Custom Search

If only we could find a modern-day Bert Olmstead to help get the Leafs over the top….

In recent days (well for longer than that, really) we’ve chatted here at VLM about what the Leafs need to get to that next “level”—you know, where they become a team that is a legitimate contender to win their Conference year after year.

Most of us agree that there are pieces in place, some pretty good pieces at that.  There is a sprinkling of young players already on the roster—or in the pipeline that will be here soon, as well.  But how close are we, really, to contending?

A few of us have opined here that the Leafs are maybe three or four key pieces from being in the rarified air of those legitimate annual contenders.  Of course that ‘number’ (of necessary pieces) can change with defections, injuries and poor performance, or on the positive side of the ledger, through the sudden emergence of young players or other unforeseen circumstances.

Regardless, most of us would agree that the Leafs aren’t there quite yet, despite the hopeful moments they gave us in that dramatic series with the heavily-favoured Bruins earlier in May.  A few people have commented in this space that they would like to see the Leafs acquire or find (somehow) a player with skill and toughness, someone who could score, make plays, fight for the puck and also drop the gloves if required.  We’ve had guys like that in the past, including Gary Roberts during the Pat Quinn era. Roberts brought a lot to the Leaf lineup, no question.

But because old memories are sometimes the best memories, on this kind of subject, I often harken back to a player of my youth, a time when I was just beginning to understand, appreciate and fall in love with hockey.  That was the late 1950s, which just happens to be a time when Punch Imlach arrived on the scene in Toronto and cobbled a team together.  It was a Leaf squad (some were castaways from other organizations, others made the jump from the Leaf-sponsored junior ranks) that had some elite young players along with a few tough two-way performers.  He also made sure the squad had a huge dose of experience and playoff savvy. 

That team became, in the 1960s, a four-time Stanley Cup champion.  And one of the players who helped the Leafs get to that championship level was a hard-edged winger by the name of Bert Olmstead (shown at right with the Habs in the early to mid 1950s).

I've written about the former Hab here before but a bit of background always helps.  In those golden days of hockey, the NHL was comprised, of course, of only six teams.  Don’t be fooled, however.  The competition was fierce, and while there were virtually no Americans in the league and no imports from Europe, Canadian players from across the country fought to earn one of the maybe 100-120 or so (17-18 players to a team in those days, I seem to recall) regular jobs available in the league.

It wasn’t any easier back then for aspiring players.

For his part, Olmstead had played on several Cup winners with the Montreal Canadiens by the time he joined the Leafs for the 1958-’59 season.  (I think he had played for a time with Chicago before joining the Canadiens.)  He put up a lot of points in Montreal, but was also known as one of the toughest (and meanest) players of his day.  He was Montreal’s Ted Lindsay—not the biggest guy in the world, but afraid of no one.

I remember at the time that Olmstead was looked up to in the Toronto dressing room because of his experience and championship pedigree with the Habs, and also due to his ‘take no prisoners’ approach to playing the game.  While I’ve heard some former Leafs (like the late Carl Brewer) dismiss the notion, many young Leafs of that time credit Olmstead with bringing a winning attitude to the dressing room.  He was known to hold teammates accountable, calling them out as necessary when they did not give their all.

Interestingly, Imlach named Olmstead an assistant coach at one point (while the winger was still a player) but Olmstead stepped away from that gig because he felt Imlach was not actually consulting with him in any meaningful way.

Olmstead helped the Leafs in a big way.  He was the ultimate corner man.   The club had some excellent veteran players in the late ‘50s like Tim Horton, George Armstrong, Allan Stanley, Bob Pulford and of course the then relatively unknown Johnny Bower. None of those guys had ever won a Cup, but when you combined that group with youngsters such as Frank Mahovlich, Dickie Duff, Carl Brewer and Bob Baun, you had the core of a heck of a team that was about to emerge as something special.

When Dave Keon and Bob Nevin joined the team in 1960-’61, those additions, along with the arrival of longtime Red Wing mainstay Red Kelly, made the Leafs a team to be reckoned with.

The Leafs made it to the finals in Olmstead’s first two seasons in Toronto, but they lost both times against Bert’s old club from Montreal.  But by 1961-’62, it was the Leafs year.  They worked their way past the Rangers in 6 games in the first round, and then beat the defending champion Blackhawks in the finals in 6 games as well, with Don Simmons filling in admirably in net for the injured Johnny Bower. (That was one of my happiest moments as a young Leaf fan, the night they won the Cup in Chicago in a nerve-wracking finish. I well recall watching that game on our little black and white television...)

Perhaps a tad ironically, Olmstead’s impact in that Cup year (at least in the playoffs) was modest, in part because he was hurt at the time.  (He played in only four playoff games and earned a single assist.)  But in reality the grizzled veteran was also on his last legs, though he was “only” 35 at the time.  (In those days, it was the relatively rare player who played until they were in their late 30s…)

He was placed on waivers in the summer of ’62, and picked up by the Rangers.  But rather than start over again in a new city, Olmstead retired.

He later re-surfaced as the head coach of the expansion Oakland Seals in that franchise’s first NHL season in 1967-’68, and in fact coached a number of ex-Leafs including Kent Douglas and Wally Boyer, as well as former teammates Bobby Baun and Billy Harris, if I’m not mistaken.  But he was not built to be behind the bench.  Too intense, too unforgiving of mistakes, perhaps.  I really don’t know.

Why this bit of nostalgia from me today?  Well, as many of you know, I love writing about my memories of Leafs of the past from my youth.  But I genuinely believe the Leafs could use a player much like Olmstead today.  A true veteran—and a winner.  Someone who could and would hold younger teammates accountable.  Someone who was not just a “goon” who played three minutes a night, but a versatile, skilled player who also would crash into the corners, use his elbows and fight for the puck.

His career point totals (just over 600, and about 60 more in the playoffs) may seem modest by today’s standards, but in the context of the time, he was a marvelous player, and tough as they came.

Where can we find a guy with five Cups as well as skill, toughness and leadership on his resume now?  I don’t know, but if the Leafs ever find someone like Olmstead, they should run to grab him.  That’s the kind of guy that can teach you “how to win”.


  1. Totally agree Michael, the team needs a leader with a pedigree who can command respect from both his teammates and his peers around the league. He may not have the Cup pedigree you write of, but a guy I think that may still have some game left (present series excepted) could be Iginla. He can still play at a high level and will stand up for his teammates without question.

    1. Well said, Dave. I know a lot of leaf fans are seemingly satisfied with waiting for the current youngsters to emerge, but there is no guarantee any of them will become the kind of leaders I'm talking about. Even (maybe especially) a young, improving team needs some guys to rally around, players who have "been there before" and all that. Whether it's an Iginla or someone else, the time is not far off, in my mind, when they will need that kind of leadership.

      We didn't win a championship with Gary Roberts, but we sure got further than we otherwise would have in that era without him. Thanks Dave.

  2. The charm of VLM is that we can discuss the current Leaf fortunes and also delve into the past and explore the rich history of our vaunted franchise. If, as they say, history repeats itself then then maybe we can learn something from the way Punch Imlach constructed his championship teams.

    After the 1950-51 Stanley Cup, Leafs results were mediocre. They decided to retool in 1956-57 and the result was Howie Meeker's crew cut kids who skated to a 5th place finish with a 21-34-15 record. Billy Reay made his coaching debut in 1957-58 and led them to a 6th place finish and a 21-38-11 record. At that time the feelings of Leaf fans were very much like those of Leaf fans during the past few years.

    In a key move, Punch Imlach was hired (as Asst. GM I believe) and he gradually took control, culminating in his firing Reay after a 5-12-3 start to the 1958-59 season. Imlach had made 3 key moves prior to the season, acquiring veterans Johnny Bower (from Cleveland in the Inter-League Draft), Allan Stanley (for Jim Morrison) and Bert Olmstead (Claimed from Montreal in Intra-League Draft). None of these moves gleaned much enthusiasm at the time but they laid the foundation for a much improved team that year and culminated in 3 straight Stanley cups in the early 60's.

    Bert Olmstead brought a drive and tenaciousness that was invaluable. He was a fine checker and fought for every puck in the corners. It is no coincidence that his linemates (Bob Pulford and Ron Stewart) were each 20 goal scorers in 58-59.

    As an aside on Olmstead, I remember that he enraged Leaping Louie Fontinato (the Rangers enforcer-defenseman) to the point where he publicly threatened to get Olmstead. Olmstead was an agitator who could get under opponents skin.

    The present day Leafs are a very young team much like their aforementioned predecessors. They have added one valuable under the radar component in Jay McClement. I believe if they can add a no nonsense defenseman (Paul Ranger?)and a rugged forward who can chip in offensively (Dave Clarkson?) they will be a force to be reckoned with next season and beyond.

    1. As we have before, it's such a pleasure to chat about the old days with someone who was "there". I was very young at the time, but the evolution that you describe is precisely what occurred. Meeker was behind the bench for but one season, and Reay not much longer. Imlach assumed command, in a sense, once he (fairly or not) fired Reay early on during that 1958-'59 season. That he was promoted to GM from "Assistant" seemed un-remarkable at the time, but it was not, in the end.

      The very moves you describe (Olmstead, Bower and Stanley) were indeed under-the-radar when they happened but turned out to be huge.

      I appreciate your reference to Fontinato. I don't think I've written (and I should have by now) at any length about the volatile but talented Ranger defenseman. As you well know, his career ended rather tragically because of a serious neck injury in the early '60s when he was with the Habs.

      Ranger and Clarkson are certainly two names that are out there, and could could a long ways toward helping the blue and white next season and beyond. The summer will be very intriguing. Thanks for posting on an old-time topic, Pete Cam. I appreciate it a great deal.

  3. I am going to argue a slightly different line:

    Perhaps the Leafs already are a contender? We just don't know it yet.

    So far, the Leafs are the only team to really challenge the Bruins in the playoffs.

    We always think of Pittsburgh as a contender, yet they are down 3-0 to Boston. The Leafs played Pittsburgh at .500. We got a win and a shootout loss in three games, so despite our humble nature we can play them.

    Pittsburgh's veterans against Boston? Iginla and Morrow haven't got a point!

    In contrast, JVR was playing at a point a game. Franson had 6. Lupul and Kadri had 4 points each. Gardiner had 5 in 6 games and MacArthur had 3 points in 5 games. Maybe Pittsburgh will grab MacArthur in the offseason?

    Will Chicago or L.A provide a tougher opponent for the Bruins? I hadn't watched Chicago until the playoffs because I would much rather spend my limited time on the Leafs, but I was expecting more from Chicago. All this talk about how fast Chicago was? The first time I saw Chicago in the playoffs, all I thought was: I wish there had been East vs West games. The Leafs could skate could with Chicago and might have beat them during a game in the regular season game.

    I would be ok if they kept this team virtually intact and gave them to the midpoint of next season to see what they really have. I would be ok if they gave Bozak and MacArthur lucrative short, 2 year contracts. Heck, do the same for Komorov.

    I'm not that worried about toughness. We played Boston tough and they were mostly quite polite. If they want to get rough we can happily trade Orr for Chara or Lucic. Orr chalenged them both repeatedly and they went back to being polite. Fraser is probably enough to deter in most playoff games and in a 5th, 6th and 7th playoff game you can sit Orr and put in a better veteran defensive forward.

    I think we need another McClement type for the 4th line. We need another defenseman, but maybe Ranger will step up. Give me Boyd Gordon, hang on to the draft picks and prospects and let Biggs, Broll, Blacker and the other kids develop with the Marlies unitl they are ready. I would be ok if they did that.

  4. I always respect your perspective, DP, but I'm just not as optimistic as you. The deeper the Leafs would have gotten in the playoffs, the harder it would have been. Do we really think guys would still be averaging a point a game or whatever against really good teams?

    The Bruins are playing way better now than they did against Toronto. In a sense, we caught them when they thought they already had us beat (leading the series three games to one) and they took their foot off the pedal. I'd hate to be playing them know. We're not in that league. Our defense sure isn't.

    To me, we're improved, but need a lot more to be Cup contenders.

  5. "The deeper the Leafs would have gotten in the playoffs, the harder it would have been. Do we really think guys would still be averaging a point a game or whatever against really good teams?"

    Pretty much...maybe JVR would come down a bit, but perhaps Grabo would get some points. Maybe Lupul would get on a tear. I think we would still be scoring against of other teams. The Rangers? Yes, the Leafs beat the Rangers and lost in a shootout in the final two regular games. Pitsburgh? Yes, we match up well against Pittsburgh. We could continue to score and maybe get lucky and beat Pittsburgh in a playoff series. We faced Rask and he is posting better numbers than the Pittsbugh combo.

    Part of our differences may be in word usage. You use the word "contender" but me your definition of that term seems more like I would use for "Stanley Cup Champion"

    In my mind, if you have the potential to beat almost every team in your conference in a playoff series, and maybe reach the third round, then you are a contender. Every team playing now is a contender.

    In a future playoff series, I think the Leafs could beat Montreal, Ottawa, the Rangers the Islanders and Washington. Some of the competion is in decline, while the Leafs are on the rise. No Alfredson in two years. The real competition are Pitsburgh and Boston.

    If you only worry about two and mostly one team in your conference, then you are a contender. The Leafs probably won't the Cup, but I could see a third round in the next few years.

  6. Hi Michael
    Good to see you posting.

    I remember Olmstead well. Something in my memory, remembers his skating style being referred to as "egg-beater".
    You are really speaking about two components of a player when you describe him.
    1. Compete/Leadership level - His compete level was extremely high which was comparable to Ted Lindsay, and perhaps George Armstrong fits. This type of player seems to be very difficult to find.
    2. Corner man, mucker on boards, excellent passer - This style of player may be disappearing in modern hockey. With better equipment and helmets (less fear of boards, etc) and perhaps stronger skating this type of player does not stand out like Olmstead did. It seems that Big body in front of net for garbage goals, deflections, screening has replaced this type of player in importance.

    Bickell of Chicago is unrestricted free agent from Ontario who seems to be making mark, but will likely get overpaid by someone.

    Fontinato? we seem to remember him differently. I remember a bully who revelled in pummelling smaller players like Mikita (he could be pest), who got his come-uppance from Howe. Harry Howell was the Ranger defenceman with talent.

    1. Thanks for chiming in on this one, Ralph (RLMcC)!

      Howell was the class of the Rangers defense, for sure. But I recall Fontinato as a pretty rugged customer who, yes, lost a big fight with the Red Wing legend.

      I concur that the game has clearly changed from Olmstead's hey-day. It was always useful to create traffic in front of the opposition net, but it's a big part of a team's offensive arsenal nowadays.

      Like a lot of observers, I like Bickell, but as you say, someone will likely pay huge dollars for him..Take care Ralph.

  7. My interest in the Leafs was just getting started when Olmstead arrived. I remember him as being "old", whereas Keon, say, seemed much younger - like a generation or so. Ahh, the misperceptions of youth!
    I can picture Olmstead in the corners, elbows high, battling for, and most often coming away with, the puck. Definitely in the Roberts mold - and as we're all noticing now, the Bickell mold. (Someone on TV referred to him as this year's Byfuglien for the Hawks). We definitely need one or two like that - particularly for the times when the opposition is shutting down your top guys. In fact, thinking of Grabbo et al, it appears that, along with upgrades needed for the D, our greatest weakness compared to the current remaining playoff teams is our third line. It will be interesting to see how Nonis addresses this in the coming weeks.

  8. It's noteworthy that you mention the importance of third lines, Gerund O'. I always think of the Habs in the mid-late '70s, who essentially had two amazing "third" lines: Risebrough, Lambert and Tremblay, as well as Jarvis, Gainey and Roberts. I also harken back to Maltby, Draper and McCarthy in Detroit, real difference-makers at playoff time every year.

    With lines like that, you can go a long, long way in the playoffs. And yes, the Leafs are a long way from having that kind of quality on their third line...