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Remembering the spring of 1971: when the Leafs also had a young goalie, young defense- and made the playoffs

As our enthusiasm grows for the current Leaf roster (young goalie, good young defense, a few talented forwards under the age of 25, etc.) I harken back to a team that, in a couple of ways, reminds me a bit of the current Leaf roster that Burke is putting together.

Some of you may recall from earlier columns here that one of my favorite Leaf teams of all-time was the squad put together by then General Manager Jim Gregory before and during the 1970-’71 season.  Gregory was, for the time, a very young GM who had come up through the Maple Leaf organization, working for the Marlies (and maybe St. Michael’s juniors, too, I’m trying to remember as I write this).

He was the fresh voice when long-time GM and coach Punch Imlach was fired after the 1968-’69 season.  Onwer and President Stafford Smythe looked for youth, a new vision for the organization -and someone he knew. 

That was Gregory.

Jim inherited a team that still had some old guys, but, in fairness, Imlach was already responsible for bringing in a lot of young talent—Ron Ellis and  Mike Walton, (Pete Stemkowski and Gary Unger were traded in the deal that sent Frank Mahovlich to Detroit in the spring of 1968) and defenders like Mike Pelyk, Jim McKenny, Brian Glennie and Rick Ley

But Gregory continued to massage the squad, infusing it with relative unknowns like former Canadian national team player Billy MacMillan, ex-Montreal farmhand Garry Monahan. and a rookie that he drafted by the name of (future captain) Darryl Sittler.

That team in ’70-'71 had a really good mix of youth and savvy veterans.

In goal, the Leafs had 40-something Jacques Plante, and during the season Gregory made a brilliant trade to acquire Bernie Parent (trading the unhappy Walton), who went on to become a Hall-of-Famer—unfortunately, not in Toronto.  (I’ve written about Parent in the past.  You can see the great old Dan Baliotti photo at right, with Baun and Parent in action at the Gardens.  To this day it is a frustration, as a Leaf fan, that Bernie didn’t stay in Toronto.  I lay that at the feet of then owner Harold Ballard, who didn’t believe the incoming World Hockey Association was for real.  He didn’t pay up and as a result, he lost Parent, along with some other valuable young players.)

On the blue line, they had one wily vet in Bobby Baun, who took a bunch of kids under his wing:  Dorey, Ley, Glennie, Pelyk and also young Brad Selwood and the talented and oddly unforgettable McKenny.

Up front, they had real strength down the middle with veterans Norm Ullman and Dave Keon, but also youth and toughness in Jim Harrison, their third-line center that Gregory acquired from the Bruins.  They had Paul Henderson, Ellis, 80 year-old George Armstrong (OK, forty-something...) and pluckers like Brian Spencer.

It was just an enjoyable team to cheer for.  I think of that squad every year at this time, just as the playoffs are starting in April.  Unfortunately, they played the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs in the spring of ’71, and just when the Leafs seemed to have control of the series, everything went south.

To read more, check out my earlier post about “What happened in Game 4 the spring of ‘71”.  Or, you can listen to my interview with Jim Dorey (conducted in 2009).  We talk a bit about that very series.

That team never got to the second stage in its development because of the players it lost to the WHA.  Fortunately, Burke doesn't have that to deal with now- just 29 other teams that want the same thing he does, including some that are already further along the path he needs to travel.

1 comment:

  1. Long suffering Leaf fanApril 20, 2011 at 1:16 PM

    One of the best young and up and coming Leafs team to ever be assemble in recent history. John Davidson, Don Chery, Pat Quinn, Mike Emrick and, even the late Sam Pollock said that this team, if it was given the chance, would have rival the Montreal Canadiens of the middle to late seventies. Its to bad that John Bassett Sr. did not force Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard, under the insistent of the board of governors to sale their shares in the Leafs after being charge with tax evasion. Sad day in Leaf history in October of 72 when the Smythe's family lost their battle in court and was order to sell Stafford's shares to Ballard. I still can hear the chilling remarks of Conn Smythe, "I feel sorry for all fan's of the Toronto Maple Leafs today, because they will never see them win another Stanley Cup as long as Ballard is owning them". Sadly time did prove him right.