“Fire Wilson!” the fans cried on Tuesday in Toronto, but it was Friday in Montreal before it happened. Was Ron Wilson aware that March 2 isn’t such a great date for Leaf coaches? Of course, history does show that the ones who are fired on that particular day do tend to be re-hired the very next day, March 3 — although I guess that’s not likely to happen in this case, is it?
Back to that in a minute. First, some numbers. The new coach, Randy Carlyle, is the twenty-ninth man to step behind the Leafs bench, the sixteenth to have played for the team. He’s the first from Sudbury — though the yield of nearby northern Ontario towns like Skead (George Armstrong), South Porcupine (John McLellan), and Kirkland Lake (Dick Duff) should be noted. Seven Leaf coaches were born in Toronto, maybe eight, depending on where Alex Romeril got his start, which is hard to discover. Hamilton (Dick Irvin, Pat Quinn), Winnipeg (Billy Reay, Joe Crozier), and Sault Ste. Marie (Paul Maurice, Art Duncan) are next when it comes to productive Leaf-coach breeding grounds.
Romeril was the very first. He was a pretty good left winger for the Toronto Granites, and won several Allan Cups. He took the Leaf job when Conn Smythe bought the St. Patricks in February of 1927 and changed the team’s name and their uniform mid-season. Romeril, who remains the only Leaf coach to date to have been nicknamed “Porky,” was really only a stand-in until Smythe could wrap up his obligations at the University of Toronto. When the fall brought a new season, he was behind the bench himself.
It’s been a while since the Leafs had a coach whose nickname was better known than his given name, but in 1973, when “Red” Kelly took the job that “Hap” Day, “King” Clancy, and “Punch” Imlach had held before him, fully a third of Leafs coaches fit that description. They’ve also had a “Chief” (Armstrong), a “Gentleman Joe” (Primeau), a “Snowshoes” (Dan Maloney), and a “Big Irishman” (Quinn, apparently).
“This is the start of a new era for the Maple Leafs,” said any general manager you care to name after the firing of any given coach. (Actually, it was Cliff Fletcher after Paul Maurice made way for Wilson in 2008.)
“We have no other statements at the moment other than we will try our best to get this club cracking,” Imlach said in 1958 when he fired Billy Reay and appointed left winger Bert Olmstead as playing coach. That’s what he said he was going do, at least, before changing his mind and taking the job himself.
He lasted until April of 1969 — two minutes after Boston eliminated the Leafs from the playoffs, to be precise, according to club president Stafford Smythe, who did the deed.
Imlach went to Buffalo for a while. After returning to the Leafs in 1979 as general manager, he fired Joe Crozier at 10 pm on a Thursday night after word got out that Leafs’ owner Harold Ballard was negotiating with at least four new coaching candidates. “I thank you for being so nice to me,” Crozier told the press — “bitterly,” some of the reporters present thought. Mike Nykoluk was the new man. He lasted until 1984, when the Leafs missed the playoffs.
Coach Floyd Smith was hurt in a car accident in 1980 and couldn’t continue, which was when his assistant Dick Duff took over for two games, both losses, whereupon this happened: Imlach had the players watch footage of their most recent loss to Atlanta. “After the film session,” he explained later, “I told the players that George Imlach hired Punch Imlach to coach the team. I told them that all I expect is effort and I better get it. Then I slammed the door and walked out.”
“Somebody has to have the job,” Imlach said, “and it might as well be me.”
With Roger Nielson in ’79, the team had lost four in a row as they headed into Montreal at the beginning of March to play the Canadiens. Before the game Harold Ballard said, “If it’s a bad game, goodbye Roger.” It actually sounds like it was a great game, but the Leafs lost, 2-1, and Nielson was duly asked to resign. Which he didn’t want to do. So gm Jim Gregory had to fire him. That was March 2.
None of the players wanted Nielson to leave. “He’s the hardest-working coach in hockey,” said Lanny McDonald. The team had a vote; Nielson won; Ballard hired him back in time for Saturday night’s game against the Flyers. “He wasn’t fired,” Ballard said, “he was just put on furlough for a day or two.” Nielson didn’t quite see it the same way: “I was fired and let go and it was quite an experience for all of us, I’m sure.” (The Leafs beat the Flyers and, next night, the Rangers, too.)
Is Punch Imlach the last Leaf coach to have worn a serious hat while he coached? I think so. His fedora was a symbol of Leaf domination in the 1960s, I’ve just been reading, so I hope they’ve got it under glass somewhere. He seems to have favoured black. Hap Day was known for a “rakish, light-coloured fedora” in the 1940s. Conn Smythe’s was grey. I’m not sure what colour Billy Reay’s was in Toronto, but in Chicago, where he went afterwards, it was famously scarlet, and bore a Black Hawks logo. Did anyone know, by the way, that as a centreman for the Canadiens in 1947, he was the first to raise his arms to celebrate a goal? That’s what they say. His middle name was Tulip.
In 1966, Imlach was out on the west coast heading back to watch the Stanley Cup finals between Detroit and Montreal when, waiting for a plane in San Francisco, a gust of wind took his hat. “He grabbed for it,” The Windsor Star soberly reported, “and accidentally poked himself in the right eye with his finger.” King Clancy took him to the hospital, where they treated him and gave him a patch to wear.