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Where were you when Frank Mahovlich was traded in 1968?

It seems everyone who was alive back then remembers where they were when they heard that President Kennedy was shot in November of 1963. Now that was a serious, world-shaping human tragedy that impacted people throughout the United States and beyond.

For the sports enthusiast, “remembering where you were” brings back less globally significant, but still very vivid memories.

For me, as Leaf fan, a case in point is when “the big M”, Frank Mahovlich (pictured in action with the Leafs), was traded out of Toronto.

Here is how I remember it.

In the late winter of 1968, the Leafs were going nowhere. The 1967-’68 season was the first year of expansion. Though they had won the Cup in an upset of the Canadiens the previous season, that they did so was a shock to most observers. While the Leafs still had a core group of strong players, they were old—really old.

We have to keep in mind that this was an era when guys were not in the type of physical condition they are in nowadays. Guys drank and smoked—a lot—in many cases. Players were usually considered old by the age of 32 or 33. Gordie Howe was an exception, still a superstar in his late 30’s.

In Toronto, the guts of the ’67 Cup team was as old, or older, than Howe, it seemed. Leaf Coach Punch Imlach had used defensemen Allan Stanley, Tim Horton and Marcel Pronovost a lot the year before. Bower and Sawchuk were the able but aging goalies. Red Kelly, Bob Pulford and George Armstrong were still important pieces up front. All of the above were in their late 30’s, except Pulford who was in his mid-30’s. These were all guys on their last legs, or close to it. The 1967 Cup was their successful “last gasp”. Imlach got everything he could out of that group.

It is worth noting that they had looked their age a year before during the 1966 playoffs, when they bowed out meekly in 4 straight games to the Canadiens. And during the 1966-’67 season, they went through a 10-game period when they didn’t win a game, and Imlach ended up in hospital, suffering from apparent exhaustion.

All that being the case, the Leafs nonetheless received big contributions from their veterans down the stretch and in the playoffs, as well as from unexpected sources like Brian Conacher and Pete Stemkowski. With often remarkable goaltending, they prevailed—just barely.

Fast forward to a new season, 1967-‘68. The Leafs had much the same group still in tow. Of the above names I just mentioned, only Red Kelly had retired. Eddie Shack was traded to Boston. Bobby Baun went to Oakland. Sawchuk also went in the expansion draft, to Los Angeles, and while there was definitely some young blood on the way up (Mike Walton, among others), the team was caught in a difficult transition period.

The club struggled that 1967-’68 season from the get go. Dave Keon was in the midst of his worst offensive season, goal-scoring wise. Bruce Gamble and Johnny Bower shared time in goal, but the Leafs fell back enough that when the Rangers and Bruins kept improving throughout the season there was no room for them in the playoff picture as the season began to wind down.

So with that as a backdrop, I think back to the February night that my dad brought me, my friend Dennis and his dad to watch the Canadiens and the Red Wings on a Sunday night at the old Olympia in Detroit. The Red Wings were also destined to miss the playoffs, but on this night the game was classic Original Six hockey, two old rivals playing in front of a jam-packed house.

I remember that Montreal’s John Ferguson, the toughest guy in the league, went almost the length of the ice at one point to cross check Gordie Howe from behind. There was a stare down but no fisticuffs.

Ferguson, a renowned fighter, was involved in three fights that night, as I recall.

One was triggered by a high stick from Red Wing tough-guy Howie Young, who opened up a big cut on Ferguson’s forehead. Ferguson and Young went at it. Most surprising of Fergie’s battles that night was when he and Paul Henderson came together. Ferguson flew into Henderson with a flurry of punches, but Henderson, a non-fighter, held his own. (Henderson tells the story that Imlach was at the Olympia that night, and decided then and there Henderson had to be in the big trade, because he was so impressed that Henderson would stand up to Ferguson.)

It was an exciting hockey game. I can’t describe clearly enough how the old Olympia was laid out, but I was in the standing room area between the blue lines, along with my buddy. There was what I remember as a huge pillar of some kind around center ice, so to follow the action, we spent a good part of the night, it seems, running back and forth—usually to catch a fight.

Norm Ullman (we’ve included a photo showing Ullman scoring against the Hawks) notched a hat trick that evening, and I believe the last goal he scored was his 324th NHL career goal, which tied him at the time on the all-time NHL goals list with Hall-of-Famer Nels Stewart.

If memory serves, the Wings won 6-4.

I was in grade 9 that year, and I remember being at Assumption (my high school in Windsor, Ontario) the next day, a Monday, when I heard about a big NHL trade. The details came out that the Leafs had traded their superstar winger, Frank Mahovlich, to the Wings. Also included were Pete Stemkowski (a solid performer in the previous year’s playoffs) Garry Unger, a young junior star who had played a few games with the Leafs, and the rights to former All-Star (then retired from the NHL but playing in Europe) Carl Brewer.

In return, the Leafs received an entire line from Detroit—the aforementioned Ullman, one of the finest all-around forwards in the league, a veteran winger in Floyd Smith, and young Henderson, maybe the fastest guy in the Red Wing line-up.

It was a huge trade, an absolute shocker, one of the biggest in Leafs history. Imlach almost called off the deal because details of the trade had been leaked to the media before both clubs could make the official announcement. But it was too late for both teams to turn back. They went ahead.

I’ll write more about the actual impact of the deal another time. But what I remember most prominently right now as I write this, is that, the night before, I was watching a fierce hockey game between Detroit and Montreal, with three guys playing their guts out in what turned out to be their last game in a Red Wing uniform.

Little did I—or anyone else in the old building as fans that night- know that each of them would be Maple Leafs in less than 24 hours.

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