When I was a much younger Leaf fan back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a very different time in terms of being able to watch the team on television.
Today, you can watch every single Leaf game, home and away.
In those olden days, we had the weekly Saturday night CBC “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcast, but unless you lived in Toronto or the surrounding areas (where CFTO broadcast mid-week games), that was about it. Seeing the Leafs on the road only happened if they made the playoffs, or on the rare Saturday night that they were on the road. (I should add that, on occasion, the Leafs played a Sunday afternoon game on the road on CBS, when U.S. network television had a deal with the NHL and broadcast Sunday games when the NFL season was over.)
What I’m remembering today dates back specifically to the 1970-’71 season. The Leafs, as I have written here in the past, were building a solid team that meshed veterans like Keon, Henderson, Ullman and Ellis with a lot of kids (names like Jim Dorey, Brian Spencer, Darryl Sittler, Jim McKenny and Rick Ley come to mind…). Then General Manager Jim Gregory had re-built the team nicely, including acquiring, during that 70-’71 season, future Hall-of-Fame netminder Bernie Parent.
But one earlier off-season acquisition also paid big dividends for Gregory and the Leafs: trading cash to the St. Louis Blues for then 42 year-old goaltender Jacques Plante.
Plante had already had a remarkable NHL journey. He was an absolute superstar with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1950s, helping them winning five Stanley Cups in succession at one point. (That's Plante, left, in goal without a mask, along with teammates Bob Turner and Donnie Marshall in a 1950s photo.) But when the Habs began to struggle in the early ‘60s (and after Toronto downed Plante and the Canadiens in a five game playoff series in the spring of 1963), he was shipped to the “lowly” New York Rangers in return for another future Hall-of-Famer, Gump Worsley.
Plante did not find a comfort zone on Broadway, and by the mid ‘60s was playing in the minors. He retired for a few seasons before making what turned out to be a remarkable comeback with a then young coach Scotty Bowman and the expansion St. Louis Blues during the 1968-’69 season.
After two excellent years with the Blues, helping them to two Cup finals, he was dealt, as I mentioned above, to the Leafs.
Ironically, Plante had a bit of a difficult history in Toronto. He certainly helped Montreal beat the Leafs on a regular basis including in two playoffs series in the late 1950s, but I remember reading a number of magazine articles in the early 1960s about Plante, where he said he didn’t like playing in Toronto because his asthma acted up whenever the Habs visited the Leafs.
So here were the Leafs starting that 1970-’71 season, after missing the playoffs the season prior, with returning veteran Bruce Gamble and an “aging” question mark in Plante to man the pipes.
Gamble, as he had for most of his Leaf career, played pretty darn well that season before being traded in the Parent deal, but Plante (right, in a Dan Baliotti photo) was the real story. He ended the season with a goals-against average of 1.88 and helped lead the Leafs to the playoffs and a near upset of the very strong New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs (though Plante only started two games in the series, playing a few minutes in another…).
But the game I’m thinking about today, as the calendar reminds me that winter is near, occurred on a cold night in the middle of the 70-’71 season. In truth, I can’t remember if this was a Saturday night game with the Leafs hosting Montreal (back in those days, it was really unusual NHL scheduling to see Montreal play in Toronto on a Saturday night—most of their games, dating back to the ‘50s and ‘60s, were generally played on Wednesdays and Thursdays).
It’s also possible that it was a Wednesday night game, but those games were only available on CFTO TV in Toronto (part of the CTV network back then, as it still is). I lived in southwestern Ontario near Windsor, where we did not have access to CTV affiliates. So I’m not sure how we would have been able to see to the game.
In any event, the game would have been played sometime between late December and early February, very much wintertime. Montreal was a great team, as usual, though they had missed the playoffs the year prior for the first time in forever. They still had the usual stars—Laperriere, Harper, J.C. Tremblay and a promising Guy Lapointe on defense; Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer, rugged John Ferguson along with Pete Mahovlich, the former Leaf Frank Mahovlich and many others like young Marc Tardiff. (I can’t say for certain that "The Big M" had been dealt to the Habs when this game happened.)
But the man in Montreal was still the captain, Jean Beliveau.
The Leafs had started that season inauspiciously, but won a game against Montreal at the Gardens in early December and suddenly, they were on their way.
This night, the Habs were favoured again, though, in the game to be played at venerable Maple Leaf Gardens.
Why do I remember this particular match up? I can’t remember who scored for the Leafs, but I recall this: they won 1-0, and it all because of Plante. He made so many outstanding saves but the moment I remember best is this: at one point in the last period, with the Leafs clinging to that 1-0 lead, Plante was caught out of his net in the corner. (Those who remember Jacques will recall that he was one of the first real wandering NHL goalies. He liked to roam around, stop the puck and set it up for his defensemen behind the net, etc.).
But this time, he got caught. Suddenly, the puck was passed out to big Beliveau in front of the yawning Leaf cage: without hesitating, Beliveau fired a wrist shot at the empty net. But somehow, out of the corner, Plante came skating/sliding across his crease and stopped the Montreal captain’s blast. It was one of those head scratching moments as a fan, where you go from, “Plante, get the hell back in your net” to… “way to go, Jacques, great save…”.
The Leafs held on, won the game 1-0, and Plante was, naturally, the star of the game.
I’ve often said here that that '70-’71 team was one of my favourite Leaf squads of all time. They didn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs, but they played tough, fast, smart hockey. I just loved their grit and togetherness.
And boy, they had superb goaltending with the ageless (no longer “aging”) Plante, and the uber talented and much younger Parent.
I think back fondly to all the guys from that team: Jim Harrison, Garry Monahan, Billy MacMillan, Dupere, Armstrong, Trottier, Glennie and everyone else from that emerging team but without Plante, that year -and that game- would not have been as memorable.