Though I’ve been watching and following hockey closely going back to the late 1950s, I certainly don't have instant recall when it comes to all the great players I have been fortunate enough to see in action over that time. Meaning, if I was to create a list right now off the top of my head (and that’s how I write here, with no real “research” involved, as longtime VLM readers understand) about all-time greats, I would undoubtedly forget to include some awfully good players.
Once the name was brought to my attention, I would likely immediately go, “oh right, of course…”. But the list would not be perfect.
I mention this because today, I wanted to draft a piece about great defense pairings over the years I’ve followed the NHL, including but not limited to defensemen who have been part of Toronto hockey history.
There are many instances where I will not be able to recall with certainty who played with who—for example, who played with Bobby Orr the most (I think it was Dallas Smith, and I should know this, but time is difficult to beat when it comes to sometimes fading memories…)
Leaf followers of a certain vintage know these names: Baun and Brewer, Horton and Stanley. We know, because from the late 1950s through the later ‘1960s (excluding Brewer, who retired abruptly at training camp in the fall of 1965), Tim Horton, Allan Stanley, Carl Brewer (below right) and Bobby Baun all stuck like glue together as pairings on Punch Imlach’s generally very solid Maple Leaf blueline. So for me, given that they won those four Cups together, they stand as some of the finest Leaf defense pairs of my lifetime.
Toronto started to build other good pairings in the early ‘70s, but the incoming World Hockey Association unfortunately grabbed the guts of that group: Pelyk, Ley, Selwood and Dorey (after he had been traded to the Rangers).
Later in the ‘70s, Trevor Johansen and Randy Carlyle began to emerge as solid young D-men, but both ended up (for some reason) elsewhere. The memorable Leaf defense pairing through the 1970s was no doubt Ian Turnbull and Borje Salming. Turnbull was a remarkably talented guy, but rarely played to his talent, it felt like. His career ended in the early ‘80s. Salming played forever, and will always be remembered as a Leaf who came out of seemingly nowhere to take the league by storm in his 1973-’74 rookie season- twisting, turning, making plays, blocking shots with every part of his body, getting hammered and coming back for more punishment. (And proving, if proof was needed, that Europeans could excel in North American hockey.)
We had a number of good defensemen in the lineup through the 1980s but I’m not sure we had a too many outstanding defense pairs. (Please chime in if a combination comes to mind.)
In the early 1990s, Pat Burns deployed the famous no-name defense corps, as I like to refer to them—especially Rouse, Gill, Ellett, Macoun and Lefebvre. As I write this, I could not, for sure, tell you who always played with who, but I know some of you will remember like it was yesterday, because (like Baun, Brewer, Horton and Stanley were for me) it was your first big memory of being a Leaf supporter.
Later, in the Quinn years, we had guys I really liked—Yushkevich, Markov, McCabe, Karberle and others. For me, McCabe and Kaberle was a pair I thought hit the high notes. Like any defense pairing they had their difficult moments, but when it mattered, in big games and at playoff time, they could play huge minutes and play pretty darn well. I liked them both.
Non-Leaf pairings I recall
I was too young to fully appreciate Doug Harvey’s best years in Montreal, but if someone remembers who he played with a lot, share your recollections. (Possibly Bob Turner?) I remember Doug during his time with New York in the early ‘60s, but could not tell you who he was paired up with. (I think he actually won his last Norris Trophy with the Rangers.)
I do recall Pierre Pilote (what a fine player) and “Moose” Vasko as a pair seemingly forever with the Blackhawks. Pilote did it all- he was small but tough and could make all the plays. Vasko could really rush the puck and delivered big checks.
Was it rugged Ted Harris that usually played with the steady and talented Jacques Laperriere (left)? Terry Harper had a nice run with the Habs as well. Was it Harper and J.C. Tremblay? (In the 1970s, Montreal had three future Hall-of-Famers—Lapointe, Savard and Robinson, and it felt like Scotty Bowman could interchange those guys whenever he wanted to. They were awfully tough to play against.)
Thinking back to the Rangers in the 1960s, I seem to recall Rod Seiling and Jim Neilson playing together, but my memory may be faulty. Both were excellent defensemen. Harry Howell was a Rangers’ stalwart for almost twenty years before finishing his career in LA or Oakland, but I’m not sure who his primary partner was- perhaps Arnie Brown in the mid '60s.
One pair I remember very well, though they didn’t actually stay together for that long, was Bill White and Pat Stapleton in Chicago. White was late to his NHL career, but after he was traded from the Kings to Hawks during the 1970-'71 season, he paired really well with Stapleton, who I recall starting his career with Boston. (Both were part of Team Canada ’72, if I remember correctly.) Stapleton was not a big guy at all, but was very smart and could skate and move the puck. White was your classic defensive defensemen, and he was really, really good. Stapleton signed in the WHA, and that ended a great pairing.
I realize as I’m writing this that there is no way I can include all the great names I’d like to. So I’ll leave it to you to talk about some of the great defense pairs I have missed here. Some of you, for example, may recall whether the Plager brothers (Barclay and Bob) played together a lot in St. Louis. Who was Denis Potvin’s primary partner on the Island? (He was there a long time, of course. At times I think he played with his brother, Jean…)
There are lots of very good pairs today, and there have been through the years. By all means share your memories of some of the great defense pairs you’ve enjoyed watching through the years…