Old Bootnose: Sid Abel thought he had another year in him at the end of the 1951-52 NHL season, his GM Jack Adams, wasn’t so sure. The Detroit Red Wings defeated the Montreal Canadiens in the spring of ‘’52 to win the Stanley Cup, and Abel, 34, was the captain leading them, their frontline centre, and the highest-scoring player in team history. He hadn’t signed a new contract, though. He had bought a cocktail lounge in Detroit, and there was talk that he was thinking of starting a new career there. Instead, he signed on with the Chicago Blacks as playing coach. Five years later, he was back in Detroit coaching his old linemate and fellow Saskatchewanian Gordie Howe. Abel stayed on for 12 seasons (Howe, still playing, lasted a season longer). Above, that’s the coach in one of his natural habitats at the Detroit Olympia in January of 1961.
(Photo: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505699)
The Chicago Black Hawks were tenanting the NHL’s basement when GM Tommy Ivan announced in late December of 1957 that the old coach was out and a new coming in. That can’t have been easy — unless there was nothing easier. Ivan was himself the incumbent, having taken on the job when Dick Irvin relinquished the helm in October of 1956 due to poor health. The new man now was Rudy Pilous, late of the Junior A St. Catharines Teepees, where he’d been both coach and GM. He had one practice with his new players before heading into his first NHL game, early in January, in Toronto. With a smile, he asked a reporter for a program before the puck fell: “I’d better see who’s on the team.” The Black Hawks won that game, and the next one as well, at home to Boston. Chicago didn’t make the playoffs that year, though they had climbed up to fifth, ahead of the Leafs, by season’s end. And with Pilous aboard, they kept climbing, winning the 1961 Stanley Cup.
Pilous persevered with the Black Hawks until 1963, when Tommy Ivan fired him in favour of Billy Reay. Herewith, from earlier days, an excerpt from “Rudy Pilous’ Recipe For Enjoying a Headache,” Trent Frayne’s profile for Maclean’s, published March 28, 1959:
The coach in question is Rudy Pilous, a forty-four-year-old, bulky shambling man of six-feet-two, with a shock of black hair, dark eyes in a moon face, and no previous NHL experience whatever, even as a young player seeking a tryout. Pilous, never quite as graceful on skates as Barbara Ann Scott, played only pseudo-professional hockey — with the New York Rovers, the St. Catharines Saints and the Richmond Hawks in England. It is probably only coincidental that all three of these teams have long since quietly collapsed. Before these peregrinations Pilous endured part of a season with the Selkirk Fishermen, in Manitoba, whom he abandoned when he hadn’t been paid a penny of a promised twenty-five dollars a week.
But he has more than compensated for any lack of professional experience on the ice by the scope and variety of his activity off it. If the bewildering Black Hawks need a coach of bewildering background to get them out of purgatory Pilous (pronounced Pill-us) is their man.
Pilous, who left school at fourteen in Winnipeg to help his father support the nine children in the family, has been a chauffeur, a telephone lineman, an ice-cream salesman, a carpenter, a pipe cutter, a truck driver, a beer waiter, an inventor (General Motors paid him fifty dollars for a safety device), a receiving-department supervisor, and a publicist for ice shows, roller-skating derbies and race tracks. And, to top it off, he has coached hockey teams in such improbable places as California, Kentucky and Texas.
From this vocational mélange there has emerged a deceptively gifted, acutely observant man quite inconsistent with the bumbling, amiable, even naïve façade he often affects. Pilous’ public reputation stems partly from his tendency to link singular verbs with plural subjects and through in a mangled polysyllable now and then. When he succumbs he’ll laugh too quickly and refer to himself as “a big dumb squarehead.” Actually, he has an insight into many kinds of persons besides himself, and as a practicing psychologist it has appeared this year that he’s often been able to get blood out of a stone.
(Photo, from January of 1961: Louis Jaques/ Library and Archives Canada/ e002343755)
“Very proud,” Brendan Shanahan was telling the media at the Air Canada Centre, “very happy today. Happy to introduce Mike as the 30th coach in Toronto Maple Leafs’ history. Thank you, Mike. Welcome.”
Except, of course, that Babcock is the 31st man to coach the Leafs. Dick Duff is the odd man out, relegated to a footnote in the team’s media-guide list of head coaches, untallied in the overall count that runs, now, from Alex Romeril to the pride of Manitouwadge, Ontario (Babcock’s hometown) by way of Saskatoon (where he grew up).
The Leafs, of course, are free to count their coaches in any way they so choose. But the case for leaving Duff out is cloudy, at best; the logic for including him in is at least persuasive as that associated with several other names who are on the list.
Duff’s tenure was brief, just two came in March of 1980, as detailed here. It came on suddenly, overnight, when the incumbent Floyd Smith was injured in a car accident on a Friday night. Smith had a couple of assistants that year, Duff and Johnny Bower, and on the Saturday morning ahead of an evening game, GM Punch Imlach put Duff in charge. “I told the players that Duff had absolute control of the team,” Imlach told reporters, “and I wanted them to do exactly what he told them.”
Still, it was a stopgap measure, no question about that, an emergency measure, a battlefield commission. Much like (minus the highway accident) the situation that the San Jose Sharks found themselves in December of 2002. In that case, GM Dean Lombardi had fired his head coach, Darryl Sutter, and a pair of assistants, named a Shark scout, Cap Raeder, as a temporary replacement. He did the job for precisely one game, a 3-2 overtime win over Phoenix, before Lombardi got a new coach, Ron Wilson, into place. According to the Sharks’ media guide, he was the seventh coach in team history, just as the man who succeeds the eighth (Todd McLellan) will be the ninth — i.e. no bumping about in the footnotes for Cap Raeder.
Brevity shouldn’t sink Duff’s cause. Maybe, then, Leaf management and asterisk lobbyists would argue that everybody knew that Duff wasn’t going to last, he was no more than a placeholder, a bookmark, filling a space behind the Leaf bench until the new, real coach showed up.
On that basis, Alex Romeril shouldn’t count, either — he was only doing the job in the latter days of the 1927 season until Conn Smythe finished up his coaching commitment with the University of Toronto Grads. And what about Peter Horachek, this year? Like Duff, he was an assistant who found himself appointed interim coach when, in his case, GM Dave Nonis fired Randy Carlyle this past January. Nobody expected him be in the job beyond the end of the season. He was, but only for a day or so: Brendan Shanahan fired him and Nonis on the Sunday after the Leafs played their final game.
Ah-ha (as the Leafs might say, and do, in this imaginary debate I’m having with them, whether they know it or not) — ha-ha, but Punch Imlach never spoke the magic word, whatever the GM might have mentioned about absolute control, Dick Duff was never officially anointed with those three all-important syllables: interim.
Is that true, though? On Monday, March 17, 1980, the day Duff coached his second and last game in the NHL, newspapers across the continent published a brief Associated Press notice that included the words Dick and Duff and named and interim coach. The AP would have got their information from some reputable source — maybe the PR people at the NHL? Likewise The Toronto Star, wherein readers of the small print in the sports pages might have seen this:
Is that enough to pluck Duff out of the margins and get him properly numbered as the fifteenth coach in Leaf history? I don’t know. Maybe Mike Babcock could put a word in for him. Continue reading
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?
Lots of numbers flying around today with the announcement that Mike Babcock is taking over as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, from one (number of Stanley Cups Babcock has won) to ten (years he was in Detroit) to 50,000,000 (non-Canadian dollars Toronto will reportedly be paying him over the course of the next years).
The number 30 has been prominent, too, in the mix, notably from the Leafs themselves, who at 11:22 a.m. this morning took to Twitter to make welcome “the 30th head coach in club history.”
Can you blame everybody else, press and public alike, for taking the team’s word for it — even though it’s wrong?
Whether the Leafs know it or not, Mike Babcock is the 31st man to coach the team.
That’s going back to the winter of 1927, when Conn Smythe transformed the St. Patricks into Maple Leafs midway through the NHL season and counting all the way through to, well, now. Along the way, the coaches have included many former playing greats (from Hap Day to George Armstrong) along with enduring bench legends (Dick Irvin) and those who’ve been unfortunate to have wear the word interim next to their job description (Peter Horachek). A couple (King Clancy and Punch Imlach) have had more than one go at the job. Any way you tally them all (try it yourself here), the number is 31.
Could just be a simple oversight handed down over time. I can’t say for certain whom the Leafs and everybody else are leaving out of their calculations, but my guess is that it’s the man with the briefest of Leaf leaderships — Dick Duff, who steered the team for just two (losing) games in 1980, post-Floyd Smith, pre-Punch Imlach.
Could be, I suppose, that it’s a matter of mercy: maybe the team believes that Duf, another Leaf great as a player, only stepped up to fill a gap that needed filling, and that his coaching days (and their .000 winning percentage) deserve to be excused from all our memories.