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Hall-of-Famer Norm Ullman: A distinguished Leaf



Those who follow VLM know that I really enjoy talking about the "old" days, especially recalling those times when the Leafs were very good and actually building a mini-dynasty in the late 1950s and early '60s.  One Maple Leaf I haven't talked about nearly enough here is an individual who came to the organization a bit later, but nonetheless brought a lot of class to the organization.

In fact, Normie Ullman may have been one of the most accomplished individuals ever to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sadly, though he spent 7 plus seasons in blue and white, he arrived at a time when the team was in aging and in decline, late in the 1967-’68 season.  By the time new General Manager Jim Gregory had re-molded the team in the early ‘70s, then owner Harold Ballard refused to take the threat and existence of the new World Hockey Association seriously.  Just when the franchise—with Ullman as a center-ice mainstay, still in is later prime years—was beginning to look like a serious contender,  the Leafs lost a number of solid, young players, including rugged center Jim Harrison, defenseman Ricky Ley and future Hall-of-Fame goalie Bernie Parent, to the fledgling league.

This all contributed to making Ullman’s time in Toronto less than it otherwise might have been, in terms of overall team success.

Interestingly, despite being a Leaf for those many years, Ullman was actually best known for his great years with the Red Wings in Detroit. (The old photo above shows Ullman in playoff action against the Hawks at the Detroit Olympia in the spring of '63, I think it was.  That's Glenn Hall in goal, with "Red" Hay and Hall-of-Famer Pierre Pilote #3 looking on.  Ullman is wearing the "A" and celebrating the Red Wing goal...) He played a dozen seasons with the Red Wings—arriving too late, unfortunately, to be part of their early 1950s Stanley Cup successes—and became one of the best all-around centers in the old six-team NHL.  I’ll go as far as to suggest that he was perhaps one of the finest all-around players in the old six-team NHL.  I remember him vividly as a masterful forechecker and conscientious two-way center.  He hounded guys relentlessly, though you wouldn’t say he was a physical, tough forward.  He used his skating skill and anticipation, much like his counterpart, Dave Keon, in Toronto.

I seem to recall a wonderful season when he scored something like 42 goals for the Wings, in an era when that was a huge number. (I guess it is again nowadays...)  Interestingly, he was not known primarily as an offensive player- he was a guy who could check the top centres on the opposing team.  Alex Delvechhio was the "number-one" centerman in Detroit, playing on a line with Gordie Howe.

Ullman, though, was good enough offensively to score 324 career goals before he ever even suited up with the Leafs. That "324" number stands out, because I was in “standing room” at the old Olympia the night Ullman tied the legendary Nels Stewart with goal number 324 against the Montreal Canadiens.  (Ironically, after tying what was in those days a prestigious goal-scoring mark, he was dealt to the Leafs the very next day.  I was in one of my high school classes when I heard the news about the massive trade…)

With Detroit, he had come achingly close to the Stanley Cup in 1961, 1963, 1964 and 1966.  Each time they lost in the finals.  (In 1964, the Wings lost to the Maple Leafs in 7 games, in a series that, as I have posted here in the past, easily could have gone Detroit’s way.)  But Ullman was a smart, intuitive player, so good that he was an end-of-season All-Star twice in his time with the Red Wings.

He was a centerpiece of the aforementioned trade that sent Frank Mahovlich to Detroit in 1968.  While Ullman was a classy, productive player for Toronto, Mahovlich’s success overshadowed Norm’s accomplishments just a bit.  Frank set a personal offensive best in his Detroit days (49 goals in a single season) and then thrived with a great team when he was eventually dealt to the Habs.  (The “Big M” was integral in Montreal winning Stanley Cups in 1971 and 1973.)

Timing is everything, eh?  While Ullman certainly played with some good players in Toronto (including for some years on a very good line with Paul Henderson and Ronnie Ellis) he never had the kind of surrounding cast in his years with the Leafs that Mahovlich had in Montreal. (At right, I've included an early '70s Dan Baliotti photo of Ullman in action at the Gardens against the Minnesota North Stars.  I'm not certain, but I believe that's Jude Drouin of the Stars in the photo with Ullman.)

In his full seven seasons with the Leafs, the team made the playoffs five times, but never advanced past the first round (except for the odd two-out-of-three preliminary series against the LA Kings in Ullman’s final NHL season).   He was a quiet leader, not a rah, rah guy, but he was a tremendous influence on emerging Leaf players like Darryl Sittler, who ultimately become a very respected captain with the Leafs.

Ullman finished his career in the WHA with the Oilers, retiring at the age of 41, adding to his NHL total of 490 goals.  While he never won a Cup, he was a clutch player, averaging almost a point a game in more than 100 NHL playoff games with the Wings and Leafs.  He was a deserving inductee in to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

I only wish he had been a Leaf a lot sooner.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks ML.

    Here's my thing with Ullman. In his last season before he left for the WHA, his career still not finished, he was 3rd in ALL-TIME scoring in the NHL, behind only Howe and Delvecchio (fell into 4th at year's end.) He was ahead, often well ahead, of guys like Bobby Hull, Rocket Richard, Beliveau, Johnny Bucyk. Heck he was 400 points ahead of Keon and 200 up on Mahovolich!

    Now, here's the key. He did pretty much all of this while playing on the 2ND LINE. For almost his entire career, it was Delvecchio got to center a guy name Gordie Howe. Gordie Friggin' Howe. Whereas Ullman got to play with whoever was left.

    Same thing with the Leafs effectively, as he only ever got to play with Henderson and Ellis - good guys, but not the same as getting to play with a Howe or a Hull or a Richard.

    This 2nd level role carried over into how much PP time he got, into a role where he often had to focus on checking. Even when he was with the Leafs he was, in my opinion and during those years, the best forechecker in the league - better than Keon. But that takes huge amount of energy.

    In other words, Normie Ullman had to work like a fury for every point he got - nothing got handed to him. Nobody was there to set him up or do the dirty work or hand him the slot on the Powerplay.

    And yet how did he do? Well, as I say he was 3rd or 4th in all-time scoring when he left.

    Could he score? 490 goals in all. When Bobby Hull was at his peak, and led the league 5 out of 6 years, it was Ullman who broke the chain, winning it with 42 - as you mention. How good was this? Well, Hull finished 2nd with 39 goals. Howe was next..... with 29. Keon had 21, Mahovolich 23. Just an enormous gap between Hull, Ullman and the league - but Hull was the poster boy.

    Same through the 60's - Ullman was top 10 in goals 9 of 10 years that decade, and did it without the great linemates the others had.

    And in the end, what did he get for it? Well.... he got dick all, to be frank. No fame, no fortune, hardly even any memories (though I'm glad to see some here!) Thing was, in Detroit, Howe and Delvecchio and Lindsay were the gods. Around the league, he took 2nd fiddle to the "Big Names" that each team had, even if he outperformed them. Great in the playoffs (with numbers way better than Delvecchio or Keon or Lindsay for instance), he came in just after the Cup wins in Detroit and in Toronto. And in Toronto, he got traded for the loved-by-many Big M. And worse, he played center, and so in that era, there could only be Keon.

    At the end of it all, he fled those terrible Leaf management and ownership situations, because they thought he was through and wouldn't give him any ice-time, and went to the WHA. And did so when he had how many NHL goals. Can you guess?

    490.

    The guy had to leave the NHL with 490 goals, 10 shy of 500. Went to the WHA and got 47 more over his last two seasons.

    So he even managed to miss getting a big ceremony for that.

    Of all the guys who've played, I think I loved Normie Ullman most for his style of play, that ferocious forechecking. But I still shake my head when I see that almost nobody remembers him.

    - Not Norm Ullman

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  2. I was hoping you'd catch this piece, and that I would hear from you, Not Norm.

    I don't pretend I did justice to his career, just a few personal recollections on my part. He was a wonderful player, too easily neglected when people consider "all-time greats".

    You've done an outstanding job filling in some of the blanks on a tremendous career. Thanks.

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  3. Long suffering Leafs fanJune 16, 2012 at 8:09 AM

    Thanks for given space for a truly under appreciated Leaf great, Mike. Punch Lmlach once said in one of his books that he believe that Ullman was one of the best scoring two-way centers he ever saw played the game. In fact he believe it so much that he tried to acquire Ullman in the Bathgate trade in 65. I think that Mahovlich was offer in that deal too. Anyways, as anonymous already said; Ullman in his last season in T.O, sadly was a forgotten star regulated to playing fourth line minutes because of old friend, coach, and onetime teammate Red Kelly wanted to get stronger and bigger down the middle (reason for Sittler moving from left Wing to Center in first place). Kelly too, felt that the game was passing old number 9 by. So after the Leaf were swept out of the playoffs by the mighty board Street bullies in 75 Kelly with Ballard blessings got his wish for size down the middle. In the off season the Leafs drafted the late Don Ashby, (who was to be the next stronger and bigger Norm Ullman) as their number one center. Gregory also attained Stan Weir from Oakland, and promoted Ferguson after strong season in Oklahoma. The Leafs in the 75-76 season were surly bigger and stronger, but were they better? I'll leave that up for you and others to debate Mike.

    Thanks again for the piece on Norm Ullman.

    Oh, and yes that is Jude Drouin in the pic with Normie.

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  4. Thanks for sharing that on Ullman, Long Suffering. You filled in some detail around one of the really fine players in Leaf history. Good stuff.

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