Today, a hotshot amateur player jumping from junior hockey one season directly into the NHL the next season seems to be all too common. But before the Entry Draft--in the days of the old Original Six hockey from 1942-1967--it was doubly tough to jump and make it. In this era where each NHL team had sponsored their own junior clubs there were even cases of players achieving success in the NHL via the senior amateur route.
What made it extra hard was that at any given time there were only a combined total of about 100 roster spots in the NHL. The league was rougher then, too, a “dog-eat-dog” world. So, who were these players who made the grade?
Detroit Red Wings…
Durable, dirty and feisty, nineteen-year-old Ted Lindsay finished his junior days an OHA St Michael’s Major in 1943-44. Left unclaimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs (who sponsored the college), Lindsay was snapped up by Red Wings’ chief scout Carson Cooper. Lindsay scored 17 goals in his first NHL season and never looked back, without playing a single game in the minors. By the time he retired, he was the highest scoring left winger in the game and the most penalized player.
The Leafs also blew it with defenseman Len “Red” Kelly, another St Michael’s graduate. Leaf scouts thought he was too frail for the NHL and wouldn’t make it past 20 games. Signed by Carson Cooper, Kelly proved them wrong by heading to the Wings in the fall of 1947, and went on to play 20 seasons in the NHL.
After center Alex Delvecchio--also scouted and signed by Cooper--graduated from Oshawa in the spring of 1951, he was sent to the Wings AHL affiliate in Indianapolis that fall. There, he scored three goals and assisted on six others in only six games. Six games in the minors were enough for the parent Wings, who quickly called him up for good. Twenty-three seasons and 456 goals later, he retired a lifetime Red Wing.
New York Rangers…
The “Big Apple” saw two notables making the jump from the OHA Guelph Biltmores in 1952. They were left winger Dean Prentice, who peaked at 32 goals in 1959-60 and netted ten, 20-goal seasons with five different teams; then Harry Howell, who in 1967, at age 34, won his only James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. At the dinner ceremonies, he said he was happy to receive the award when he did because there was a kid in Boston named Bobby Orr who was going to own the trophy for the next several years running.
Little center Camille Henry was a Quebec Citadelle junior in 1952-53. He scored 24 goals the next season as a Ranger regular, good enough to receive the NHL Rookie of the Year Award. The next season, however, he was sent down to the minors and wasn’t called back until the fall of 1956. In his next full season in 1957-58, he lit up the league with 32 goals. He scored at least 23 goals seven different times as a Ranger.
Hard-knocking free agent defenseman Gus Kyle from the Regina Capitals of Western Canada Senior Hockey League made the New York Rangers in 1949-50 where he played the full schedule. He spent two more seasons as a regular in the NHL before being sent to the minors.
Equally talented at left wing and defense, Doug Mohns reached the Bruins at 19 in 1953-54, where he scored 13 goals in his rookie season after leaving his junior team, the Barrie Flyers. His career took him well into the middle 1970s, retiring as a Washington Capital.
In the early-to-mid-1960s, the Bruins were dreadful and were forced to call up a few youngsters sooner than expected. Ed Westfall was a defensive specialist at both right wing and defense who jumped from the Niagara Falls Flyers (via two games with Kingston in the Eastern Pro League) to Boston in 1961-62. Defenseman Dallas Smith of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League Estevan Bruins appeared later in the 1959-60 season as Bruin, then was sent down to the minors within two seasons before reappearing as a key blue line partner with Bobby Orr in 1967. Defenseman Gilles Marotte left Niagara Falls for the big club, getting there in the fall of 1965 along with goalie Bernie Parent, who later made his mark winning two Stanley Cups in Philadelphia in the 1970s.
The ultimate “junior jumper” had to be Bobby Orr. As an 18-year-old rookie fresh from the Oshawa Generals, he made the Bruins easily and was voted Rookie of the Year in 1967. He went on to six straight 100-point seasons and still found time to guard his end of the blue line better than anyone else in the league. Beginning in 1967-68, Orr’s second NHL season, he won eight straight James Norris Trophies. Harry Howell was right about the kid.
Chicago Black Hawks…
Between 1942-1957, the Black Hawks were pathetic, making the playoffs only three times. Then they received a gift on a silver platter: First-Team All-Stars Ted Lindsay and Glenn Hall in a lopsided deal from Detroit, a trade Detroit’s GM Jack Adams engineered to punish the two players for their involvement in starting a Players’ Association in 1957.
This, plus promoting two future offensive weapons directly from the junior St Catharines Teepees eventually helped to bring the Blacks Hawks a Stanley Cup championship in 1961. The players were left winger Bobby Hull and center Stan Mikita. Hull took Rookie of the Year honors for 1957-58, and Mikita first saw NHL action two years later. By the 1960s, they were both collecting points almost at will.
Two other junior jumpers were forwards Fred Stanfield and Ken Hodge, who advanced to the Hawks via the St Catharines Black Hawks in the mid-1960s. Then, before the start of the 1967-68 season, Stanfield (down in the minors) and Hodge, along with center Phil Esposito, were traded to Boston in one of the most one-sided deals in NHL history. Orr, Hodge, Stanfield, and Esposito were crucial in turning the Bruins into a powerhouse with Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972.
During World War II goalie Bill Durnan and right winger Maurice “The Rocket” Richard made the jump to the NHL from senior hockey: Durnan from the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior Hockey League and Richard from the Montreal Senior Canadiens of the same league. Richard became a scoring machine through to 1960 and Durnan won six Vezina Trophies in his seven years as a Canadien.
Early in the Fifties, the same decade in which Montreal won six Stanley Cups, including five in row, the team promoted two capable youngsters from the Quebec Junior Hockey league: right winger Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion with his devastating slapshot from the Montreal Nationale in 1950; and future high-scoring left winger Dickie Moore via the Montreal Junior Canadiens a season later. The Rocket’s little brother, center Henri Richard, came over from the Montreal Junior Canadians in the fall of 1955. Upon retirement 20 years later, he had played on 11 Stanley Cup championship teams--an NHL record--as a Canadien.
Jean Beliveau, a highly-touted junior with the Quebec Citadelle, stayed in town to play for the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League in 1951, where he was the league’s biggest drawing card. He wanted no part of the NHL and wished to stay where he was--happy and content in the city that loved him and paid him well, despite being an amateur, at least on paper. The Canadiens wanted Beliveau so badly that they bought the entire league and turned it pro just to get their hands on him. Beliveau then signed a five-year deal worth $100,000. Ten Stanley Cups later, he retired as one of the classiest icons of the game.
In the Sixties, right winger Yvan “The Roadrunner” Cournoyer arrived from the Montreal Junior Canadiens, via a quick seven games with the AHL Quebec Aces. A lightning fast, sharpshooting scorer especially on power plays, he also celebrated 10 Stanley Cup victories.
Toronto Maple Leafs…
Ted “Teeder” Kennedy played no junior hockey, only 23 games for the Ontario Senior League Port Colborne Sailors in 1942-43 before cutting his teeth in the NHL with the Leafs the next season at the age of 18. A born center, he quickly established himself as the best faceoff man in the league for years. He remained in Toronto until his Hall of Fame career ended 13 years and five Stanley Cups later.
Leaf management brought up five junior prospects in the Fifties--within a stretch of six years--who went on to play a combined 87 NHL seasons. Left winger Frank Mahovlich, the only one based at St Michael’s, was the best. Runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting to Bobby Hull in 1958, “The Big M” scored 48 goals in 1960-61, then began to get booed by his hometown fans so fiercely that he had to be traded away. After four Stanley Cups wins with Toronto, he won two more in Montreal.
Defenseman Carl Brewer and forwards Eric Nesterenko, Ron Stewart, and Bob Pulford were the other four, arriving compliments of the Toronto Marlboro gravy train. The two-way Bob Pulford was the best of the crew and the only Hall of Famer. A steady left winger, he didn’t score that much in the regular season (four 20-goal seasons in 17 years), but in the playoffs he got the clutch goals and assists when the Leafs won four Cups between 1962-1967 (15 goals and 19 assists in 48 games in the four Stanley Cup runs).
In the Sixties came three more juniors ready for Leaf action. A skillful center with the St Michael’s college in 1959-60, then a 20-goal scorer and a Rookie of the Year Award winner the next season, the clean-playing Dave Keon made his presence known immediately. And it got better after that: 396 total goals and four Stanley Cups with Toronto, including a playoff MVP in 1967.
Another Rookie of the Year winner was high-scoring left winger Brit Selby in 1965-66, fresh from the Marlies. But that was it for Selby, who was passed around to different teams, never quite living up to his potential. A fan favorite in Toronto, right winger Ron Ellis, on the other hand, started strong with 23 goals in his first season in 1964-65 and remained effective as a lifetime Leaf until 1980-81 with 10 straight 20-goal seasons to his credit.
So, in short, it seemed to work out well for the six NHL teams by sending these juniors to the parent clubs early because out of all the 33 players mentioned here 19 are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not bad, eh?