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 naïve 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.
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.