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Leaf Larry Hillman underrated for sure—and he played the best hockey of his life to help the Leafs win it all in ‘67

If ever there was a player in my youth who was totally under the proverbial radar screen, it had to be defenseman Larry Hillman.

Hillman began his NHL career with the Red Wings in the mid-1950’s, playing 50 NHL games before his 20th birthday. He was with the Bruins when they played the Leafs in the 1959 semi-finals, a series the underdog Leafs won in 7 games.

Hillman’s first season with Toronto was 1960-’61, but the big four defensemen were Baun and Brewer, Horton and Stanley, so playing time was infrequent, to say the least.
He spent most of the next season (1961-’62) with the Leafs minor league team in     Rochester, but did get 5 games in with Toronto, though none in the playoffs.  (He was in the end-of-season Stanley Cup team picture, though.)

Similarly, in 1962-’63, he played 5 regular season games and none in the playoffs, the second Cup season in a row for the Leafs. The next year, he played half the season with the big club, and 11 games out of 14 in the playoff run to a third consecutive Cup.

But Hillman’s biggest contribution to Toronto was in their last Cup season in 1966-’67.  He played most of the season with the Leafs, and played all 12 playoffs games against Chicago and Montreal.  (See the great old Harold Barkley photo from Mike Leonetti's fine book "Cold War" at right. Hillman is backing up Johnny Bower, with Montreal's John Ferguson falling on his door step...)  He scored a goal and added 2 assists, but most importantly, he earned a spot playing regularly with Marcel Pronovost and was probably the most dependable rearguard the Leafs had that spring, along with Pronovost.  I saw the games live on television as a youngster of 13, but was too nervous to appreciate who was playing well—or not.  (I’ve watched a number of those ’67 Cup games on film in recent times and Hillman was outstanding, stepping up into the play and thwarting attacks at center ice and the blueline time and again.  His anticipation was outstanding.)

I don’t have access to the statistics, but anecdotally, it has been reported that Hillman and Pronovost were on the ice for very few even-strength goals during the playoffs, while Horton and Stanley were victimized much more often.  Hillman’s play down the stretch that spring was so strong that he supplanted veteran Bobby Baun as a regular, which ultimately meant Baun saw very little ice in the playoffs (As a result, Baun did not celebrate with the team afterwards and did not take part in the Cup parade celebration, saying he didn’t feel part of the team.)

Much like, about ten years later, Ian Turnbull played the best hockey of his life in the playoffs against the Islanders and Montreal in 1978, I don’t think Hillman ever played any better (at least under the bright lights of the playoffs) than he did in that wonderful Leaf spring run of ’67.

So good was Hillman that, in the expansion draft in the summer of ‘67, GM and coach Punch Imlach held onto Hillman, while Baun was exposed and ultimately selected by the new Oakland Seals franchise to be their first captain.

Hillman went on to play for a number of other NHL teams, including Montreal, briefly, in the late 60’s.  Interestingly, he played one playoff game for the Habs’ 1969 Cup squad, which means his name should be on the Cup for that season as well.  He finished his pro career at the age of 39 after 20 years as a professional, with the WHA Winnipeg Jets and Bobby Hull.  He played almost 800 NHL games and another 200 in the WHA.  He also helped coach the Jets to the WHA championship in the second-to-last season of the WHA, before the team joined the NHL.

Hillman was never considered a star, but in my mind, he was the kind of steady, not flashy but smart and solid defenseman that any team needs to have.  In one way or another he was part of 5 Stanley Cup teams (he at least played for those teams during the regular season when they won a Cup), which speaks to his value, consistency—and reliability.

For me, he was one of the all-time “under-rated” Maple Leafs.


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