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January 2, 1971: A new year starts with a 13-0 win for the Leafs

New Year’s usually means a new beginning, or at least the intention of doing some things a bit differently.

Well, on January 2, 1971, the Leafs did something I’m pretty sure they had not done before, and certainly haven’t done since. They won a game by the rather astounding score of 13-0.

I’ve written in the past that one of my favorite seasons following the Leafs was that 1970-’71 season. They had missed the playoffs the year before, the first season under the direction of new General Manager Jim Gregory and coach Johnny McLellan.

Year two of the new regime started poorly, too. The Leafs got off to a rough start, but by early December they started to play with some confidence.

Now, a lot of things happened that season. Just a few things that I remember:

 the Leafs unveiled a ‘new-look’ uniform about a month into the season

 the league changed rules to ensure that the home teams wore white, so fans would get to see visiting teams wear their more colorful uniforms

 the Bruins of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito set a boat load of offensive records

    Darryl Sittler joined the Leafs as a rookie from the London Junior team

 Dave Keon was an end-of-season NHL All-Star center (second team)

That year, another “Original Six” team, the Detroit Red Wings, went in a “different” direction. After making the playoffs the previous season on the second-to-last night of the season (and then giving away a game against the Rangers the next afternoon when they were obviously hung-over, allowing New York to edge ahead of Montreal for the last playoff spot), they changed coaches—Abel essentially replacing himself behind the bench.

In came respected U.S. college coach Ned Harkness.

This kind of thing had never been done before. Pro hockey was pro hockey. You rarely had a college player make it to the NHL and you never saw a university coach join the professional ranks. (Things obviously changed years later. Former University of Toronto coach Tom Watt earned an NHL job, as did Herb Brooks after the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980. We all know about the Hall-of-Fame success Lou Lamoriello has achieved with the Devils after his years running U.S. college programs.)

Interestingly, I don’t believe it was Abel’s decision. Owner Bruce Norris was influenced by an advisor who was involved in the firing of Bill Gadsby just the season before, ostensibly because he didn’t bring enough “sophistication” to the job, it was reported at the time. (I thought Gadsby, a wonderful defenseman for 20 years in the league, had done a fine job.)

In any event, Harkness came in and took over a squad that was re-building with some young players like Garry Unger and Pete Stemkowski, both acquired from the Leafs in the big Frank Mahovlich trade. Nick Libett was a solid young player and Gary Bergman was an excellent defenseman But they also had past-their-prime greats like Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio (shown in game action from that season against Buffalo with this story. You can also see former Red Wing and Maple Leaf Floyd Smith in the photo). Harkness just didn’t mesh as a coach with either the young or older players. General Manager Sid Abel, the Hall-of-Fame Wing player and long-time coach, lost a power struggle with newcomer Harkness and quit the team. (Shortly after the 13-0 loss, Harkness, in an interview, indirectly blamed Abel for what he called the team “paying for the sins of 10 years”. The implication was that Abel as GM had not developed enough young players to keep the club competitive.)

Amazingly, despite his poor record as coach, Harkness was promoted to GM, a peculiar turn of events, and former Wing defenseman Doug Barkley assumed the coaching job.

This is all a preamble to my memory of the night the Wings visited Maple Leaf Gardens on January 2, 1971.

That night, the Wings put in a poor effort, to say the least, and lost to the Leafs by the aforementioned score of 13-0.

I remember the night well, because it was still during my high school Christmas “break”, and I was able to watch the game on the UHF station that showed all Red Wing away games in those days. (It may also have been aired on Hockey Night in Canada, but I’m not sure.)

That Leaf team had the makings of something a bit special—Keon played with youngsters Gary Monahan and Billy MacMillan. Norm Ullman played with Ron Ellis and Paul Henderson. Rugged Jim Harrison centered rookies Darryl Sittler and Brian Spencer a fair bit of the time. Denis Dupere killed penalties and Guy Trottier, a veteran minor-league winger who could score, was an extra forward along with former captain George Armstrong, who came out of retirement one final time that season.

The defense was buffeted by the return of the veteran Bobby Baun part-way through that season. Baun was let go by Abel, Harkness and the Wings and ended up with the Leafs. Back “home”, Baun played well the rest of that season. The rest of the “D” was very young- Rick Ley, Mike Pelyk, Brad Selwood, Brian Glennie, Jim McKenny and Jim Dorey—and were just coming into their own.

Ageless Jacques Plante was in his 40s but had joined the team and played superbly. Then Gregory made a stunningly good trade shortly after the game I’m talking about to bring in a young and gifted goalie, Bernie Parent. (He traded away the unhappy Mike Walton and goalie Bruce Gamble in that deal.)

But that night, just about everyone contributed to a 13-goal victory (including Brian Spencer, who scored his first NHL goal) which must be a team record, I would think, in terms of margin of victory.

It’s odd, as poorly as the Wings played that night—and that season, they had quite a bit of talent. Many players went on to do really well elsewhere: Stemkowski was traded to New York before the 13-0 game, and Bruce MacGregor, along with defenseman Dale Rolfe also were sent to Rangers. Both had some excellent seasons with the Rangers. Larry Brown went to New York as well. Winger Tom Webster did well in the WHA. Gerry Hart had a stellar career later with the Islanders. Ron Harris played solidly for the Rangers. Gary Unger had many outstanding years with the Blues. Frank Mahovlich was traded (shortly after the 13-0 game) to Montreal and helped the Habs win two more Stanley Cups.

It was just a bad mix in Detroit—a management team lacking harmony, a college coach who couldn’t get pros to “buy-in”, dispirited players—and on that night in Toronto, we saw the worst of the Red Wings.

The Leafs? They went on to a pretty good season but were eliminated by the Rangers in a 6-game series later that spring.

1 comment:

  1. Darkness with Harkness in Detroit...He set the Detroit franchise back some 15 years. Mention his name to anyone in their 50's and over and you get an immediate negative reaction in Detroit. How Bruce Norris could keep this guy was beyond me. As much as this man was loved at Cornell, he was hated in Detroit. And for those who say he was before his time and had some good ideas used today..I say hogwash! He NEVER was good enough to coach the Red Wings and was a complete bust as a GM too. It was a terrible period for Red Wing fans with Harkness around.