With the Leafs set to host the suddenly surging Winnipeg Jets Tuesday night, it’s difficult not to pay attention to the anticipated match-up between Calder hopefuls Patrik Laine and Toronto’s Auston Matthews. Both are tremendously talented young players and should be something to watch for years to come.
Watching Matthews get pulled down the other night (against the Hurricanes, I think it was) and still managing to hold on to the puck and score on his backhand, it struck me that many, many years ago I’d seen Frank Mahovlich score similar kinds of goals when he was starring with the Leafs.
Matthews plays center and "The Big M", as he was called, was a winger, of course. But as Mahovlich did in his era, Matthews can use his size and strength to finish plays, as he did on that goal.
As I mention in a piece over at the popular Maple Leaf Hot Stove site, sports comparisons are usually off-base. But there is, as I discuss in the article, one way that Matthews and Laine remind me of Mahovlich. And that is when it comes to the notion of a budding individual rivalry. Because back in the late 1950s, when Mahovlich’s Leafs and Bobby Hull’s Blackhawks were going through difficult times in the NHL, the then two young snipers became part of a natural rivalry that lasted for years.
To be clear, they weren’t rivals in the same way that Montreal's Rocket Richard and Detroit’s Gordie Howe were. Those two teams truly hated one another. The two all-time greats were the best players and the most deadly scorers on their respective teams. The players on both teams disliked each other immensely, and Howe and Richard weren’t exactly fond of one another, either. In fact, there was seemingly a bitter divide (which included not only hockey, but language and culture) between the two teams, the two fan bases—and the two men.
Richard was the fiery, intense, driven competitor who was unsurpassed when it came to what he could do inside the opposition blueline. Howe was the quiet assassin, who would get his revenge against opponents away from the play, and could do everything well including score—and fight, too, as could Richard.
They were pitted against each other in the minds of hockey fans everywhere throughout the last dozen or so years of The Rocket’s career, until Richard retired after the 1959-’60 season. Howe ultimately surpassed Richard’s all-time goal scoring records (544 regular-season goals) a few years after Rocket’s retirement.
From there, the comparisons built. Mahovlich scored 48 goals in 1960-’61. Hull topped that in 1961-’62 with 50, equaling Richard's single season mark. Hull’s Hawks won the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1961. Mahovlich’s Leafs beat the Hawks to win the championship in 1962.
At one point in the early 1960s, Chicago tried to buy Mahovlich from the Leafs for a million dollars. The deal, if it ever really was agreed to, fell apart, thankfully for Leaf fans.
With Mahovlich and a host of other fine players, Toronto went on to win three more Cups while the supremely talented Hawks (Glenn Hall, Pierre Pilote, Stan Mikita, Kenny Wharram, “Moose” Vasko, etc.) kept falling a bit short year after year.
By the time Frank (right) finished his illustrious NHL/WHA career, including stops in Detroit and Montreal (where I believe he played the finest hockey of his career), he had helped his teams win six Stanley Cups. While Hull got to five Cup finals, his side won but that one Cup in 1961. Still, Hull was a constant force, scoring over 900 goals in his professional career, and changing the economic dynamics of the entire sport when he signed a then lucrative deal with the World Hockey Association’s Winnipeg Jets in 1972. (Hull, along with Howe and later Bobby Orr, were the three opposition players I fretted about most every time they were on the ice when the Leafs played against them in those days. I could only relax briefly when those guys were on the bench…)
Hull and Mahovlich were two great players; tremendous competitors who happened to come into the league at the same time when there were only six NHL teams, and both happened to play left wing. Importantly, both also eventually helped lead to their team to great heights.
Hull was an end-of-season All Star more often than the Big M, but there were few more powerful or entertaining players in the history of the game than those two individuals—regardless of who fans thought was “better”.
Laine and Matthews have a long way to go to reach those heights, and it’s not my intention to really compare them as individual players to Hull or Mahovlich. But like Hull and Mahovlich decades ago, Laine and Matthews are in the midst of helping turn their struggling franchises' fortunes around. They each have pretty rare skill sets. And if they continue to progress, as every indication suggests they should, they may well become some of the best players in the history of their respective franchises, like Mahovlich and Hull.
And they may even someday—like Hull and Mahovlich—make that list of the Top 100 NHLers of all time…