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Some favourite old-time summertime Maple Leaf (and other) hockey memories…

Like all professional sports leagues the NHL is much more of a 12-month of the year business than it used to be.

When I was a kid growing up back in the early 1960s, most, if not all, NHLers worked a “second job” in the off-season.  That’s just the way it was.  Players were essentially seasonal employees. They had time off between May and August (longer if your team didn't make the playoffs). Training camp would start in early September and run for maybe five or six weeks, if I remember correctly.

As a fan, you knew a new season was upon us when you could get your hands on the new "Esso" NHL schedules at your local Esso dealer or corner store. They were like a tiny pamphlet.  It was, at least for me, a big thing to have the entire 6-team, 70 game schedule at my fingertips.

How different were things? Back then, players went to training camp to get into shape.  Nowadays, guys work out all summer to be in max physical condition for when camp starts. Of course, the best players in the world earned a nice income in those days but it was nowhere near the astronomical salaries of the modern era. Rocket Richard made maybe $35,000 a year by the time he retired in 1960…Gordie Howe was then best paid guy for a while in the early ‘60s, but I don’t think he was making close to $100,000 a year—which was the bar that had long before been established in baseball for top stars like Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle.

Free agency, of course, changed all that. Baseball great Curt Flood was a pioneer in this regard, challenging baseball's reserve clause. And once the courts ruled against Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley in a player contract dispute in the mid 1970s, the sports world was changed forever and free agency was born. Before the advent of true free agency, most players in pro sports were on one year contracts. If you had a good year, your contract stayed the same. If you had a great year, you might get a raise. If you had a bad year your salary dropped.

Things are just different now.

Of course the business of hockey continued back in the '50s and '60s, too. There was the summer intra-league draft, I think it was.  (I believe that's how the Leafs picked up Red Wing great Terry Sawchuk before the 1964-'65 NHL season.) But by and large there wasn't a lot to talk about, hockey-wise, in the summer.

What got me thinking about all this and about summertime hockey memories was the recent trade involving Shea Weber and P.K. Subban. That’s a big-time deal, and both clubs made it because they believe they got a guy who can take their club to the next level.  Maybe they’re both right. (Hey, we traded Phil Kessel a year ago, thinking he was not a good fit here any more. He helped Pittsburgh win a Stanley Cup...)

The Subban-Weber move is not a dissimilar, in that sense, to a controversial trade made back in the late spring/early summer of 1963. I remember it because, even though I was only nine years old at the time, I followed hockey very closely and read about it in our local paper, and in the Detroit Free Press.

At the time, the Montreal Canadiens were a few years removed from their remarkable 1950s dynasty, when they won five Stanley Cups in succession at one point, culminating in a series win against the Maple Leafs in April of 1960. But after three consecutive seasons being knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, Montreal was changing the guard somewhat. First to go as things started to go south was Hab legend Doug Harvey, who was sent to the Rangers before the 1961-’62 season.

But perhaps an even bigger stunner was when Montreal and the Rangers culminated a 7-player deal a couple of years later that saw two future Hall-of-Fame netminders go the other way: Gump Worlsey to Montreal, and Jacques Plante (left) becoming a Ranger.

To provide some context, Worsley was considered, at the time, a very good goaltender on a not very good Ranger squad. They had only made the playoffs once in the previous half dozen or so seasons.  Worsley faced a ton of shots in those days (sometimes 50 a night) and while New York had some very talented individual players (Andy Bathgate, Harry Howell, Red Sullivan, Dean Prentice, Andy Hebenton, etc.), for whatever reason they were not consistently competitive at the time.

Plante, on the other hand, had won the Vezina Trophy (given then to the goalie who played the most games with the best goals against average on the team that allowed the least number of goals during the regular season) something like seven times in an illustrious Montreal career. And, he had all those championships on his resume.

But the Hab brass and coach Toe Blake had somewhat tired of Plante’s quirky ways, and decided they were ready to move in.  So they packaged Plante along with young forward Donnie Marshall and Phil Goyette off to Brodway. In return, the Habs picked up Worsley, along with a young Dave Balon, Leon Rochefort and a player whose name is escaping me as I write this.

As a young fan, the trade was a big deal to me.  My father and older brothers were big time Montreal fans and I had already come to dislike the Canadiens. Plante was an All-Star, a very high profile player, and it seemed odd that such a great player would be dealt in the middle of a splendid career.  However other goaltending greats had also been traded in that era before him, including Glenn Hall and Terry Sawchuk, also future Hall-of-Famers. Still, it was a shock to many hockey people. The announcement certainly livened up my "hockey summer" back then.

Worsley actually struggled in his first season in Montreal, but he was eventually a key cog in the Habs winning four more Cups in the mid and late 1960s during his tenure there.  Plante had his moments in New York, but ended up injured, then in the minors and ultimately out of hockey. That is, until a remarkable return several years later, when he won yet another Vezina Trophy (with Glenn Hall) in St. Louis, before playing two plus seasons—and very well, I might add, especially in 1970-’71—with the Leafs.

Of course, the sports world was, again, very different back then.  There wasn’t 24 hour-a-day news and sports updates. Hockey wasn’t talked about every day of the year in quite the same way, perhaps. Too, there was no free agency, and no universal draft to obsess about for a year leading up to draft day. Rosters didn’t change anywhere near as much in those days from one season to the next. So when a big trade occurred, it was something special.

There were other big deals in the spring and summertime in those days. The Leafs traded Andy Bathgate in the summer of 1965 to the Wings along with longtime Toronto center Billy Harris and a minor leaguer for Marcel Pronovost, a great but aging defensemen and useful forwards Eddie Joyal and Larry Jeffrey. Bathgate played into the early expansion years with the Penguins, but was not the impact player he had been in his hey-day with the Rangers. Still, it was still a very big deal, and Pronovost (in action with the Red Wings, above right, against Red Hay and Stan Mikita) and Jeffrey were significant factors in the Leafs' last Cup run in 1967.

Of course, one of the most famous trades of all time happened before the 1967-’68 NHL season. It occurred in May, I believe, but keep in mind the NHL season had ended on May 2—when the Leafs beat Montreal in Game Six of the Cup finals at Maple Leaf Gardens. That deal saw a still young but under-utilized Phil Esposito go to the cellar-dwelling Boston Bruins along with Kenny Hodge and Fred Stanfield. The Hawks acquired rugged defenseman Gilles Marotte (who I believe had been Rookie of the Year a couple of seasons prior) along with a back-up goalie and center Pit Martin.

Bobby Orr had just finished his rookie season in the NHL with the Bruins, and that Bruin-Blackhawk deal helped change the hockey landscape for years to come.  The smallish, out-of-the-playoff Bruins added pieces over time like Derek Sanderson to a roster that already included tough-guy Ted Green on defense.  Together with the ex-Hawks, the Bruins developed into the highly skilled and intimidating “Big Bad Bruins”. They won two Stanley Cups, and should have won many more. While none of that would have happened without Orr, the off-season deal with the Hawks was a huge factor in Boston’s success. (I should hasten to add that Pit Martin became a tremendous player for the Hawks, helping them get to the finals twice in 1971 and 1973, only to fall to the stacked Canadiens. The Hawks should have won the Cup in 1971 and Martin may have been the best player in the ’73 series, so it wasn’t a completely one-sided deal…)

At this time of year there is usually a lull in the hockey world, even in today’s hectic hockey business cycle.  There are rookie tournaments, development camps and player signings, of course, but it’s not quite like things are on draft day, or when free agency strikes.

But a big trade? There’s still nothing like it to stimulate heated hockey discussion, just like Subban for Weber.  It creates excitement, upset and no small amount of debate about who got the best out of a particular deal. 

The off-season moves I mentioned today remain some of the most memorable of my youth. They made a young fan eager for a new season to start...


  1. sounds like the habs have had quite a history of stirring things up in the summer (my guess is similar to the subban trade, the fans weren't all that happy with plante leaving!)

    1. I was pretty young at the time, Alex, but I think you're right that many Hab fans were probably distressed at the time. Worsley was seen as a good goalie on a bad team. Plante had been a "winner". In the end, it sure worked out for Montreal, though Goyette and Marshall both had some very good years in New York.

      We'll see how Subban and Weber do in their new situations...

  2. I should have been commenting on your July 3 post about the Leafs taking the long road. I agree they are and I was happy to see Matthews was signed yesterday because it really didn't make sense to have Lou trying to low ball the #1 overall pick. Lou may well be a team first guy but you have to go with the times and it would have been embarrassing to see the Leafs not give Auston the max. You don't wait 30 years for a #1 centre then low ball him. Wendel was a #1 and pretty good but just from what I have seen Matthews is at a totally different level.

    So now I really don't know what to expect. I know I am hoping they are a lot better than all the analysts are saying. Rielly could be the #1 d-man, Andersen could be the elite goalie and Matthews, no questions asked, is the #1 elite centre. Then you have Marner and Nylander and it really is getting exciting.

    I go over all the prospects in the Leafs system and can't see how they are not winning a few Cups a few years from now. They have a lot of prospects, all the talk is about Matthews, Marner and Nylander but I read Kapanen was the best player on the Marlies playoff drive so he could be another valuable piece.

    Maybe the Leafs are not as close as I think but maybe they could surprise everyone. If it goes the way the analysts are predicting, and I guess they are usually right it will be a while before the Leafs are even a playoff team. Personally I am not expecting a Cup this year but if Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Rielly and Andersen do what we are all hoping the Leafs will have a dynasty.

  3. hi michael, it's been slow the past several weeks in leafs-nation... i'm looking forward to entries by you in the future, especially once the season gets rolling!

    1. Hi Alex- I'll aim to post more as the season approaches!