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Ex-Leaf role-player Gerry Ehman: key early ‘60s contributor reminds a bit of Colby Armstrong

There are a lot of different philosophies about how to build a successful NHL team.   Some stress the value of goaltending and team defense as the key to winning.  Others cite the old “strength down the middle” motto as the key to success.  In the olden days of my youth, the legendary 1950s and '60s Montreal Canadiens won with fire-wagon hockey- offence, offence and more offence (oh, they could play at both ends of the ice, but they were tremendous offensively...).  We also often hear the old adage, “Your best players have to be your best players” –a phrase often used nowadays to describe what’s required to win.

One thing has been clear for many years:  you generally need all of the above to win a championship, and you need worker bees- “role players” as they are called in modern times- individuals who know their roles and do the dirty work necessary to help a team win.

Sometimes your "stars" won’t also be your fighters, or your shot blockers, or your ‘shut- down’ guys.  But there is a place –and always has been in hockey—for players who may not be “impact” offensive players, but are valuable and contribute significantly to the overall success of a team. They do the dirty work, the little things that fans often don’t really notice.

But they make a difference and winning teams need those guys.  Sometimes they are, in fact, the difference between winning and losing.   (On the current Leaf roster, we may think in terms of someone like Colby Armstrong.  He’s not a first or second-line guy, and might not put up really big time numbers, but he agitates, checks, and is hard to play against.  He's also become a colorful fan favourite here in short order, eh?)

One such player for the Leafs in the late 1950s and early ‘60s was winger Gerry Ehman (left).

Ehman, who passed away a few years back, was a right-winger from Western Canada (like Armstrong)  who played one game for Boston, and a handful of games for the Red Wings before being acquired by the then new General Manager Punch Imlach.  That was part-way through the 1958-’59 season—the year Leaf fortunes started to turn around after almost a decade of disappointment.

Compared with the ‘star’ names of that Maple Leaf era—Mahovlich, Duff, Armstrong, Horton and many others—Ehman was indeed a seemingly "minor" role-player, but a useful and important one.

When the Leafs made a mad dash against improbable odds to secure a playoff spot in the final weeks of the ’58-’59 season, overtaking the Rangers, Ehman was a factor in the team’s success. He played to his strengths as I recall, which meant he was a hard-worker along the boards, could skate pretty well and make plays.

And somewhat remarkably, in 12 playoff games that spring (7 against Boston and 5 in the finals against Montreal) Ehman tallied 13 points, including a decisive goal in Game 7 in Boston against the Bruins.

Those are significant numbers in any era.  So while he was not generally a major  offensive threat, he could contribute at both ends of the ice.

But something Leaf fans may not necessarily  remember is that Ehman was actually a part of the 1964 Cup-winning team as well.

I raise this because, interestingly, despite his significant contributions, Ehman played in 1961-’62, 1962-’63 and 1963-’64 with Toronto’s top farm team in Rochester and didn’t even get a shot with the Leafs.  It was not common to “roll four lines” in that era and because Toronto had a very strong line-up those years, Ehman could not quite earn a full-time gig.

But at the end of the 1963-’64 season, Imlach called on Ehman to help the big club come playoff time.  He played in 9 of the team’s 14 playoff games, counting one goal during the playoffs as the Leafs took out both the Habs and the Red Wings in seven games.  It was the third of three consecutive Cup championships for the blue and white, but the first for Ehman.

Ehman stayed in the Leafs system for a few more years, and played with Rochester, Toronto’s farm team, the year the Leafs last won the Cup in 1967.

He then went to the Oakland Seals in the expansion draft, playing for his old Leaf teammate Bert Olmstead, who was the head coach in their first expansion season.  Ehman played four good seasons with the Seals, ending his career with more than 400 NHL games under his belt, enough to qualify for a full pension.

He was a well-regarded scout for many years after his retirement.  I remember doing an interview with him when I was working in junior hockey in the early 1980s and it was a thrill to speak with a guy who was a contributor to the Leaf legacy that I grew up following.

Ehman, for me, was someone I remembered well as a Leaf while I was a kid.  Just going by memory and without looking up some of his “stats”, I would have thought he had played with the Leafs for most of the early and mid- ‘60’s.  He just  always seemed to be a part of the organization.  I was a bit surprised when I did look at his full player bio and noted how little he was actually with the Leafs.

Nonetheless, he was obviously a good team guy, and a good Leaf.  I remember him fondly.

Leaf fans are no doubt hoping Armstrong leaves behind the same positive sentiments- and some Cup memories, too.

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