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Grey Cup firing led to Leaf Cup in ’62: When Punch Imlach took over from Billy Reay

Just last weekend we celebrated the Grey Cup in Canada. Great game, as it so often is, Montreal edging Saskatchewan in a true heartbreaker. The game, still a uniquely Canadian event, drew huge ratings.

The Grey Cup got me thinking about a story from when I was really young.

Back in the fall of 1958, the Leafs were a struggling team. They had not won a Cup since the spring of ’51, and had gone through a number of coaches, without any real success.

The summer prior to that season, Punch Imlach, a veteran minor league executive, was brought in as the “Assistant” General Manager. There was no actual full-time GM at the time, so the Toronto media found it a bit of an odd hire.

The coach at the time was Bill Reay, who had been a standout forward with the Montreal Canadiens. For eight seasons he was a teammate of all-time greats like Butch Bouchard and Rocket Richard.

So the guy was a winner (and in fact went on to be a very successful coach with the Black Hawks for almost 15 seasons, coming painfully close to the Stanley Cup in 1971). The team he led was in transition. The organization (Imlach) had just brought in veterans from other teams—Johnny Bower, Allan Stanley and Bert Olmstead come to mind. But they also had some good young talent, including Dickie Duff, Marc Reaume, Carl Brewer and Bobby Baun, along with Bob Pulford and Frank Mahovlich. Sprinkle in veterans like George Armstrong and Larry Regan, along with the Cullen brothers and Ron Stewart, and you had the makings of a competitive squad.

But the team struggled somewhat out of the gate and very early on during the ’58-’59 season, Imlach made a decisive move. He fired Reay and took over the coaching reins himself. At the same time, ownership announced that Imlach would be promoted to be the General Manager of the club.

In his circa 1970 book “Hockey is a Battle” I remember that Imlach said that, after he made the change, he called every player into a small meeting room and asked each one the same question: “Will you play for me?” Meaning—will you work hard with me as your coach?

He claimed that every guy promised that he would, and that he would remind them of that when they slacked off from time to time, even years down the road.

But the thing that upset the Toronto media at the time of the Reay firing was that it happened when most of the beat writers were away on another assignment out of town that weekend: the 1958 Grey Cup. Imlach was criticized for doing the dirty deed when people were away so the move would not receive the same scrutiny it otherwise might.

Here was this virtual nobody, in NHL terms, firing a guy who had a sterling record as a bonafide NHL player on the world’s best team.

But Imlach obviously thought the team he helped re-construct the previous off-season was under-performing, and made the move.

The Leafs went on that season to get back in the playoff hunt, but still needed a miracle final two weeks to sneak past the Rangers on the last night of the regular season. From there, they took that momentum and upset the Bruins, who had finished second during the regular season, in 7 games in the semi-finals.

They even beat the Habs once (on an overtime goal by Dickie Duff in Game 3) in the finals that spring.

It took a couple more seasons, but after adding Bobby Nevin, Red Kelly and Dave Keon over that time, the club won a championship in 1962, and went on to win three more with Imlach behind the bench.

I doubt it would have happened, if he had not made that bold move under the cover of the Grey Cup, several years before.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great story - one I had never heard before. Thanks for sharing it.

    Love, love, love this blog!