I know, I know: the reason that the Toronto Maple Leafs say that Mike Babcock is the team’s 30th coach rather than the 31st is that they can’t count. Sorry: they can’t count Dick Duff, or don’t, won’t. The Leafs discount him, count him out, and so should everybody — which, fortunately, they’re already doing.
It’s not that Duff, 79 now, isn’t a good guy/former revered left-winger /six-time Stanley-Cup winner / Hall of Famer. He’s all that. Nor does the fact the Leafs lost the two games in 1980 when he ran the bench as a ghostly caretaker have anything to do with his exile.
The thing is, he was never formally appointed head coach. Unlike Babcock this morning, he wasn’t unveiled in a giddy city at a press conference even as the southerly breezes blew in Buffalo’s bitterness and Detroit’s disappointment.
Here’s how it went for Duff. The Leafs’ 1978-79 season ended when they lost to Montreal in the second round of the playoffs. Owner Harold Ballard had fired GM Jim Gregory and coach Roger Nielson’s contract was expiring. Ballard didn’t want him back anyway, unless he couldn’t find another coach, in which case, maybe, he would let Nielson stay. (“I may have to eat crow,” he said. “It’s not a very nice meal when you get to the feathers.”)
Ballard had his eye on both Don Cherry and Scotty Bowman but when they got away on him and he settled on bringing back an old Leaf hand, Punch Imlach, as his GM. In July of 1979, Imlach hired Floyd Smith to coach the team.
A week later, Imlach augmented Smith’s staff. “I asked Smitty when I hired him whether he’d like some assistant coaches,” the GM told The Globe and Mail. “He said yes.”
He got two: Johnny Bower, who’d been scouting for the team, would tutor the goaltenders, while Duff said so long to (as The Globe noted) the furniture business to help out with the forwards and defencemen.
Forward, fast, to the following season. The Leafs were in (ho-hum) turmoil. Imlach was feuding with/trying to humiliate Darryl Sittler. In what seemed to be part of his plan to undermine Sittler, Imlach put Ian Turnbull and Lanny McDonald on waivers. When he brought in Carl Brewer to play on defence, some of the players thought he was an Imlach spy, and in his first game back Borje Salming refused to pass him the puck. McDonald was traded to Colorado. Sittler cried.
Then in March, 12 games left in the regular season, coach Smith was driving on a Friday night from Toronto to his home in Buffalo when he crossed the median near St. Catharines, Ontario, and crashed head-on with another car. A woman in that car died and the driver went to hospital with serious injuries. (He would die of his injuries three days later.) Smith broke a kneecap and suffered (The Star) severe lacerations and abrasions.
The accident occurred, as the newspapers noted, no more than a mile from the place where Leaf defenceman Tim Horton died in 1974. “That stretch of highway,” said Imlach, “has caused me a great deal of grief and sorrow.”
Hockey, as it does, went on. Saturday night the Leafs were hosting the New York Rangers. That morning, Imlach visited the dressing room after the team’s morning skate to let the players know how Smith was doing and to announce that Duff would be in charge for the Ranger game.
“I told the players that Duff had absolute control of the team,” Imlach told the reporters afterwards, “and I wanted them to do exactly what he told them.”
“I told them that the best medicine they could give Smitty was to play well and win a few — and I think these players will do just that.”
The Leafs lost, 4-8. Nobody blamed Duff. Nobody knew who’d be coaching the next gam, though it did look like Smith wouldn’t be back that season. Imlach was evaluating the situation. Duff was happy to help in whatever way he could. “There are some mechanics behind the bench — changing lines, things like that — that I’ll need a few games to get down pat,” he said. “I’m willing, and I’d like to stay on the job, but that will be up to Punch.”
Monday night the Atlanta Flames paid a visit. Duff would be in charge again, though Imlach said he hadn’t made any decisions beyond that. The Leafs lost 1-5. The Globe: “The way the Leafs played, it wouldn’t have mattered who was coaching the team. They lacked zip, giving away the puck several times and refusing to forecheck in the Atlanta end.”
“I don’t know what it is with them,” Imlach grouched. “Maybe they’ve decided not to try because the trading deadline has passed. But I have a long memory. “They have three weeks to show that they want to stay here and play hockey. If they don’t show that, they’re saying to me that they’re looking to be traded.”
Wednesday was the next game, at home again, against the Winnipeg Jets, the league’s worst team. Tuesday Imlach announced his decision: he would himself be taking over as coach.
The Toronto Star reported how he broke the news to the players:
His first words as coach: “All I expect from you bastards is effort and I’d better get it.” Then he slammed the door and walked out of a film session. There was no applause from the players and no comment either.
With Dick Duff patrolling again as an assistant, the Leafs beat the Jets 9-1. Did it feel, maybe, like he’d never been coach at all?