The 1970s was a time of transition for Maple Leaf fans, and for hockey fans in general.
Well, the league had changed gears pretty dramatically. There was the rather sudden decision (at least it seemed that way to some of us as fans) not only to “expand” the league’s base, but to double the number of franchises in one fell swoop. Gone were the treasured days of the “Original Six”. Many of us knew the names of every player on every NHL team in those days, and recognized them instantly when we saw them on TV. Things were going to be different.
But other things had shifted, too. Those who were following the NHL in those pre-expansion times well recall that there wasn't really a full-blown draft of junior players. Instead, every team had their designated “territory” back in those days. And for the Canadian-based teams, that territory was pretty sweet. The Montreal Canadiens, for example, basically owned the rights to every player that they wanted to sign up in Quebec by virtue of their “affiliation” with teams in the province. It at least seemed that way.
The Leafs, meanwhile, owned two Junior A teams that played right out of Maple Leaf Gardens; the old Toronto Marlboroughs and St. Michael’s. They had identified and "signed" kids across the province from an early age and stacked those junior teams with the best available players they could find.
All teams were looking to sign players at very early ages in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Heck, the Bruins convinced Bobby Orr to sign on the dotted line when he was maybe 13 or thereabouts, if I remember correctly.
So the Leafs always seemed to have a good crop of kids on the way back then. Just as modern-day Leaf supporters appreciate the arrival of Matthews, Nylander, Brown, Marner, et al, when I fell in love with the Leafs in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the team was brimming with wonderfully talented youngsters like Bob Nevin, Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon, Dickie Duff and later, Ronnie Ellis.
But again, by the time the 1970s arrived, the Leafs, like everyone else, had to get used to acquiring players through the newly implemented universal draft, as I believe it was called back then. We did end up with Darryl Sittler that way (that worked out nicely) in the summer of 1970, and some other of my olden-day Leaf favourites like Brian “Spinner” Spencer and Lanny McDonald also in the early 1970s. But the Leafs were no longer (I came to realize as the years rolled by) going to be Stanley Cup contenders every couple of years, as they had been throughout the 1960s. And that earlier success was, in part, a result of the “old” system that was in place, a system that had generated lots of talent for the blue and white.
In any event, everyone knew there was one likely superstar at the top of the draft class. The Sabres owned the pick. And the guy in charge of Buffalo's hockey fortunes was none other than the individual Leaf fans had loved or hated, Punch Imlach (above right).
Punch of course had been GM and coach of the Leafs for more than a decade, through to the end of the 1968-’69 season. They won four Stanley Cups during his tenure (some argue that they should have won even more), but had fallen on hard times when team owner Stafford Smythe, the legendary Conn Smythe's son, decided it was time for a change.
Imlach then sat out a year, but was soon hired by the new ownership group in Buffalo to take over the same role he had handled (at times brilliantly) as both GM and coach in Toronto.
With the Leafs, Punch had been known for relying on his older players, and there is some element of truth in that. That said, he was always tweaking the roster and did certainly bring up a lot of good young players through the years, including those I mentioned above as well as Brit Selby, Jim Pappin, Peter Stemkowski, Mike Walton and later Jim Dorey and others.
He did, however, trust his old-timers like George Armstrong, Allan Stanley and Tim Horton (not to mention Johnny Bower) a great deal.
But in Buffalo, he must have realized just how important the draft was going to become. He knew the team's future was going to depend on talented kids. He started with a lot of “castoffs”, as was always the case when expansion teams only had access to unprotected players from existing teams, especially before the days of free-agency. So while he at various times utilized ex-Leafs like Duff, Eddie Shack, goaltender Al Smith (I think Smith was there during the Imlach years…) and Floyd Smith in the Sabres lineup, soon his cornerstone players were mostly younger.
Of all the really good young players Punch drafted in the early days at the helm of the Sabres (Richard Martin, Danny Gare, Craig Ramsey, Jim Schoenfeld, etc.) the building block of the fledgling franchise was a guy I will always recall as one of the most breathtaking players I’ve sever seen: Gilbert Perreault.
Perreault was that first overall pick who almost ended up with the Canucks (who had former Leafs like Marc Reaume, Orland Kurtenbach and Pat Quinn on the roster in their inaugural season).
Perreault had played for many years with the Montreal junior Canadiens. And Imlach—who had coached the legendary Jean Beliveau in the old Quebec Senior league before Believau signed with Montreal in the NHL—knew he wanted a dominant center to build around.
Perreault was the guy.
I won’t go on and on. I’ll simply say that if you ever saw him play, in person or on TV, he was a treat. No, the Sabres never quite won a Cup with Perreault as their best player (though they came very close in 1974-’75, only losing to the talented and rugged Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the finals). But especially in the first half of the decade the Sabres were so much fun to watch.
Martin was that rare sniper who could score from all over. He had a great slapshot, but he was especially gifted in close to the goaltender. From close range he could beat even big goaltenders like Ken Dryden with his wrist shot, often placing it just under the cross bar.
Though I was a Leaf fan, I loved watched Martin play. (An ex-Leaf, Rene Robert, later joined Martin and Perreault to become the famed “French Connection” line for much of the ‘70s.) I was especially happy when Martin helped the Sabres upset the Canadiens in the playoffs- I believe that was the same year they ended up losing to the Flyers.
But the guy who was always "can’t miss" watching for me was Perreault. Where it not for the truly one-of-a-kind Bobby Orr, who could skate forever and change gears (and directions) seemingly at will, Perreault would have been the most dynamic offensive player in the early ‘70s.
Now, he didn’t put up the points that Phil Esposito did. He wasn’t the physical player that big Mark Messier (also a center) was in the 1980s. And he wasn’t the hardest working player in the league (that was Bobby Clarke).
But if you wanted pure offensive brilliance, to me, there was no one like Perreault. In those days, before the infuriating “trap” style of play, many players would start rushes from the back of the net, planning to go end-to-end. (I know it still happens at times nowadays, but most teams spend hours on planned breakouts, so there isn’t much focus these days on one guy trying to carry the puck end to end by himself…)
Perreault was big, over 6 feet and 200+ pounds, I believe. He was also blazingly fast—and not just for his size. He was one of those rare players who would sometimes actually stickhandle through the entire opposition and finish by scoring a goal. It was like river hockey, but so much better than what my friends and I could do when we tried to make plays like him…
I appreciated Perreault because he so obviously loved to play the game. It was like he was born to play hockey in the best league in the world. He could skate like the wind and stickhandle unbelievably well. If you’ve never seen him play or don’t know much about him, try to see if you can find clips of his days with the Sabres online. He was that good.
One side note: in the first ever game between the Leafs and the Sabres at Maple Leaf Gardens during the 1970-’71 season, Punch’s Sabres hammered the Leafs by something like a score of 7-2. Though the Leafs later became a pretty good team that season, Imlach had his guys ready that night. He was famous for wearing new hats for a big game, and I believe he broke one out that night. It must surely have been a sweet victory for Punch against the team that fired him. (Though Harold Ballard brought him back as GM about a decade later…)
There were a lot of great players in the league in the 1970s…I’ve already mentioned Esposito, Orr, Clarke, Sittler with the Leafs, and a number of all-time Montreal greats like Lafleur and Cournoyer.
But in terms of skating ability, speed, power (though again, he was not what I would call a physical player; he was much more of a finesse guy) and being able to make extraordinary plays at full speed, he was the Alex Ovechkin of his day—again, without the physical element. In the context of the way the game was played back then and how fast he was compared to most other players, I think he was even better than Ovie. But that’s a fun debate.
I loved the Leafs back then, and cheered heartily for Keon, Norm Ullman, the venerable Jacques Plante, Bernie Parent, Ellis, Jim Harrison and later Sittler, Tiger Williams, McDonald, Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull. But in the 1970s, there was only one Gilbert Perreault.