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When the Leafs actually finished first

We all well remember that the Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.

But many current Leaf fans were not even born –or cannot remember- the last time the team finished the regular season in first place.

In fact, the Leafs last accomplished this feat during the 1962-’63 NHL season.

On the third last game of the regular season, the Leafs were trailing Montreal by a goal, 3-2, late in the game in Toronto. They needed a tie, one point, to clinch first place.

As it was a Wednesday night game, there was no TV broadcast where I lived in southwestern Ontario. (I believe the broadcast would have been available in the Toronto area.) But I remember the outcome well, because I have always held onto the picture that appeared in the local newspaper the next day. It shows Dave Keon on the edge of the crease, scoring from in close against Montreal goalie Jacques Plante. The goal, scored with less than 10 seconds to play in the game, ensured the Leafs first place.

Finishing first in and of itself was and is certainly not as important as winning the Stanley Cup, of course, which they also did that year in only 10 games (2 five-game series against both Montreal and Detroit). But for the Leafs, it was not something that happened routinely even in the old 6-team NHL. In fact, the Red Wings won the regular season title 7 years in a row in the 1950’s, and Montreal was usually the other team that dominated the regular season in those days.

In any event, that ’62-’63 Leaf team may have been the best in my lifetime, demonstrated by the fact that they did indeed finish first during the regular season, and were not really challenged seriously in the playoffs. Keon, Mahovlich, Duff and Nevin were the young stars, with Bower in goal, Simmons ready in reserve. They had the big four (Horton, Stanley, Baun and Brewer) on defense and strong leadership in Red Kelly, George Armstrong, Ed Litzenberger and Bob Pulford. With useful role players like Al Arbour, Ron Stewart and Billy Harris, the Leafs were loaded.  They had depth and could skate, check and score.

So when it feels a bit depressing to think of how long it’s been since the last Cup, we need to remind ourselves- it’s been even longer since the Leafs finished first.

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