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A Maple Leafs primer series: The Leaf legacy in my lifetime, starting with...the 1950s (First in a series)

I was asked a while back, "what should someone, as a fairly new Leaf fan, know if I wanted to understand the team and a bit about its history".

It took me a while to determine what that really meant, but on further prodding, I discovered it was really basically just asking what they kind of needed to know about the Leafs and where the franchise has been and how it got to where it is now.  So I’ve been thinking for some time about developing a mini-series of sorts, a series of pieces that kind of sets the table a bit for young Leaf fans, or those just really beginning to follow the team.  I’m thinking specifically about those who may have at least a passing interest in the team’s history and heritage, and how we got to this point.

Now, I want to be clear.  This is a site about my personal memories.  It’s not  (and neither is this series of posts) a true “history”.  I'm not a historian and I’m not doing research (I almost never do).  It’s not about stats, past or present. It is simply a collation, if you will, of my own recollections, decade by decade.  I aim to stick with that I know, and what I have seen or witnessed personally in some fashion. When it comes to the early part of the 1950s, I’ll include what is commonly known.

To be sure, I am only a guy who happens to be a long-time hockey observer and Leaf followers—and other hockey people—will have their own memories quite distinct from mine.  As always, I welcome any comments that may either correct my own recollections, or build on the discussion.

So let’s start with where I came in, the 1950s.

A brief explanation for those new to the site

I was born in southwestern Ontario (a very small town called River Canard, in Essex County) in 1953.  As I’ve mentioned here many times before, my earliest hockey/Leaf memories stem from 1958 or thereabouts.  Because I came from a hockey-rabid family (at least on the male side), I was drawn to the game at a very early age and learned about many of the greats of the game from my father, a devout Montreal fan.

The 1950s Maple Leafs

Though it was before my time, the Leafs were coming off a tremendous run in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  They won four Stanley Cups in five years, I believe it was.  But it was a lot of championships, in any event.

To provide some context for those who have jumped aboard and became Leaf fans in recent times (with a 30-team NHL) there were, of course, only 6 teams that comprised the league in those early years.  So there was a grand total of 120 players— if that—in the entire league.  (Probably not even, since each team carried only one goaltender, and rosters were not as large as today…) So depending on your perspective, it was either harder, or much easier, to win a championship in those days.

I would venture to say it has never been easy to win, not when you are competing against the other “best” people in the world in your chosen profession.  And in those days, those 120 or so players were pretty much the best in the world.  (This was just before Russia, Sweden, etc. advanced to become major hockey powers…)

So the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1951, beating their archrivals from Montreal.  I think every game that spring went into overtime (a 5-game series).  A young defenseman by the name of Bill Barilko charged in from the point to score while flying through the air after he let his shot go—not unlike Bobby Orr about 20 years later to win a Cup for the Bruins.

Barilko’s legend as a talented, outgoing and handsome young Maple Leaf was tragically cemented later that summer, when he went missing while on a (hunting/fishing?) trip with a friend in Northern Ontario.  The plane was found 11 years later.  Barilko’s popularity has, in a sense, only grown over the years.  So if you’re fairly new to the Leafs but keep hearing the term “Barilkosphere” to refer to the blogosphere space devoted to the blue and white, that’s where this all comes from.

The Leafs struggled through most of the rest of the decade.  Ted “Teeder” Kennedy, the rough and ready Leaf captain and team leader was at the end of his time in blue and white, and a series of coaches, including Howie Meeker (later a TV hockey analyst and populist favorite, a forerunner of sorts to Don Cherry) and ex-Hab playing star Billy Reay could not change the team’s fortunes.

In fact, they were bottom feeders for a time throughout the mid-‘50s, not even making the playoffs some years.  (Four of the six teams in the league made the playoff in those days.)

The first Leaf that I remember being aware of was goaltender Eddie Chadwick.  Of course, goalies did not wear masks in those days and it helped that I collected hockey cards from an early age.  I got to know about some of the Leafs, including Chadwick, Tim Horton and especially Frank Mahovlich, who was the rookie of the year in 1957-’58, I think it was. (That was no small thing, because another future Hall-of-Famer, Bobby Hull, also came to the league that same year…) I've included a great old-action photo of Chadwick in action at the old Gardens (left).  This is one if my childhood favourites, showing Eddie making a great save against Detroit's Ted Lindsay, with then young Leaf defenseman Marc Reaume in the background along with Detroit stars Gordie Howe and Normie Ullman.  I think that's Tim Horton in the background as well, between Howe and Ullman.  That could be Rudy Migay way in the background...

Things began to turn around for the Leafs when Gorge “Punch” Imlach took over behind the bench during the 1958-’59 season.  Interestingly, Imlach had been hired by the Leafs (then still owned by Conn Smythe) in the summer of ’58 as “Assistant” GM.  But he was basically given rein to do what he felt needed to be done.  So he started to re-make the team. Punch had been a minor-league player, and stayed in the game as an executive.  I think he worked for a time under Eddie Shore, a famous (and somewhat notorious) hockey star-turned madman coach.

Punch had a bit of that crazy-genius thing going on around him, too.  Shore often pushed players past their limits, and Punch was kind of from that school, as well.

Imlach (shown at right) brought in a veteran minor-league goalie (Johnny Bower) and also acquired journeyman defenseman Allan Stanley from the Boston Bruins, who were a better team than the Leafs at the time.  I’m pretty sure Montreal winger Bert Olmstead had already joined the Leafs.  I’d have to confirm that.  But importantly, Olmstead brought a winning attitude to a team that hadn’t had it for a while.  Montreal was accustomed to winning, and so was Olmstead.  He hated to lose.

The other big thing that happened is that, during the 1958-’59 season, Imlach pulled the plug on Billy Reay as Leaf coach.  Coyly perhaps, Imlach did it while most Toronto sports reporters were out of town covering the Grey Cup in Western Canada.  You have to keep in mind that this was long before the modern Internet age, when nothing in sports can be handled quietly to avoid publicity.  It was a big deal, because Punch had never played at the NHL level, and he was axing a guy who had been an excellent player with a great franchise.

But Imlach took over, and when he did so, he asked each player privately a simple question:  “If I stay on as coach, will you play hard for me?”.  He said years later that each guy promised that he would indeed—and Imlach would remind the guys of that in later years whenever he thought they were letting down a bit.

I should make clear that it’s not as though Imlach knew nothing about coaching.  He had coached the Quebec Aces in one of the top old-time minor leagues, and was behind the coach when Jean Beliveau launched his professional career.  So he knew the game and knew how to coach.

Now, in fairness, when I say the Leafs weren’t very good in the mid ‘50s, they were still an interesting team.  They had one of the better-known brother combinations in the league, Brian and Barrie Cullen.  (John Cullen, who was related to the Cullens—but off the top of my head I can’t tell you in precisely what way—later was a fine NHL’er who briefly played with the Leafs in the early 1990s.) The had some fine veteran players like the aforementioned Rudy Migay and Sid Smith.

But more importantly, some really good young players were emerging as present or future Leafs.  Bobby Pulford was one, already establishing himself as a power-forward before that term was in vogue.  Dickie Duff was a marvelous player who joined the big club in the late ‘50s, small and fast and feisty.  Billy Harris was an oustanding stick-handler and smooth playmaker who saw the ice really well.  And on the back end, Tim Horton was already a star, and two kids, Bobby Baun and Carl Brewer, became mainstays on the Leaf blueline.

This nicely cobbled-together mixture of old guys like Bower, Stanley, Olmstead, young veterans like George Armstrong, Pulford and Larry Regan, along with the kids like Duff, Mahovlich, Baun and Brewer, started to jell under Imlach.  So much so that, even though they were way out of a playoff spot throughout most of that 1958-’59 season, they made a remarkable late-season run.

They culminated their push with back-to-back wins on the last weekend of the season, beating the Red Wings on the final night of the regular-season in Detroit.  Earlier that night, Montreal had defeated the Rangers (the game had started earlier in New York), opening the door for Imlach’s Leafs.

That was a huge deal in Toronto—a late miracle surge, an unexpected playoff spot, all under a guy who was predicting it would happen and who virtually no one in the city had even heard about in hockey circles twelve months prior.

The Leafs went on to upset the heavily-favored Boston Bruins, who had finished second in the standings, in the semi-finals. (In those days, the first-place team played the club that finished third in the standings.  The second-place finisher took on the fourth-place squad.)   Toronto won Game 7 in Boston, coming from behind in the third period.  Gerry Ehman, a hard-working winger and Pulford scored the big goals.  The Leafs continued their momentum and took it into a final set-to with the powerful Canadiens, who had won the Cup the three years previous.

Montreal won the first two games at home, but in Game 3, Dickie Duff scored a beautiful overtime goal after rushing the puck up the ice, one of those classic solo efforts.  Duff beat the legendary Jacques Plante (the “inventor" of the “first” goalie mask, who had not started wearing his mask yet in games) with a quick rising wrist shot as he shifted sideways just inside the Montreal blueline.

The Leafs tried hard but couldn’t keep up with the Habs after that.  Montreal was maybe the best team in history at the time.  Even though “Rocket “Richard was near the end of his fabulous career, they had way more than the Rocket.  Jean Beliveau, Marcl Bonin, Doug Harvey, Boom-Boom Geoffrion, Dickie Moore (who I did an interview with for this site a while back, click on his name to hear it…he is pictured at right with Beliveau), Henri Richard, Tom Johnson….all those guys were on their way to the Hall-of-Fame.  They were an amazing, amazing team.  I could throw out so many more names but suffice to say, in their time, they were the best of the best—by far.

Toronto made it back to the finals the next season, as they kept getting better and better, adding pieces along the way.  But they fell again to the Canadiens (that was the series in which the Rocket scored his last ever playoff goal—number 82 in his record-setting and truly illustrious career…).

So Toronto made it to the finals in 1958 and 1959 and were poised, it seemed, to do something special and re-establish themselves as an important NHL franchise once again and restore the blue and white legacy.  But as most of us who have been around sports for a while have come to learn, most of the time, you have to take some steps back, before you take those all-important final steps forward.

When I post (I’m not sure exactly when…) next in this series, I’ll discuss the 1960s, a decade to remember.



  1. A great read, Michael. So interesting and informative. This is all off the top of your head? You really should write a book, if you have not already.

  2. Great stuff Michael. Looking forward to the next piece!

  3. Thanks for this, Michael. A very comprehensive summary of the decade. I know there's a lot of reading available on the Leafs history, and we get brief glimpses and anecdotes (mostly statistical) when the Leafs sometimes do alumni appreciation nights. But from a purely fan/observer perspective, your recollection is superb! Look forward to more editions.


  4. Thanks Mary (Merreee1). I know you are not a long-time hockey fan so I particularly appreciate your comments.

    Thanks Hogie. I appreciate your taking the time to say that.

    Caedmon...You've captured what I was intending (hoping!) to achieve. Not a full chronicle of events or dates or stats, just one person's memories. Maybe a few people will enjoy it or find it a bit instructive. Thanks..

  5. Michael,

    As a 55 year old Australian who has been following the Leafs since 2009, I found this informative and fascinating. Thank you and I look forward to the next "instalment".


  6. Thanks very much for the kind words, David. I'm hoping to post "Part II" in about a week....

  7. Thanks for sharing what for me are only shadows of my Dad's memories... having just watched the last game of the '67 final game, I can see why he (and you) liked Dickie Duff. That was an excellent speedy rush goal he scored (unfortunately for the Habs to get them back in the game).

    Thanks for extending and expanding my 'memories' into the 50's!

  8. That was a great goal by Duff, for sure, InTimeFor62. Great little player. And tough, too.