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Favorite Maple Leafs now—and then

I guess I don’t really have “favorite players” anymore, at least not the way I used to when I was a kid in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

Frank Mahovlich was my first ever favorite, though that didn’t really last long.  He was ultimately replaced by my lifelong fondness for Dave Keon, who broke into the league in 1960 when I was all of 7 years of age—a very impressionable age, to be sure.

These days, it’s not so much that I have “favorites”, but I do like the way Bozak plays. And I have to admit Kulemin may be my “favorite”, because I like his all-around game and sense he can improve, if his work ethic remains.  Gunnarsson may have the most obvious “high-end” potential, but in fairness, the early comparisons to Lidstrom, while nice to consider as a Leaf fan, may be quite unrealistic.
Looking back, every Leaf fan of my generation has their own ‘list’ of their favorite Leafs of yesteryear, of course, and a bushel full of their own great memories.

For me, a few names stand out as “favorites” over the years.

Bert Olmstead - The venerable winger had been a key member of the Montreal Canadiens through the 1950s, helping them win three Cups in a row before joining the Leafs for the 1958-’59 season.  I was a little young then to fully appreciate what Olmstead brought to Head Coach Punch Imlach and the Leafs in 1958, but by the time he helped the Leafs earn their first Cup under Imlach in 1962—and their first in my lifetime—I saw some of the value he brought to the team. He was the classic tough ‘corner man’ with an eggbeater approach.  By most accounts he was a true leader who demanded that his teammates give the same effort he did.  So while he retired after the ’62 Cup season while I was still in my hockey fan infancy, he is an important symbolic Leaf for me:  a winner, a guy who played tough, played hurt and was the classic grinder before they coined that phrase.

Dave Keon - While I probably thought I had Keon all to myself way back then, the young center who joined the Leafs in the 1960-’61 season from Major Junior hockey and St. Michael’s College was to become the all-time favorite Leaf of probably hundreds of thousands of young fans across the country.  He was a small player by the standards of almost any hockey generation, but his youthful appearance, relentless forechecking, smallish stature, clean play and unusual speed made him immensely popular.  Had he scored on even a third of the breakaways he created for himself he would have finished his 15-year Leaf career with well over 500 goals.  Nonetheless he scored hugely important markers (witness the 1964 semi-finals against Montreal as but one example, when he scored all three Leaf goals in a Game 7 victory).

Interestingly, Keon (pictured at the top of this story in early 1960s action) spent a good chunk of his career as a checking center, covering the likes of Stan Mikita and other great offensive centers of his time.  In fact, I still have a vivid memory of Keon, in his 40s at the end of his career in the early 1980s with the Hartford Whalers.  In this particular game, he was on the ice every time Gilbert Perreault was for the Sabres.  Keon was a tremendous penalty-killer, while rarely picking up a penalty himself from one season to the next.  Like Olmstead he expected a lot of his teammates and wasn't always the most popular of teammates.  But he was one of the fastest guys on ice of his generation and possessed one of the league’s best backhand shots.   A guy who was at his best in big games.   What would a player like that be worth in today’s NHL?

Brian Spencer - Spencer joined the Leafs during their brief 1970-’71 renaissance season.  He made quite a splash at first because he played a wonderfully reckless, driving style.  Not a fast skater, but in a straight line he was quick to the puck and hard on it once he got there.  I recall being rather disillusioned a couple years later when I heard that, after suffering a serious knee injury, the Leafs left him unprotected in the summer expansion draft and he ended up with the fledgling New York Islanders.  I recall listening to a Montreal-Islander game on French-language radio one night and the commentators mentioning that Spencer was the best player on the ice that particular evening, largely because of his tireless, buzz-saw work ethic.  Spencer went on to play a significant role with the Buffalo Sabres in their run to the Cup finals in 1975, until they finally lost in a tough series against the Flyers in 6 games.  But Spencer, “Spinner” as he was known, was tough, could fight and played his heart out.  He would be a great fit on any team today, though like many others he might be handcuffed by the demands of today’s coaches and structured “systems”.

Jim Harrison - Now this will seem to be an odd choice for some.  Harrison’s career with the Leafs was fairly short.  Like many others from a young 1970-’71 club that gave the veteran Rangers all they could handle in a 6-game playoff series that year, Harrison soon left for the WHA with Rick Ley, Bernie Parent, Brad Selwood and other potential future Leaf cornerstones. Harrison played center, and if Keon was the consummate skill forward who used anticipation, speed and angles to wear down a defense, Harrison simply ploughed through people.  He was the poster boy for what Howie Meeker tried to teach us all those years on Hockey Night in Canada: a guy who ‘finished his check’.  Harrison was tough, could fight and stood up for his teammates.  He also scored an overtime goal in the 1972 playoffs against the big, bad Bruins – the only game the Leafs managed to win in that 5-game series.  I hated the Bruins so much that alone would have been enough to make him a favorite.  Back problems ended his career in later years in the WHA, but with his bulldog style and open ice hits he’d still be a great third line center on most clubs today, despite being slow afoot.

Bernie Parent - Some reading this may not even remember Parent with the Leafs.  But I sure do, and still wince that he got away to sign with the Miami Screaming Eagles, a team that never lived to play for long, if at all, in the then newly-formed WHA.  As a young Leafs fan, there was a painful time in the late '60s, which was also late in the Johnny Bower era (when Bower was hurt and played very little).  The team was in between the 1967 Cup success and its early 1970s rebuilding efforts under new management after the firing of Imlach.  (Bower played with the Leafs until the 1969-’70 season, but injuries prevented him from making much of a contribution his last couple of seasons.)  Parent came to the Leafs in a mid-season trade in 1971, a stroke of hockey genius by General Manager Jim Gregory.

One of the happiest days of my (young hockey fan) life was the day I heard that the Leafs acquired Parent in that three-way deal with the Flyers and Bruins.  Talented Leafs forward Mike Walton wanted/needed out of Toronto.  As I recall, Walton went to the Flyers, who flipped him to the Bruins for a young player (Rick MacLeish, I think).  Walton was a great skater who would help the Bruins win a Cup in ’72, but the Leafs needed, I felt, a young goalie to go with Jacques Plante, the ageless wonder they signed prior to the 70-’71 season.  Plante was outstanding that season, but Parent gave the Leafs their goalie of the future—or so Leaf fans thought.  Parent had been nicknamed the new “Mr. Zero”  (Frankie Brimsek was the original) in the mid-60’s when he arrived as a 20-year old in Boston.  He later played with the expansion Flyers before being traded to the Leafs.  He ended up with the Flyers again when he refused to come back to Toronto after his short-lived WHA flirtation.  He won two Stanley Cups and became a Hall-of-Famer— unfortunately just not with the Leafs.

Lanny McDonald - McDonald came out of Junior hockey with the reputation as a goal scorer and joined Toronto as a high first-round draft selection in the summer of 1973.  He proceeded to spend the better part of his first two seasons hurt, or falling down.  In fact, a reputable beat reporter at the time wrote that McDonald would never be a goal scorer at the NHL level, but could become a useful player for the Leafs.  McDonald became a favorite of mine because, in his third season, just as he was gaining confidence and playing like he could, he knocked Bobby Orr and Denis Potvin upside down with open ice hip checks on consecutive Saturday nights at the Gardens.  I figured anyone who could dish out that kind of clean but tough punishment to the league’s best would be a player someday.  And as his shot began to find the back of the net, his confidence grew even more and he became a wonderful Leaf alongside Darryl Sittler.  McDonald was a hard-working winger who was not particularly fast but dug in the corners and used both the wrist shot and the slapshot very effectively.  He could block shots, kill penalties and played against the best left-wingers, like Clark Gillies and Bob Gainey.  Traded by Punch Imlach to Colorado, he finished his career in poetic fashion, scoring a goal in his last ever game as the Calgary Flames beat Gainey and the Habs—his old nemesis from Leaf days—right in the Montreal Forum to earn the Cup in the spring of 1989.

Scott GarlandSadly, this former Leaf of the mid-'70s died very young in a car accident.  In his short stay with the club, he was one of the few guys on that somewhat over-rated mid 1970’s team that I thought was truly “tough”.  There were players such as “Tiger" Williams who certainly fought a lot and had a reputation for being tough, but I rarely saw Williams him hit anyone in the open ice.  Garland, on the other hand, was a true mucker, the kind of guy who would have been labeled a “grinder” when that term came into prominence in the 1980s and early ‘90s.  Not blessed with great speed or quickness, he followed through on checks, and when he hit guys, they generally knew they had been hit   He was not afraid to stand in front of the net and could drop his gloves when the need arose.  You couldn’t have a whole team of Garlands, but he was a team guy who played with an edge.

Rocky SaganiukI loved the way he created an impact when he first came up in the late 1970s.  He flew around the ice creating havoc, a bit like Johnny McKenzie did in his hey-day with the Boston Bruins.  But Saganiuk, I believe, fell off his game because the Leafs tried to turn him into something he wasn’t, an up and down “responsible” winger.  Sometimes, you just have to let a guy play to his strengths, as long as it’s not over the top.

Russ CourtnallCourtnall had such a great burst of speed.  I often wondered why kind of career he might have had if John Brophy wasn’t the coach at the time they traded Courtnall in the late ‘80s.  Dynamic offensively, not as committed defensively, but a treat to watch when he was on his game.

Doug Gilmour - There’s not really a lot to add, for those who saw Gilmour play in his brief time in Toronto in the early to mid 1990s.  His effort when it mattered in the playoffs in 1993 and 1994 were simply far beyond what we are accustomed to seeing in Toronto.

Mats SundinI admit it.  I loved when the Leafs scored a big goal, and Sundin would have that huge smile on his face.  When things were going well, I felt he was like the father of the team, the shepherd leading his flock.

Again, we all have our memories and our favorites.  By all means send your comments along!

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