Custom Search

The Leaf Legacy in my lifetime: Part III The 1970s

When last we left off in this series, the 1968-’69 season had just ended with a four-game first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the emerging Boston Bruins.  (They were on their way to a couple of Stanley Cups—by all rights they should have won more if they had been more disciplined and a tad more dedicated…)  Punch Imlach, for more than a decade the guru of hockey in Toronto, had been fired just minutes after the Game 4 playoff loss at the Gardens against those Bruins by then-owner Stafford Smythe (see a late 1950s photo of Smythe at left), son of the legendary Leaf founder, Conn Smythe. 

Imlach would take a year off from the game and write a bit, including a fascinating book called “Hockey is a Battle” with the wonderful former Globe & Mail columnist Scott Young (father of the talented Canadian recording artist Neil Young).  Imlach went on to be GM and sometimes coach of the expansion Buffalo Sabres for close to a decade, with generally great success- and very nearly a Stanley Cup in the spring of 1975.

As for the Leafs, well, the dismissal of Imlach opened the door to an entirely new era.  Long-time Toronto Marlies executive (in those days the Marlies were owned by the Maple Leafs) Jim Gregory had been groomed, in a sense, for the position, though I doubt that’s what Imlach had been thinking.  In any event, Gregory, much younger than Imlach, was handed the job and brought in well-respected hockey man John McLellan as the new Leaf coach.  Not surprisingly, McLellan could not have been  more different from Punch.  The world was changing, players were more free-thinkers, were wearing their hair longer, with sideburns, etc.—all stuff Imlach hated at the time, though he became far more open-minded, it seemed, in Buffalo.  McLellan was the classic “player’s coach”, who probably worried more about his team than he was demanding of it, if that makes any sense.  (And the players sometimes, I think, took advantage of the fact that he was easy-going, though they liked him on a personal level…) McLellan  worried so much about the team that it seemed to affect his health.

Personnel-wise, the Leafs were now two years past their 1967 Cup victory and were also a team very much in transition.  Imlach had not left the cupboard bare; he had brought in some talented young players and that was about to bear fruit, in some cases.  (Keep in mind that at this very time, the late ‘60s and early 1970s, the NHL was moving full-bore to the so-called universal amateur draft, stepping away from sponsorship/ownership of junior teams and players, thus ensuring that every team had a fair crack at the top 20-year old junior players across Canada.)

Gregory inherited a team that still had two veteran centers in Norm Ullman and captain Dave Keon (right).  He added rugged Jim Harrison in a deal with the Bruins, who had some nice seasons with the Leafs.  (We could use a guy like that now, who didn’t mind crowding the other team’s goalie, or even running him over once in a while…)  On defense Tim Horton was still around, approaching the age of 40, I think it was.  Allan Stanley and Marcel Pronovost had left/retired, replaced by a combination of youngsters like Rick Ley, Jim Dorey and Pat Quinn and the versatile if inconsistent and un-directed (or so it seemed in those days) Jim McKenny.

They still had forward Ronnie Ellis, a solid pro in every sense of the word and of course Paul Henderson, who had come over in the big Frank Mahovlich trade in the winter of 1968.  (This was before Henderson became a Canadian hockey hero at the Summit Series in 1972, of course…)

Looking back, the Leaf problem at the end of the ‘60s, to a certain extent, was that yes, they had grown old and slow but also that they were very small on the forward lines.  They had talented guys like Ullman, Keon and Henderson, but none were big, physical forwards.  Mike Walton may have been the fastest and most talented of them all, and was a young veteran by this point, but he also was not a big guy and like Mahovlich before him, was woefully unhappy in Toronto, even after Punch left.

Murray Oliver was a splendid player (he had been acquired by Imlach for Eddie Shack) but he, too, was a tiny forward at a time when the game was shifting to the era of the “Big Bad Bruins” and later, the “Broad Street Bullies” in Philadelphia.
So after the Leafs missed the playoffs in Gregory’s first season (1969-’70), one of the first things he did in the summer of 1970 was draft a rugged kid out of the London juniors by the name of Darryl Sittler.  As I will discuss in a moment, that turned out pretty well for the franchise.

Gregory also drafted one of my all-time favorite Leafs, Brian Spencer.  If ever there was a whirlwind on skates, Spencer was it.  Sadly, he led a troubled life but he played with so much energy, pride and passion. He loved wearing the Leaf jersey. (I've included a great old Dan Baliotti photo of Spencer in action on the left.  That's long-time Blues defenseman Bob Plager on the right...)

So Gregory was slowly building a bigger, tougher team (Tim Horton had been traded, but Brian Glennie started earning more minutes on a blueline, an old-time defensive defenseman who could deliver clean but thundering open-ice checks…), but one that still had skill.

In 1970-’71, Gregory pulled off a miracle—twice.  He signed the aging goaltender Jacques Plante, coming off a couple of great seasons in St. Louis.  (This was after several years in self-imposed retirement from the rigours of the game after he had struggled with the New York Rangers in the mid-‘60s…)  Plante was superb in his first season in Toronto, paired initially with Bruce Gamble.  Gamble was a gutsy guy, who was one of the last goalies of that era to finally start wearing a mask.  On more than one occasion I saw Gamble hit in the head with a shot, split open, only to head off for stiches and actually return to the game and keep playing.

If Plante was the first miracle, then acquiring Bernie Parent was the second.  Parent was a young whiz of a goaltender who had come up with the Bruins as a 20 year-old in the mid-1960s.  But Boston lost him in expansion to the Flyers, along with fellow ‘keeper Doug Favell.  Together, they gave the expansion Flyers some really solid goaltending most nights in those early years.  The aforementioned Walton left the Leafs in the midst of that season and demanded a trade. In a brilliant three-way deal engineered by Gregory, Walton ended up with the Bruins (where he won a Cup, his second) and Parent landed in Toronto.  I remember the day the trade was made.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was an 18 year-old Leaf fan at the time and felt on top of the world. I thought Parent was that good. 

And he was.

The Leafs that season also re-acquired an old stalwart, Bobby Baun.  Smallish but solid in stature, Baun had been a steady and powerful  force (and tough as nails, taking on the biggest wingers in the game) for a decade in Toronto.  But he was playing less and less as the 1966-’67 season wore on and ultimately went to Oakland as their first captain in expansion.  From there he went to Detroit but was dealt via St. Louis, I think it was, to the Leafs.  He played some inspired hockey that season, buoying a young defense corps that included Ley, Dorey, McKenny, Glennie, Mike Pelyk and Brad Selwood.  He was a steadying presence, for sure.

The Leafs had a great first-round series against the Rangers, but lost in 6 games.  I’ve written about that series in this space a couple of times.  (Click here…)

The Leafs had a nice 1971-’72 season as well, with much the same cast of characters, but unfortunately had to face the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.  They actually won a game in Boston (Harrison scored the winner in overtime.  If you’d like to read about that moment, click here…).  But the Bruins were too tough, and went on to win their second Cup in three seasons.

This is when things really went south in a hurry for the Maple Leaf organization.  In the summer of 1972, the World Hockey Association was starting up.  Most hockey people thought it would never last, trying, as the new league was, to take on the long-established NHL.  But Bobby Hull jumped to the Winnipeg Jets, and the league gained almost instant credibility.  And when the Leafs tried to lowball guys who were getting offers to join the new league, they lost some quality talent—all young guys with a bright future.

Unfortunately Dorey had already been traded.  Then Selwood, a nice young defenseman with skill and a lot of toughness, left to sign with the WHA.  So did Ley, who may have been the team’s best defender at that point. That left the defense reeling, as Baun had been injured and was forced to retire.

The Leafs also lost Harrison, a really solid, tough, two-way forward and Mike Pelyk, another versatile defenseman who could play forward if needed and kill penalties.  Most crucially, they lost Parent (my guy!) to, all all franchises, something called the Miami Screaming Eagles.

The team was partly gutted.  Owner Harold Ballard (Smythe had died, while waiting for a legal entanglement to proceed; Ballard himself had spent a little less than two years in jail, as I recall…) didn’t believe the new league would last, so he refused to pay up, as teams like the New York Rangers did.

Chaos ensued and the Leafs, in short, were awful in 1972-’73.  They had a roster sprinkled with guys who might normally have been in the minors.  They just didn’t have the depth to compete.

Gregory had to re-ignite the re-build again in the summer of 1973.  He did it by taking advantage of some shrewd trades.  He stockpiled three first round picks in the draft, and selected Lanny McDonald, Bob Neely and Ian Turnbull. (I had seen Turnbull play as a junior in Ottawa and I was thrilled with the selection.  Neely I’d also seen play with the Junior A Petes in Peterborough.  He was a big guy with skill,  but not quite the tough guy the Leafs thought they were getting.  I’ve written about Neely here, who I thought could have had an even better career in Toronto with better individual coaching and guidance- and more personal dedication….)

But more stunningly, Gregory went out that summer and signed two unknown Swedish free-agents:  Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom.  Both came to town carrying a unique set of skills for the time.  Salming also brought a ton of courage, which most observers didn’t expect from a Swedish player in those rather narrow-thinking days.

The Leafs, with five rookies in the line-up, and with ex-Leaf star Red Kelly now behind the bench, improved during the 1973-’74 season.  They made the playoffs while employing an unusual, rotating, three-goalie system.  Doug Favell was the nominal “number-one”.  (He had been acquired when Parent left the WHA but refused to come back to Toronto.  Bernie insisted on playing in Philadelphia, so the Leafs got Favell and a number one draft pick, who I think turned out to be Neely…)  Veteran Bruin netminder Eddie Johnston  was on hand as was ex-Canuck goalie Dunc Wilson.  They each played about a third of the games that season.  Quite odd, but it worked, sort of.

In the playoffs, Favell played Game 1 against the Bruins and was about as good as a goaltender can be.  We lost 1-0 but from there weren’t that competitive the rest of the series.

In 1974-’75 Gregory brought in a couple of “proven” veterans to give the club a bit more sandpaper—Bill “Cowboy” Flett from the Flyers and Gary Sabourin from the St. Louise Blues.  Flett had been a one-time 40-goal scorer while playing with Bobby Clarke, but he and Keon did not mesh and Flett had a largely unproductive season.  Sabourin, who had been a really nice player and often scored 20 goals a season in St. Louis, never fully got untracked in Toronto.  The Leafs sqeaked into the playoffs and miraculously upset the LA Kings (who finished something like 40 points ahead of them in the standings) in a three-game series.

However, when the Leafs faced Philadelphia in the next round, they were no match for the rough and very skilled Flyers, who were on their way to winning a second Cup in a row. (Parent was the star in goal, on his way to becoming a Hall-of-Famer...)

That summer (1975), Ballard decided he had seen enough of the “old guard” and Keon and Ullman were unceremoniously let go, forced to sign on with the WHA because the Leafs did not want them—but still held their restricted rights.

Sittler was made captain.  By this time, McDonald was just beginning to emerge as a fine winger who could score and hit guys. (Keep in mind that a prominent Toronto beat reporter for a major newspaper at the time suggested McDonald would never be a big scorer but should become a useful player.  Lanny went on to be a 500 goal-scorer, and a Hall-of-Famer.  We may be advised to keep that in mind when we make what may turn out to be premature assessments of young players not developing quickly enough for our liking....)

Errol Thompson, drafted years earlier, began to emerge as a fast, shifty winger alongside Sittler.  Dave “Tiger” Williams was drafted from the Western junior hockey league.  He went on to become the most penalized man in the history of the game, or at least one of them, certainly.  I remember Tiger saying, while he was in the minors, something along the lines of, “I can’t get better playing down here…”.  Up he came and he certainly had an impact. Williams wasn’t the world’s best skater, but he generally got where he needed to go, and could score, too.

The Leafs had a noteworthy season in 1975-’76.  Wayne Thomas was acquired from the Habs to man the nets and at first he was very good.  Sittler had his famous 10-point game against the Bruins at the Gardens on a Saturday night in the middle of the season.  In the playoffs, they beat the Penguins in the so-called “preliminary round” but then had to take on the Flyers again.  This time, they took the Flyers to 7 games.  Salming scored one of the prettiest goals I ever remember in that series at the Gardens.  Sittler had a 5-goal performance in Game 6.  Career minor-league defenseman Claire Alexander played the best hockey of his NHL life for the Leafs but in the end, they couldn’t hang on and the Flyers overwhelmed them in the seventh game at Philly.

In 1976-77, the Leafs had at the Flyers again in the playoffs.  By this point, young Mike Palmateer had planted himself as the number-one guy between the pipes for the Leafs.  Randy Carlyle, I believe, was starting to come into his own on defense.  Scott Garland was a rugged winger who we needed to go toe-to-toe with the Flyers, along with a guy who purely fought, Kurt Walker.

Amazingly, the Leafs won the first two games of the playoffs right in the Spectrum at Philadelphia.  They played really, really well.  But after Game 2, in a post-game interview on national television, the ever-quotable Tiger Williams said the Flyers were “done like dinner”.  My heart sank, knowing, as a Leaf fan, these things never ended well.

Still, in Game 3 at the Gardens, the Leafs jumped out to a 2-0 lead.  I remember vividly that Bill Barber was interviewed after the first period and looked like he was in a state of shock.  It was clear he had no idea what the happening—and no apparent answers.  The Leafs were simply hammering the Flyers.  But, the Flyers crawled back into the game and eventually tied the score.  Thompson scored on a fluttering backhand to give the Leafs a 3-2 lead late in the third period but with second remaining, Toronto couldn’t clear the zone and Bobby Clarke and company tied it up, then won in overtime.

The same thing happened in Game 4.  The Leafs had a one-goal lead, but in the last minute, couldn’t clear the puck and the Flyers tied it.  You just knew the Flyers would score in overtime, and they did.

For all intents and purposes, the series was over.  And so was the season.

Before the 1977-’78 season, Jim Gregory showed he was ahead of his time by hiring Roger Neilson as coach.  Ballard was opposed, but Gregory at least had enough autonomy (and guts) to bring in the innovative Neilson, who had never played the game at a high level but was a brilliant teacher.  Ballard did not seem to like Neilson on a personal level, but Roger was a workaholic, often sleeping at the Gardens.  He looked at film constantly, trying to detect weaknesses in the opposition the Leafs were going to play next.  He communicated regularly with his players.  He was very much a 'new-age' coach, for his time.

That year, the Leafs had Carlyle, Trevor Johansen and of course Salming and Turnbull on defense.  Before the trade deadline they gave up a huge price—Thompson and two future first-round draft choices—to obtain winger Dan Maloney from the Red Wings.

Maloney was one of the toughest (and slowest) guys in the league.  Also one of the most feared.  I had loved him in LA and Detroit, where he was captain.  I had, as a fan, wanted Maloney for years, but yes, we gave up a lot.  Yet he was instrumental in helping the Leafs trigger one of the biggest upsets in their playoff history, as the Leafs downed the Islanders in 7 games.  Lanny McDonald scored the Game 7 OT winner against Glen “Chico” Resch.  (For their part, the Islanders were devastated, but they rebounded a couple of years later to begin a string of four Cups in a row under former Leaf Al Arbour.  Billy Smith in goal and Dennis Potvin on the backline were just two of the great pieces General Manager Bill Torrey built around on the Island….)

In the Islander series, Salming (right)  suffered a serious eye injury and was through for the playoffs.  Ian Turnbull (a talented guy who was often un-inspired, even lazy in his play) stepped up and played like he wanted to remind the world just how good he could really be.

He continued playing that way against the Habs in the next round of the playoffs, but as hard as the Leafs tried (Jimmy Jones, Jerry Butler, Pat Boutette and our hard-working third and fourth-line guys did all they could to keep up with Montreal) they were no match for the Habs, who were in the midst of their own string of four Cups in a row.  They took out the Leafs in four straight.

The Leafs made some minor tweaks as they got ready for the 1978-’79 season, but they largely had the cast from their upset of the Islanders the spring before.  So they were confident going into the season.  But “Year Two” under Neilson did not go as smoothly as his first year.  Ballard was unhappy, often referring to Neilson derisively as “Captain Video”.  At one point, fairly late in the season, he fired Neilson, only to re-hire him about 48 hours later after Sittler and a few other guys begged Ballard to keep him on.

This was when Ballard famously told Neilson he would indeed be willing to hire him back, but wanted him to appear behind the Leaf bench the next game, only after he had come out wearing a bag on his hand to hide his identity.  (Ballard wanted to turn this into another of his ill-advised publicity stunts, because no one knew who the “next” coach of the Leafs was going to be.)  Neilson refused, but still got his job back—and received a huge ovation when he did indeed show up, without a bag, behind the bench.

However, everyone knew he was living on egg shells.  And when the Leafs lost in the quarter-finals against Montreal, again in four straight, Ballard pulled the plug not only on Neilson, but on Gregory, who had had to rebuild his team several times throughout the ‘70s—and always made it better.

So in the summer of 1979, Ballard went looking for a new savior.  But after flirting with Scotty Bowman, who himself was looking for a new challenge after not getting the GM job in Montreal (and having won those four Cups in a row as coach), Ballard actually went, as they say, back to the future.

And it’s a move that some would argue ended up setting the club back for a decade—the entirety of the 1980s.

When we resume, we’ll look at one of the more sour, if eventful, decades in Leaf history.


  1. Great to see some of those names from the 70's Michael. I'm always surprised to see that Keon played for the Leafs so long - if asked, I'd have guessed that he left in the late 60's. That 72-73 season has pretty well vanished from my memory bank, except a player named Joe Lundrigan. A bleak year.
    I love the way you show how the rebuilding was done. The reception Salming and Hammerstrom had to endure was redneck hockey at its worst - though I think it's still somewhat in evidence. The recent ceremony notwithstanding, there were many fans who felt Sundin couldn't lead us to the Cup because he was Swedish, don't forget.
    The 75-79 teams, along with the early 90's and the early 00's teams, are among my favorites. I wrote earlier about that '76 Game 4 vs the Flyers in Toronto. The crusher was that we held a 3 goal lead with 6 minutes or so to play, and the Flyers had given up. Except Bobby Clarke. And he motivated the team. I seem to recall the winning goal - Reggie Leach, I think - was scored from quite a way out. Should have been stopped, but perhaps the goalie was screened. Probably one of my lowest moments as a fan. My date couldn't believe I was still upset about it an hour later. "It's just a game!" We split up soon after.
    However, one of my highest moments came a few years later. I remember watching that 7th game with the Isles and leaping in the air and shouting with elation when MacDonald scored that OT winner. I don't think that level of fan- joy was surpassed until I sat in the stands and watched Joe Carter's homer win the World Series for the Blue Jays.
    You've left off at a critical point - I was shaking my head in despair while reading those last few sentences.
    Looking forward to the next instalment!

  2. Thanks Gerund O'....well said with regard to Hammarstrom and Borje. The Game 4 you cite, it so happened I was at the Gardens that night. The Leach goal you refer to seemed stoppable, but as you say, perhaps the goalie was screened. (I did not have the benefit of replay at the time, only hindsight which is always easier!). And I agree, Clarke would not let the Flyers lose that game, or let the series slip away. (Once the Leafs let that lead slip away, you could feel the nervousness in the building. They were on their heels and the Flyers knew it...)

    I jumped at the McDonald goal as well. I'm guessing thousands of Leaf fans did right across the country. I was working up in Sault Ste. Marie at the time, and watching with a buddy. Great moment and a wonderful memory.

    Thanks for posting on this one, Gerund...

  3. What a heartbreaking decade that was, for a kid growing up as a Leafs fan.

    Watching player after player arrive, you'd fall in love, then.... whoosh. Gone.

    I loved guys like Ullman, Harrison, Parent, Selwood and Spencer, and then... we'd lose them. And time and again, they'd make a playoff run, with these incredibly gutsy performances from Salming and Sittler and all the rest, and then.... just not quite have the pieces.

    And the chicanery around the coaches, and trading draft picks, and reversing course - getting vets, trading for youth, getting vets - and then, always, the owners hating on your own players, making them constantly feel pressured to leave. Ack, what a mess.

    And me, aged 11-21 - my prime hockey-watching and rooting years as a kid.

    But the players. People talk about the more recent Leafs, and I love them, I do. But there were some guys with just enormous personality, courage, and skill back then.

    Can you imagine, if people love Kaberle, what they'd think of Salming?

    Or if they like'd Brown, how much they'd flip out over Spencer?

    Or the way they're excited about Colborne, what they'd think of a young Sittler???

    Or if you like Reimer, how much you'd like having Bernie Frigging Parent?

    Awwww. It makes me sad. Sad for me, and the Leaf fans of that era, and for the players, many of whom never won a Cup. Like Sittler and Salming.

    A tough decade, that one.

    - Not Norm Ullman

  4. Anon/Not Norm Ullman...great post. So well said. Thanks for dropping by today.

  5. It is nearly impossible to describe the fire, drive and will to win that electrified the Smythe era. No decisions were made without their stamp. Had my father been able to carry on, we would have seen a very different history. With Gregory and McLellan, both first rate hockey men, and with the experience and leadership of Smythe and the committee, it would have been a very different era indeed. I have a drawer in my office that holds team pictures going back to the thirties. Trophy after trophy, year after year, stick boy, player, coach, assistant manager, and president, you see a similar picture- ear to ear grins and a trophy on the floor, time and time again. We were not done yet. That's the rub.

  6. Thanks Elizabeth. For those that may not know, Elizabeth Brinton is the daughter of the late Maple Leaf owner Stafford Smythe and the grand-daughter of the legendary Leaf founder, Conn Smythe. I have no doubt, Elizabeth, that things would have been vastly different in the '70s (and beyond) had the Smythe family- and the immense pride they had in their team and the city of Toronto- been in place instead of what followed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. The "Major" is one of my heroes. Sadly, Stafford got mixed-up with Harold Ballard - who was evil incarnate.

  8. To think it's 40 years since Dave Keon wore a Leaf uniform.