NHL training camps opened a few days ago, so why not have a hockey story…
Let’s look at Canada’s Centennial year in 1967. We were one hundred years a nation then. Who better to win the Stanley Cup than a Canadian NHL team? The Montreal Canadiens had won the two previous campaigns. Going into the 1966-67 season, this would be the last for the six-team NHL. Expansion was around the corner. Six new teams. Two divisions. A new era next season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t expected to go far in 1966-67. Age was catching up to them, with eleven regulars 30 or over. At training camp, goalie Johnny Bower was the oldest at 41, followed by Allan Stanley at 40, Red Kelly at 39,and Tim Horton at 37. Terry Sawchuk, Marcel Pronovost and George Armstrong were all 36. Bobby Baun, Bob Pulford, and Kent Douglas had all hit the magic 30. The joke was the Leafs needed wheelchairs to get around, not skates. But coach Punch Imlach stated boldly he was going to stick with his boys, although he did have concerns about the outside interests of a few players. Baun was a chef, Mahovlich was running a travel agency, Kelly had taken a shot at politics, and Horton was the donut and coffee king, which so many of us reap the benefits of today, I might add.
1966-67 was the last season of the 70-game schedule. Imagine, meeting each team 14 times, 7 home and 7 away. It was also the first year of Bruins great Bobby Orr, an 18-year-old defenseman, straight up from the OHA Junior Oshawa Generals where he scored 38 goals and 56 assists in only 47 games, and another 12 goals and 24 assists in only 12 playoff games. Players were starting to be more keen to their surroundings by then. They were also more educated than the players the decade before. Alan Eagleson’s new Players’ Association was gaining a foothold in the NHL, although teams like the Leafs--especially Punch Imlach--were doing their best to resist this organized labor movement.
1966 was the first year we saw color TV in Canada, third in the world behind Japan and the US. With this advent of color, all six NHL teams had to brighten their arenas for the cameras to pick up the play-by-play properly. The players found it far too bright at first, with some players resorting to black smudges below their eyelids, as some football players still do today. Years ago, I remember seeing one such on-ice 1966 photo of Leafs defenseman Kent Douglas. When Johnny Bower took to the same smudges, Punch Imlach told his goalie he looked like “a damn raccoon.” Then, out of the blue, after a mere few weeks, the players had gotten used to the lights. When Habs captain Jean Beliveau was asked about it by a reporter, he said, grinning, “I can’t believe we played in such darkness all those years.” Others all over the league agreed.
The season started out so-so for the Leafs. At different times, both goalies, Bower and Sawchuk, were sidelined with injuries, forcing Imlach to bring up Gary Smith and Bruce Gamble. Smith, a 6-foot-6, 230-pounder, a character if there ever was one, had a deep, burning ambition to score a goal in the NHL. So much so that during one game against the Habs, he took off with the puck and skated over center ice. Then J.C. Tremblay flattened him with a stiff body check. Luckily, the Canadiens didn’t score as Smith scrambled back to the net, flopping around like a fish out of water, while both teams, the fans, and TV announcer Danny Gallivan got a big charge out of the show. Across the ice, Imlach just wanted to crawl under the bench.
The Canadiens stumbled out of the gate early, and for a time lagged in fifth place. Although coach Toe Blake insisted they needed scoring, GM Sam Pollock called up 21-year-old goalie Rogatien Vachon from Houston in February to fill in for regulars Gump Worsley and Charlie Hodge. Just one year before, Vachon was minding the nets for the Junior B Thetford Mines team in Quebec, a piece of info that Imlach quickly used to his advantage by announcing to reporters, “What’s Blake doing playing a Junior B goaltender.”
Then came a horrific 10-game losing streak that started in mid-January. Imlach tried everything…juggling lines, benching certain players, and driving all the players even harder than he normally did at practices. It all forced him to be hospitalized for three weeks under doctor care for stress, while his team struggled to even reach .500. In the meantime, the Leafs went on a 7-game winning streak with assistant King Clancy at the helm. When Imlach returned behind the bench in early March, the Leafs improved to 3 games above .500, and he was a new man ready to finish the season and take the Leafs into the playoffs. In his way were the mighty Chicago Blackhawks, the favorites to win it all, and the team the Leafs would have to face in the first round. The Hawks finished the season with a 41-17-12 record and whopping 264 goals scored, 17 points ahead of second-place Montreal, and 19 points up on the Leafs, who finished third at 32-27-11. The Hawks also took individual honors with Vezina Trophy winners Denis DeJordy and Glenn Hall, Bobby Hull leading the league in goals with 52, and Stan Mikita setting a new points record with 97. Hull and Mikita also had those wicked banana blades that turned every 100-mile-per-hour slapshot into a knuckleball missile. Keep in mind that most goalies did not wear masks that season. Yikes!
On their end, Montreal took care of things early by sweeping the New York Rangers in a quick 4 games. Then they sat back and waited, while the Leafs and Hawks split the first four games. Game Five is still talked about today by those who remember it…like me, as if it were yesterday. Held in Chicago on a warm, muggy day, the Hawks scored twice in the first period on goalie Johnny Bower, who looked a little shaky. At the end of the period, Imlach asked Bower how he felt, to which he replied, “Put in Ukey.” In came Sawbuck to face the Chicago sharpshooters. Early in the second period, he took a Bobby Hull slapshot on the shoulder that knocked him out cold. After coming to with the help of smelling salts administered by the trainer, Sawchuk looked up just in time to see Stan Mikita skate by and say, “Stay down, Ukey.” Sawchuk uttered a few choice words and got up, ready and mad. Over the next two periods, Sawchuk stopped shot after shot, many of them sure goals, as his teammates mounted a comeback one goal at a time.
With five minutes to go, the Hawks, according to Red Kelly, had given up. “You could see it. They literally gave up…these guys aren’t champions…when we saw that, we knew we had won.” Leaf winger Ron Ellis added, “I can still see him [Sawchuk] standing on his head, challenging Hull. He was so courageous. I’ll never forget it.” Sawchuk stopped a total of 37 shots in two periods. By game’s end, The Hawks had outshot the Leafs 49 to 31. But the Leafs won 4-2. In addition to being, perhaps, Sawchuk’s finest hour, his two periods of superb play was probably the turning point in the series and the Leaf season. Back to Maple Leaf Gardens for Game Six, the Leafs took the set with Sawchuk between the pipes, turning aside 35 shots and winning 3-1.
I was living in Regina at the time and I watched Game 5 on my parents black-and-white TV. No color for us yet. Too expensive. Besides, all the reds, yellows, and oranges used to run together anyway. Remember the early color technology? Simply put, Sawchuk stonewalled the Hawks. To this day, that was the greatest goaltending performance I have ever witnessed. In my opinion, nothing else compares to it. It was the Sawchuk of old, back when he first broke into the league with the Red Wings in 1950. I could feel for Sawchuk because I was a goalie myself, reaching Tier II Junior at 18 in 1970. It was like being with him on every one of those saves.
Prior to the start of the final round, as the story goes, Leafs forward Jim Pappin met up with someone he knew by the name of Jimmy Black, who had bet $2000 on the Leafs to take the Cup even before the Chicago series began. At that time the odds were 15-to-1. Black then told Pappin that should the Leafs win, he’d install an inground pool for Pappin…for nothing!
Inspired by the first round of the playoffs, Toronto went on to beat Montreal in 6 games. And…Pappin got his pool. After the Leafs upsetting the Hawks, the finals to me seemed anti-climactic. “It was the toughest series I ever lost,” Habs coach Toe Blake said to the press after. Jean Beliveau later admitted that the Canadiens might have won if Blake had stuck with his veteran goalies, Charlie Hodge and Gump Worsley, and not used Vachon . It forced the team to be more concerned about holding back and protecting their rookie goalie, instead of going out and scoring. On that note, Imlach outsmarted Blake with his “Junior B goalie” comments, forcing Blake to use Vachon almost out of spite. It was the only Stanley Cup final series that Blake lost in his coaching career. Think of it, had Montreal won in 1967, it would have been another 5-year Stanley Cup run (as was 1956-1960) for them, because they won the Stanley Cup the next 2 years, too, until Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins put it into high gear and took over the early 1970s.
A winner of 7 Cups up to and including our Centennial year, Blake won one more the next season, then retired. The Leafs fired Imlach in the spring of 1969, only minutes after the Bruins swept the Leafs in the first round of the playoffs.
I watched the 6th game of the Stanley Cup finals at my friend’s house that spring of 1967. Carl Berger was his name. Both huge Leaf fans, we saw George Armstrong score into the Habs empty net with a minute to go to clinch the game, the series, and the Stanley Cup. Expansion was coming next season. The new, much talked-about era. Leaving Carl’s house to head back home, I was certain I’d see more Leaf Stanley Cups in the future. After the big win, the Leafs Dave Keon was made MVP of the playoffs, although I always thought it should have been Sawchuk. A month later, major news hit the hockey world when Alan Eagleson’s NHL Players’ Association was officially certified, changing hockey forever. Perhaps as a stab at Imlach and his owners, the first NHLPA president was a Leaf…Bob Pulford!
As we all know, the Leafs haven’t won a league championship since 1967. Not even close. But they do make money. Lots of it. And that’s another story.