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Kent Douglas: A very valuable “5th” defenseman when the Leafs were very, very good in the 1960s

It’s impossible to think of the Maple Leafs of the early 1960s and not think about Kent Douglas.

To the untrained eye of a very young fan back then (mine), Douglas was one of those guys who always seemed to be part of the team, but not always playing on the team.

You see, Douglas was a defenseman who got his start in the NHL a bit late, age-wise, as I recall.  He was one of those players stuck in Springfield (in the American Hockey League) under the legendary and notorious Hall-of-Famer Eddie Shore.  But Douglas made his way to the Leafs in 1962-'63 and was actually the NHL rookie of the year at the age of 26 or 27, I think it was, when the Leafs were in the running for that award fairly regularly (Mahovlich, Keon, Douglas and  Brit Selby all won the trophy, Ronnie Ellis came close).

Interestingly, because Shore "owned" most of his players, that is, they did not belong to any NHL affiliates, he could hold on to them for as long as he wanted.  The Leafs had to trade a number of players to Shore to get Douglas, including future NHL All-Star Bill White.  (White's NHL career didn't get started until expansion, when he was in his late 20s, because he was playing for Shore in Springfield.)

Douglas was a tough guy, but with some offensive skill.  (Tough enough, by the way, that he would take on John Ferguson of the Habs, the best fighter in the NHL at the time.)   But he was a skilled guy, too.  In fact, without even looking up his career stats (which I will do in a moment) I seem to remember him as primarily an offensive defenseman, when there weren’t that many of them around. (Red Kelly had been a rushing defenseman in the ‘50s with Detroit.  Tim Horton and Carl Brewer in Toronto stood out and Pierre Pilote was very good offensively with Chicago.  This was before Bobby Orr came along and changed things rather dramatically).

After Springfield, Douglas was in the Leaf “system” until expansion came in the fall of 1967.  His best year with Toronto was his first, in 1962-’63, when netted 22 points, played the entire 70-game schedule, and also was part of all 10 playoff games as the Leafs won the Cup for the second year in succession.  (The picture at the top of this story is from the 1963 finals at the Olympia in Detroit, and shows Douglas in action against Gordie Howe with Johnny Bower in goal.)

In fact, Douglas was initially credited with the winning goal in what turned out to be the deciding game of that series, Game 5 in Toronto.  With the Leafs leading the series three games to one, Game 5 was tied 1-1 well into the third period at Maple Leaf Gardens.  Carl Brewer was cut and had to leave the game.  Douglas was the “5th guy” (kind of like a seventh defenseman nowadays) guy on the Leaf blueline after Baun/Brewer, Horton/Stanley and slipped right away into Brewer’s role, with Baun as his partner.

Eddie Shack had just made a rush and taken a good shot on Terry Sawchuk.  Bob Pulford won the ensuing draw back to Douglas, who took a slap shot (he had a good shot for the time) that bounced off something and eluded Sawchuk.  Shack was later credited with a deflection, and the goal. 

To cap things off, in the dying seconds of that clinching game, Detroit’s Normie Ullman had a clear shot at a wide open net, with a chance to tie the score, but Douglas blocked the shot with his stick, preserving a slim lead.  Toronto added and empty-netter and went on to win the game 3-1.  (Douglas was said to utilize one of the longest sticks in hockey—maybe that helped…)

Like others before and after him, including Al Arbour, Douglas was generally the 5th guy on the blue line, not able to get a regular gig because the Leafs went with the pairings Punch Imlach always relied on most, Horton and Stanley, Baun and Brewer.  So Douglas also spent time off and on in Rochester in the AHL.  He played with the Leafs in 1963-’64, but not in the playoffs, so I doubt he has his name on the Cup for that that season.

Douglas played regularly with the Leafs the next two seasons, but by 1966-’67 he was back in the minors (Tulsa) by playoff time, and therefore was not part of that last Leaf Cup victory, either. (He likely ended up with his name on one Cup, though he certainly was a prominent enough player for the blue and white in three of the seasons that they ended up with the Cup.)

I remember that Douglas was one of those guys who wore that black stuff under his eyes, when the league went to the higher intensity lights required for color television broadcasts in the mid-‘60s.  (You can see that in the picture of him on the right-hand side of this story.  I noticed some of the Habs and Flames were doing the same thing to combat the sun when they were practising on Saturday before the Heritage Classic.)

He played with Oakland under former Leaf Bert Olmstead in the first year of expansion, before moving on to the Red Wings and later spending some time in the WHA in the early '70s.

By the end of his pro career, he had competed in over 400 NHL games and played professionally until 1976, at the age of 40.

A solid defenseman—and a Leaf I remember well.

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