When Vintage Leaf Memories was “launched” back in September of 2009, my initial thought was that I would post on occasion, and pretty much exclusively about my memories of yesteryear—the late 1950s, ‘60s and into the early ‘70s.
Those years were kind of my own personal wheelhouse as a young fan. I fell in love with the team when I was maybe four or five years of age. That sounds a bit young, perhaps, but I was quite a few years younger than my older brothers, and my Dad was, as I’ve mentioned here more than once before, a devoted Montreal Canadiens supporter. He had seen all the greats, from Morenz and Joliat to Richard, Bouchard, Plante, Harvey and of course Jean Beliveau.
Hockey was such a major influence in my family that I probably could not help but catch the bug. Despite the pro-Montreal bias around me, I chose early on to go in another direction: I was raised on those great Hab names cited above, but I gravitated instead to Dickie Duff, Eddie Chadwick, Tim Horton, George Armstrong, Frank Mahovlich and Allan Stanley, not to mention Johnny Bower, of course.
The Maple Leaf legacy became a very important part of my life.
Without realizing it, I soon became spoiled as a kid when it came to the Leafs. Red Kelly, Bob Nevin and Dave Keon joined the Leafs early in my tenure as a fan, and before I knew it, then General Manager and Coach Punch Imlach had developed a team that could play with anyone in the old six-team NHL. In fact, the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1962 (with Don Simmons in goal that night in Chicago, because Bower was hurt) when I was all of eight years old and again in 1963 (the best Leaf squad of my lifetime) and ’64—the year of the famous Bobby Baun broken leg goal.
We won again in Canada’s Centennial Year in 1967 against all odds, upsetting both the powerful Hawks of Hull, Hall, Pilote and Mikita, as well as the hated Canadiens— who were in the midst of winning four Cups in five seasons.
But along came expansion. And much like the Leafs weren’t quite ready for the changes in the game after the lockout of 2004-’05, Imlach may not quite have been fully prepared for the way the game was changing when expansion came in the fall of 1967. He had begun to integrate youngsters into the lineup (e.g. Ronnie Ellis, Mike Walton and Pete Stemkowski), and continued to do so the next couple of years (rugged defenseman Jim Dorey, for example) before he was ultimately fired . But it wasn’t enough.
The team needed another kick-start when Jim Gregory took over as GM before the 1969-’70 season. (Interestingly, while Punch had built his reputation as someone who relied on veteran players, he went on to build an outstanding expansion team in Buffalo, with a distinct emphasis on great young talent like Perreault, Martin, Gare and others…)
The Leafs, as I’ve written here before, had their moments in the ‘70s. The 1970-’71 year was a nice turnaround season, but soon after the WHA came and the team was gutted, losing key youngsters like Bernier Parent, Jim Harrison, Rick Ley and others.
The Darryl Sittler/Lanny McDonald/Borje Salming-led team looked promising as well later that decade, and that squad, under Roger Neilson, did make it to the semi-finals in 1978. But that was as close as we came to success in that time frame. And it was the last real hope the franchise had (despite a few fleeting moments in the late ‘80s when the Wendel Clark-led Leafs again looked like they might turn a corner…) until the Cliff Fletcher/Pat Burns reign in the early to mid ‘90s.
Those two back-to-back final four appearances, behind Gilmour, Clark, a really solid no-name defense and Felix Potvin, created a stir in Leafland, but for a number of reasons the momentum was lost after Clark was traded away for Mats Sundin. That was actually a great deal long-term for the Leafs, but it took a while—and the arrival of Pat Quinn and Curtis Joseph—for the Sundin impact to take hold.
Two more semi-final appearances under Quinn (and some heartbreaking losses to the Flyers and the Devils in other years) again restored our pride in the heritage that was established decades ago by Conn Smythe and so many great players, from Syl Apps and Teeder Kennedy to Turk Broda and Bill Barilko.
But the last ten years, while providing glimpses of hope at various times, haven’t brought what Leaf fans were looking for: playoff success, and a sense that the team would be a perennial contender.
I’m sure that’s what Brendan Shanahan is planning on: to build a roster that will be in the mix every year. Some believe that kind of success is not that far off, that some of the pieces are already in place. Others are less optimistic a turnaround can happen quickly.
I’ve covered all kinds of Leaf and hockey-related topics over the past five and a half years here at VLM. The Leafs remain a bit of a mystery—and a work in progress. While we haven’t seen the kind of success everyone was looking for, hopefully this site has provided a home where Leaf talk can be conducted in a respectful and thoughtful environment.
Thanks to all those who have contributed to VLM over the years. Other sites cover the current Leaf scene in much better detail than I ever could, but while VLM is a small part of the Leaf blogosphere, it may still be relevant as a link to a cherished past.