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Dick Duff: he should always have been a Leaf

Back in the 1950s, it was more common than it is now for a good player to spend his entire career with the same team.

That said, long before free agency has allowed players to jump from one team to another, even good players would get traded in the ‘good old days’.

If Doug Harvey—one of the finest defensemen of all-time—could be traded by the Montreal Canadiens after years of all-star level, and loyal, service, perhaps anyone can be traded. (In more modern times, the same could be said, of course, about Wayne Gretzky.)

From a Maple Leaf perspective, one of the first great Leafs that was traded in my lifetime was Dickie Duff.

Duff was one of those players from northern Ontario who played way bigger than he actually was. He was a little guy but a wonderful skater—fast, shifty, a deft puck handler with a quick shot. Duff was an outstanding all-around performer for the Leafs from his rookie year (1955-'56) on.

He was hugely instrumental in the transformation of the Leafs going from also-ran in the mid-50s, to contenders in the late 50s and then champions in the early 1960s.

In the 1959 finals against Montreal, he scored the overtime winner against Jacques Plante in game 3 in Toronto. He sped through the neutral zone and let go with a quick, rising wrist shot. It was the only game that Leafs won in that series.

In 1962, in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals in Chicago, Duff scored the game winner in the third period as the Leafs beat the Black Hawks 2-1 to clinch the team’s first Cup since 1951, and the first of Duff’s career. (We’ve included a photo of Duff that ran the next day.)

When the Leafs were shooting for their third consecutive Cup in the late winter of 1964, GM and Coach Punch Imlach thought the Leafs were struggling and needed a boost before the trade deadline. He made a bold move. He completed a deal with the New York Rangers to acquire right-winger Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney. Duff, unfortunately, was the centerpiece of the trade from New York’s perspective. He was a winner, and the Rangers thought he would have an impact in New York. Another good young forward, Bob Nevin went to New York. Juniors Arnie Brown and Rod Seiling also were included, and ultimately helped the Rangers become a very strong team for many years.

Ironically, Duff never really fit in during his time in New York. Within a year, he was dealt to Montreal for speedy Billy Hicke, and went on to help the Habs win 4 Stanley Cups over the next 5 years.

He scored many big goals in those Cup years, and continued to build his reputation as a clutch player, often playing with Jean Beliveau. In the 1967 Cup final against his former Leaf squad, in Game 6, he scored on a beautiful solo rush and beat Terry Sawchuk to cut Toronto’s lead to 2-1- setting up a nail-biting finish that famous night.

In his last full season with Montreal, he netted 14 points in 14 playoff games in 1969.

Duff finished out his career with LA and Buffalo, but I always felt he should have been a Leaf for life. While an argument can be made that the Leafs would not have won the ’64 Cup without Bathgate (he scored some very big goals in the finals against Detroit), who knows if they would have won with Duff and Nevin, who had helped the team win in 1962 and 1963.

Bathgate was later traded in a big deal that brought Marcel Pronovost to Toronto, and Pronovost was certainly a big factor in the ’67 championship.

So Punch won 2 Cups after the Duff deal. Duff won 4 Cups with Montreal. New York was a fine team for years, but never quite won a championship during that era.

I tend to believe that Toronto would have been a better team, long-term, with Duff, Nevin, Seiling and Brown, who all went on to long and outstanding careers. Bathgate was a Hall-of-Famer, but on the decline from the time he came to Toronto, while McKenney was at the end of his career, as well.

Regardless, Duff was elected in recent times to the hockey Hall-of-Fame, a deserving candidate, for sure.

If only he had stayed a Leaf…

1 comment:

  1. McKenney was very good for the Leafs in 1964, but blew out his shoulder in Game 5 of the Final and was never really right again. Makes it a bit hard to evaluate.