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Brian Conacher’s big goal triggered the Leaf Cup in '67

The 1967 season wasn’t supposed to end in a Stanley Cup for the Leafs.  They had succumbed meekly in 4 games to Montreal in the semi-finals the season before.  They suffered a 10-game stretch where they couldn’t buy a win during the 1966-’67 regular season; General Manager and coach Punch Imlach ended up in hospital. The team simply didn’t look very good.  In fact, they seemed old.

A lot of things had to happen for the Leafs to turn a very ordinary regular season into a Stanley Cup championship that spring.

A lot did happen.

Terry Sawchuk played some phenomenal games.  Johnny Bower was often hurt but mostly brilliant when he did play.  Dave Keon was at his skating, checking best.  Defenseman Larry Hillman, paired with the ageless Marcel Pronovost, played the hockey of his life.

The line of Pete Stemkowski, Bob Pulford and Jim Pappin played big and was a force throughout the playoffs.  Role players like Larry Jeffrey made a major contribution early on.  Young Ron Ellis was excellent.  20-year veteran "Red" Kelly had his last hurrah.  And winger Brian Conacher scored a huge goal that enabled the Leafs to get to the finals in the first place.

Some background might help.

Conacher was part of the famous Conacher family of hockey and Maple Leaf lore in the 1930s.  Uncle Charlie “Big Train” Conacher was a Leaf hero, and his father, Lionel Conacher,  was voted the best athlete in Canada between 1900 and 1950.

Young Conacher had a background with Fr. David Bauer’s Canadian national team, a group of educated, well-trained but generally overmatched youngsters working to represent Canada on the international hockey stage against the so-called "amateurs" from Russia and other emerging European hockey powers.

Conacher then was groomed in Rochester, where the Leafs kept their American Hockey League farm team at the time.

I remember Conacher (see a great old Harold Barkley picture of Conacher at right, in action against Les Binkley and the expansion Penguins) very well.  He was not a great skater, or a particularly deft puck handler and was not gifted with a hard shot.  But he seemed most often to play within his limits.  It would have been grossly unfair to expect him to produce the way Lionel and Charlie had.  He simply wasn’t that kind of player. But he could be aggressive on the forecheck, and while not a "tough" guy, he was a solid checker who accepted his limited role.

The big goal (goals, actually) happened in Game 6 of the Chicago series in Toronto.

The Hawks were heavily favored heading into the series, and observers assumed it would be Montreal and Chicago in the final.  They were by far the two most talented teams in the NHL that season.

Chicago won game 1 at home handily against Sawchuk and a flat Leaf team, and things looked gloomy for Toronto.  They appeared slow and over-matched against the explosive Hawks.

But Keon, ever the catalyst in those days, scored a huge short-handed goal on a breakaway in Game 2, and the Leafs went on to take a 3-2 lead in games heading back to Toronto for Game 6.

It was a tight game. Denis DeJordy had played in goal for the Hawks in Game 5, but future Hall-of-Famer Glenn Hall was back in net for Game 6 in Toronto. 

Conacher scored for Toronto in the first period, as I recall, and the two teams were tied heading into the third period.  In the pivotal third period, Conacher created the turning point moment when he knocked young Chicago defenseman Ed Van Impe off the puck inside the Chicago blueline, retrieved the loose puck, and fired a shot past Hall.

The Leafs went on to win the game, and then upset Montreal in the finals.  But it may not have happened, where it not for Conacher’s big hit—and goal.

Interestingly, Coacher retired early, in part (as I recall, at least) fed up by the violent way the pro game was headed.  He wrote a fine book that I read and re-read several times, called (I believe) “Hockey in Canada, The Way it Is”.  (The book may have been re-published a bit later with a different title.)  Conacher had great insight into the game, having played in Major Junior, college and different levels of pro hockey, in addition to his time with the Canadian National team.  (He had a brief comeback with the Red Wings in the early 1970s, after a stint as a broadcaster.)

Not long ago I discovered, thanks to blogger Joe Pelletier’s great web site,, that Conacher has written another book entitled “As the Puck Turns”.

If it’s as insightful as his first book, I would recommend it highly.  He’s a thought-provoking individual, and while he had a short NHL career, I’ll always remember him as an important contributor to that last great Leaf Cup in 1967.

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