In fact, I remember writing that, if you set aside Brewer’s nastiness and mean streak, he actually has a number of things in common with young Leaf rearguard Jake Gardiner. We all know Gardiner is a sweetly skilled young defenseman who sees the ice well and is remarkably calm under duress.
Gardiner can also skate like the wind (and often circles around opposition players) and put up points. Brewer, for his part, was an all-around defenseman, very much what we might call nowadays a 'complete' hockey player. Gifted offensively, yes, but he could also play in his own zone, in the corners, and in front of his own net.
He was a beautiful skater, could shift opponents out of their socks (he was famous for his “head fakes”) and as I mentioned earlier, he was a nasty piece of work. He was not a fighter but he was an agitator who was not afraid to use his stick to lay the lumber of unsuspecting opponents. (He was also known, in his early days, to cut the palm out of his hockey gloves, so he could—illegally, of course—grab on to the jerseys of opposing players without being detected. Once that became public knowledge, that particular little gig was more or less up…)
But Brewer was also, from a player perspective (certain media people were equally responsible, I should add), almost single-handedly responsible for the demise of Eagleson in the early 1990s. It was Brewer who pushed and pushed and pushed some more, finally convincing old-time players (who were initially skeptical) that they had been taken advantage of over many years by NHL owners—and in fact by Eagleson. Brewer, rightly, is credited with Eagleson’s well-deserved fall from grace as one of the most powerful and influential men in all of hockey.
Brewer was an intense, smart individual. (I happened to be at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto the night he received his Bachelors degree in the fall of 1967. My oldest brother was receiving a Masters degree that night. It was most memorable, however, because that was the night I met Bobby Orr.) He was an independent thinker, and clashed with Imlach repeatedly during his years with the Leafs.
This last point leads me to what I wanted to focus on today when it comes to the former Leaf stalwart: his remarkable penchant for successful hockey “comebacks”.
Without going into great depth around any one circumstance when he left the game and returned, I’ll just start with his time with the blue and white. Brewer (number 2, left, in early 1960s action at the Olympia in Detroit) joined the Leafs in the late ‘50s after a great career with the junior Marlies, who were essentially a Leaf ‘farm’ team in those days. Soon thereafter he was paired with the short but powerful Bobby Baun on the Leaf blueline. Old-time Leaf supporters can still rhyme off the names like it was yesterday when it comes to the four defenseman who patrolled the back line for the Maple Leafs in those days: Horton and Stanley and Baun and Brewer. They were good enough, along with tight-checking forwards and goaltender Johnny Bower, to capture four Stanley Cups in the 1960s (though, in truth, Brewer was gone by the time the Leafs won their last Cup…wait ‘til you discover where he was playing by then.)
You see, that the way hockey was in those days. Four defensemen were pretty much enough to carry an NHL team. The Leafs had some great “fifth” defensemen who filled in over the years—Marc Reaume, Al Arbour, Larry Hillman and Kent Douglas all held that job at various times—but Imlach generally played with the four big names.
And fortunately, the Leafs had four of the best. The powerful, hard-hitting Baun was the almost perfect complement to the skilled, aggressive, risk-taking Brewer.
But this all came crashing down for Brewer and the Leafs at training camp in the fall of 1965. I don’t know all the reasons (I remember reading newspaper reports as a child that there was a shouting match at practice between Bower and Brewer, though Brewer’s long-simmering relationship with Imlach was likely the real catalyst…) but Brewer literally skated off the ice, walked out of camp (I’m guessing it was in Peterborough in those days, but I’m not sure) and left the club.
He never came back. (Well not quite never, but you’ll have to read on…)
Brewer announced his retirement, and I seem to recall that he went back to school at that point. (Note the aforementioned reference to obtaining his BA from the University of Toronto a couple of years later.)
Everyone was shocked. Brewer was 26 years of age at the time. 26. Who walks away, healthy, from the sport they excel at at the age of 26? He had been already been an end-of-season All-Star three times in his young career. (I don’t mean, by the way, like everyone talks about nowadays, a mid-season all-star. I’m referring to the actual, legitimate, end-of-season All-Star squad.) He was that good.
Though he left the game, seemingly for “good”, he was fairly soon back in action, no longer fully “retired”. How so? Well, he applied to be re-instated as an amateur and before long he was playing for Canada’s national team. I don’t believe that he played for Canada at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France (I’m going to say we finished third or fourth in that event, but I could be wrong) but he did play at the World Championships in the spring of 1967—the same time of year the Leafs were fighting to win their last Stanley Cup.
Interestingly, not quite a year later he was part of the trade that saw his ‘rights’ dealt to the Red Wings in February/March of 1968. That was the famous deal that saw Frank Mahovlich (with Pete Stemkowski and a young Garry Unger) go to Detroit in return for Normie Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith. During that 1967-’68 season, Brewer had left the Canadian team (I don’t know if he officially “retired” again) but played for Muskegon in the old International Hockey League. I can’t honestly recall if he played that season as an amateur or as a paid professional. But it was a comeback to professional hockey, though the IHL was considered a good but still lower-level league back then, compared with the Central Hockey League and the American and Western Hockey Leagues.
After his time in Muskegon, Brewer left North America and signed to play (and coach, too, I think) in Finland. He spent the 1968-’69 season in Helsinki, opening his eyes to a whole different way of playing the game, though his skill set was already a perfect fit for European hockey.
The kicker, though, is that while some thought Brewer was done with the NHL, the Red Wings talked him into making an NHL comeback in time for the 1969-’70 season. Though his old partner Baun had found his way to the Wings as well, after an expansion stopover in Oakland, the two did not always play together regularly. Nonetheless, Brewer was a huge factor (I saw a lot of Red Wing games that season, living as I did just across the border from Detroit) in Detroit making the playoffs for the first time since the spring of 1966. Brewer was, deservedly, named an end-of-season All-Star for the fourth time in his illustrious career.
Yet it was never simply a smooth ride for the former Leaf. Despite his brilliant ’69-’70 campaign, he left Detroit’s training camp in the fall of 1970, shades of 1965. (It was probably just as well. That turned out to be the season that the Wings hired Ned Harkness, a highly regarded U.S. college coach, to coach the largely aging squad. The season turned into a disaster…) Brewer didn’t play again until he was dealt to the St. Louis Blues before the “deadline” (they didn’t call it that in those days) in the winter of 1971.
Carl played the next season (1971-’72) in St. Louis, but left the NHL once again, seemingly for the final time, at the end of that season with the Blues.
However, after a year off (and having been drafted by the new World Hockey Association and his rights traded to the Toronto Toros), Brewer took advantage of the opportunity to play again in the city that helped him forge an everlasting memory in the minds of Toronto hockey fans. He played that 1973-’74 season with the WHA Toros at the age of 35, and then retired—for good.
Amazingly, it wasn’t quite for good. After several years away from the game, the very individual who had probably helped push him out of the game in the mid-‘60s, enticed him to make one final comeback. Punch Imlach, after a pretty successful decade-long run with the expansion Buffalo Sabres (they came very close to winning the Cup in 1975 under his stewardship as GM), had returned to run the Leafs in the summer of 1979.
Well into that tumultuous first season back, Imlach had dismantled what had been a pretty solid squad by trading away players he thought were part of Darryl Sittler’s entourage. (Punch, seen in an early '60s photo at right, thought Sittler exerted too much influence on the Leafs on and off the ice, and thus sought to get rid of that culture of “entitlement”—sound familiar?)
In any event, with a season going down the tubes, Imlach signed the then 41 year-old Brewer to play for Toronto. Some conspiracy theorists of the time thought Imlach wanted Brewer to be his eyes and ears in a Leaf dressing room that was clearly revolting against Imlach, but I find it hard to believe a man of Brewer’s principles and independence would even have contemplated that kind of arrangement for a second—even for a nice pay day.
Brewer played a handful of games in the AHL with Toronto’s farm team in Moncton to get back in shape, and played around 20 NHL games in the second half of that 1979-’80 season. I recall clearly that he earned 3 assists in one particular game, but otherwise he was really a shadow (not surprisingly) of the player he had been in his hey-day.
It was an astonishing—and startling—final comeback nonetheless.
Brewer retired for the last time after that season. Ironically, for all his time in and out of hockey (more than 20 years off and on), he only played about 600 regular-season NHL games. But again, he was a four-time end-of-season All-Star, and a key figure in three Stanley Cup championships.
There was a lot to admire about Brewer as a man and as a hockey player. But his remarkable ability to make successful comebacks surely sets him even further apart from his contemporaries.