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The hated Habs host the Leafs: 10 great olden-day Leaf-Montreal memories

Rivalry has long been a trigger for passionate fan interest in sports—at many levels and in virtually all team sports.

Whether it’s Notre Dame and Southern Cal in college football, the Lakers and the Celtics, the Packers and the Bears, the Yankees and the Red Sox,  passions run deep.  There is a certain element of fear, of respect, and yes, hatred.

In hockey, no rivalry, I don’t believe, stands any taller than that which exists between the Leaf and the hated Habitants, the Montreal Canadiens, who happen to be hosting the Leafs on Saturday night.

Now, I acknowledge that there have been times in more recent years when the rivalry was maybe not as intense as it was back in the 1940’s, ‘50s and ‘60s—when the teams played each other so often during the regular seasons (14 times a year in the ‘50s and ‘60s, pre-expansion) and then often in the playoffs.  But overall, a regular-season game between Toronto and Montreal still has a feel that other games just don’t often have.

I don’t pretend to know the entire history, though my Dad, born an ardent Montreal fan born way back in 1910, shared countless stories with me in my formative years, even though I chose at an early age to throw my allegiance to the blue and white (click here to read about how I became a Leaf fan).

There are so many moments I remember from those games in the ‘60s and ‘70s especially.  Some I saw on TV, some I listened to on the radio, a few I was fortunate enough to be in the building for.  My reality was that I only saw so many of them as a kid on TV because the two teams rarely met on a Saturday night, which in the olden days was the only night we got to see the Leafs in action where I was born.

Here are ten moments (there are way more than ten, for sure) that stand out for me from those golden days.  Younger Leaf fans can no doubt add their own more recent memories to this list.

  1. Number one has to be Game 6 of the 1967 Cup finals at the Gardens.  I was 13 and spent most of the night worried that the Leafs would not hold on to their 2-0 (they almost didn’t) and they’d have to go to Montreal for a deciding seventh game.  But when George Armstrong scored into that empty net in the last minute, it was a dream come true, beating the Habs to win a Cup.
  2. Game 7 of the 1964 semi-finals was a game I listened to on the radio, and it remains one of the most famous games in Leaf-Toronto history.  Dave Keon scored three goals and the Leafs outlasted Montreal at the Forum 3-1.  (I wrote about this great game here some time back. Click on this link for the story.) They advanced and beat Detroit in the finals to earn their third Cup in a row.
  3. In 1963, the Leafs had the best Maple Leaf team of my lifetime.  For the only time in my life, they actually finished first in the regular season and went on to beat Montreal and Detroit in 10 games to win their second Cup in a row.  The Leafs clinched first place in the last week of the season, when Keon scored a goal with a few seconds left against Jacques Plante to tie the game 1-1 and give Toronto the point they needed to clinch. (At the top of this story, there is a great old photo of Keon scoring that last-second goal.)
  4. I was really young, but it was a special moment when, in the spring of 1959, the Leafs made a remarkable late-season run to catch and surpass the Rangers and claim fourth place in the standings—on the very last night of the regular season.  They went on to upset the favored Bruins in the first round. After dropping the first two games of the finals in Montreal, Dickie Duff scored a beautiful overtime goal on a solo rush at the Gardens in Game 3 to give Toronto their only win in that series.
  5. In the 1965 semi-finals, the Leafs were trying to capture a fourth straight Stanley Cup.  But Montreal had rebuilt their team, and they went on to win the championship in four out of the next five seasons.  Toronto was facing a 3-0 deficit in the series when Game 3 went into overtime, but Dave Keon jumped off the bench, intercepted a pass, and sent a low backhand past Gump Worsley to get Toronto back in the series.  Montreal went on to win in six games.
  6. I believe it was Lanny McDonald’s rookie season, 1973-’74, when Montreal came to town and Toronto hammered them by a score of something like 9-2.  Lanny had been struggling in his rookie season, but he scored a couple that night, if I remember correctly.
  7. During the 1974-’75 season Montreal was building another powerhouse and visited the Gardens.  I was a young university student in Toronto and stood in line for hours to get one of the few remaining ‘standing-room only’ tickets available.  The Leafs were trailing against Ken Dryden and the Habs until Ron Ellis scored with maybe five seconds to go to give the underdog Leafs a 3-3 tie.  I couldn’t see a lot of the game (standing room at the Gardens was way behind one of the goals and Ellis scored at the other end), but it felt like we had just won a playoff series when he scored.
  8. In Jacques Plante’s first season with the Maple Leafs in 1970-‘71, the legendary goalie shut out Jean Beliveau (right) and the Habs at the Gardens by a score of 1-0.  Plante was magnificent.  I remember an unbelievable save he made after he had been caught well out of the net.  The puck came out to big Beliveau who unleashed a blistering shot but Plante came sliding from seemingly nowhere to make the save and preserve the shutout—and the victory.
  9. Going back to the 1967 finals against Montreal, Bob Pulford’s winner in double-overtime in Game 3 stands out.  It could be number one on this list, in truth.  But the Leafs would never had reached that point in the game had Johnny Bower not been the star of the game in goal for Toronto.
  10. The Leafs played Montreal in the playoffs in both 1978 and 1979.  They were swept both times against a powerful Montreal squad that was in the midst of winning those four Cups in a row.  But I know that, in the spring of 1979, the two games at the Gardens were close enough that they went into overtime.  I so badly wanted the Leafs to win just one game against the hated Habs.  In one of the overtime games, I almost jumped into the TV screen begging them to put the puck in the net, so often did they have chances to beat Dryden in overtime.  I have this memory of Paul Gardner not being able to get the puck over Dryden.  The Leafs should have won that game, but it wasn’t to be.
I realize I will post this and then a rush of other, in some cases perhaps “better” memories will spring to mind.  That’s OK.

Leaf fans can only contemplate what “might have been” if Toronto had slipped past the Kings in the spring of ’93.  That would have set up what would surely have been a truly memorable final series against Patrick Roy and the Habs.  But it never happened.

The Leafs at the Habs on a Saturday night in Montreal.  It's almost always electric.  Send your memories along as well.  Olden days, the ‘80s, recent times—if it’s Montreal and Toronto, it’s good to talk about.



  1. How about game 4 of '79? The Leafs were down 4-0. And then they went on a tear to get into overtime, only to lose when Tiger Williams took a penalty. The whole Leaf team got upset, and the crowd? They said some words that are unprintable!

  2. A great comeback that night, yes, and another frustrating playoff loss to Montreal. And the end of the Jim Gregory era as General Manager, too.