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Harkening back to some summertime Maple Leaf memories…

With the NHL playoffs winding down (as I write this, the Kings are looking to wrap up their series against the Rangers) and with things awfully quiet in Leafland, my mind has been wandering back to olden-days summertime Leaf memories.

I guess summertime comes to mind because a) it is summer, finally and b) it always seems to be a time of hope when it comes to the Maple Leafs.  When I was a youngster in the early ‘60s, the Leafs won the Stanley Cup several times, so as a na├»ve young Leaf booster, I kind of assumed the team would always be good and have a shot at a championship pretty much every year. So summer was always hope-filled, in terms of anticipating the next NHL season. (I soon learned, of course, that winning championships wasn’t that easy…) But even during subsequent lean Leaf times, summer provided fans with snippets of news—a trade, a waiver pick-up, something that made you think things would be better next season.

Times were obviously very different back then.  There were only six NHL teams until the fall of 1967. The NHL draft, as we now know it, did not even begin in earnest until about 1968 or 1969.  There was basically no free agency of any kind. So hockey news was usually sparse in the summer but when it happened, it was often memorable.

My actual in-season Leaf memories drift back to the late 1950s, but one of the earliest summertime “memories” that springs to mind was hearing that the Leafs had acquired veteran goaltender Terry Sawchuk. I don’t recall if I first heard about it on the radio or in the newspaper the next day, and I couldn’t say for sure if it happened in May or June. I believe the Detroit Red Wings had left the former All-Star unprotected in the NHL intra-league draft, as it was called back then. Then Maple Leaf General manager and Coach Punch Imlach (right) created the oldest goaltending duo in history when he grabbed Sawchuk, who teamed up with  venerable Leaf netminder Johnny Bower for the next three seasons in Toronto. Their last season together—1966-’67—brought Toronto its last hockey championship in Canada’s Centennial year.

Interestingly, that move was nowhere near as shocking as a massive (non-Leaf) trade that took place the summer before, when the struggling Habs dealt future Hall-of-Famer Jacques Plante to the Rangers for Gump Worsley.  Worsley had been a fantastic goalie for the Rangers, but while New York had some top players like Harry Howell and Andy Bathgate, they rarely made the playoffs during Worsley’s goaltending tenure on Broadway. (There were other parts of the trade, like Montreal picking up rugged Dave Balon and Donnie Marshall and Phil Goyette heading to New York, but the trade of two elite goaltenders was startling to NHL observers at that point in their careers. It was big news, though what may have turned out to be an even bigger summertime trade in that era was no doubt the one that saw the Bruins acquire Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Freddie Stanfield from the Blackhawks for Pit Martin and defenseman Gil Marotte. Martin was a tremendous little player for the Hawks for many years, but the Bruins won two Cups with Espo, though Bobby Orr helped just a bit...)

In the summer of ’65, I remember the Leafs trading the aforementioned Bathgate (who we had acquired in February of ’64 for Dickie Duff and Bob Nevin as well as Rod Seiling and Arnie Brown, two fine junior players) to Detroit for Marcel Pronovost. (I think slick Leaf center Billy Harris was part of that deal, too.) The Leafs also picked up Larry Jeffrey, a player I had really liked with the Red Wings and who helped us in the ’67 playoff run until he was hurt. Prononost was an integral component of the Leafs’ Cup win that spring, when Toronto upset both the Blackhawks and the Canadiens.

In the summer of ’67, I have memories of Eddie Shack, the ever-entertaining Leaf winger, being dealt away in return for Murray Oliver, a small but talented center from the Bruins. But probably the best summertime Leaf memory I have from my youth was the year (1973) that they drafted Lanny McDonald, Bob Neely and Ian Turnbull all in the first round of the NHL draft.  That was a big draft for Jim Gregory, who had replaced Imlach as GM after the 1968-’69 season. Gregory was rebuilding the Leafs after losing many top players (Bernie Parent, Jim Harrison, Rick Ley, Brad Selwood) to the fledgling World Hockey Association in the summer of 1972.  (That summer was a bad Leaf memory…)

The next summer (1974), the Leafs picked up two wingers who I thought would be a big help—former Flyer Cup winner Bill “Cowboy” Flett, and rugged Blues veteran Gary Sabourin.  Unfortunately Flett never really seemed to get comfortable in Toronto, and Sabourin had some injuries and was toward the end of his career.

VLM readers likely have their own summer-related Leaf memories:  draft choices that brought a glimmer of hope and trades that ignited hockey fever in the off-season. In more recent times it may have been a free-agent signing that made you feel better days were ahead for the blue and white.  Let me know…


For those VLM readers who haven’t yet downloaded my eBook, “The Maple Leafs of My Youth: what being a Leaf fan means to me”, I invite you to check it out on iTunes or Amazon.  


  1. I'm scanning my memory for some notable off-season moves made by the Leafs, and quite honestly there are very few in my lifetime. Obtaining Mats Sundin was a huge one of course, and may be the only summer trade the Leafs have made that really got me excited. Others maybe only were intriguing at best, such as Vaive and Thomas for Secord and Olczyk, and of course the Kessel for draft picks trade. I was on the fence about the Schenn for van Riemsdyk trade, and as much as it has turned out to be a huge victory here, I will admit that I wasn't quite sold at the time.
    I can't remember when "true" free agency exactly took effect, in the mid-nineties I think, but the Leafs have never figured that out. Names like Jason Blake and Jeff Finger are burned on my brain, and I'm hoping against hope that Clarkson will not go down the same way. I have wished that guys like Liles and Komisarek would have turned out better than they had, but they simply didn't.
    Is it wrong for me to say that the death of Harold Ballard gave me a huge dose of optimism in 1990? It may sound bad, but it really felt like a dark cloud lifting, and bringing Cliff Fletcher aboard soon after turned me from a Leafs apologist to optimist.
    I don't know if I've ever mentioned it here, but I am a life-long Green Bay Packer fan. Following that team and the way it is managed has taught me to not get too excited about big post-season movement. As much as fans want the home run signing, the Packers have consistently avoided free agency and trades, and built from within, allowing other teams to sign their own middle of the road players to huge contracts and then moving on to the next prospect of their own to step up. Their success is evident too, so I suppose what I'm saying is I'm okay with the Leafs not overspending or gambling in the summer. I'd be much more excited to see them successful during the season than in the summer.

    1. You've nicely filled in some of the modern-era summertime moves that evoke memories for Leaf fans, Pete- Sundin/Clark for sure. The Vaive trade, at the time, was major.

      I get your point on the Leafs not overspending. I, too, have followed the Packers over the years (quite passionately from the early '60s into the '80s, though less so in more recent times, I admit) and they have been a successful organization for the most part- much like the Red Wings in hockey over the past twenty years.

  2. Hi Michael.

    I never thought the Kessel trade was that bad, other than that the Leafs owned the #2 overall for 2010. They had three first round picks for 2011 and gave up the one. It was a bold move and pricey but the Burke had nothing else in players or prospects of any value to deal and he wanted someone who could play right away. Kessel was only 21 and very talented. No one knows for sure who the Leafs would have picked in either draft had they kept the picks or whether those players would have worked out.

    Kessel, though he doesn't care for the media, has not only learned to handle the pressure in Toronto, he seems to embrace it. That's not easy to do. I know many don't agree but I can't say I regret having him even if the price was steep. CN