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What I can still remember (if faintly) 50 years to the day after Toronto’s last Stanley Cup victory…

The Maple Leafs concluded what really was a fantastic 2017-’17 NHL season a few days ago.  As we discussed here over the last few weeks, what more, really, could anyone have expected from this young squad?

It’s likely most of us expected far less. And looking ahead, I’ve not run into any Leaf supporter who is not fairly close to head-over-heels about the future.

Today, though, I’m looking back—because this day represents a wonderful memory for those of us who have been around long enough to personally recall a cherished moment in Maple Leaf lore: the night the blue and white last won the Stanley Cup.

It happened on the night of May 2, 1967, against the vaunted Montreal Canadiens. At the time, the Leafs we're owned by Stafford Smythe (and yes, Harold Ballard was a partner as well). Decades earlier Stafford's father, Conn Smythe, had created a hockey heritage to be proud of in Toronto, and Stafford was continuing that tradition.

The Leafs had struggled in the middle of the 1950s, but rebounded under General Manager and Coach Punch Imlach in the late 1950s. Imlach's team-building (and coaching) helped lead Toronto to three championships in a row between 1962 and 1964. 

But in the spring of 1967, Toe Blake’s Habs were the heavy favourites heading into the final series. (Toronto already had one major upset under their belt that Centennial Year spring, having ousted the Blackhawks in six games in the semi-finals, after Chicago had finished in first place in the regular season.)

The Leafs started the Cup final against Montreal the same way they had against the powerful Hawks— losing big on the road, something like 6-2, and not looking at all good.

Montreal started the series with an emerging young netminder in goal by the name of Rogie Vachon (recently voted into the Hockey Hall-of-Fame). The aging but still formidable Gump Worsley was coming back from an injury and wasn’t quite ready to play just as the series started. Gumper had not played in a game in almost two months.

But Toronto bounced back in Game 2 at the Forum, winning 3-1, I believe it was. (The series was so similar to the previous Chicago series—Toronto beat the Hawks 3-1 in Game 2 as well, with Dave Keon scoring a beautiful short-handed goal on a breakaway to kick the Leafs in gear after a pretty shoddy effort in the opening game of the Chicago series.)

Game 3 was a truly unforgettable double-overtime game at the Gardens. Bobby Pulford (who had a great playoff on a line with Jim Pappin and Pete Stemkowski) re-directed a pass past Vachon to give the Leafs a 2-1 lead in the series.

However, the venerable Johnny Bower (right), who had been a rock in goal for the Leafs in Games 2 and 3, went down with a season-ending (hamstring?) injury in the warm-ups before Game 4. Terry Sawchuk went in cold, was not at his best, and Jean Beliveau and company ran over the Leafs by a score of (if I recall correctly) 6-2.

Things looked glum at that point. The series was going back to the Forum. Toronto had already won a game there, which was not easy to do in those days, especially in the playoffs.  And Bower was done, with Sawchuk (who had been very good at times in the Chicago series, though Bower was more consistently solid) had struggled badly in the two games he had already played against Montreal.

Because of U.S. television, Game 5 was on a Saturday afternoon in Montreal. Whether the early start (rather than the traditional Saturday evening Hockey Night In Canada starting time) created a different atmosphere at the Forum, I have no idea. But the Habs were lackluster, and Toronto snuck out of town with another improbable road win.

That set up a potentially deciding Game 6 back at Maple Leaf Gardens. There was hope, and a lot of fear as I recall, heading into that game. The over-riding concern was that, if the Leafs did not win Game 6 at home, they had little hope of winning Game 7—and earning a third upset victory on Montreal ice.

I was thirteen years of age in early May of ’67, and here is what I remember (though details may well escape me after all this time) about Game 6:

  • As a kid, I had always been nervous during big games the Leafs were involved in. Whether it was listening on the radio (the local Detroit station, WJR, or the local CBC Radio affiliate on Sunday evenings) or watching on television, I would pace—and fret. I so badly wanted the Leafs to win. (For those who have followed VLM over the years, you may recall that I was raised in a household of passionate, deeply devoted Montreal fans, so that added not just a little bit of tension come playoff time, shall we say…) Game 6 in particular stands out as one that was high-stress, in sporting terms.
  • We all tend to remember particularly important playoff goals, and I certainly remember the game’s first goal that night.  It happened in the second period, after a strong rush by 20-year Leaf veteran (and future coach), center Red Kelly.  Kelly pulled up quickly inside the Montreal blue line and fired a high, hard wrist shot and Worsley, who Blake inserted into the lineup with Montreal’s backs against the wall that night, couldn’t quite control the bouncing rebound. Ronnie Ellis drove to the night and was able to shove the rebound up high over a falling Worsley.
  • The Leafs went up 2-0 before the end of the second period.  The goal was an absolute fluke.  Winger Jim Pappin carried the puck down the left wing, and sent the puck toward the front of the Montreal net.  He might well have been on his off-wing, and he backhanded the puck toward the Montreal goal. I think it was Montreal defenseman Jacques Lapperriere who was tying up Pete Stemkowski in front of Worlsey, and the puck bounced in in the net off somebody. At the time, I didn’t know who and didn’t much care. The Leafs had a two-goal lead, and I was temporarily feeling as good as a kid can. (Then Maple Leaf public address announcer Paul Morris first announced the goal scorer as Stemkowski, but Pappin was later credited with the goal.)
  • Though it was a potential deciding game, there were still a lot of scoring chances that night. Both Sawchuk and Worsley were outstanding from beginning to end. 
  • The nicest play—and goal—of the night came in the early to mid part of the third period. Former Leaf Dickie Duff skated down the left wing boards, stickhandled by some Leafs before also making a beautiful move to get past Tim Horton (I believe it was Horton, but I could be wrong) and slipping the puck by Sawchuk. It was the definition of a remarkable solo effort, and it was also, from that moment on, “Game on”. The stress was back, big time—for me, for Leaf fans, and for the Leafs.
  • Montreal, as one would expect, did everything they could to try and tie the game. Rugged John Ferguson was flying around creating havoc; Montreal came too close for comfort too many times. There was no time to relax with guys like Cournoyer and Henri Richard on the ice. But heading into the dying minutes, the Leafs still led 2-1.
  • Even fans who were not born at the time remember the rest of the story, though in truth, I’ve actually had to see the replays and game film many times to see exactly what happened in that game deciding sequence. With just under a minute to go, there was a faceoff in the Leaf zone to Sawchuk’s left. Imlach liked to use defensemen at times to take face-offs in the team’s own end in those days. This time he sent out Horton, Stanley, Armstrong, Kelly and Pulford to try and keep the Habs from winning the face-off and tying things up. 
  • Stanley took the draw, and the puck kind of squirted through Beliveau and just behind him.  I believe (even now, I kind of forget, though I’ve seen the play so many times in the past, as many of you no doubt have as well) it was Kelly who jumped on the loose puck and nudged it to Pulford, who somehow had the wherewithal to protect the puck and still see Armstrong who had left the zone and was streaking (streaking for Army,  at least, who was not the fastest guy on skates) toward the center ice red line. Pully hit “The Chief” with a perfect pass on the tape, and the Leaf Captain controlled the puck and waited until he crossed the red line to direct a shot at the Montreal goal. When the puck hit the back of the net, as best one could detect in those days on a small black and white TV (no large screen, high definition stuff available in those days—and we couldn’t have afforded it anyway…) the relief was, well, hard to describe.


The Leafs had clinched the Stanley Cup.

Second later, they were champions, and Leaf fans across the country, myself included, were joyous.

As has often been said through the years by players, media and fans, little did any of us know that 50 years later we’d look back on that game and realize that the Leafs would not have achieved that hockey pinnacle again in the five ensuing decades. There have been some fine Leaf teams in that time, but they have never quite reached the mountain top—yet.

Again, a lot of us have likely had the opportunity to see that game in its entirely from time to time on ESPN Classics or Leafs TV at some point over the years. And even the last time I watched it (which was probably several years ago, now) I found myself getting nervous.  Montreal had such a great team in those days and Toronto had been knocked out of the playoffs the two previous seasons and had also really struggled at times during the 1966-’67 regular season. They were considered too old, and simply not good enough.

But a mix of kids (Ellis, Mike Walton, Brian Conacher, though he wasn’t really a kid, Pappin and Stemkowski mixed well in the end with the old guys, including those who were on the ice for the decisive face-off, and other difference-makers like Keon and Mahovlich.

Larry Hillman and Marcel Pronovost were a shutdown defense pair that spring as well, and Imlach pulled mostly the right strings. And yes, Bower (probably the most popular Leaf of all time to this day) was brilliant when healthy and Sawchuk played like the like the Hall-if-Famer he was at crunch time.

The result was a much-deserved Stanley Cup—and some wonderful memories that have lasted 50 years.




6 comments:

  1. Hey Michael, you inspired me to finally have a look at the highlights from that series in '67... One comment in the Alex Trebek narrated presentation, was that the Habs had won 15 straight games before the Leafs won game 2!

    They really were a dominating favourite for the Cup, weren't they?!

    I guess that we should all be both inspired to hope that any playoff appearance can turn 'magical' and at the same time, realize that things can 'come off the rails' in any best of 7 series.

    Perhaps this memorable last (soon to be 'previous') Cup run may come in handy to remember during the coming years where we might be faced with the prospect of either scenario potentially happening. Hopefully, the Leaf brain trust will continue to steer the ship with the wisdom we can glean from the past.

    Thank you, Michael, for your contribution with these Vintage Leaf Memories... for: those who forget the past are doomed to repeat the worst outcomes (of course, we can learn from the positive outcome in '67 and apply it to many future outcomes)!

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    1. Good to hear from you, as always, InTimeFor62. Yes, playoff series' are almost always unpredictable- and few if any would have "picked" the Leafs to win both the series they won in the spring of '67.

      Though it's been a long, long time since the Leafs last won a championship, I think most Leaf fans now sense it's not unrealistic to hope for a shot at a Cup before too long. We've waited this long...

      Have a good summer, InTimeFor62.

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  2. I remember the series well - most of my fellow Leaf fans weren't confident we could take down the Haps, and even less so after that Game 1. I watched Game 6 with some college buddies - we jumped out of our chairs and bounced around the room yelping with joy when Armstrong scored that series-winning goal! Two days later, I was in Montreal, visiting Expo '67. That was quite a month!
    It's been a long time since Leaf fans have felt the optimism we're feeling this year. There'll clearly be ups and downs over the next few seasons, but it does feel like we'll have a realistic shot at the Cup within a couple of years. Good times!
    Thanks again for creating and writing the pleasure that is Vintage Leaf Memories, Michael. For oldsters like yours truly, being able to appreciate and filter the present through the past adds immeasurably to the joy of being a fan.
    A toast with a full-glass of O'Malley cheer to you! Cheers! Looking forward to next year!

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    1. Hi Gerund O'- I was never able to visit Expo '67 in Montreal (no family vacation was on the agenda that summer!). But I can only imagine you had an extra pep in your step while walking through Montreal and Expo after the Leaf Cup win that May. It's a wonderful memory for all of us who have followed the Leafs and their ups and downs all these years.

      Thanks for the good words, Gerund. And all the best for a wonderful summer for you and yours.

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  3. Hello Michael. Nice story. I am too young to remember that Final, I was 4 years old at that moment. I remember 1978 and 1979 and those two playoffs series were very exciting. Now the Leafs are contenders and the day of a final between the Leafs and the Oilers is not so far away. As for rhe Habs, I only hope to see them win a Cup before I move to a senior home and I have just turned 55. I really enjoy VLM. All the best!

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  4. Those 1978/'79 series, including against the Islanders and Montreal, were lots of fun, for sure, Serge. The Leafs had some solid teams with Sittler, McDonald, Salming, Turnbull, Palmateer leading the way and a lot of hard-working second and third line players (and some promising youngster on defense, too...).

    The Leafs and Oilers are indeed are on path to success these days and we may well see the matchup you mention in the finals before we know it. Thanks for visiting, Serge.

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