuk to even the series at 3 games apiece. However, looking at that particular game now, in 2012 (courtesy of "classic" games that we get to watch every once in a while) it’s clear the Wings could very well have earned the Championship that night. (Just to provide some further context: I did not actually see Game 6 on television, because, living on the Canadian side of the border across from Detroit as I did, we were “blacked out” and had to listen to the game on the radio. I believe it was on WWJ Detroit, with Budd Lynch and Bruce Martin doing the game. Dad and I used to listen to Red Wing games in those days all the time...)
It’s funny, when I was either watching the games from Toronto, or listening to the games in Detroit on the radio broadcast, I spent most of my time being nervous, pacing a lot and just waiting for good or bad news—a goal for or against. I could barely watch. I did not always catch the "game within the game", the nuances, the great little plays that were made. I was simply too nervous, because, as a young fan, everything was on the line. My “happiness” for the next few weeks and months relied, to a certain extent, on how my favorite team in all sports, the Leafs, did. A loss in the playoffs was always devastating. (Little did I know at the time how long things could really go south for, say, 45 years….)
Now, as an adult, looking back at film of the games, I have a real appreciation of how well Gordie Howe played, and also for the quality play of people like Detroit defensemen Doug Barkley, Bill Gadsby and Marcel Pronovos, along with youngsters like Pit Martin and Paul Henderson (a future Leaf), and other Wings like another future Maple Leaf, hard-working winger Larry Jeffrey, and of course, the smart and oh-so-smooth centre iceman, Normie Ullman (who also became a member of the blue and white in the late 1960s).
In Game 6, the Wings were playing well, led not only by Howe, but by young and then much esser-known forwards like Martin and Henderson. (Pit Martin went on to have a fine career with the Blackhawks...) In fact, Henderson scored on a gorgeous play when he was sent in alone on a long pass from Martin. Martin later scored himself. John MacMillan, who played a small role on the Leafs 1961-’62 and '62-'63 Cup teams, was playing for the Wings in that series, and earned an assist, as I recall, that night.
The Wings were leading 3-2 late in the second period, when the Leafs tied the score, heading into intermission.
Detroit had a number of really good chances in the third period, but couldn’t beat Bower. In fact, the Red Wings came close in the final minute of play (by that point, Baun had been injured, his ankle having snapped on a face-off; he left on a stretcher and had returned to the ice late in regulation, no doubt having been given an injection to dull the pain), but the game went into overtime.
On the second shift of overtime, Detroit defenseman Al "Junior" Langlois (no relation) went back for the puck in the corner to the left of Sawchuk. Keon was charging in on Langlois, who fired the puck off the boards to clear the zone. However, though the puck bounded hard off the boards it was intercepted by Baun, who stepped into the play and took a slap shot without even stopping the clearing attempt first. Nowadays we’d call it a “one-timer”, but it was from about 55 feet away. It was not a powerful shot, but it deflected off a Red Wing defenseman and past Sawchuk. Game over. Baun (left) was instantly a hero—especially so given that he had left the ice on a stretcher in the third period, and people later realized a bone had snapped in his ankle and he still came back to finish the game.
Back in Toronto for Game 7, Toronto won 4-0 to clinch the Cup. (Baun must have been in even more pain that night...it really is a remarkable story) If you didn’t see the game, you would assume the 4-0 final was a Leaf walkover, that Detroit was so downhearted after losing their chance at a Championship in Game 6 that they had nothing left in Game 7.
Actually, they played really well through most of the game. Andy Bathgate scored on a breakaway for Toronto, a play very similar to Pulford’s goal earlier in the series. Al Langlois couldn’t keep the puck in at the Toronto blueline, and Bathgate went the length of the ice and beat Sawchuk with a perfectly placed shot.
After that, Detroit came close on many occasions, and twice hit the post (Norm Ullman on a power play, Bruce McGregor later in the second period) when it was still a one-goal game, plays that could have been game-changing at the time and created a very different outcome. Well into the third period it was still 1-0, and Alex Delvecchio was set up perfectly by Howe, but Bower made a tremendous save. On the same shift, Keon scored to make it 2-0, and the Wings couldn’t come back. (The photo I've included at the top of this story is actually from Game 5 of the earlier '63 final series against Detroit, when Keon scored in the clinching Game 5 in Toronto against Sawchuk...)
To me, there is no question that the Leafs had fortune on their side in the spring of ’64, and the legend of Bobby Baun- and 3 consecutive Cups- was born.
As a young Leaf fan, and even looking back now, I was - and am - happy for the memories.
But I tip my hat to the Red Wings, who were a fraction of an inch on several occasions from being world champions— and maybe deserved better.