I was pretty young when this happened, so I will probably have a number of historical “facts” wrong in my story today. I suppose I could look it up somewhere but that’s not what I do here and I’m not going to start now. I just try to write what I remember.
What got me thinking about this particular memory I’ll share today is, indirectly, the current NHL lockout. We live in an age of conflict, though I’m not sure it hasn’t always been this way to some degree in sports. It was maybe less pronounced in the "old" days. Perhaps what we have now is (in some cases, not all, I well realize) an opportunity for the “employee”, for example, to have more say in how the company "ship" is run, as it were, than an employee did decades ago. People are more likely nowadays to stand up for themself, to fight for their rights, to not let themselves get trampled on by those in authority. Clearly that creates a bit more balance in those relationships (if not real equality) and that’s usually a good thing.
Before professional athletes were led by powerful “unions”, they were, well, pretty much on their own. The average hockey salary was certainly more than the everyday person, and the “superstars” like Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard earned maybe $25,000 or $30,000 a year in the late 1950s or early 60s (in Howe’s case), when most people averaged say, $5,000 or so a year. So there was disparity, but nothing like today when $50,000 is a maybe “normal” income for many people, and some athletes make anywhere from 5 to 20 million or more a season. Now that’s a big divide.
So when I think back to a situation that occurred at Maple Leaf training camp in September of 1965, I wonder if things would have been smoothed over, feathers less ruffled, and a Hall-of-Fame talent would have stayed in a Leaf uniform much longer had there been advisors, agents or a union to work things out.
I’m referring specifically to Carl Brewer, the young Leaf defenseman who joined the club in the late 1950s (I think he was a former Marlie junior, as opposed to a St. Michael’s kid, but I could be wrong.) Brewer went on to team with rugged Bobby Baun for many years as a highly effective defense pairing for the Leafs. (Tim Horton and Allan Stanley were generally the other defensive duo in that remarkably successful era for the blue and white.)
It’s easy to fall into saying that two players complemented each other just because they happened to play together, but to a certain extent that was in fact true in their case. While Baun could carry the puck up the ice, he was, primarily, a stay-at-home defender who could handle the best left-wingers in hockey, like Bobby Hull of the Blackhawks. Baun was rock-hard, a very strong guy though he wasn’t tall (was he even five foot, ten? He didn’t seem that big to me in those days) but he was a tough, fire hydrant of a guy. He was not quite built like Leo Boivin, the Hall-of-Famer with the Bruins (after starting his career with the Leafs in the early- mid 1950s), but Bobby was a really fine defenseman. Baun didn’t fight all that often, but he wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves and defend himself—or teammates.
Brewer, on the other hand, was a natural skater. He used a lot of head feints (he had some Jake Gardiner in him), had good on-ice vision and could get back most of the time to cover up for any mistakes he made in giving the puck away on the rush, again much like Gardiner. (That's Brewer at left, number 2, along with Baun number 21 and Bower in goal for the Leafs in action against the Red Wings at the Olympia in Detroit in early 1960s action. Parker MacDonald is the Red Wing forward in the photo.)
One of the funny parts of Brewer’s game was that he was nasty—dirty, actually (in this regard he was not at all like Gardiner). I remember reading as a kid that he was caught cutting the palms out of his hockey gloves, a tactic he used to, I guess, be able to hold onto guys’ jerseys and that sort of thing without being detected. He would sometimes jump into the air at opposing players, run guys late, give them the stick. He was just a nasty (and disliked) piece of business around the league—but really talented.
Brewer was not a fighter. He would instigate, but generally didn’t actually fight very often. He’d yell at his opponent, the linesmen would come in, and the infuriated opponent would seethe while they both went to the penalty box. Mostly, I think Brewer knew he was not a fighter, but needed to play with an edge and some physicality to carve out a niche for himself in the world’s best league--and protect himself along the way.
Brewer was also a different type of guy in the hockey fraternity. He was a very bright, thoughtful individual. He, along with Leaf center Bob Pulford, if I’m remembering correctly, was responsible for getting a young Toronto lawyer, Alan Eagleson involved with Leaf players to "represent" their interests. It didn’t work initially because, as I seem to recall, GM and coach Punch Imlach bullied Leaf players into not wanting Eagleson around. But over time, as history shows, Eagleson became the head of the then new Players’ Association, and went on to fame—and later infamy—in that role. (In fact, Brewer, ironically, had a seminal role in bringing Eagleson down many years ago, when the former head of the Association’s illegal activities were brought to light—and to justice.)
Brewer (right) and Imlach, by all accounts that I remember at the time, were never close. Brewer was too smart and too much of a free-thinker for Imlach, who liked his players to be more like sheep. He wanted them to jump when he yelled, and most did, most of the time. Again, there were no agents to protect player “rights”, no union to intervene when Imlach punished players unfairly or sent them outright to Rochester because he was mad at them, or because they wouldn’t sign the contract that he offered them. (There wasn’t much negotiating back then unless you were a star, and even then, if you had a bad year, you might have to accept a pay cut. Most players were on one-year contracts. Imagine players nowadays being told that if they had a bad year, they would have to earn less?)
Despite the uneasy relationship with Imlach, Brewer was a very solid and important defenseman for the Leafs. He helped Toronto win those three Stanley Cups in a row in the early 1960s. I believe he broke his arm late in the finals one of those years—either ’63 or ’64, I believe (probably ’63 against the Red Wings in the 5-game final—I was awfully young, it’s hard to remember for sure. I'm sure he was there in '64 the night Baun broke his ankle...).
I’m also trying to remember off the top of my head if Brewer was ever an end-of-season All-Star in that time. Maybe once, but I don’t think so, though he was certainly in that league of player. The Leafs lost in the playoffs in the spring of 1965 to Montreal, and later that fall, at training camp, I remember reading reports about Brewer just up and leaving the team. There were indications that he had been in a yelling match with teammate Johnny Bower, but I don’t really know if that was part of what ensued or not. But lo and behold Brewer, at the age of maybe 26 at the time and in his hockey-playing prime, not only left camp, he quit—he quit the Leafs, and retired from professional hockey.
Back in 1965, it’s just not the kind of thing you heard happening all too often. Players relied on hockey as their primary job and few, if any, wanted to leave the game early and look for other kinds of work.
A quirky aside, Brewer went on to use his time to, in part, upgrade his education. In fact, the "quirky" part is that I was at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1966, I think it was, when Brewer received his undergraduate degree. (He had likely been taking courses in the summer for years…) I remember hearing his name called out that night. I was there (although standing out in the hall—we didn’t have enough tickets for seats inside...that was on my Dad, who never planned for anything) because one of my older brothers was receiving his Masters degree. That was also the night I met Bobby Orr. Good stuff all around for a 13 year-old.
In any event, Brewer went on to regain his “amateur” playing status after leaving the Leafs. He played a while for the Canadian National team. He played and coached in Finland. And when the Leafs traded his NHL “rights” to Detroit in the massive Frank Mahovlich deal in February of 1968, he joined the Wings the next season and did in fact become an end-of-season All-Star in later years (either with the Wings, or with S. Louis, I can’t quite recall for sure).
Long after he had left the game for good, Carl came out of retirement and played for Imlach again when Punch was the GM of the Leafs for a second time heading into the 1979-’80 season. I think Brewer was in his 40s at that point, but he played some games for the Leafs that season. Some thought he was an Imlach spy but I didn’t buy that. (Imlach was, though, actively dismantling the then Darryl Sittler-led Leafs piece by piece- a team that had been very promising under Jim Gregory and Roger Neilson. Bringing in Brewer did not make a lot of sense at the time so people wondered what was going on.)
Brewer died a few years ago, but he is remembered, and should be, as a wonderful Leaf, and someone who really made a difference in the world around him. A thoughtful guy. I never knew him, and I’m sure others could share much deeper memories than I can. But I’ll always wonder what really led him to walk away from hockey suddenly in the fall of 1965. Could he just not abide Imlach any longer? Was it that he was a very intelligent man in a sport that did not quite accept out-of-the-box thinkers in those days? Did he have issues with teammates? Was he angry over his salary? Or was it something that had been brewing for some time?
Fascinating guy. I’m sure he would have some interesting thoughts on today’s hockey marketplace, owners and the collective bargaining process.