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Can Phaneuf and Aulie, Gunner and Schenn roll off the tongue like Horton and Stanley, Baun and Brewer?

I realize that I sometimes fall into the trap of “comparing” modern-day players to those of yesteryear, but, well, it’s fun to do.  Not always because the similarities are so stunning or anything, but more that a trait, or just something about a current player and his style may trigger fond memories of the way a certain old-time Leaf might have played in my youth.

But as we see the emergence of four young Toronto defensemen happen right before my eyes, I can’t help but think back to a time when four defensemen was about all you needed to backstop an NHL blueline.

Yes, Schenn and Aulie are logging huge minutes defending against the other team’s best forwards, while Schenn and Gunnarsson are both seeing their responsibilities increase as the season wears on.  Each one of these guys is in that much sough-after 25 and under category—not an insignificant roster reality to have going forward.

As I mentioned, few if any comparisons are pure, and this one certainly is not.  But back when I was a young lad, as they say, Toronto also had a defense corps whose names rolled off the tongue rather easily when it came to discussing the team’s fortunes:  Horton and Stanley, Baun and Brewer.  They each played together seemingly forever.

This all began in the late 1950s, when Punch Imlach had assumed (seized?) “control” of the hockey side of the Leaf organization under owner Conn and son Stafford Smythe as the erstwhile Assistant GM of the team.  Imlach soon shoved incumbent head coach and former NHL star Billy Reay out of the way (click here to read how and when that firing went down) and took over as coach and full-time GM himself.

He built the team around Johnny Bower in goal, and the four aforementioned defensemen.

Now, at the time, Stanley had already been with—and found wanting by—three other NHL teams.  He (pictured at right battling with Jean Beliveau in late 1950s action at the Forum) was not considered a big "star", though he played like one many of those years with the Leafs until he joined the expansion Philadelphia Flyers after the 1967-’68 season.  He was an older guy, a true grizzled veteran.  He was paired with Horton originally under Billy Reay, I believe, but Imlach kept them together and they became one of the formidable defense pairings of that era.  Horton had a booming shot for the time and was a tremendous skater who could really lug the puck out of his own zone. Stanley was more the deft guy with the stick, the poke-checker.  He was not the fastest guy on skates but knew how to get places the shortest possible way.  And, he was smart, very smart.

They could be physical if necessary (Horton was remarkably strong, though not a fighter)  and together they were just really, really good.

Brewer was a gifted guy, maybe the best pure player of the four  He could feint guys out of their skate laces and was a smart puck-handler and nifty skater.  He was a nasty piece of work, dirty, in fact, not above using his stick.  Though he wasn't a fighter he was a guy who really irritated the opposition.  Baun was the lumberjack, a tough, hard-nosed guy who could block shots and didn’t get near enough credit for his ability to skate the puck out of his own zone.  He was also a big-time body-checker (Bobby Hull could confirm that, as he often came down Baun's 'side" of the ice) and he could fight.

Together, they were very, very good, too.

It’s a cliché, I suppose, but in those days, and I remember watching them play for many years, defense partners did seem to “know where the other guy was” most of the time- especially considering that they routinely played together every night.

The hey-day of the "Big Four" was the early 1960s, when the Leafs won those three Cups in a row.  By the beginning of the 1965-’66 season, Brewer had quit the team abruptly after an on-ice flare-up, as I recall, with Johnny Bower at training camp, though the real issue was something else.  Brewer was a very bright young guy, an independent thinker.  He brought a lawyer, Alan Eagleson, around to meet some of his fellow Leafs who also wanted to know more about their rights as athletes.  That didn’t sit well with Imlach.  So, I presume for this and many other irreconcilable issues, Brewer left.  (Interestingly, many of you will know that he then played internationally for Canada as a re-instated amateur, but returned later to the NHL with Detroit and St. Louis, and also made a shocking and very brief comeback with the Leafs in his 40s late in the 1979-’80 season).

Baun’s impact began to fade a bit during the 1966-’67 season.  By playoff time he was replaced by the versatile Larry Hillman.  He played, but not a lot, as the Leafs won the Cup for the last time that spring.  Baun (see an old early 1960s photo at left) then went to the Oakland Seals in expansion, became their first-ever captain before ultimately returning to the blue and white for a successful re-birth to his Toronto career in the early 1970s.

Horton and Stanley were still there, too, for the last Cup, though Hillman and Marcel Pronovost were actually the guys who, people now recall famously, were not on the ice for any goals against at even strength during the playoffs that year—an amazing thing, when you think about.  (And watching them play, they were tremendous.  They really stood up at center ice and were hard to get by in that final series against the speedy Canadiens.  I have to say, though, that I had no idea at the time they were not on the ice for even-strength goals against. Those kinds of stats were not widely published at the time.)

My point in all this?  Clearly, it’s awfully important to have a good defense.  Horton and  Stanley were voted into the Hall-of-Fame.  Baun and Brewer were arguably close to that category themselves.   It was the backbone, along with Bower and "strength up the middle", of Toronto winning those four Cups in the 1960s.  It was similarly important when Cliff Fletcher built that wonderful no-name defense for Pat Burns in the early to mid-1990s, as the Leafs twice went to the final four.

Will history repeat itself now?

I’m betting that, while there is much more to do to get this roster where he wants it, his much-stated goal of building from the back-end is, for Burke, well—and successfully— in play.          

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