With the weather like it is, at least for a lot of us, we should probably be talking about summer vacation, or being out on the golf course or something along those lines. But given that the Marlies—and of course the Kings and thew Devils—are about to embark on the challenge of the “final inch” of their long regular-season hockey journeys, my thoughts are tending to go back to a time when the Maple Leafs also played when it mattered most.
You see, I am one of those that is old enough to remember (clearly) when the Leafs last were in the very position that the Kings and Devils are now—knowing that four more wins means they will be remembered forever, as champions. (For the record, there are still quite a number of us “out there” who vividly remember the ’67 Cup. We’re not exactly dinosaurs just yet. But as the years pass, it’s probably good that I’m chronicling these memories before, well, it won’t be so easy to remember…)
It goes without too much detail required to say that the world (including our much smaller sporting world) was a very different place back in the spring of 1967. Personally, I was thirteen heading to the glorious age of fourteen. I was old enough to know hockey very well, having been raised in a hockey-obsessed culture in my french-Canadian, southern Ontario household. (It was filled, unfortunately, with rabid, passionate, devout Montreal Canadiens fans. As the youngest of the Langlois clan, I had no choice but to rebel and become a Leaf fan, as I did proudly at the age of 4, as the story goes.)
Now, back in ’67, it was Canada’s Centennial year, which may not seem like a significant event now but it was a fairly big deal back then. Canada hosted the “Expo ‘67” World Fair in Montreal. I well remember that there was a special athletic program in elementary schools whereby, if you could reach certain standards in things like the "standing broad jump", you would be recognized with a medal or some such thing from the federal government. (I remember this particular aspect of Canada’s Centennial year with a tinge of bitterness. You see, while I failed miserably at two of the three athletic endeavors, I was quite capable in the aforementioned standing broad jump event. Jumping beyond 7 feet - for a really short kid in grade 8 - was considered pretty good and also happened to be above the criteria needed to win a “Gold” something or other. Sadly, it never arrived. I still check the mail every day. But I’m obviously not one to hang on to things…)
In any event, the 1966-’67 hockey season was one where I did not have very high expectations as a young Leaf fan. Unfortunately the trend had been pointing in the wrong direction for some years. Toronto had won its first Cup in over a decade in the spring of 1962, buoyed by a wonderful combination of four excellent defensemen (Horton and Stanley, Baun and Brewer) and strong two-way forwards like George Armstrong, Dickie Duff, Davey Keon, Red Kelly, Eddie Litzenberger, Bobby Pulford and crusty old Bert Olmstead, shown at right. (The Leafs had last won in 1951, the year of the famous Bill Barilko overtime winner against the Habs—just weeks before Barilko died in a plane crash in the summer of ’51.) Back-up goalie Don Simmons filled in admirably for an injured Johnny Bower against Chicago in Game 6 to help the Leafs win the championship in 1962.
The best Leaf team I’ve ever seen was the 1962-’63 team. They actually finished first in the overrall NHL standings—the only time they have done that in my lifetime, which dates back to 1953. They then took out both Montreal and Detroit in 5 games, needing only 10 games overall to win their second Cup in a row under the demanding GM and coach, Punch Imlach. (To be clear, long before the “trap”, the Leafs played some very checking-oriented hockey under Imlach. They couldn’t skate with Montreal or Chicago, so they had to clamp down pretty tight to compete most nights. That said, if you watch film from those golden days of hockey, the game was much slower overall and there certainly was more open ice than we see today. What passed for tight checking back then was rather different from what we see for the most part today.)
In 1963-’64, the Leafs were already going in the other direction a bit. So much so that, in February of that season, Imlach traded a boat load of fine young players (including young wingers Duff and Bob Nevin, and future stalwarts like Arnie Brown and Rod Seiling) to the Rangers for veterans Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney. Both of those guys contributed to the Leafs winning their third Cup in a row, but the Leafs were life and death to do it. They knocked out Montreal in 7 games in the semi-finals (in Montreal—the night Keon scored three goals to clinch the deal) and then managed to get past the Red Wings, also in 7 games, in the Cup finals. Just to get to a seventh game, it took a Game 6 comeback on the road in Detroit, and Bobby Baun scoring his famous overtime goal on a broken ankle to enable the Leafs to have a shot back at home in Game 7. In that game, it was 1-0 until the third period, when the Leafs finally broke things open. Detroit hit the post and missed chances that could have completely changed the complexion of the game when it was still close.
In 1964-’65, the Leafs were still OK, but fell to the powerful Habs in the semi-finals in 6 games, ultimately losing in overtime at home in Game 6. (That was the season former Hab great Dickie Moore came out of retirement to join the Leafs. He played some inspired hockey against his old team in that playoff series but it wasn’t enough to carry the day.)
During the following season, the Leafs looked absolutely spent as the season wore on. They had some young guys in the line-up like Ron Ellis, Mike Walton and Pete Stemkowski, but by and large they still relied on their then aging core. At one point, Imlach was hospitalized because of nervous exhaustion, as it was referred to at the time. The team lost 10 straight games in late January/February, I believe it was. Eventually they got things turned around, but there was no reason to suspect they could get by the best team in hockey that season—first-place Chicago—in the first round of the playoffs, much less have a shot at the Cup.
However, after getting pasted on Game 1 in Chicago, Johnny Bower was brilliant in Game 2, replacing Terry Sawchuk. Keon scored a beautiful short-handed breakaway goal (I remember like it happened yesterday). The Leafs won that game in raucous Chicago Stadium (3-1, I think it was) to even the series.
The Leaf, shockingly, went on to win the series in 6 games. Dennis DeJordy and Glenn Hall split time in the Chicago nets, as Bower and Sawchuk did for Toronto. Brian Conacher (of the famous Maple Leaf Conacher clan) scored two crucial goals to clinch things in Game 6.
As excited as I was (and Leaf fans everywhere were at the time), I was also far from confident that the Leafs had enough in them to beat Montreal four times in a seven-game series. I well remembered the spring before, when Montreal walked all over the Leafs in a series that wasn’t really close at all.
I do, however, remember being so excited at the idea of a Montreal-Toronto final. I had never experienced that. (A lot of you must still feel that way.) It was very awkward within my family, because it was very tense as everyone else, most prominently my father, were such Hab fans. It was so bad we did not even talk about the series. No jokes, nothing. We stayed out of each other’s way and rarely watched any of the games together. When I would watch on TV, Dad would be in another room, listening on the radio to the French radio broadcast with Rene Lecavalier.
As hopeful as I was, if grounded in reality, any big dreams I had were dashed pretty quickly in Game 1. Montreal toyed with Sawchuk and the Leafs, and won by something like a 6-2 score. (Interestingly, Montreal had been forced to play a rookie goalie Rogie Vachon, because future Hall-of-Famer Gump Worsley was injured. Imlach famously declared to legendary writer Red Fisher, before the series, that the Habs could never beat the Leafs with a “Junior B” goalie in net. The story became a huge media sensation.)
However, as in the Chicago series, Toronto came back with a terrific effort in Game 2 at the Forum in Montreal to tie-up the series.
However, in game 4, Jean Beliveau took over (as he was wont to do) and the Habs hammered Sawchuk again. (I believe Bower was hurt, either in the overtime game, or in the warm up for Game 4…)
I was utterly convinced that the Leafs were in deep. Sawchuk had looked awful in Game 4. So did the Leafs. How were they going to win another game right in Montreal?
But stunningly, on a Saturday afternoon (timed for U.S. television—they were yanking our chain even in those days) Toronto shocked the Habs in Game 5 and won convincingly, taking a not-quite-commanding 3-2 lead in the series.
Most of you have no doubt seen the highlights or read about what came next. Suffice to say that it was one of the most excruciatingly nerve-wracking times I ever remember as s sports fan. (I still get tense watching the film to this day...) In Game 6, it was scoreless until well into the second period. Gump Worsley, after a long injury-related absence, was coach Toe Blake’s surprise insertion in the Hab net. (Gump was key in Montreal winning the Cup the previous two seasons.) But Ronnie Ellis crashed the net to cash a Red Kelly shot, then Jim Pappin scored a fluke goal that bounced past Worsley to give the Leafs a 2-0 lead heading into the third period.
Dickie Duff scored on an eye-popping solo dash down the wing to cut the lead to one goal, and it took everything the Leafs had to get to the final minute still up a goal. That famous final face-off saw Allan Stanley go up against Beliveau. (Imlach was still, amazingly, using defensemen to take face-offs in the defensive zone in those days. For fun, I've included a photo of Stanley battling with Beliveau in a classic late '50s match-up at left.) Stanley scrummed the draw with Beliveau. Kelly jumped in and picked up the loose puck and immediately got it to Pulford, who spotted Armstrong flying (well, “The Chief”, as he was called, never really flew, but he was moving as quickly as he could on those skinny old legs) on the Leaf side of center-ice. The Leaf captain was able to get past the red-line before a Montreal defender could cut him off. Armstrong wristed the puck toward the empty net and it found its way to the back of the “yawning cage”, as we like to say.
The Leafs, truly against all odds, had upset the two most talented teams in the NHL to win a highly unexpected Stanley Cup. I was surprised, shocked, thrilled. So were Leaf fans across the country.
How happy was I that spring night in May, 1967?
Well, we’re still talking about it, 45 years later—and not just because the Leafs haven’t won a championship since. It was a special time to be Canadian. And it was a wonderful moment to be a young hockey fan, and most particularly, a fan of the blue and white—the Maple Leafs.
I’m hoping Leaf fans (in case it’s not in my lifetime!) will indeed experience that kind of special sports moment at some point down the road.
You’ll never forget it.
You’ll never forget it.