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‘70s week: How the Maple Leafs helped save hockey in 1976

For a lot of us, hockey was not in a good place in the mid-1970s.

When expansion doubled the size of the league from six to twelve teams in 1967, it not only initially thinned out the talent pool, it also saw the dawn of a vigilante-style approach to the game first embodied by the “Big Bad Bruins”.

Now that was a talented bunch—with Orr, Esposito, Stanfield, Bucyk and some others, but beginning in the late ‘60s and into the early ‘70s they played a very physical, combative style.

They intimidated teams, with tough guys like Wayne Cashman, Johnny McKenzie (not big but tough as nails) and Derek Sanderson and were hard to play against, especially in the tiny Boston Garden.

They won two Stanley Cups but, tellingly, could never beat Montreal in the playoffs, which would have made their championships that much sweeter. Amazingly, they lost to the Habs in 1968, 1969, 1971, 1977, 1978 and 1979.

In those later years, with Don Cherry as coach, they took particular pride in being tough, with players like Stan Jonathan , John Wensink, Terry O’Reilly and others. (Though I “hated” O’Reilly, I did admire how he played. The Leafs could have used him, badly.)

The game went through a violent phase, with bench-clearing brawls becoming all too commonplace in the ‘70s. I will never forget one Sunday afternoon game in Boston, on U.S. national television, when Wayne Cashman jumped up and swung his stick over his head at Minnesota’s Dennis Hextall during a skirmish behind one of the goals. It was a stunningly dangerous action, yet the NHL barely batted an eye in terms of discipline.

The Philadelphia Flyers went even further. They became the celebrated “Broad Street Bullies” and were, simply, a dirty team. They verbally threatened the opposition, they slashed and hacked constantly and with rugged guys like Don Saleski, Dave Schultz, Moose Dupont, Ed Van Impe (pictured in action against the Leafs) and others, they created a culture of fear everywhere they went. The term “Philadelphia flu” was created to describe players who suddenly fell “ill” before they had to play at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

All that said, they were without question a hard-working team. They skated, they checked hard. They would hold on to the puck rather than just throw it out in front of the net aimlessly.

And, they had skill. They had Bobby Clarke, of course, who succeeded Van Impe as their young captain. Rick MacLeish was a marvelously talented player, as was Hall-of-Famer Bill Barber.

They also acquired the gifted scorer, Reggie Leach (pictured), who netted 19 goals, I think it was, in a splendid playoff performance in the spring of 1976.

But their thing was intimidation, pure and simple. They sticked people and fought constantly. If you looked at Clarke, you would be dealt with. He never, though, fought on his own.

This went on for years, culminating in the Flyers, under the guidance of coach Fred Shero, winning the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975. (There is no question hero was an insightful coach, who not only could teach but motivate.)

They looked to be on their way to a third consecutive Cup in the spring of 1976. Along the way, their impact on junior hockey in Canada was awful (not to mention the impressions made on youth hockey players). Junior A teams were out of control at times, fighting and brawling trying to impress NHL scouts, as this was the “new” way to get noticed and make it to the NHL.

I’m sure players who were with the Flyers at that time would deny this negative impact, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that somebody needed to stop the Flyers.

The Leafs had their chance that spring in the playoffs. Led by new captain Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald, along with Borje Salming on the back end, the Leafs hung with Philadelphia until the second period of Game 7 at the Spectrum. (That was the series where Sittler scored five goals in Game 6.)

They eventually crumbled in Game 7 under a furious Flyer offensive onslaught. They simply didn’t have the goaltending, skating ability, strength or overall toughness to stay with the Flyers that night.

Now, had the Leafs somehow managed to beat the Flyers, it would likely have been considered a fluke, a major upset.

The Flyers needed to be dethroned, quickly and mercilessly.

Enter the Montreal Canadiens, who played the Flyers in the Cup final.

The outcome? They hammered the Flyers in 4 straight games.

How could this happen? Well, Scotty Bowman, Montreal’s coach, had been preparing them for this moment for some time. They had enormous skill—Lafleur, Shutt, Peter Mahovlich and Lemaire up front, as well as tenacious shut-down checkers in Jarvis, Gainey and Roberts. They developed a young energy line of Lambert, Risebrough and Mario Tremblay, as well as a superb defense backboned by Robinson, Lapointe and Savard. Strong support players like Bill Nyrop helped. Importantly, they had toughness from almost all of the above, plus Rick Chartraw and Pierre Bouchard- in case there was trouble.

And of course, there was Ken Dryden in goal.

The Flyers couldn’t come close to intimidating the Canadiens, and for all the talent the Flyers had, Montreal had more.

Montreal players have stated often since that time that they were on a mission to take out the Flyers and destroy the myth of Flyer invincibility. They were determined to send a message to the hockey world that there was another—and better—way to win in hockey, which included skating, passing and shooting. Talent plus real toughness (the kind of toughness that saw Larry Robinson hit Gary Dornhoeffer so hard one time with a clean check that he took out a plane of glass at the Forum, maybe the whole side boards, I’m trying to recall) was the key.

The Flyer tactics were no longer enough to scare this kind of opposition. The Habs pushed back, and not only won the tug-of-war but also the foot race. While the games were generally close, Montreal outskated and outplayed Philadelphia by a wide margin.

They were better in every way, and they beat the Bullies.

The Flyers tried to play their tough style in future years, but everyone now knew the “wizard” was just some guy behind the curtain. In Philly’s case, a bunch of thugs who were only tough together, not so tough as individuals. (That was verified when a number of their ‘tough’ guys finished out their career in virtual anonymity with other teams.)

So the Leafs had done their part. Maybe they softened up the Flyers in that long 7-game quarter-final series. At least that’s how I choose to look at it, in retrospect.

The Canadiens did the rest. And in a very real way, saved hockey.


  1. The outcome? They hammered the Flyers in 4 straight games.

    3 one goal wins, the other win by 2... against a Flyers team playing without Bernie Parent and Rick MacLeish... quite a hammering!

  2. The article of course fails to tell the story of why the Flyers had to get a tough team in the first place. Everything the Flyers did had been done to them first. By the big bad Bruins, the dirty St. Louis Blues. to name just two. That's okay, that's hockey, but Philly management said okay, enough is enough and built a hard-nosed team. But when Phila. stopped being doormats, all of a sudden a lot of crybabies came out of the woodwork. You can't punch a puck in the net, you still have to score. The Flyers SAVED hockey, at least for awhile. Hockey isn't nearly as fun to watch as it was back then. Bettman tried to make it more palatable to people who were never fans to begin with by removing most of the fighting from the game and now we have way more injuries with high sticks and such than we ever had before. One more thing, I think Bobby Clarke was involved in way more fights than let's say, Wayne Gretsky, so that comment, in my opinion, doesn't carry that much weight, The end.