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Phil Kessel and Mike Walton: It’s time for some old-time flair

As hockey fans, especially as Leaf fans, we sometimes strain a little too hard to try to find similarities between an up and coming player and some notable player in the past.

How often do hockey fans say, “so and so reminds me of Scott Stevens…” or whomever? Quite often, it seems. And almost as often the early comparisons are not a good indicator of what’s to come.

I probably say “especially” so for Leaf fans because, with 40+ years between championships, a fan can get a little desperate, hoping that new recruits – whether they be high draft picks, free agent signings or, in Phil Kessel’s case, players acquired in a trade - will push the team over the hump.

But I do see a little bit of an ‘olden days’ Leaf in Kessel.


Mike Walton.

Walton was, for his day, a flamboyant player, especially for conservative Toronto, and particularly for ultra-old-school coach Punch Imlach. Walton came up in the classic Leaf manner- he played junior with St. Mike’s, then the Marlies. He then spent time in the minors with Rochester and Tulsa, the usual Leaf outposts for budding Leafs in the 60s. He played a few games with the Leafs in the 1965-’66 season, then made a big impact the following year, earning ice time when others were injured, and playing a fairly prominent role in the playoffs, especially against Chicago. (In the photo we have included with this story, Walton is shown at the far right of the shot, as the Leafs receive the Cup after beating Montreal in Game 6 at Maple Leaf Gardens on May 2, 1967.)

Walton could fly. As fast a skater as Dave Keon was, Walton might have been faster. He used white tape on his stick and had longish hair, and was considered “flakey” for his time, and carried the knick-name “Shakey”.

But as an offensive player in the check, check, check Leaf system under Imlach, he was explosive and stood out on a team that didn’t play that way.

Unfortunately, Walton and Imlach didn’t seem to click, much the way Imlach and Frank Mahovlich had not. Imlach’s coaching theory, while ultimately successful in terms of championships, seemed to be that everyone was to be treated the same.  He did not appear to believe in treating players as individuals.

In any event, it was a bad marriage, and though Walton helped the Leafs win the Cup in ’67, things went south and even when a new management team and coach came to Toronto, Walton was unhappy and asked to be moved. He was traded to the Bruins in the early 70’s, and won another Cup with Boston in 1972, before playing many years in the WHA and completing his career back in the NHL with Boston (again) and Chicago.

His career numbers back up my point about his obvious offensive skills, as he scored almost 350 goals in the NHL/WHA in only about 800 games.

I guess my point is, current Leaf management wanted a “top 6” forward, and needed someone who the other team would have to try and game plan for, something the roster has obviously been missing since the departure of Mats Sundin.

Walton was ahead of his time in Toronto, a player who wanted to score, free- wheel and play offense - in a decidedly defensive system.

The Leafs play a defensive “system” under the current regime, (most teams do, unfortunately, nowadays) but management recognized that they need offensive threats right now- not in three or fours years from now, when the draft picks that Kessel cost might be ready to have an impact.

While Imlach tolerated Walton, it seemed, Brian Burke and Ron Wilson have obviously embraced young Kessel.

And if Kessel can provide the kind of flair Walton did, he’ll not only pick up points and help the Leafs secure some wins, perhaps as importantly he’ll help the Leafs become a more entertaining team to watch.

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