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Spring of 1959— the greatest Leaf comeback ever

Before the 1958-’59 NHL season began, Leaf fans didn’t know what to expect. They had not made the playoffs in several seasons and had no General Manager in place. It looked to be another dismal season.

And it started that way.

To take a step back, the previous summer, the Leafs had brought in an executive from the Boston Bruins farm system, Punch Imlach, to act as Assistant GM of the club. He started to re-make the team more in his own image (sound familiar?). In came the veteran grinding winger with Cup-winning experience from Montreal, Bert Olmstead. In came goaltender Johnny Bower, who had played one season with the Rangers but had spent the better part of 15 seasons in the minor leagues. Just before the regular season started, Imlach sent young defenseman Jim Morrison to Boston for the veteran Allan Stanley, who had faced a lot of boo birds in New York before playing for the Bruins.

The Leafs still had the skilled Cullen brothers (Brian and Barry) in the fold, and youngsters like Frank Mahovlich and Dickie Duff. George Armstrong (pictured below witrh the "Big M") was the captain and Ron Stewart was a defenseman with the club. (He later played as a winger for many more seasons for Imlach and other NHL clubs.) Eddie Chadwick was the number one goalie, based on the previous season. Few saw Bower (left) as a threat to Chadwick. Bobby Baun and Carl Brewer were kids on their way up from Toronto-based Junior A hockey clubs.

It was an interesting, but not imposing, mix of talent.

The team’s head coach was Billy Reay, who had starred as a forward with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1940s and early ‘50s, and earned several Cups along the way. This was his first NHL head-coaching job, and I have to believe his nose was out of joint when a a relative nobody (Imlach) was brought in as his presumptive “boss”—a guy who had never played or coached a game in the NHL.

When the season began un-evenly, Imlach waited until Grey Cup weekend (when much of the Toronto media was out of town) to fire the coach he had not chosen. He took over the team himself. He had a brief meeting with every player and simply asked each one: “Will you play for me?”

He claimed that every player said they would—and he evidently would remind them of their “promise” for years afterwards. (What else were they going to say to their new boss?)

Whether it was a new guy behind the bench, Punch’s ability to motivate or a team with many new faces simply coming together, there were some good moments over the next several weeks. But with fewer than 10 games left in the regular season, Toronto was still mired in fifth place, far behind the New York Rangers. Their chances to attaining the playoffs were thought to be slim and none.

But Imlach went on TV and said publicly— in fact he guaranteed, Joe Namath-style (a 1968 Super Bowl reference for those not around at the time), that the Leafs would in fact make the playoffs.

No one believed him.

It took a minor miracle, and a remarkable run of wins over the last half dozen games or so (combined with a bit of a collapse by the Rangers), but Toronto had a chance to actually made the playoffs on the last day of the 1958-’59 regular season. They were scheduled to play in Detroit, while New York was hosting Montreal.

The Ranger home game, as I recall, began at 7pm while the Leaf game started at 8 at the old Olympia in Detroit. So, the Leafs knew heading into the third period in Detroit that the Habs had downed the Rangers, and if they beat Detroit, they were “in”.

If memory serves—I was awfully young at the time—I believe winger Larry Regan (who had been a rookie of the year with the Bruins a few seasons earlier) scored a big goal in the third period and if I’m not mistaken, Toronto beat Detroit by a score of 6-4, which set off a mini-celebration at the end of the game. The Leafs had overcome huge odds to earn their way into the playoffs.

I realize as I write this that Leaf fans older than myself will, quite rightly, point to the year, many seasons previous, when the Leafs came from 3 games down in the Cup final series against Detroit to win the Cup as the team's greatest ever comeback feat. That has not happened since in a Stanley Cup final. But in my lifetime, that ’58-’59 comeback was a standout.

The Leafs built on their momentum to upset the tough Bruins in 7 games that spring (Bob Pulford scoring a huge third-period goal for the Leafs in a come-from-behind win, a game you can see sometimes on Leafs TV), and actually won one of the Cup final games against Montreal (Dickie Duff overtime winner) before bowing in five. But no one had expected them to get that far.

The Imlach mystique was part of the Leaf resurgence, for sure. They went to the finals in 1960, losing again to the Habs, before taking a step back the next season when they lost in the semi-finals against Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk and the Red Wings. But Imlach kept adding pieces here and there, like Eddie Shack, and perhaps most importantly, Red Kelly, along with youngsters Bob Nevin and Dave Keon. The core of the team stayed together for most of the next decade and the team won those four Cups.

As the years wore on, Punch’s ego and excessive demands seemed to wear on more and more players. He pushed Carl Brewer to an early retirement, and Frank Mahovlich suffered from significant anxiety playing under Imlach and was eventually traded in 1968.

But Imlach was successful, though some players have said over the years they should have won even more than those four Cups. Fair or not, he brought, as Brian Burke does today, a larger-than-life presence to the executive suite (and in Punch’s case, behind the bench as well). He was bombastic, played the media to the hilt and took credit for the team’s success.

But he helped the team win more often than not in an era when the Red Wings, Hawks and Montreal could just as easily have walked off with some of those Cups from 1962 to 1967.

And the trigger that started it all was the "comeback" in last two weeks of the 1958-’59 regular season, when the Leafs had no business even getting into the playoffs—yet did.

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