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HOF’er Bobby Pulford: Four Cups in Toronto as the best third-line center in hockey in the 1960s

Yesterday, I wrote about long-time Red Wing forward Kris Draper. Though the Wings were eliminated by the surging San Jose Sharks on the weekend, the Red Wings—and Draper—have been legitimate Stanley Cup contenders since the early 1990s.

They’ve succeeded four times, a tremendous record in an era where dynasties are rare, indeed.

I opined that the current Leafs could use a younger version to Draper to help get them over the top in the years to come. Interestingly, the exact type of player I have in mind played for the Leafs from the mid-1950s through to the end of the ‘60s—Hall-of-Famer Bob Pulford.

Now, I’ve heard a number of observers over the year suggest that Pulford really wasn’t a Hall-of-Fame player. Who really deserves to be in the Hall-of-Fame is always an interesting debate.

I hosted a few sports talk show earlier in my broadcasting career. But I’ve only ever once called a talk show. That was when Bill Stephenson was hosting a show in the 1980s on CFRB radio in Toronto. I commented on Dave Keon’s worthiness to be in the Hall (this was prior to Keon’s election to the Hall.). Somewhat to my surprise, Stephenson, who was there for Keon’s entire Toronto career, brushed off the suggestion by saying Keon was a nice player but not a Hall-of-Fame player.

Not long after, Keon was indeed—and deservedly so- elected to the Hall.

But again, everyone shares a different opinion, depending on the player.

I remember former Montreal great Rocket Richard being quoted way back in the 1960s, saying basically that the standards for the hockey Hall were not as high as they were in other sports. I think there has been a train of thought for many years that the hockey hall opened its doors a little too wide. Like anyone else who has followed the sport, I believe there are guys that don’t belong that are already in. Mike Gartner and Bernie Federko, for example, while distinguished players in the game, were not, to me, was “the best of the best”.

Some observers put Pulford (pictured above in another of those great Harold Barkley photographs in action against Gump Worsley and the Rangers in the early 1960s) in that same category.

I didn’t see Pulford for his entire career, and in fairness, I was young when he started playing with the Leafs in the mid 1950s. But for my money, he was a Hall-of-Fame player.

Why? Well, he was a guy who year after year did the gritty little things that helped a team win games, just like Draper, only with a bit more offensive pop. He played center, though he moved to the wing later in his career. He was a strong forechecker, followed through hard on his checks, and wasn’t afraid to fight if the situation arose.

He was defensively dependable, a smart player who obviously knew the game. He killed penalties throughout his career and was a very determined player. He scored a lot of “big goals” in his career. A few come to mind as I write this: his marker in Game 7 of the 1959 semi-finals against Boston to tie the game 2-2 in the third period, setting the stage for the Leafs to come from behind to win 3-2 and advance to the finals. In Game 1 of the 1964 finals against Detroit, he blocked a shot while killing a penalty in the last minute of the game and scored on a breakaway to give the Leafs a big win to start what turned out to be a 7-game series.

In the 1967 finals, it was Pulford who scored a crucial goal in double-overtime in Game 3 to give the Leafs a 2-1 lead in games, on their way to a Cup victory.

While he certainly wasn’t considered a big-time goal scorer, over the course of his career he scored close to 300 goals when that was a significant total.

But his value was in his dedication and determination. He played “behind” Red Kelly and Dave Keon through most of the ‘60s, and he had to be the best “third-line” center in hockey. Ralph Backstrom in Montreal was the competition for that honor, but while Backstrom was a fine player in his own right, Pulford had grit in his game which, for me, gave him the edge.

Was Pulford one of the “best of the best”, the criteria I spoke of above when thinking out loud about players who perhaps should not be in the Hall? In the 6-team NHL, I think he was. Maybe those of us from that era romanticize, in hockey terms, how great players were back then. There was no question it was a smaller league—fewer franchises, way fewer players, and of course the league had not grown into the ethnically and geographically diverse sport it is today.

But the reality is hockey was largely a Canadian sport until the 1970s, and by and large with few exceptions, the truly “best” players were Canadians playing in the NHL. That many of us recognize the old-time NHL players as Hall-worthy is consistent with the reality that they were the best in the world, at the time, at what they did.

Pulford was one of the best of the best, a great Leaf and a deserving Hall-of-Famer. 
Toronto Maple Leafs hockey blog

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