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Forget the lockout- let's remember an under-the-radar ‘70s Maple Leaf: PEI’s Errol Thompson

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The early to mid-1970s for Leaf fans was a mini-wasteland.  Not all bad, really, but the overall challenge had emerged when then-owner Harold Ballard refused to acknowledge the incoming World Hockey Association might actually last. By 1970-'71, the Leafs under General Manager Jim Gregory had been re-loaded into a really neat team, a mix of great vets like Norm Ullman and Dave Keon and a bunch of rowdy youngsters like Darryl Sittler, Jim Harrison and Brian “Spinner” Spencer, all kids trying to make a name for themselves.

But as a result of Ballard’s intransigence, big contract offers lured a number of promising young Leaf players (Harrison, Rick Ley, Brad Selwood, Bernie Parent—that one still hurts— and Mike Pelyk, etc.) to the new league.

Now, the team did re-build (again) with some shrewd moves by Gregory.  They selected Lanny McDonald, Bob Neely and Ian Turnbull in the same draft in the summer of 1973 (all in the first round), and that helped.  A lousy regular-season finish in 1972-'73 assured them of getting budding star McDonald very high in the draft, while Gregory made some smart deals to obtain additional first round picks.  They also (and this was major) grabbed free agents Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom from Sweden—a real coup.  Salming went on, of course, to become a Hall-of-Fame player and a legend in Toronto.

The team still had Sittler and young players like George Ferguson and (a bit later) first- round draft choice Jack Valiquette.  But the old guard, players like Ullman and Keon, were being shuffled out.  So it was a period of transition.  They did not make the playoffs in 1973, lost in four straight in the first round in 1974 and were dispatched by the Flyers in four straight (they had, though, upset the heavily-favoured LA Kings in a 'mini series' first) in the spring of 1975.

But Gregory was on the way to building something pretty good, with (eventually) young defensemen like Trevor Johanssen and Randy Carlyle and the ever-confident Mike Palmateer in net.

One of the guys who was pretty much under the radar—and looking back, probably under-appreciated— for most of his time with the Leafs was the free-wheeling left winger, Errol Thompson.

Thompson was an East coast guy (PEI, I believe) and I don’t recall that there were a ton of NHL’ers from eastern Canada in those days.  Still aren’t today, I guess, though certainly more than in those days.  So his success was a bit unusual, you might say.  As I recall, he was scouted by the Leafs (including  by longtime goaltender Johnny Bower, who spent most of his last season as a player on the injured list, and thus ended up scouting, if I’m not mistaken, in 1969-’70).  I believe Bower was one of the individuals who recommended Thompson to the Leafs, after watching him play Senior A hockey out east. (Thompson’s road to the NHL was somewhat unorthodox.  As a small town easterner, Thompson didn’t take the traditional Junior A route to the big leagues…)

In any event, the Leafs grabbed Errol in the second round of the draft in 1970.  (In today’s 30-team NHL world, he would have been a solid first round-level pick.)  He played in the minors in the old Central League but made the Leafs for good by the ’72-’73 season as an emerging, if inconsistent, third-line winger.

As I recall, he was teamed up a lot with another young player, Ferguson (who was a natural center) and they clicked fairly well.  Ferguson was a guy with some skill who could play physically on occasion.  That said, he frustrated me, as a young fan at the time, because I saw him as someone who was too lackadaisical, too often, for my liking.  But Thompson, while also frustrating himself, had some jump—that natural speed that helped make the line successful.

Thompson, though, really found his stride offensively when he was teamed up (by Red Kelly, the former Red Wing and Leaf great who was coaching the Leafs at the time) with Sittler and McDonald.  That was in 1975-’76, the year of Sittler’s remarkable 10-point game against the Bruins. (It was also the year the Leafs lost in the playoffs to the Flyers again, in 7 games.  It was the spring of “pyramid power”, Kelly’s playful way of getting attention off the underdog Leafs by claiming they were being helped by some kind of iodizing power or some damn thing…not quite sure, to be honest, but it seemed to build a bond within the team at the time…)

That year, though, Thompson netted 43 goals (not bad, eh?), 80 points overall and had the highest plus/minus ranking of his career at +28.  He, McDonald and Sittler all became legitimate stars in their own right.

Now in truth, Errol could be, as I mentioned above, a frustrating guy to watch at times.  He seemed effortless in his skating style.  He wasn’t a big guy (maybe 5 foot 9?), kind of short and stocky, actually.  But for a guy who was probably a bit on the heavy side (he would have really had to adjust to this modern era, where everybody is chiseled and measured in terms of body fat, etc.) he could sure skate.  It’s just that sometimes he did not seem as motivated as fans would have liked.  He’d go through stretches where he didn’t seem all that interested though, in fairness, it may  simply have been his style of play.  It looked so easy for him at times.

There was a guy up in the old grey seats, where I spent a fair bit of my life in the mid-‘70s, who used to shout “C’mon……Thompson…” at least once a game, when he wanted to see Errol kick it into gear.  And often, Thompson did. (The line was a mild take-off on the Leaf fan in the ‘40s and ‘50s who used to yell “C’mon...Teeder…” to support Leaf star Ted Kennedy…)

It was a shame for Thompson (though necessary for the Leafs) that, by the time the team really was ready to challenge as a near-contender in the latter part of the ‘70s, he was dealt to the Red Wings in the late winter of 1978.  The Leafs gave up Thompson and two first-round draft picks for rugged fellow-winger Dan Maloney, the captain of the Red Wings.  Maloney that very spring helped the Leafs stun the heavily-favoured Islanders in the quarter-finals of the NHL playoffs in 7 tough games.  Maloney didn’t score much, but he was the physical presence that Thompson never really was (it just wasn’t his game) and that the Leafs needed to compete against the emerging and very hard-to-play-against Islanders of that era.  (The Isles went on to win four Cups in a row from 1980 to 1983.  Great team—lots of depth, talent, goaltending and grit ….)

For his part, Thompson was never quite, to me, the same player as he had been in Toronto.  Oh, his numbers were good (three 20-plus goal seasons in the Motor City) but I always felt his heart, as a good East coast Canadian guy, was always in Toronto.  He retired as Penguin, completing his career with over 200 goals and about 400 points, not including his playoff work.

I look back now and appreciate what a fine career he had.  He caused no problems, just did his job quietly.  I remember, like yesterday, his scoring a key goal in Game 3 of the quarter-finals against the Flyers at Maple Leaf Gardens in the spring of 1977.  I was at that game and it was right in front of me.  He scored on a backhand in the third period, fairly late, to give the Leafs a 3-2 lead against the hated Flyers, the awful “Broad Street Bullies”.  (The Leafs were, amazingly, leading that series 2 games to none at the time.)

But Philly came back in the dying seconds to tie the game, and then won it overtime.  The did the very same thing in Game 4, and went on to win the series in 6 games, a series the Leafs never should have lost.  One more successful clearing out of the zone at the end of game 3, and they would have led the mighty Flyers three games to none.

And they would have won that series I’m sure. (I've really got to let that memory go...)

But Thompson was a good Leaf, and is a part of my blue and white memory bank when it comes to the Leafs and some of the many fine individuals the team has produced over the decades.


  1. Errol is from St. Eleanors PEI - just outside Summerside. He was a defenceman with Charlottetown's Sandy's Royals when Bower came to PEI to check him out on the recommendation of local Leaf Bird Dog Jack "Spy" Ready who had years earlier coached in high school former Leaf Billy MacMillan.

  2. Thanks for that background, Anon! (MacMillan was a fiesty Leaf in the early '70s. Had some nice seasons playing on a like with Monahan and Keon...)

  3. After the early 70's, my excitement really began to grow with the emergence of the DELivery line. Darryl, Errol and Lanny were the first line that really captured my imagination!

    As much as Maloney added toughness that probably helped the team beat the Islanders, I always missed Errol after he left (and he didn't seem to be the same player after Toronto, where his heart seemed to remain). Clarke MacArthur kind of reminds me of Errol, now (though he only had one great year with Kulemin and Grabovski - that season had me hoping for another line like the 70's had given us).

    George Ferguson was a bit of an enigma for me, with hints of possibilities never fully realized, hence Thompson's graduation to the big line. Thanks for the memories!

  4. I missed Thompson as well, InTimeFor62. He was such a nice fit with Sittler and McDonald.

    Ah, and Ferguson. Always left me wanting more!

    Thanks, InTimeFor62.

  5. Thanks for posting such a great article on one of my favorite Leafs. Although overshadowed by Sittler and McDonald, to my eyes he was just as essential as either of them to the line's success.
    I used to sit in the end blues back in those days, and would always shout "Spudsy!" when he was doing the skate-around during warm-ups. You'll recall how steeply stacked the seats were at the Gardens - I felt I could almost reach out and shake his hand. He'd look up whenever I shouted, but I don't think he could tell exactly where the shout came from. A few years later, I happened to be at the Olympia when he was playing for the Wings. The players had to cross the fan concourse to get from the dressing room to the rink, and it so happened I was there as the Wings were going to the ice. I shouted out "Spudsy!" as he passed. His look of recognition and surprise, then a little nod in my direction, is still a fond memory.
    And I too, am still stung by that 77 series' loss to the Flyers.

  6. Thanks for chiming in on this one, Gerund O'.. Thompson was a fine Leaf, and you reminded me of the "Spudsy" moniker. (I assume that name would have been a reference to his PEI roots, where potatoes are famous!)