Could be, I guess, that Punch Imlach’s job experience as a youthful bank teller shaped the methods he used, later on, as an NHL coach.
Imlach, who died of heart failure at the age of 69 on a Tuesday of this same date in 1987, piloted the Toronto Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, including the team’s last (er, most recent) championship in 1967. He also had several stints as GM of the Leafs, and served, in his time, as coach and GM of the Buffalo Sabres.
“Crusty and short-tempered at the best of times,” is how Donn Downey described Imlach in an obituary in Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “No-one disputed his astute knowledge of hockey, but when it came to people, Mr. Imlach lacked what is referred to in the personnel offices as communication skills.”
“He understood players in terms of the six-team league when hockey jobs were scarce and bargaining between a player and management usually consisted of five words: take it or leave it.”
As a young centreman growing up in Toronto, Imlach played for Ed Wildey’s junior Young Rangers, and it was Wildey who got him a job at the Dominion Bank in the late 1930s. The salary was eight dollars a week, with all the bank-league hockey he could play thrown in as a bonus.
The value of a buck did re-surface as a bit of a theme during Imlach’s tenure with the Leafs. There’s the famous scene in March of 1960, for instance, when Toronto was down a game in their Stanley Cup semi-final against the Detroit Red Wings.
Ben Ward of the Canadian Press described Imlach’s pre-game prepping of his team:
Just before the start of the game, while the Leafs were warming up, Imlach dropped 10 wads of $1 bills on the dressing room floor and scrawled this message on the blackboard:
“Take a good look at the centre of the floor. This represents the difference between winning and losing — $1,250.”
The money represents the extra pay for each player on the clubs reaching the Stanley Cup finals.
(Toronto won that game, and the series, to make the finals, though they fell there to the Montreal Canadiens.)
Imlach was also fond of fines.
In 1967, when defenceman Tim Horton delayed his arrival to the Leafs’ training camp in Peterborough, Ontario, in a contract dispute, Imlach declared that he’d be penalized $500 plus a further $25 for each additional day he missed.
A year later, Imlach celebrated the NHL’s new era by decreeing that each Leaf would be fined $100 for every game Toronto lost to an expansion team. This seems to have been a post-Christmas measure imposed in early 1968, after the defending champions had already dropped games to the neophyte Oakland Seals, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, and Pittsburgh Penguins.
It doesn’t seem to have worked quite as effectively as the coach might have wished: by mid-February, the Leafs were down $300 a man after losing again to the Seals, Flyers, and Kings.
Imlach also fined his players $5 every time they gave the puck away in a game. I don’t just how long this was in effect, or how much it raised, though I’d love to know the totals and the dressing-room grumbling associated with that.
The money accrued did find its way back to the players, it turns out: in the ’60s, at the end of each season, the Leafs gathered with wives and partners for an annual Giveaway Party, funded by their own on-ice sloppiness.
Imlach avoided these occasions, usually, until 1969. “He had always been invited,” the Globe and Mail noted that spring, “but stayed away so the players wouldn’t feel crimped with the boss around.” The venue that April was the midtown restaurant Ports of Call, located at the time on Yonge Street, where today the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto has its offices.
Imlach and his wife Dodo sat at a table with Bob and Rosyln Pulford, Paul and Eleanor Henderson, Bibs and Norm Ullman, and assistant trainer Tommy Nayler. Nobody felt crimped, apparently — but then Imlach wasn’t the boss any longer: he’d been fired as Leafs coach and GM three days earlier, within two minutes of the team’s having been swept out of the playoffs in the first round by the Boston Bruins.