It’s simplistic sometimes, I recognize, to draw comparisons to earlier times—in life and in sports. Many of us do it, and I certainly do here at Vintage Leaf Memories.
But you know what? For me it’s fun. So I like to do it. And today, on an off-day (but reading into Game 6 in Toronto Sunday night), I thought I’d share a quick story and Maple Leaf memory from when I was just a kid—back in the spring of 1959 I was born in 1953, as some of regular visitors know, the youngest son of a deeply devoted Montreal fan.
The 1958-’59 season was a funny one for the Leafs. Punch Imlach had been hired in the summer of 1958, and while I was too young at the time to understand the nuances of the “signing”, it turned out to be a pivotal moment in Leaf history. (Imlach had been a minor league player and a reasonably successful minor-league coach and executive; having coached, for example, a young Jean Beliveau before the future legend ultimately joined the Montreal Canadiens.) While hardly thought of as a coup by the Toronto media or the hockey establishment of that era, it was nonetheless a major move by then owner Conn Smythe and his son (and future Leaf owner) Stafford. At first Punch was “only” working under the title of assistant General Manager. (I could be wrong, but I don’t believe there was an actual GM in place at the time; maybe one of the Smythe’s had that role…) But he asserted his authority in the organization fairly early on, by firing then head coach Billy Reay—the former Hab playing great. That Imlach did it during during Grey Cup weekend upset many media members who were out of town when Imlach pulled the plug.
The team had started the ’58-’59 season somewhat slowly (thus Imlach taking over himself behind the Leaf bench), and with about three weeks to go in the year, they were still well our of a playoff spot. But the young Leafs caught fire as the season drew to a close. They needed a combination of a New York Ranger collapse, their own big-time winning streak, and a huge on-the-road win in Detroit the last night of the season to sneak into the playoffs.
They drew Boston in the first sound (the Leafs snuck into fourth place, and in those days, the second-place team played the fourth-place team in the first round, which was the semi-finals). Toronto had some veterans like Allan Stanley (acquired just as the season had started back in October) and ex-Hab winger Bert Olmstead, along with Johnny Bower, finishing his first year with the Leafs. But they also had a youngish core, with winger George Armsgrong as captain and a host of emerging youngsters like Dickie Duff, Frank Mahovlich and Billy Harris. Throw in versatile grinder/contributors like Larry Regan and Gerry Ehman and a young defense pairing of Carl Brewer and Bobby Baun (Stanley began his long blueline association with Tim Horton during that season), and the Leafs were a nice mix of young, old and, tough and skilled.
The Bruins, for their part, had a really nice team. Ex-Leaf Harry Lumley was in goal, as I recall. They had some other former Leafs in the lineup, like Jimmy Morrison (the father of current Leaf Director of Scouting Dave Morrison), Fleming Mackell and super-tough defenseman Fern Flaman. They also had future Hall-of-Famer Leo Boivin, and a great forward line (then called “The Uke Line”) of Bronco Horvath, Vic Stasiuk and Johnny Bucyk. (I think, but I'd have to look it up, that they had a talented winger by the name of Real Chevrefils, who later played for the old Senior "A" Windsor Bulldogs teams that I used to follow as a youngster in the Essex County area where I was born and raised.)
Through the back and forth series, the Leafs managed to take things to a 7th and deciding game in Boston—the old Garden that was much smaller, dimensions-wise, compared with “regulation” rinks like Montreal, Toronto and Detroit. It was a pretty hostile place to play for visitors—fans were right on top of the play— but the Leafs came from behind in the third period of Game 7 (I was young at the time, but I think Ehman scored a big goal, and so did Bobby Pulford, who was one of the most under-rated Leafs of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Pulford, I should add, was a tough, grinding center who could score and was a huge part of the four Cup teams in the ‘60s.)
Why do I mention this series now, more than 50 years later? Am I suggesting there are legitimate comparisons between what the up and coming Leaf team accomplished that spring by making the playoffs when they weren’t expected to, and overcoming their heavy underdog status to down the more experienced Bruins? (Boston had bee to the finals a couple of times in the previous three seasons, I think it was…)
Not really. Except to maybe, kind of, say that while hockey is a very different game nowadays, some things never change. That young Leaf team lost in 5 games to the powerful Habs that spring, and made the finals but lost again against the vaunted Habs in the spring of 1960. (Montreal actually won, amazingly, five Cups in a row.) They even took a step back when they lost, unexpectedly, to the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs in 1961. But by building with young players (adding pieces like Bob Nevin and Dave Keon in the early ‘60s), Imlach built a team around goaltending (primarily Bower and later Terry Sqwchuk, but with useful back-ups like Eddie Chadwick, Don Simmons, Bruce Gamble, etc.) real toughness (Pulford, Armstrong, Shack, Baun, Horton) and speed and skill in players like Mahovlich, Keon and Duff and later Mike Walton and Ronnie Ellis, who were instrumental in the ’67 Cup victory
So no, today’s team is not “like” the Leafs I fell in love with in those wonderful late ‘50s days. But while the game is much faster now, much more detail oriented, has much more emphasis on coaching, special teams and face-off possession and all that, there are some core principles that that always matter in hockey: leadership, experience, speed, smarts, team toughness, goaltending and yes, coaching.
When you have all of the above, your chances for success are pretty good. It doesn’t guarantee a championship, but it sure gives you a shot.
I just thought I’d share a moment from my childhood. Sometimes, you never know, history does repeat itself.