Today’s the day that Punch Imlach was born, on a Friday, in 1918, in a Toronto that was about to see the local professional team play for (and win) the Stanley Cup in the NHL’s first season. George was the name he was given that year; the nickname dates to the late 1930s, and seems (unfortunately) to have been concussion-based. Knocked out playing senior hockey for the Toronto Goodyears, Imlach is supposed to have revived and started swinging at teammates, who dubbed him “Punchy.” That was eventually trimmed as Imlach played on, never in the NHL, but notably with the QSHL Quebec Aces, with whom he would start his coaching career and oversee, in so doing, a young Jean Béliveau.
Imlach joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1958 as an assistant GM. In his first 11 seasons as Leaf coach, he steered the team to four Stanley Cups. Fired in 1969, he went to join the fledgling Buffalo Sabres as coach and GM. That’s the era from which this team-issued photo dates. “His dry acerbic wit is as much an Imlach characteristic,” the caption on the back explains, “as the intriguing hats he wears behind the players’ bench.” After a year-and-a-half’s tenure in Buffalo, he had another stint with the Leafs in the late 1970s, but it wasn’t pretty and — under Harold Ballard’s erratic stewardship — didn’t last. His 370 regular-season coaching wins remains a franchise record for the Leafs; he won 44 more in the playoffs, second in team history to Hap Day’s 49. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1984, Punch Imlach died at the age of 69 in 1987.
Not sure exactly how it happened that a photographer came across Chicago Black Hawks coach Rudy Pilous writing out Valentine’s Day cards in February of 1962 to send home to his family in St. Catharines, Ontario, but he does appear to be working hard on coming up with just the right message. The Black Hawks were the reigning Stanley Cup champions at the time, and on February 14 they were holding firm in third place in the six-team NHL standings, behind Toronto and Montreal. They hosted the New York Rangers on this night 57 years ago, and beat them 4-3. A few further Rudy Pilous notes from that month:
• Asked about Chicago’s recent surge in the standings, Pilous said, “I like to get my clubs in shape gradually. We like to feel around during the first half of the season and start our move in January.”
• “We’re playing the same kind of hockey that won us the Stanley Cup,” Pilous told Tom Fitzgerald of the Boston Globe this month.
• Dink Carroll of the Montreal Gazette asked him who was the hardest player to check in the NHL. “Our guy,” he said, without a pause, “Bobby Hull.” Also in February, Pilous was adamant that Hull should be the left wing named to the NHL’s All-Star first team that season ahead of Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich. The Hawks’ Stan Mikita was another clear choice. “Mikita is the best centre in the league on any basis you care to compare him,” Pilous insisted.
• Mid-month, Pilous, who was 47, talked a challenge he’d received from one of his defencemen, the unspeedy Moose Vasko, to a two-lap race of the ice at Chicago Stadium. I don’t know how it turned out — at this point in his preparation, Pilous admitted that he’d only managed a lap-and-a-half.
• Pilous lodged a complaint with NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss regarding the liberties he felt opposing forwards were taking with Chicago goaltender Glenn Hall. “Glenn hasn’t protested,” he said, “but I’ve seen the bruises. Officials should watch closely around Hall’s net. I don’t mind if Hall gets some stick butts, or a few elbows, but I don’t want ’em climbing on his back.”
• Spoiler alert: Chicago did beat Montreal in the playoffs, but come the finals in April, up against Toronto, they fell in six games. Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull were named to the 1stAll-Star team, and Glenn Hall to the 2nd.
Detroit Red Wings coach Jimmy Skinner (right) gears up in the fall of 1957 with his boss, manager Jack Adams. A son of Selkirk, Manitoba, Skinner succeeded Tommy Ivan on the Wings’ bench in 1954, guiding the team to a second consecutive Stanley Cup championship in the spring of ’55. The summer of 1957 was a tumultuous one in Detroit. In July, Ted Lindsay departed the team, traded to Chicago after 13 seasons and 700 points for the crime of heading up the NHL’s incipient player’s association. Lindsay had said he’d rather retire than leave Detroit, but he’d finally agreed to the trade. At a press conference, Lindsay described “the personal resentment of the Detroit general manager toward me.” Adams denied that there was any feud: he said that shipping out 31-year-old Lindsay, the fourth highest goalscorer in NHL history, and All-Star goaltender Glenn Hall, 25, for four players and cash was all about renewing the Red Wings. With Terry Sawchuk back in the net that year, Detroit did end up in third place in the final NHL standings, though they fell to the unstoppable Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs. Skinner was gone by then, having resigned as coach in January on a doctor’s advice about the migraines he couldn’t quell. Sid Abel was the man who replaced him, and he kept the job for the next ten years. His old linemate Ted Lindsay would return to Detroit for a final season in 1964-65 during that time. As for Stanley Cups, Abel’s Wings came close, losing in the Finals four times during his tenure. The team would go without a championship until 1997, with Scotty Bowman in command.
At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.
Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”
Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.
Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:
No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’
That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”
Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.
That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.
Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.
Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.
We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.
Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.
Going into the NHL’s 1959-60 season, Phil Watson stitched his confidence to his sleeve. “I predict that we will finish in the play-offs for the fourth time in the five years that I have been coach of the club,” he said. At 45, he had charge of the New York Rangers, the team for whom he’d made his mark through the 1930s and ’40s as a feisty forward. But Watson’s September optimism didn’t translate into October wins in ’59. “I’m worried,” Watson was saying a month later,” but I can’t put my finger on the reason for four losses. This is one of the best clubs I’ve ever had.”
By November, with the Rangers having won just two of 14 games, Watson headed to New York’s Polyclinic Hospital for treatment of a peptic duodenal ulcer. The surgery was a success, but he was out of a job: Rangers GM Muzz Patrick stood in for a game before appointing one of Watson’s old Ranger teammates to succeed him on a full-time basis, Alf Pike.
At 34, Doug Harvey, meanwhile, was doing what he’d done for years: anchoring the Montreal Canadiens’ blueline, winning Norris trophies as the league’s primo defenceman. He won his fifth the following spring, and another one the year after that, in 1961. But that was it for Harvey in Montreal: at the end of May, Muzz Patrick lured him to New York to play for and coach the Rangers. Alf Pike had lasted just a single (losing) season.
Harvey wasn’t sure, initially, that he wanted to move — until he was. He’d been making $20,000 or so a year in Montreal; his Rangers’ contract was reported to be worth $27,000. Patrick was convinced he’d lead New York out of the wilderness. “Each time I have talked to Harvey,” he said, “I’ve become more and more impressed with the fact that he is an ideal choice to become coach of the Rangers. He knows hockey, commands attention, is intelligent, and doesn’t jump to rash decisions.”
Phil Watson had been coaching Providence in the American Hockey League, but in June he got a new job, too, coaching the Boston Bruins. Under Milt Schmidt, the Bruins were worse than the Rangers in ’60-61, and both teams missed the playoffs. Watson got a three-year contract that would pay him (so it was said) $15,000, $17,500, and $20,000 in successive years. This time around, Watson tempered his optimism. “We may not win too many games at first,” he said. “I’m no miracle man.”
And so to this encounter, above, which dates to July of 1961, when the new coaches met and dressed up in Montreal during the NHL’s annual meetings.
Come October, it so happened that Boston and New York would open the new campaign with a home-and-home series. On a Wednesday night in Massachusetts, the Rangers won 6-2. They did it again the next night, too, in New York. This time the score was 6-3.
“I’ve been around too long in hockey to know you can’t win ’em all,” a wary Harvey said after that second win. “I just hope the New York fans treat us well when we have a bad night.”
Though he played on, Harvey would coach just a single season in New York before Muzz Patrick replaced him behind the bench. Harvey did get the Rangers to the playoffs, to his credit, where they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions from Toronto. Phil Watson? His Bruins couldn’t climb out of the basement. Watson started the ’62-63 season as coach again, but he didn’t finish it: after a 1-8-5 start, he was out, and Boston got a new coach, which is to say an old one, in Milt Schmidt.
(Image: Weekend Magazine/Library and Archives Canada)