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If you like Laine and Matthews, you likely would have loved Frank Mahovlich and Bobby Hull back in the day, too…

With the Leafs set to host the suddenly surging Winnipeg Jets Tuesday night, it’s difficult not to pay attention to the anticipated match-up between Calder hopefuls Patrik Laine and Toronto’s Auston Matthews. Both are tremendously talented young players and should be something to watch for years to come.

Watching Matthews get pulled down the other night (against the Hurricanes, I think it was) and still managing to hold on to the puck and score on his backhand, it struck me that many, many years ago I’d seen Frank Mahovlich score similar kinds of goals when he was starring with the Leafs.

Matthews plays center and "The Big M", as he was called, was a winger, of course.  But as Mahovlich did in his era, Matthews can use his size and strength to finish plays, as he did on that goal.

As I mention in a piece over at the popular Maple Leaf Hot Stove site, sports comparisons are usually off-base. But there is, as I discuss in the article, one way that Matthews and Laine remind me of Mahovlich.  And that is when it comes to the notion of a budding individual rivalry. Because back in the late 1950s, when Mahovlich’s Leafs and Bobby Hull’s Blackhawks were going through difficult times in the NHL, the then two young snipers became part of a natural rivalry that lasted for years.

To be clear, they weren’t rivals in the same way that Montreal's Rocket Richard and Detroit’s Gordie Howe were. Those two teams truly hated one another. The two all-time greats were the best players and the most deadly scorers on their respective teams. The players on both teams disliked each other immensely, and Howe and Richard weren’t exactly fond of one another, either. In fact, there was seemingly a bitter divide (which included not only hockey, but language and culture) between the two teams, the two fan bases—and the two men.

Richard was the fiery, intense, driven competitor who was unsurpassed when it came to what he could do inside the opposition blueline. Howe was the quiet assassin, who would get his revenge against opponents away from the play, and could do everything well including score—and fight, too, as could Richard.

They were pitted against each other in the minds of hockey fans everywhere throughout the last dozen or so years of The Rocket’s career, until Richard retired after the 1959-’60 season.  Howe ultimately surpassed Richard’s all-time goal scoring records  (544 regular-season goals) a few years after Rocket’s retirement.

It was different with Hull (left) and Mahovlich.   They too played played the same position (they were left wingers; Howe and Richard played right wing, though Richard was a lefty shooter).  What created the Mahovlich-Hull rivalry is that both came up in the same season (1957-’58) and many felt Hull deserved the Calder trophy that Mahovlich won that year.

From there, the comparisons built. Mahovlich scored 48 goals in 1960-’61.  Hull topped that in 1961-’62 with 50, equaling Richard's single season mark. Hull’s Hawks won the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1961.  Mahovlich’s Leafs beat the Hawks to win the championship in 1962.

At one point in the early 1960s, Chicago tried to buy Mahovlich from the Leafs for a million dollars. The deal, if it ever really was agreed to, fell apart, thankfully for Leaf fans.

 With Mahovlich and a host of other fine players, Toronto went on to win three more Cups while the supremely talented Hawks (Glenn Hall, Pierre Pilote, Stan Mikita, Kenny Wharram, “Moose” Vasko, etc.) kept falling a bit short year after year.

By the time Frank (right) finished his illustrious NHL/WHA career, including stops in Detroit and Montreal (where I believe he played the finest hockey of his career), he had helped his teams win six Stanley Cups.  While Hull got to five Cup finals, his side won but that one Cup in 1961. Still, Hull was a constant force, scoring over 900 goals in his professional career, and changing the economic dynamics of the entire sport when he signed a then lucrative deal with the World Hockey Association’s Winnipeg Jets in 1972. (Hull, along with Howe and later Bobby Orr, were the three opposition players I fretted about most every time they were on the ice when the Leafs played against them in those days. I could only relax briefly when those guys were on the bench…)

Hull and Mahovlich were two great players; tremendous competitors who happened to come into the league at the same time when there were only six NHL teams, and both happened to play left wing.  Importantly, both also eventually helped lead to their team to great heights.

Hull was an end-of-season All Star more often than the Big M, but there were few more powerful or entertaining players in the history of the game than those two individuals—regardless of who fans thought was “better”.

Laine and Matthews have a long way to go to reach those heights, and it’s not my intention to really compare them as individual players to Hull or Mahovlich. But like Hull and Mahovlich decades ago, Laine and Matthews are in the midst of helping turn their struggling franchises' fortunes around. They each have pretty rare skill sets. And if they continue to progress, as every indication suggests they should, they may well become some of the best players in the history of their respective franchises, like Mahovlich and Hull.

And they may even someday—like Hull and Mahovlich—make that list of the Top 100 NHLers of all time…


  1. Thank you Michael for a very entertaining look back at these two parallel careers. Being that they played well before my time, my awareness of the careers of Mahovlich and Hull did not include the natural rivalry that existed. It really makes me realize what a special thing exists in Matthews and Laine this season, and undoubtedly moving forward.

    Off the top of my head, the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry is the only one that has had a true impact in the past several decades. Even the two of them beginning their careers at the same time was a matter of circumstance, as a season-long lockout in the NHL delayed what should have been Ovechkin's rookie season.

    There have been several notable players coming out of a single draft year, but not the true "generational talent" players that appear to exist in Matthews and Laine. I did a little research online to see that some great talents coming along at the same time, such as Yzerman and LaFontaine, or Modano and Roenick, two American players both landing in the old Norris Division. Most intriguing to me was Lindros and Forsberg, both drafted in '91. They are forever linked by the trade they were both part of before ever reaching the NHL, and certainly are two of the most naturally talented hockey players we have ever seen. Unfortunately both of their careers were interrupted and ended prematurely due to injuries.

    We no longer have the Original Six rivalries, and it is rare for a player to spend a decade or more on one team. Matthews and Laine by current scheduling practices will only see one another a couple times a year, and I don't believe the NHL will be as intent on promoting two players in Canadian markets as much as they have Crosby and Ovechkin. But I look forward to seeing how these two careers play out over the years.

  2. Good to hear from you, Pete. I absolutely agree about Crosby/Ovechkin; that has been a wonderful rivalry for the game and the league. (You're right about Lindros and Forsberg as well.)

    No, with all the teams now and scheduling, we don't see individual rivalries developing maybe as much as we once did many years ago. It was hard not to hate your opponents back in the day when you played them 14 times a season!

    These two young men are standout talents, for sure. It'll be interesting to see how their careers unfold. Thanks Pete.

  3. Hi Michael:

    All wonderful players, but to me Rivalry in hockey is between teams not players (unlike NBA). As you commented, true rivalries are a thing of the past with too many teams.

    Putting my view down memory lane, as a Chicago fan at that time, I never viewed a contest between Hull and Mahovolich. Both players were exciting with their end to end rushes. However, even these were different in that Frank made long swooping strides, whereas Hull was more like a powerful straightaway bull rush often finishing with blowing his famous slapshot past a helpless goalie. In my memory, Hull pulled off these rushes on a regular basis, while Frank seemed to be always shackled by Imlach and the media saying he was a lazy hockey player because he skated so effortlessly. Too bad he was never allowed to flourish in same way Hull was.

    I am not sure that Hull and Mikita should be given kudos for introducing the curved stick? While for some elite players it may be a positive, but for most it has resulted in: unable to take backhand pass, minimal backhand shot which reduces goals and clearing and passing ability. I have been impressed with Hyman's retrieval ability and would love to see him increase his productivity by using a straight (minimum curve) stick.

    Appreciated your inclusion of my old favorite from the Scooter line, Kenny Wharram. Marner has that same quickness but has greater puck handling skills and I can see him winning scoring championships in the future.

    1. You described Hull's rushes very well, Ralph (RLMcC)- his "style" was indeed rather different from Frank's. Both were exciting and produced a ton offensively in their time with Chicago and Toronto, for sure.

      And you're so right- Mahovlich was tagged with being "lazy" in part because of the skating style you referenced. It was tough for The Big M to be embraced in this market for what he did do- as opposed to what so many seemed to think he should be. And Imlach was indeed likely part of why he never fully blossomed comfortably in Toronto.

      Wharram was a really fine player. I like your thought on Marner- there's a young player who just may become something out of the ordinary down the road.

  4. One thing I remember that was common to both Hull and the Big M, and changed the way we kids played hockey, was their introduction of the "new" slap shot. I don't recall seeing it much before they arrived, or at least seeing their kind of accuracy with it - and I know we all started copying it (or trying to) - as soon as we saw it. Of course, Bernie Geoffrion also had a pretty good one, hence his nickname! I think it also led to the acceptance of the necessity of goalie masks.

  5. And as I recall, Gerund O', Tim Horton was recognized as the NHL defenseman who could really shoot the puck from the point in those days...

    1. Yes, he was another one. In some of our games, the slap shot wasn't allowed because it was too dangerous - none of us wore helmets, of course, and goalies didn't wear masks. You never knew where the slap shot was going too go!