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A visit to Church helped my Maple Leafs win a Stanley Cup…

Sure, it was nice to see the Leafs win a game on Tuesday night against the Lightning—one of a number of organizations the growing legion of Leaf critics will no doubt say the club could/should use as a model. And hey, Reimer had a very strong game, as did young Rielly, and our prodigal son (Kadri) jumped off the scoresheet.

All good to see.

But the truth is, for me, these games are the definition of meaningless.  The blue and white are long since out of the payoff hunt.  Being a “spoiler” means precious little, at least in my view. 

In truth, there is nothing the team can do right now that interests me.  Win, lose, whatever.  Prospects, potential?  I've heard it all before.

If a player or two has a good game, what does it mean?  It’s by no means a harbinger of things to come. So I have zero interest in talking about the current Leafs. I’m just being honest. 

Maybe I’ll have something to say after the playoffs are over in June and the organization can make trades, draft one or more of the top prospects available and pick off a noteworthy free agent.

But until that time, it’s all just hope—and talk, whether it comes from Shanahan, Nonis, the media or us as followers of the team.

So for now, I’ll write about something I treasure—a memory of when the Leafs were really, really good.

This particular memory stands out because this is, in my religious faith, Holy Week.  And while memories from over fifty years ago can, I admit, be pretty hazy, this particular flashback is not only a fond one but pretty distinct in my memory bank.

In the spring of 1962, the Leafs were embroiled with the previous year’s Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks (Black Hawks back then, if I’m not mistaken) in the Cup finals.  Chicago had, much to my joy, upset the hated (to me) Habs in 1961 to stop Montreal’s string of five Cups in succession.

Toronto, for its part, was more than a decade removed from their last Stanley Cup—that was the famous Bill Barilko overtime clincher against the Canadiens in Game 5 of the 1951 finals.

But as I have written here before (and a version of this memory is likely recounted in my eBook, The Maple Leafs of My Youth), then General Manager and coach Punch Imlach had been building a contender since he took the reins of the organization in the summer of 1958. The Leafs had come through a rather uninspired period in the middle of the 1950s, as various coaches had not been able to get the team anywhere near the promised land.

Imlach built a roster with veterans like Horton, Armstrong, Bower, Kelly, Stanley, Pulford and others and mixed them with talented youngsters (Duff, Nevin, Keon, Baun, Brewer, Mahovlich, etc.) that changed all that.

After eliminating the underdog but battling New York Rangers in the semi-finals, Toronto took on Chicago.  The Hawk lineup featured an array of future Hall of Famers: Glen Hall, Pierre Pilote, Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull, along with other notables including Moose Vasko, Dollar St. Laurent, Kenny Wharram, Red Hay, ex-Leaf Eric Nesterenko, Reggie Fleming and (if I’m not mistaken) rugged Tex Evans.

The Leafs had former Chicago captain Eddie Litzenberger in their lineup, and he certainly helped the Leafs against his old squad.

Toronto had won the first two games of the series at home, but were physically rattled in their return engagement in Chicago. The Hawks won games 3 and 4 at raucous Chicago Stadium (they would let more than 20,000 people into the loud old building back then, despite local bylaws…).

The momentum in that series had changed dramatically.  Heck, I was only eight years of age at the time, and I knew something had shifted—and not for the better.

The Leaf players at the time talked in the press about having to get traffic in front of Hall, one of the best goalies I’ve ever seen. They felt they had been too docile in Chicago and had allowed themselves to be pushed around.

I remember all this largely because Game 5, back in Toronto, was to start at 8 o’clock on the Thursday of Easter week. In our family, that Thursday meant going to Church on Holy Thursday—a Mass which also started (inconveniently, I should add) at 8 o’clock the night of Game 5 at Maple Leaf Gardens.

It’s not like I had any input on the matter. I was many years the youngest in the family, and I just went where everyone else went.  I do remember fidgeting anxiously throughout Mass, wondering what was going on hundreds of miles away at Maple Leaf Gardens.  (I was raised in a small community outside of Windsor, Ontario, across from Detroit, so the Red Wings were a big local influence as well.)

My parents no doubt convinced me that going to Church and praying would be a good thing, though I’m not sure I was buying that. (To be clear, my Dad was a devoutly religious individual, and I’ve often said his family, his faith and the Montreal Canadiens were the three most important things in his life—I’m just not sure he always got the order right. My Dad was missing the game, too, but hey, the Habs had already been eliminated by Chicago for the second year in a row so he wasn’t missing his team play…)

I remember we sat in front of a family we were friendly with, and I was good friends with one of their children, Gerard.  He could no doubt see that I looked distracted.  He leaned over the pew at one point and whispered to me, “You’re not the only one that’s missing the game…”.

When Mass ended, I probably ran to the car faster than I ever had before after Church.  When we got home, the game was (and I believe I remember this correctly) late into the second period, and the Leafs were ahead by a score of something like 6-2.

I wouldn’t bet on it for sure, but I seem to recall the final score was 8-4 for Toronto.

So while I had missed the offensive outburst by Toronto (they must have crashed the crease, as they had stressed that they needed to), I was relieved that the Leafs had answered the bell.

Did going to Church help?  Well, I won’t make that claim. But it didn't hurt.  I’m glad the Leafs won Game 5.

Don Simmons was in goal for Toronto that night because Bower had been injured in Game 4 in Chicago.  Simmons was brilliant in Game 6 back in Chicago (I’m guessing Game 6 must have been on Sunday night in Chicago, a customary home night for the Blackhawks back then), since Game 5 was on a Thursday.

The Leafs won that night, 2-1, coming from behind late in the game after Bobby Hull had put the Hawks in front 1-0 in the third period. (Dickie Duff scored the winner, as I recall, for the Leafs. Duff is one of the Leafs in the old newspaper photo above, along with Simmons who is on the far left, as they celebrate their championship after the game.)


It is still a great memory all these years later—my “first” Cup as a Leaf fan.

13 comments:

  1. Terrific post, Michael! I'm surprised you didn't utter a silent prayer for the benefit of the Leafs!
    If I remember that game correctly, I was despondent because the Hawks had erased a 2-0 deficit and were leading the Leafs at one point. From being elated, I'd sunk into despair - I thought our chances looked pretty bleak. The mighty Hawks weren't going to be denied! (Even as a child the O'Malley glass went from half-full to half-empty pretty quickly!) But I think maybe Mahovlich or Keon or Pulford - someone had a multi-goal night, maybe even a hat trick... and joy was restored at O'Malley Manor for another few days. There's a certain purity to fandom at that age, isn't there? I think I actually whooped and jumped around our TV room when we won the Cup a few days later.

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    1. That's a wonderful O'Malley memory- I'm glad you posted, Gerund. And you're right, fandom at those early ages is the best in a lot of ways.

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  2. Good reflections on the start of the last true Maple Leafs dynasty Michael. Speaking of prayer, I was a 10-year-old glued to my Philco radio when the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1948 by sweeping the Detroit Red Wings in four straight final playoff games. I suspect that there was some serious prayer going on in the dressing room for that series because a future Catholic priest, Lester Costello, was in the Toronto lineup. In fact, the whole of St. Michael’s College may have been praying for the Leafs that particular season.

    Costello was, of course, a St. Michaels graduate. He studied and played hockey under the legendary Father David Bauer. His highly successful St. Michaels Majors won the Memorial Cup in both 1945 and 1947, but Father Bauer's teachings away from the rink influenced his budding protege even more so than on the ice.

    After graduating from St. Michaels, Les joined the Leafs' AHL farm team -- the Pittsburgh Hornets. He starred with the Hornets in his first pro season, scoring 32 goals and 54 points in 68 games. By season's end he was called up by the Leafs to help out in their 1948 playoff run. He appeared in five games, scoring twice and adding a pair assists. I was always fascinated by him, perhaps it had more to do with his character than his hockey talent.

    Costello would appear in 15 games with the Leafs the following season, but spent most of the year back in the minors. He would also spent the 1949-50 season with the AHL's Hornets, though was again called up by the Leafs for the playoffs.

    Costello retired from pro hockey in 1950 to begin seminary studies, successfully becoming a much celebrated Catholic priest. He continued to be close to the game he loved, however, as the founder of the famed Flying Fathers, a Harlem Globetrotters inspired team of hockey-playing priests who played exhibition games that raised more than $4 million for charity.

    Rev. Fr. Les Costello died in 2002, taking his prayers (for the Leafs) with him. Maybe there's a message there.

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    1. Thanks for sharing those recollections, Dick. Fr. Costello and Fr. David Bauer were much respected individuals. (I loved cheering for the true amateurs that represented Canada in those days, including the players who were part of Fr. Bauer's national team program in the 1960s.)

      You make a great point when you talk about being interested as much or more in Costello's character than his talent. We're often drawn as fans to a player for that very reason. I was too young to have known him as a player (not born until 1953) but I know the name well. And the Flying Fathers- do they still exist, I wonder??

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    2. I know that the Flying Fathers continued to play for five or six years after 74-year-old Father Les died as the result of a head injury suffered in freak accident during warmups for a charity game in Kincardine in 2002. I haven't heard anything about them in recent years.

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    3. Talking about the St. Michaels Majors Junior "A" Hockey team really got the juices flowing Michael. I followed St. Mike's and the Toronto Marlboros very closely in the 1950s, rarely missing Sunday afternoon doubleheaders at Maple Leafs Gardens. The Marlies and Majors played in a league with teams from Montreal (Jr. Canadiens), Hamilton, St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Barrie and Peterborough...It was really the most exciting hockey that I have ever seen. In those days St. Mike's had a working agreement with the Maple Leafs.

      It is interesting to note some of the St. Mike's players who actually made the grade in the NHL with the Maple Leafs. Strictly from memory and in alphabetical order:

      Arnie Brown, Ed Chadwick, Gerry Cheevers, Terry Clancy, Les Costello, Dick Duff, Tim Horton, Pat Hannigan, Gord Hannigan, Reg Hamilton, Red Kelly, Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich. Ceasare Maniago, Rudy Migay, Gus Mortson, Marc Reaume, Darryl Sly, Todd Sloan and Mike Walton. It goes without saying that I am missing numerous others from the original era of hockey at St. Mikes who played for the Leafs. Don't ask me to name former Junior Marlies players who also cracked the Maple Leafs' lineup, but the list is equally as impressive. Suffice to say that Carl Brewer and Bob Nevin came up from the Marlies at the same time as Mahovlich, Keon and Chadwick. As I've said before "those were the days!"

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  3. Michael, thank you for filling in some of the gaps for me in the final stages of my gestation... I'm sure my Mom was just as anxious to be somewhere else on that same Thursday (in the last days of her pregnancy with me). I can easily confirm that Game 6 was, indeed, played on Sunday night because I was born that Easter Sunday just 10 minutes before the game would start! Do you know if they broadcast the whole of playoff games on TV at that time (I know you've mentioned some games starting on TV after the first intermission and began wondering if my Dad didn't really miss the first period - that is until I remembered we didn't even have a TV at that time :)

    It's fun to think about how common interests can have such different experiences attached 'thereto', isn't it. Glad to hear your sacrifice helped the Leafs to provide me with the joy of being born the day they 'won it all'... so that was my first Leaf cup, too (too bad I didn't start watching until the '67-68 season - how's that for 'unrequited love' and loyalty!).

    It's a little bizarre how you prefaced the Hawks-Leafs story with your feelings about the futility of our present fandom at the moment. Perhaps today's synchronicity will buoy you through the remaining games... Just a couple hours ago, I met a lady in a local store who was teaching/introducing people to supplements and the conversation turned to the positive impact of Vit B12 and L-Carnitine (if I remember correctly) upon recovery and healing of concussions. She then mentioned her nephew Tyler, who is a pro hockey player from Alaska... One thing led to another (i.e. the Leafs just signed a player from Alaska)... so when she mentioned his last name and that he had a famous grandfather (making her the daughter or daughter-in-law), I said, "You mean Bill Mosienko of the Chicago Black Hawks (and) wasn't he number 21?"

    She was surprised I knew a player from the 40's and 50's, but then reminded me that the 21 I had in mind were the number of seconds it took for him to score his (still current) NHL record natural hat trick! I looked him up (he was #8) and the story is recounted here:

    http://thirdstringgoalie.blogspot.ca/2015/03/1945-46-chicago-black-hawks-bill.html

    The part you will most enjoy is the fact that this happened during a 'meaningless game' after both the Hawks and Rangers had been eliminated from the playoffs in '52. Many of the few fans who even came to the game (3,254) had left the building by the time his feat spurred a comeback from a 6-2 deficit. So there you have it, one of the most enduring and unlikely NHL records came in an otherwise meaningless game some 63 years ago. Maybe there may still be an "unlikely or hidden treasure to reap if we keep watching" (says the Leaf addict at the local Maple Leafs Anonymous meeting)!

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    1. What a great story about Mosienko, InTimeFor62. Though I was also too young to have ever seen him play, his record has stood the test of time. It's one of those that, as kids, we heard about so often it was implanted in our memory bank!

      And thank you for confirming that Game 6 fell not only on the day of your birth, but on a Sunday!

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  4. We sure are going to need help from above now. Shannahan just fired everybody and we're left with him and the stats boys who have no experience running a hockey club between them. At this point only Babcock and McDavid can save us.

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  5. Hi Michael,

    have you stoped writing new pieces?

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    1. Hi Marcus- I do hope to write more soon.

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  6. Really enjoyed these stories, Michael. I admit I was upstairs watching the T.V. special "Cinderella" with my sisters upstairs when the Leafs won the cup in '67 but, with my parents and brother watching the game downstairs, I sure heard it

    Monday should be interesting, possibly more firings coming. I wasn't expecting anything like this until after the draft.

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  7. We certainly have something new to discuss that is for sure:)

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