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Maybe the Leafs could use a fourth-liner like Eddie Shack now!

Like other sports, hockey has created more terminology in recent years that just wasn’t around when I was a kid growing up in the late 1950s.

One of those terms is “energy line”— which in this day and age refers to a forward line which is not generally your scoring line but gives your side a boost.  They seem to play with an extra jump in their step and can quickly change the momentum of the game.  (Early this season, two games in, the Leafs' third and four units are both bringing a fair bit of "energy".)

Back in the early 1960s, for example, if clubs carried 12 forwards (they’d usually carry five defensemen and play only four, compared with six and seven nowadays) there were many nights when a couple of guys may not see the ice at all.

Nowadays everybody is usually expected to play minutes, and also play a certain defined “role”.  That includes, for most teams, having a third or fourth forward line as, again, an “energy line”.

Back in the early 1960s (and then briefly again in the mid-‘70s), the Maple Leafs had a one-man energy line on their side. 

His name was Eddie Shack.

Most nights, unless the team was facing an injury crunch, Shack did not play big minutes.  But a little background may be in order to provide some context.

Eddie came up in the New York Ranger system in the late 1950s, playing his junior hockey, if I’m not mistaken, in either Kitchener or Guelph.  When he turned pro he was an offensive player, a free-wheeling skater who could score goals.  But he didn’t get much ice time with the Rangers, and grew frustrated.

The thing is, Shack had talent.  While he later become known as a kind of enforcer (which he really wasn’t), or “The Entertainer” (which was one of his nicknames) or just your basic shit-disturber, Shack could play the game.

He was a good, fast skater, though he displayed a peculiar, kind of hunched-over skating style.  But when he gathered steam he could carry the puck the length of the ice and make some moves.  He had a good wrist shot and loved to use his slapshot whenever possible.

Over the course of his long career, he also played for the Bruins, LA Kings, the expansion Sabres in Gilbert Perreault’s great rookie year in 1970-’71, and later the Pittsburgh Penguins before coming back to finish his career in blue and white.

He scored well over 200 goals in his career, and sometimes scored 20 goals a season when that was a huge number in the old NHL.  Heck, when much more statistically successful players had a hard time getting endorsements, Shack was used in commercial endorsements on TV.

He was a very popular guy, especially in Toronto.

But the truth is, Shack (see photo above of Shack in early 1960s action against Jean-Guy Gendron, Irv Spencer and the Bruins) , despite being part of those four Cup teams in Toronto, was also some of the things I wrote above:  An entertainer and a disturber of significant proportion.

I remember him well with the Leafs.  He would run after guys in open ice and make big hits.  He’d often miss, but he would connect on occasion.  He would almost literally fly (jump in the air, at least) at times while heading into a corner.  Opposing players really did have to keep their heads on a swivel when Shack was on the ice.

He would fight, though he would sometimes skate away rather than engage in a direct combat.  John Ferguson, a true on-ice “policeman” with the arch-rival Canadiens, absolutely loathed Shack.  (It was a dislike that carried over into NHL old-timer games long past the end of their respective careers.  The dislike was something that Fergy carried with him more seriously than Shack did, it seemed.)

But Shack had that effect on other players—teams.

One time he antagonized his old Boston Bruin teammates so much one night, they were defeated by the LA Kings—a much less talented squad.  But the Bruins admitted afterwards they spent so much time trying to “get” Shack, they forgot about playing hockey.

Shack ended up in Toronto a roundabout way.  The Red Wings had tried to send star defenseman Red Kelly (shown at right with the Red Wings)  to the Rangers, and Shack was one of the young players going the other way.  But Kelly refused to report to New York and “retired” instead.  (Kelly was later traded to the Leafs for a young defenseman.)

Meanwhile, Shack stayed with the Rangers, but was then sent to Toronto for two guys, including current Leaf coach Ron Wilson’s uncle, Johnny Wilson, who had been a steady performer for the Leafs.

So both Kelly and Shack ended up together in Toronto—when they were supposed to have been traded for each other, and neither would have been with the blue and white if the original Wing-Ranger trade had gone through.  (Both were ultimately  important members of all those Cup teams.)

 As a fan, I recall that Shack could be a frustrating player.  When I was really young, he was one Leaf I would complain about to my Dad, often saying I wished the Leafs would trade the guy.  But just when I would be really agitated by his taking a dumb penalty or something along those lines, he would up and score a big goal, and I, like most Leaf fans, would be pacified for the time being.

From what I remember, Shack played with a variety of centers and other players.  Others may remember better than I, but my memory suggests Shack didn’t always have a set line of guys he always played with.  He was kind of a rover who filled in just about anywhere.

Shack was an agitator, a guy who probably wouldn’t easily adhere to today’s rigid, up and down the wing style of play expected of most third and fourth-liners.  But the reality is, Punch Imlach’s Leafs played a very conservative, boring, up and down style back in the early ‘60s.  Shack, even then, was the exception to the rule, the one guy who seemed to get away with playing his own way, venturing all over the ice.  And he largely got away with it under Imlach because he helped the team win.

Come to think of it, Eddie just might like Burke’s emphasis on truculence.  For a few minutes a night, a guy like Eddie could cause a lot of havoc in today’s NHL.

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