There haven’t been many “purer” hockey players who have donned a Maple Leaf jersey over the past 80 years than Normie Ullman. He was a clean player, but was still one of the fiercest checkers of his time. He was offensively productive and quietly became one of the best players of the 1950s and ‘60s. The odd thing, I guess you could say, about the long-time center (more than 20 years in pro hockey, I think) is that while he was indeed one of the best all-around players of his generation, he was perhaps the most over-looked "star" in the history of the game.
He was, sadly, one of those all-time greats who never won a Stanley Cup. He earned a job with the Red Wings right out of junior hockey just after their run of four Cups in the early 1950s and didn’t join the Leafs until the year after they won their last Cup in 1967. (He was traded in the famous deal that sent Frank Mahovlich to the Red Wings.) Timing is everything sometimes and he was just never in the right place at the right time to see one of his teams win a championship in the NHL, though he came awfully close in the spring of 1964.
That last comment maybe deserves a bit of an explanation. You see, that was the year Punch Imlach’s Maple Leafs were gunning for their third consecutive Stanley Cup, and the Red Wings gave the Leafs all they could handle in the finals. In fact, the Leafs had to come from behind in Game 6 at the wonderful old Detroit Olympia to force overtime and stave off elimination. (The Wings went into that game leading the series three games to two.) The game was blacked out where I lived (which was in a really small town just across the border from Detroit, on the Canadian side…) so I did not see the game live at the time. But at the tender age of 10, I was listening on my Dad’s old radio in the part of our tiny little house that was often dedicated to watching (or listening) to hockey games. I spent the night pacing and fretting, pacing and fretting. Following the game via that old radio was difficult, and I could tell that Johnny Bower had to come up big to keep the Leafs in the game. Any number of times the Wings could have padded their lead but didn’t. One shot (and several key Bower saves—and some good fortune, too) meant the whole season, because the Wings never did get that “next goal”—and the Leafs kept hanging around.
That, of course, turned out to be the night of the famous Bobby Baun overtime goal—scored after he had snapped his ankle while taking a faceoff in his own zone against Detroit’s Gordie Howe in the third period. When I look at the game film now whenever I get the chance, Ullman’s Wings absolutely could have (and maybe should have) won Game 6, but Baun’s fluky goal on a long shot that bounced past Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk gave the Leafs life and a shot at Game 7 back home, which they won 4-0 (though that game was much closer than the final score—the Wings hit the post in the second period at least once I recall, when it was still 1-0). But it wasn't meant to be for the Wings- or in 1966 when they led Montreal in the finals two games to none (stunning the Habs at home at the Forum in the first two games of that classic series), but lost four in a row thereafter.
Ullman was best known as a Maple Leaf for his tenacious fore-checking, his longtime trait, and making his linemates successful. He probably played the most with former Wing teammate Paul Henderson and right-winger Ronnie Ellis. They formed a solid troika for several seasons in Toronto.
The Leafs were never good enough, frankly, in the late ‘60s and early to mid ‘70s to contend for a Cup. In fact, I don’t think they won a single four-out-of-seven series while Norm played with the Leafs. The Leafs had a very good young team in 1970-’71, buffered by fine veterans like Ullman (seen in early '70s action at right against the Minnesota North Stars), Bobby Baun, and former captain George Armstrong along with the venerable Jacques Plante in goal. Some of you have followed my stories about that particular team here in the past, but unfortunately, Leaf owner Harold Ballard didn’t take the incoming World Hockey Association seriously and a number of emerging young stars jumped to the new league. As a result, General Manager Jim Gregory had to rebuild in the fly again.
Ullman stayed with the Leafs until the end of the 1974-’75 season, when Ballard rather callously purged the team of veterans like Ullman and captain Dave Keon.
Ullman was a remarkable playmaker who could twist and turn on a dime and find the open man (a bit like Denis Savard who came years later, but without Savard’s blazing speed) because of his great vision and passing ability. He was a fine skater (though not a classic speedster like Savard or Keon), known more as a playmaker than scoring himself. Yet I think he actually led the NHL in goal-scoring one year (I’m going to say 1962-’63, but I'd have to look it up). I believe it was 42 goals that he scored that season, a stunning total in those days if your name wasn’t Bobby Hull or Gordie Howe.
Ullman was an annual candidate for the Lady Byng Trophy because he rarely took penalties and yet was one of the elite players in the game who was so sound at both ends of the ice. He was overshadowed by Howe in Detroit and to a certain extent by the immensely popular Keon in Toronto. who was raised in the Toronto "system" from the time he was a teenager. But make no mistake, Ullman was one of the most gifted player of his time, and one of the classiest individuals ever to wear a Leaf uniform. He had a pronounced impact on young Leafs like Darryl Sittler in the early ‘70s and was by all accounts an outstanding teammate.
He was twice an end-of-season NHL All-Star and is, quite rightly, a Hall-of-Famer. But even in his prime, he was the kind of player who often got passed over by names like Beliveau, Richard, Mikita and Detroit’s own Alex Delevecchio. That said, my guess is if you played against Ullman, you knew exactly who he was.
A great Leaf and part of our blue and white history.