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Norm Ullman: an under-the-radar Hall-of-Fame Maple Leaf

There haven’t been many “purer” hockey players who have donned a Maple Leaf jersey over the past 80 years than Normie Ullman.  He was a clean player, but was still one of the fiercest checkers of his time.  He was offensively productive and quietly became one of the best players of the 1950s and ‘60s.  The odd thing, I guess you could say, about the long-time center (more than 20 years in pro hockey, I think) is that while he was indeed one of the best all-around players of his generation, he was perhaps the most over-looked "star" in the history of the game.

He was, sadly, one of those all-time greats who never won a Stanley Cup.  He earned a job with the Red Wings right out of junior hockey just after their run of four Cups in the early 1950s and didn’t join the Leafs until the year after they won their last Cup in 1967.  (He was traded in the famous deal that sent Frank Mahovlich to the Red Wings.)  Timing is everything sometimes and he was just never in the right place at the right time to see one of his teams win a championship in the NHL, though he came awfully close in the spring of 1964.

That last comment maybe deserves a bit of an explanation.  You see, that was the year Punch Imlach’s Maple Leafs were gunning for their third consecutive Stanley Cup, and the Red Wings gave the Leafs all they could handle in the finals.  In fact, the Leafs had to come from behind in Game 6 at the wonderful old Detroit Olympia to force overtime and stave off elimination.  (The Wings went into that game leading the series three games to two.)  The game was blacked out where I lived (which was in a really small town just across the border from Detroit, on the Canadian side…) so I did not see the game live at the time.  But at the tender age of 10, I was listening on my Dad’s old radio in the part of our tiny little house that was often dedicated to watching (or listening) to hockey games.  I spent the night pacing and fretting, pacing and fretting.  Following the game via that old radio was difficult, and I could tell that Johnny Bower had to come up big to keep the Leafs in the game.  Any number of times the Wings could have padded their lead but didn’t.  One shot (and several key Bower saves—and some good fortune, too) meant the whole season, because the Wings never did get that “next goal”—and the Leafs kept hanging around.

That, of course, turned out to be the night of the famous Bobby Baun overtime goal—scored after he had snapped his ankle while taking a faceoff in his own zone against Detroit’s Gordie Howe in the third period.  When I look at the game film now whenever I get the chance, Ullman’s Wings absolutely could have (and maybe should have) won Game 6, but Baun’s fluky goal on a long shot that bounced past Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk gave the Leafs life and a shot at Game 7 back home, which they won 4-0 (though that game was much closer than the final score—the Wings hit the post in the second period at least once I recall, when it was still 1-0). But it wasn't meant to be for the Wings- or in 1966 when they led Montreal in the finals two games to none (stunning the Habs at home at the Forum in the first two games of that classic series), but lost four in a row thereafter.

Ullman was best known as a Maple Leaf for his tenacious fore-checking, his longtime trait, and making his linemates successful.  He probably played the most with former Wing teammate Paul Henderson and right-winger Ronnie Ellis.  They formed a solid troika for several seasons in Toronto.

The Leafs were never good enough, frankly, in the late ‘60s and early to mid ‘70s to contend for a Cup.  In fact, I don’t think they won a single four-out-of-seven series while Norm played with the Leafs.  The Leafs had a very good young team in 1970-’71, buffered by fine veterans like Ullman (seen in early '70s action at right against the Minnesota North Stars), Bobby Baun, and former captain George Armstrong along with the venerable Jacques Plante in goal.  Some of you have followed my stories about that particular team here in the past, but unfortunately,  Leaf owner Harold Ballard didn’t take the incoming World Hockey Association seriously and a number of emerging young stars jumped to the new league.  As a result, General Manager Jim Gregory had to rebuild in the fly again.

Ullman stayed with the Leafs until the end of the 1974-’75 season, when Ballard rather callously purged the team of veterans like Ullman and captain Dave Keon.

Ullman was a remarkable playmaker who could twist and turn on a dime and find the open man (a bit like Denis Savard who came years later, but without Savard’s blazing speed) because of his great vision and passing ability.  He was a fine skater (though not a classic speedster like Savard or Keon), known more as a playmaker than scoring himself.  Yet I think he actually led the NHL in goal-scoring one year (I’m going to say 1962-’63, but I'd have to look it up).  I believe it was 42 goals that he scored that season, a stunning total in those days if your name wasn’t Bobby Hull or Gordie Howe.

Ullman was an annual candidate for the Lady Byng Trophy because he rarely took penalties and yet was one of the elite players in the game who was so sound at both ends of the ice.  He was overshadowed by Howe in Detroit and to a certain extent by the immensely popular Keon in Toronto. who was raised in the Toronto "system" from the time he was a teenager.  But make no mistake, Ullman was one of the most gifted player of his time, and one of the classiest individuals ever to wear a Leaf uniform.  He had a pronounced impact on young Leafs like Darryl Sittler in the early ‘70s and was by all accounts an outstanding teammate.

He was twice an end-of-season NHL All-Star and is, quite rightly, a Hall-of-Famer.  But even in his prime, he was the kind of player who often got passed over by names like Beliveau, Richard, Mikita and Detroit’s own Alex Delevecchio.  That said, my guess is if you played against Ullman, you knew exactly who he was.

A great Leaf and part of our blue and white history.


  1. I remember enjoying Norm Ullman with the Leafs and was saddened by his departure, too. I always looked for him during oldtimers games, thinking that save for the white hair, he looked like he could still play for many years after retirement.

    Does anybody on the current Leafs remind you of Norm Ullman (I'm thinking of a poor man's Ullman, but reminds me of him a little)?

    Thanks for the memories, Michael.

  2. Great description of Ullman, Michael! As you suggest, I remember him as a smooth, highly talented player who never tried to draw attention to himself. But the funny thing is - he'll always primarily be a Red Wing to me, just as Bathgate will always be a Ranger, or Olmstead will always be a Canadien. Or Duff will always be a Leaf, for that matter.
    I don't know exactly why that's the way it is, but it has something to do with the concept of "my" team, that each of us has, I imagine. I don't feel that way about any other Leaf era - just the one when they became special to me.

  3. That's a good question, InTimeFor62. It was such a different time and such a different game. No one from the current roster pops to mind. Persistent on the forecheck, savvy with the puck, doesn't take many penalties. I'll think on it...

  4. Funny you say that, Gerund O- I lived across from Detroit and saw Ullman at the Olympia many times. Though I wrote about his time in Toronto, he was always "a Red Wing" in my mind, too. Absolutely. (I was in the building with my Dad the night he scored his 324th NHL goal, against the Habs, tying him with Nels Stewart; it was also the night before the trade with the Leafs in 1968 when I was 14 years of age...)

    You described the feeling of being a fan and identifying with players in that era perfectly.

  5. Great article, Michael. Thanks for this. Norm Ullman is one of those Leafs that I know a little bit about but, since I wasn't around to see him play, I don't know as much as I'd like. I appreciate the fact that you sprinkle these Leaf Greats into your blog. It reminds us of the long tradition that came before our cheering for Kessel, JVR, Reimer, and the rest. Thanks again, Michael. Great work.

  6. It's good to hear that, Twisted Sittler. As I've said here before, I realize many Leaf fans don't particularly care about the "old" days because they are seemingly not relevant to what is happening on the ice today. They'd much rather talk about today's team and I get that. But for me, our history is part of who and what we are, so I write about the things I remember. It's nice when a few people take the time to visit and comment.

    1. I personally like the mix, Michael. I'm a high school teacher and when I teach History, I use the old adage "To know where you're going, you have to know where you came from". I think that holds true for Leaf fans too.

  7. Michael, you certainly made me flash back to my youth in Toronto and watching the likes of Ullman, Ellis, Armstrong, Henderson, and the list goes on. It's not easy describing players of that era to fans who never watched them play. I've read about players in the 50's but having never seen them play, it is hard to have a true appreciation of what they brought to the game.

    Although guys like Ullman, Ellis, Armstrong, Henderson etc were not "superstars" they were skilled players, and each brought a certain element to the game. For Ullman, it was puck control and the ability to find his wingers in the open or make time for them to get open. He was a solid two-way center.

    But what impressed me more about each of those guys, both then and even now, is their demeanor and their classiness. They let their talent speak for them on the ice, and off the ice their characters were humble, open, and kind-hearted.

    That line of Ullman, Ellis, and Henderson was productive, fast and hard-working. It wasn't long after that we started to enjoy another classy and talented trio of Sittler, McDonald and Thompson.

    I really liked that thought-provoking question of who on the Leafs today reminds you of a player from the past. In Ullman's case it is hard to find a likeness. Maybe in some respects Bozak has some semblance to Ullman in that he is not flashy, is a decent setup man, and does well on faceoffs. Mind you if Bozak had even 1/2 the work-ethic of Normy Ullman, he'd be a far more successful player. Normy just never gave up.

    1. I was having a hard time thinking of who was our present Norm Ullman and gave some thought to Bozak for the same reasons you presented, though I settled on a less skilled player because of the work ethic issue.

      Jay McClement has my growing appreciation for his wise and workmanlike attitude toward playing responsibly... if he had some of Bozak's growing skills and Grabo's more flashy moments, then maybe we'd have a Norm Ullman.

      I like Jay for who he is and just see a part of his game that reminds me of Norm... I'm hoping that will 'rub off' on some of the more skilled guys and then we can talk about our own present day future hall of famer!

  8. Well said, Don (TML_fan). And yes, Ullman had a work ethic that was pretty much unparalleled.

    Like you, I've always had an appreciation for those athletes (in hockey, Jean Beliveau springs to mind to this day) who do their job but also bring a sense of dignity to their work. Keon and Ullman and Ellis (among others) certainly did that in Toronto, and should always be remembered for that. Thanks Don.

  9. As you know, InTimeFor62, Ullman was a special player so it is difficult to think of anyone on the present Leaf roster who, in fairness, matches up. But you're right, in terms of effort, McClement's work has certainly been exemplary so far this season!

  10. Hi Michael

    I also see Ullman as a Red Wing and view Zetterberg as a similar style player. Leafs certainly good use a player of this ilk. Perhaps if they can truly see playoff possibilities, bringing in a veteran like this will make sense.

  11. My guess, too, Ralph (RLMcC) is that Nonis won't do anything that involves sacrificing young players with legitimate potential to bring in a veteran. As you say, if we become better than we think, maybe he would modify his position for a real run at something. But that could still be a ways off.

    Agreed- Ullman was always a Red Wing for me, as much as I admired his play with the Leafs. Zetterberg may be closer to "Ullman-like" than any current Leaf...