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Carl Brewer: the Jake Gardiner-like former Leaf All-Star defenseman was a man of many comebacks

Those who visit VLM once in a while may recall my penning a few thoughts previously on one of the Maple Leafs of my childhood and young adolescence—the sublimely skilled yet somewhat enigmatic Carl Brewer.

In fact, I remember writing that, if you set aside Brewer’s nastiness and mean streak, he actually has a number of things in common with young Leaf rearguard Jake GardinerWe all know Gardiner is a sweetly skilled young defenseman who sees the ice well and is remarkably calm under duress.

Gardiner can also skate like the wind (and often circles around opposition players) and put up points.  Brewer, for his part, was an all-around defenseman, very much what we might call nowadays a 'complete' hockey player.  Gifted offensively, yes, but he could also play in his own zone, in the corners, and in front of his own net.

He was a beautiful skater, could shift opponents out of their socks (he was famous for his “head fakes”) and as I mentioned earlier, he was a nasty piece of work.  He was not a fighter but he was an agitator who was not afraid to use his stick to lay the lumber of unsuspecting opponents.  (He was also known, in his early days, to cut the palm out of his hockey gloves, so he could—illegally, of course—grab on to the jerseys of opposing players without being detected.  Once that became public knowledge, that particular little gig was more or less up…)

Despite his marvelous career, Brewer may be best known, however, for two things:  he, along with Bob Pulford, if I remember correctly, were instrumental in bringing then young lawyer Alan Eagleson into the milieu of Leaf players and later the fledgling NHL Players Association.  Leaf coach and General Manager Punch Imlach hated Eagleson, as did virtually all team owners and management personnel with NHL franchises in those days.  Owners in all professional sports had always had their way when it came to relations with players and contracts and all that, so the idea of lawyers helping balance the field for players at contract time (much less the concept of a “union”) drove ownership and team executives a bit around the bend.

But Brewer was also, from a player perspective (certain media people were equally responsible, I should add), almost single-handedly responsible for the demise of Eagleson in the early 1990s.  It was Brewer who pushed and pushed and pushed some more, finally convincing old-time players (who were initially skeptical) that they had been taken advantage of over many years by NHL owners—and in fact by Eagleson.  Brewer, rightly, is credited with Eagleson’s well-deserved fall from grace as one of the most powerful and influential men in all of hockey.

Brewer was an intense, smart individual.  (I happened to be at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto the night he received his Bachelors degree in the fall of 1967.  My oldest brother was receiving a Masters degree that night.  It was most memorable, however, because that was the night I met Bobby Orr.) He was an independent thinker, and clashed with Imlach repeatedly during his years with the Leafs.

This last point leads me to what I wanted to focus on today when it comes to the former Leaf stalwart:  his remarkable penchant for successful hockey “comebacks”.

Without going into great depth around any one circumstance when he left the game and returned, I’ll just start with his time with the blue and white.  Brewer (number 2, left, in early 1960s action at the Olympia in Detroit) joined the Leafs in the late ‘50s after a great career with the junior Marlies, who were essentially a Leaf ‘farm’ team in those days.  Soon thereafter he was paired with the short but powerful Bobby Baun on the Leaf blueline.  Old-time Leaf supporters can still rhyme off the names like it was yesterday when it comes to the four defenseman who patrolled the back line for the Maple Leafs in those days:  Horton and Stanley and Baun and Brewer.  They were good enough, along with tight-checking forwards and goaltender Johnny Bower, to capture four Stanley Cups in the 1960s (though, in truth, Brewer was gone by the time the Leafs won their last Cup…wait ‘til you discover where he was playing by then.)

You see, that the way hockey was in those days.  Four defensemen were pretty much enough to carry an NHL team.  The Leafs had some great “fifth” defensemen who filled in over the years—Marc Reaume, Al Arbour, Larry Hillman and Kent Douglas all held that job at various times—but Imlach generally played with the four big names.

And fortunately, the Leafs had four of the best. The powerful, hard-hitting Baun was the almost perfect complement to the skilled, aggressive, risk-taking Brewer.

But this all came crashing down for Brewer and the Leafs at training camp in the fall of 1965.  I don’t know all the reasons (I remember reading newspaper reports as a child that there was a shouting match at practice between Bower and Brewer, though Brewer’s long-simmering relationship with Imlach was likely the real catalyst…) but Brewer literally skated off the ice, walked out of camp (I’m guessing it was in Peterborough in those days, but I’m not sure) and left the club.

He never came back. (Well not quite never, but you’ll have to read on…)

Brewer announced his retirement, and I seem to recall that he went back to school at that point.  (Note the aforementioned reference to obtaining his BA from the University of Toronto a couple of years later.)

Everyone was shocked.  Brewer was 26 years of age at the time.  26.  Who walks away, healthy, from the sport they excel at at the age of 26?  He had been already been an end-of-season All-Star three times in his young career.  (I don’t mean, by the way, like everyone talks about nowadays, a mid-season all-star.  I’m referring to the actual, legitimate, end-of-season All-Star squad.)  He was that good.

Though he left the game, seemingly for “good”, he was fairly soon back in action, no longer fully “retired”.  How so?  Well, he applied to be re-instated as an amateur and before long he was playing for Canada’s national team.  I don’t believe that he played for Canada at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France (I’m going to say we finished third or fourth in that event, but I could be wrong) but he did play at the World Championships in the spring of 1967—the same time of year the Leafs were fighting to win their last Stanley Cup.

Interestingly, not quite a year later he was part of the trade that saw his ‘rights’ dealt to the Red Wings in February/March of 1968. That was the famous deal that saw Frank Mahovlich (with Pete Stemkowski and a young Garry Unger) go to Detroit in return for Normie Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith.  During that 1967-’68 season, Brewer had left the Canadian team (I don’t know if he officially “retired” again) but played for Muskegon in the old International Hockey League.  I can’t honestly recall if he played that season as an amateur or as a paid professional.  But it was a comeback to professional hockey, though the IHL was considered a good but still lower-level league back then, compared with the Central Hockey League and the American and Western Hockey Leagues.

After his time in Muskegon, Brewer left North America and signed to play (and coach, too, I think) in Finland.  He spent the 1968-’69 season in Helsinki, opening his eyes to a whole different way of playing the game, though his skill set was already a perfect fit for European hockey.

The kicker, though, is that while some thought Brewer was done with the NHL, the Red Wings talked him into making an NHL comeback in time for the 1969-’70 season.  Though his old partner Baun had found his way to the Wings as well, after an expansion stopover in Oakland, the two did not always play together regularly.  Nonetheless, Brewer was a huge factor (I saw a lot of Red Wing games that season, living as I did just across the border from Detroit) in Detroit making the playoffs for the first time since the spring of 1966.  Brewer was, deservedly, named an end-of-season All-Star for the fourth time in his illustrious career.

Yet it was never simply a smooth ride for the former Leaf.  Despite his brilliant ’69-’70 campaign, he left Detroit’s training camp in the fall of 1970, shades of 1965.  (It was probably just as well.  That turned out to be the season that the Wings hired Ned Harkness, a highly regarded U.S. college coach, to coach the largely aging squad.  The season turned into a disaster…) Brewer didn’t play again until he was dealt to the St. Louis Blues before the “deadline” (they didn’t call it that in those days) in the winter of 1971.

Carl played the next season (1971-’72) in St. Louis, but left the NHL once again, seemingly for the final time, at the end of that season with the Blues.

However, after a year off (and having been drafted by the new World Hockey Association and his rights traded to the Toronto Toros), Brewer took advantage of the opportunity to play again in the city that helped him forge an everlasting memory in the minds of Toronto hockey fans.  He played that 1973-’74 season with the WHA Toros at the age of 35, and then retired—for good.

Amazingly, it wasn’t quite for good.  After several years away from the game, the very individual who had probably helped push him out of the game in the mid-‘60s, enticed him to make one final comeback.  Punch Imlach, after a pretty successful decade-long run with the expansion Buffalo Sabres (they came very close to winning the Cup in 1975 under his stewardship as GM), had returned to run the Leafs in the summer of 1979. 

Little did we Leaf supporters know Punch would run them essentially into the ground.

Well into that tumultuous first season back, Imlach had dismantled what had been a pretty solid squad by trading away players he thought were part of Darryl Sittler’s entourage.  (Punch, seen in an early '60s photo at right,  thought Sittler exerted too much influence on the Leafs on and off the ice, and thus sought to get rid of that culture of “entitlement”—sound familiar?)

In any event, with a season going down the tubes, Imlach signed the then 41 year-old Brewer to play for Toronto.  Some conspiracy theorists of the time thought Imlach wanted Brewer to be his eyes and ears in a Leaf dressing room that was clearly revolting against Imlach, but I find it hard to believe a man of Brewer’s principles and independence would even have contemplated that kind of arrangement for a second—even for a nice pay day.

Brewer played a handful of games in the AHL with Toronto’s farm team in Moncton to get back in shape, and played around 20 NHL games in the second half of that 1979-’80 season.  I recall clearly that he earned 3 assists in one particular game, but otherwise he was really a shadow (not surprisingly) of the player he had been in his hey-day.

It was an astonishing—and startling—final comeback nonetheless.

Brewer retired for the last time after that season.  Ironically, for all his time in and out of hockey (more than 20 years off and on), he only played about 600 regular-season NHL games.  But again, he was a four-time end-of-season All-Star, and a key figure in three Stanley Cup championships.

There was a lot to admire about Brewer as a man and as a hockey player.  But his remarkable ability to make successful comebacks surely sets him even further apart from his contemporaries.


  1. It might be stating the obvious but Carl Brewer must have loved his hockey to make so many comebacks. I very much enjoy your
    reminisces about these "old" Leafs players. Thank you again, Michael.

    1. It's really nice to hear again from a loyal Leaf booster in Australia, Woodies Fan. And I appreciate hearing that you enjoy the old-time stories! Thanks, Woodies Fan.

  2. Thanks for filling in some gaps in my early hockey worldview. I remember Dad talking about Brewer a lot, but only really saw him play in that 79-80 season. He was a much different player than Dad remembered by then, too.

    Sometimes when you love the game, you sort out your life situation and then come back... kinda' like Ranger! I'm looking forward to see how 'fully' he finds himself, too!

    1. Agreed on Ranger, InTimeFor62. He seems to be a young man dealing with challenges, but mature enough to recognize what's best for him. If he "finds" his game at the NHL level again, like Brewer, he can be an impact player.


  3. Excellent topic, Michael. In this time, where the Leafs are emerging from also rans to a playoff team and hopefully a Stanley Cup contender, looking at a former Leaf like Carl Brewer is appropriate. Brewer was one of the young Leafs who were instrumental in ushering in the golden years of the 60's. Hopefully Jake Gardiner will help them to another sterling run.

    I first saw Carl Brewer as a Toronto Marlborough (those Sunday doubleheaders at Maple Leaf Gardens featuring the Marlboroughs and St. Michaels were a wonderful venue at which Leaf fans could follow prospects). Brewer stood out among Leaf defense prospects. His 47 points and 212 penalty minutes in 1957-58 (in 50 games) were eye openers and led to a 2 game call-up to the Leafs.

    It should be noted that in that era offensive defensemen had not evolved. We would have to wait for Bobby Orr to usher in the widespread use of that particular skillset. Defensemen had to be responsible and most rarely rushed the puck. When they did carry it out they were expected to dump the puck in or to pass it when they crossed the red line. The only offensive defensemen that I can recall were Red Kelly, Pierre Pilote and maybe Tim Horton.

    Carl Brewer never scored more than 4 goals or 27 points in a 70 game season for the Leafs. His offensive forte was stickhandling the puck out of his end, accompanied as you noted by those wonderful head fakes, and then giving it up. He was an excellent skater with great speed. He did not have a great shot but few defensemen back then did. Tim Horton was one of the few defensemen of that era whom I recall consistently using the slap shot.

    Brewer started his Leaf career wearing number 18 (Marc Reaume had number 2). He switched to 2 when Reaume was traded for Red Kelly. He ended his Leaf career wearing number 28 (Ian Turnbull had number2).

    Carl Brewer was a paradox in the 1950-60's NHL. He was a thinker during a time when hockey players were supposed to play the game, accept whatever salary they were paid ,like it and keep their mouths shut. It was inevitable that he would clash with the autocratic Imlach. I was shocked when Imlach brought him back in 1979-80.

    I will always remember Carl Brewer as a wonderful puck handler, a tough (nasty) and gifted defender and one of the best defensemen ever to play for the Leafs. If he played today I believe that with his skating and stickhandling that he would have put up a huge number of points. Gardiner's offensive tools compare favorably with Brewer's but he has a ways to go defensively. We can only hope...

    1. Fantastic post- thanks Pete Cam. It's great to hear your personal recollections of a great Leaf, dating back to his Marlie days.

      You're absolutely right about rushing defensemen in that before-Orr era. There were the three you mentioned and maybe a young (not the older guy we saw in the mid '60s) Marcel Pronovost in his hey-day with Detroit.

      Brewer was exactly as you described- he rushed the puck but it was not the end-to-end stuff we saw from Orr and later Paul Coffey, etc.

      Just a skilled, talented guy. And yes, if Gardiner can have that kind of success, that would be nice, too.

      Thanks for taking the time to write, Pete.

  4. What a wonderful skater he was, he was a man of his own devices too. Very brave for staring down the establishment of the times...not unlike Ted Lindsay. His work on behalf of the retired players screwed by Eagleson is quite the legacy as well. His comeback in the the late 70's was amusing at first, but he wasn't entirely bad. I saw a game from the greens at MLG and his bald head really stuck out. Fans should view the old games he played and get a look at his skating ability, the comparison to Gardiner is quite legitimate.

    1. Brave is a good word in this case, Dave. He was certainly (as Pete Cam also alluded to above) a thinker and not an establishment guy. (I'm glad you mentioned Lindsay. I've written about him before. He and Doug Harvey deserve so much credit for having the guts to fight the owners in the late '50s...)

      My memories of Brewer's comeback are much like yours. (Weren't the old "greens" fantastic? Best seats in the house in a lot of ways...)

      Thanks Dave. I appreciate your input on this one!

    2. Ted Lindsay is on my personal bucket list of people I'd love to meet. I have a signed copy of his famous "machine gun" pose above my desk. What a warrior. The book "net Worth" tells his story and the Eagleson fiasco very well, highly recommended reading. Not a bad CBC movie too.

    3. What a great memento, Dave!

      Lindsay is one of those individuals who means "hockey" to me, in the best sense of what the sport means. A fiery player, a solid GM in later years, a good broadcaster (I remember him on Windsor television in the early '60s) and one of the people who launched the original players' association. A real leader of men.

  5. Re: Dave and the greens.

    The greens were great but for watching plays unfold and for fairly close-up goal action you couldn't beat the end blues. My season tickets were in the grays but I always sat in the end blues for the Sunday doubleheaders.

    But, come to think of it, there really wasn,t a bad seat in Maple Leaf Gardens...what a wonderful arena to watch a hockey game!

    1. Agreed, Pete. Not a "blocked" view in the entire blocking. (Unlike where I was "raised"- at the old Olympia in Detroit!) The Gardens was something.

    2. Yes, my father had seasons in the last row Greys, at least until Harold figured out he could squeeze four more rows behind us. Saw the Cup wins in 64 and 67 from Section 87. Loved the Marlie games because I could get down so close, I used to roam the hallways as much as watch the games, something Leiweke doesn't seem to understand.

    3. Just chiming in on the end blues, which is where I had my tickets at the Gardens. I still think it had the best view for seeing plays develop, and you didn't lose end board play because the seats were virtually perpendicular to the rink! The first time I got to sit in my end blues seats, directly behind the goal, three rows up, I couldn't figure out why I felt as if I'd sat there for years. It finally dawned on me that it was the same perspective that I had when I played table hockey (which I did for hours on end)! The table game had evolved to one where the players actually had sticks, the center had an "S" shaped track, to facilitate stick-handling, both wingers and defencemen could pass behind the net, and you could add an extra attacker! My view at the Gardens was simply the real-life version!

    4. Gerund- remember how Bill Hewitt used to say..."that one ends up in the end blues..."? Yes, as others have noted above, that was a great place to watch a Leaf game.

      And thanks for the table hockey reference- that brings back such fond memories!