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Can Joe Colborne become Garry Unger—the trade "throw-in" who became an ironman

Just to be clear, I recognize that young Joe Colborne was not a “throw-in” in the trade that saw Tomas Kaberle move to the Bruins (a deal that should pay dividends for the Leafs long after Kaberle is retired…).  But with a new season not far off, that late-season deal from this past spring got me thinking about another late-season Toronto roster move that paid big dividends, too—just not for the Leafs.

As some of you will recall, (but most won’t because you weren’t around!) one of the biggest trades in Leaf history occured in February, 1968.  The deal was with the Detroit Red Wings, another "Original Six" team struggling mightily at the time

Keep in  mind this was less than a year after Toronto had paraded the Stanley Cup through the downtown streets of "Toronto the good" after that wonderful upset of the hated Habs in the spring of 1967.  Toronto sent its long-time superstar talent, winger Frank Mahovlich and rugged center Pete Stemkowski to the Wings, along with the “rights” to then retired defenseman Carl Brewer. The Leafs, in return, received outstanding center Normie Ullman, veteran winger Floyd Smith and an emerging young star in Paul Henderson.

A three-for-three trade, right?

Not quite. Then Leaf GM and coach Punch Imlach tossed another young player into the deal.  The Red Wings had wanted Mike Walton very badly.  Walton had helped the Leafs win the Stanley Cup just the season before.  But Imlach wouldn’t part with Walton, and the Wings then pushed for a youngster just up from the junior ranks—Garry Unger.

Now, Unger (pictured at right in his days with the Blues) had had to that point a good career with the Junior A team in London, Ontario and played some minor-league games in the Leaf system during that 1967-’68 season.  Though I have precious little memory of him with the Leafs (remember, unless you were in Toronto, Leaf games were only on the tube once a week, and Unger didn’t get many minutes behind Keon, Pulford, Walton, Murray Oliver and Stemkowski at center), he did play 15 games with the big team that season as a just-turned 21 year old. In fact, he scored his first NHL goal in a Leaf uniform.

I wasn’t able to see much of the Toronto press reaction to the trade, but my impression at the time was that he was just a nice junior player who was a indeed a “throw-in”.

Of course, history shows that while the trade worked out well for both sides, the Wings probably got a bit more long-term juice out of it than did the Leafs.  Ullman and Henderson had some nice seasons with the Leafs, the 1970-’71 season turning out to be their best.  But the Leafs won a grand total of 5 playoff games in the Ullman years.  That’s no knock on Ullman, who was a great hockey player but on the downslide after that 1970-’71 season, or Henderson, who did OK with the Leafs most years he was there before jumping to the WHA.  (Of course, I’m neglecting Henderson’s 1972 Team Canada heroics in this mini-assessment.)

For their part, the Wings lured Brewer out of retirement and he had an outstanding year for them in 1969-’70.  Stemkowski was OK in Detroit, but turned into a really effective player again when he was later dealt to the Rangers.  Mahovlich was flipped a couple of seasons later for three young Habs- Mickey Redmond, Guy Charron and Billy Collins.  Charron and Collins were useful players. Redmond became a 50-goal scorer for the Red Wings before back injuries curtailed his career.

But the real “wild card” turned out to be the “throw-in”, Unger.

Unger hit the ground running in Detroit, and put up a 42-goal season in ’69-’70, leading the Wings to a playoff berth that spring. To put things in context, the Wings had not made the playoffs since 1966.

But amazingly, by the next season, Unger’s longish hair (and perhaps his work ethic) didn’t sit well with new and very conservative Red Wing coach Ned Harkness.  Harkness had been an outstanding college coach at Cornell, but his methods just didn’t translate well in at the pro level, either with the young guys like Unger or the old guard, which at the time still included (amazingly) Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio.

So the Wings sent Unger to the St. Louis Blues.  They got Red Berenson back.  Berenson had played with Montreal’s Cup-winning team in 1965 and was an expansion-era star with the Blues, who also, like Henderson, played for Team Canada in 1972.

But Unger played 8 more seasons in St. Louis, never missing a game.  He played something like 700+ games in a row, setting a new NHL record, until he was benched one night playing for the old Atlanta Flames, I think it was.

He completed his NHL career in the early ‘80s with Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton, finishing his career with over 400 goals.

It’s always easy to assess a trade after the fact, but that’s really the only way to determine if anyone got the ‘best’ out of a particular deal.  As I mentioned, the Leafs won only a handful of playoff games with some of the guys they got from Detroit.  Detroit didn’t even fare that well, winning not a single playoff game with any of the people I’ve mentioned in this article, though some, like Redmond, had some fine individual seasons.

Looking back on Imlach’s deal, of those involved, Mahovlich made out best of all.  He won two more Cups with the Habs, before retiring after a time in the WHA.  Unger stayed in the NHL the longest, which makes sense, as he was by far the youngest guy in the trade.  Had he stayed with the Leafs, he certainly would have provided a formidable presence at center along with Darryl Sittler through the ‘70s.

That said, he was never a great defensive player (fair or not, his plus-minus stats were not good) and would likely have jumped to the WHA anyway in the early ‘70s (like many other young, promising Leafs did) because the Leafs would never have paid him full market value.

The reality is the Wings would never had made the deal without Unger being included, so it’s a moot point, I suppose.  But the Leafs gave up an awful lot.

I could be wrong, but I sense the Bruins may some day be saying the same thing about what they gave up in the Kaberle deal but hey, at least they've got their Cup...


  1. "The smooth skating, 6’5 center, has soft hands, good vision and a wicked release. He oozes potential, but his impact on games at the AHL level varies dramatically.
    The reason for that could be simply that Colborne is a big body who’s used to dominating physically and playing against opponents who are bigger and stronger than him, and it’s taking some time to adjust. But there are also games where he simply looks less engaged and that, wavering intensity level, was a criticism he had in college as well.
    Even with his flaws, Colborne is a high-character individual, and is someone willing to put in the work, to improve on his shortcomings."
    -Hockey's Future

    I think if he's coached properly in his final stage of development, Colborne has the potential to be a 60-70% Joe Thornton. If he can wipe out that varying intensity issue and put the final touches on his power and using it properly, I think the Bruins will be kicking themselves for quite a while.

  2. If he can wipe out that varying intensity issue and put the final touches on his power and using it properly, I think the Bruins will be kicking themselves for quite a while.

    They got their cup out of the trade, so I don't suppose they'll gripe too much about it. Similar to how the Rangers swapped Weight for Tikkanen for their cup run.

  3. Informative article. However nothing about this article addresses the question "can Joe Colborne become Garry Unger?" Sure it is mentioned at the start and finish, but you never mention anything relivant about Joe Colborne, how he plays, who he is or anything. Just that he was a "throw in" on a trade, in which he wasn't actually a "throw in" at all. Essentially anyone who isn't the marquee name included in any trade qualifies to be the framework for this article, considering it isn't about Joe at all, but about Unger. Which is fine, but the topic of the artcle and its contents don't match. That said I actually really enjoyed reading about all of this. I aways know about the Mahovolich trade, but didn't know most of what you wrote. Nice Job

  4. uni is right- it was worth the risk/loss, for sure, although there was no guarantee of that- hindsight is proving to be pretty powerful here. The gap between Stanley Cup winner and loser is so huge.