going nowhere: twelve blockbusting nhl deals that almost were (but not quite)

Here’s Your Hat:  With 23-year-old rookie Frank Brimsek having made the Boston net his own in October of 1938, the Bruins were looking to move their 35-year-old veteran Tiny Thompson. The buzz was that Toronto might swap him for defenceman Red Horner, though both teams denied it. In November, Thompson did pack his suitcase and bid Boston bye-bye, headed for Detroit in a deal that brought back from the Red Wings goaltender Normie Smith and US$15,000 cash.

Was Bobby Hull almost a Leaf? What about Rocket Richard? What would he have looked like in blue-and-white? As the rumours wax and wane on this day of the latest NHL trade deadline, what if we ticked off some time ahead of the 3 p.m. EST finish line exploring some potentially epic NHL deals that might have been (though, in the end, weren’t). Some of these unrealized trades and transactions, to be sure, were wishful wisps in the minds of newspapermen; some others, no doubt, were actually entertained by managers with the desire (if not, maybe, the wherewithal) to get a deal done. Either way, they involve some of the biggest names and talents in NHL history.  

October, 1983

It was the Montreal Gazette’s well-connected Red Fisher who heard the word, and shared it, that Montreal was in talks to acquire Paul Coffey from the Edmonton Oilers. The All-Star defenceman was coming off a stellar season in which he’d scored 29 goals and 96 points, but Fisher had it on good, anonymous authority that Oilers’ GM Glen Sather might be interest in taking defenceman Gilbert Delorme and centre Doug Wickenheiser in a swap. Sather was determined, Fisher said, to cut back on his team’s goals against. “His long-time view has been that Coffey is too concerned with offence and not sufficiently with defence.”

Coffey stayed in Edmonton, of course, celebrating by finishing the regular season with 40 goals and 126 points, good enough to stand him second in NHL scoring, behind teammate Wayne Gretzky. Also, that spring: Coffey and the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup. He won two more with Edmonton before he was finally traded, in 1987, to Pittsburgh, where he won a fourth, in 1991.

August, 1980

The fact that no-one had scored more points as a Toronto Maple Leafs than Darryl Sittler didn’t matter much to the team’s owner, Harold Ballard, in 1979, as he did his best to make his star centre miserable. Trading away Sittler’s winger and good friend Lanny McDonald was part of the program. By the end of a season that saw Sittler tear his captain’s C from his sweater, Ballard was vowing that Sittler would never again wear the blue-and-white.

In August of 1980, Ballard told reporters that he’d phoned Calgary Flames’ owner Nelson Skalbania to tell him that he could have Sittler in exchange for a pair of centres, Bob MacMillan and Kent Nilsson. “So far Skalbania has not replied,” Canadian Press noted, “and Cliff Fletcher, general manager of the Flames, says he knows nothing about it.”

Sittler and Ballard did subsequently broker a peace that saw the former return to the captaincy and play on in Toronto, until … the next breakdown. Early in January of 1982 he walked out on the Leafs hoping to prompt a trade, which duly came mid-month. Sittler went to Philadelphia in exchange for centre Rich Costello, a draft pick (that eventually hooked Peter Ihnacak), and future considerations (that, in time, resolved into left winger Ken Strong).

May, 1973

Defenceman Denis Potvin of the Ottawa 67s was the consensus first pick ahead of the 1973 NHL Draft in Montreal, and nobody doubted the GM Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders would select him when he got the chance.

Well, nobody but Montreal GM Sam Pollock, who held the second pick in the draft. Rumour had it that Pollock was offering the Islanders two prospects, wingers Dave Gardner and Steve Shutt, if they bypassed Potvin, leaving him for Canadiens. “I’ve spoken to every general manager in the National Hockey League here this week,” Torrey said, “trying to improve my hockey team in any way I can and what a lot of people forget is that I could conceivably draft Denis Tuesday and then trade him to Rangers or Boston, and yes, even Montreal, on Wednesday, if I wanted to.”

Draft Denis is what Torrey did, while Montreal had to settle for dropping down to select Bob Gainey, eighth overall. Pollock pushed hard for that Wednesday trade, reportedly upping his pre-draft offer for Potvin to five prospects, including Shutt and Gardner. Torrey’s answer was the same: no go.

April, 1970

Chicago’s playoffs came to a skidding halt that year: the Black Hawks lost in the Stanley Cup semi-finals, falling in four straight to the eventual champions from Boston. The Black Hawks had barely packed up their sticks for the year when Bill Gleason of Chicago’s Sun-Times broke the story that the team’s management was intent on shipping out one of the team’s — well, Gleason’s word was superplayers, which is to say left winger Bobby Hull or centre Stan Mikita.

This had been decided before the playoffs, Gleason said. Hull was the likelier to go, he maintained: he was not only the more marketable, but “had given management more trouble.” Gleason and his Chicago hockeywriting brethren agreed: Hull was headed to Toronto. “That’s a natural trade,” Gleason felt. “Bobby is an Ontarioan and he would restore the glamour that has been missing from Maple Leaf Gardens.

Speculative or not, this news caused something of a stir thereabout. At 31, Hull had been a Black Hawk for 13 seasons. In four of those, he’d scored 50 goals or more. He’d won a Stanley Cup, three Art Ross Trophies, two Harts, and a Lady Byng. Nine times he’d been voted to the NHL’s 1st Team All-Star.

Toronto Daily Star columnist Milt Dunnell couldn’t confirm or deny the rumour, but he thought a trade for Hull made sense. Hull was a superstar, and popular in Toronto, and the Leafs were interested in shaking up their roster. Centre Mike Walton was available. The Leafs might even be willing to deal their star, Davey Keon, who was in line for a big pay raise, and didn’t get along with coach John McLellan.

And Chicago GM Tommy Ivan wasn’t exactly denying … well, anything. “I can’t make any comment now on trades,” he said. “Is the report about Bobby far-fetched? Well, nothing is far-fetched these days.”

A reporter who tracked Hull down heard this: “I’ll play hockey as long as I can and it doesn’t much matter where. After 13 years, if they want to jack me around like this, it’s their prerogative.”

Subsequent dispatches from Chicago described a conversation between the GM and his star. “Should I pack my bags,” Hull asked Ivan. Answer: “Don’t be silly.”

And so Hull remained a Hawk: he played two more seasons in Chicago before making his million-dollar leap to the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets. As a writer wrote in 1970: “His hatchet with the Chicago management was buried, perhaps in a shallow, well-marked grave.”

May, 1963

It was a near run thing in 1963 when Kent Douglas of the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Calder Trophy to become the first ever defenceman to win the award for the NHL’s best rookie. When the balloting showed that Douglas had pipped Detroit blueliner Doug Barkley by 100 points to 99, the Red Wings asked for a recount. The verdict the second time around? The NHL found that though Douglas’ victory was slimmer than originally thought — 99.4 points to 99.2 — he’d still won.

That same off-season May, Douglas found his way back into the news when, talking to a reporter about rumours that Montreal’s 32-year-old star left winger Boom-Boom Geoffrion was on the trading block, he spilled what seemed like surprising beans. “It looks like he’ll be joining us,” Douglas said. Montreal was interested in several Leafs, Douglas added, though he wouldn’t which of his teammates he thought might soon be Canadiens.

For his part, Geoffrion was on what was being touted as a “goodwill tour” of Canada. He’d already addressed the trade rumours in Saskatoon, before Douglas spoke up, saying that, yes, he was aware that he was supposed to be upping stakes for Boston or Toronto but, no, he hadn’t heard anything from Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke. Geoffrion seemed to think that it might be Montreal’s management spreading the gossip.

“Maybe they are trying to needle me to try to get back into form,” Geoffrion told Eric Wesselby from the local Star-Phoenix. “I fell off in production after the 50-goal season of 1960-61, but 23 goals a season isn’t a bad record. I think that scoring 20 goals in an NHL season is equivalent to batting .300 in the majors. And how many players hit .300 for a season?”

Geoffrion had reached British Columbia by the time he heard what Kent Douglas was saying back on the east coast. “I’ll believe it when I hear it,” he said in Vancouver, “— from the Montreal officials.” Of Douglas, he had this to say, in Victoria: “He’s only been in the league one year and he knows more than I do.”

At the NHL’s summer meetings in June, Canadiens’ personnel director Sam Pollock didn’t deny that Geoffrion might be on the move. Maybe he would have been, too, if the right deal had come along. As it was, Geoffrion played one more season with Montreal, scoring 21 goals, before retiring in 1964. When he unretired, in 1966, it was with the New York Rangers, for whom he played a further two seasons.

February, 1952

Toronto won the 1950-51 Stanley Cup with Al Rollins and Turk Broda sharing the net, but by early 1952 Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe, unhappy with that pair, was pursuing Harry Lumley of the Chicago Black Hawks. His first offer to Hawks’ GM Bill Tobin: Rollins, centre Cal Gardner, and defenceman Bill Juzda. When that didn’t take, he proffered a couple of defencemen, Gus Mortson and Hugh Bolton, along with minor-league goaltender Gil Mayer.

That didn’t work, either. Smythe did eventually get his man, in September of ’52, with Lumley heading to Toronto in trade for Rollins, Mortson, Gardner, and right winger Ray Hannigan. Lumley couldn’t help the Leafs win a Stanley Cup, but he did earn a Vézina Trophy in 1954, along with a pair of selections to the NHL’s 1stAll-Star Team, in 1953-54 and 1954-55.

January, 1950

Toronto coach (and assistant GM) Hap Day was categorical in quashing a rumoured deal by which the Stanley Cup champions would have sent wingers Howie Meeker and Bill Ezinicki to Chicago for left winger Doug Bentley: no. Two years earlier, in 1948, Montreal coach Dick Irvin went out of this way to deny that his team was trying to send defenceman Kenny Reardon to Chicago for Bentley.

February, 1949

Conn Smythe was in Florida for a winter’s respite when the rumour reached him — just how it travelled, or with whom it originated, I can’t say. At the time, reporters on the Leafs beat didn’t seem to know, either. What mattered was that the chief Leaf believed that Montreal might just be willing to sell the great Maurice Richard and that if so, Toronto needed to be at the front of the line. With Toronto headed to Montreal for an early February meeting with the Canadiens, Smythe told his coach, Hap Day, to take his cheque-book and wave it at Frank Selke.

Sounds incredible, not to mention implausible, but the Leafs were all in. “Maple Leaf Gardens has never been close with a buck,” Day told The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond, “and I have explicit instructions to meet any price mentioned for Richard’s hockey services. We consider Richard the greatest right winger in the major league, if not the greatest player.”

Dream On: While it lasted, Toronto newspapers enjoyed the idea that Richard might be lured to the blue-and-white.

He’d called Selke to set up a meeting. His last word before he climbed the train for Montreal: “I hear that Selke told Montreal newsmen he would not consider any kind of deal for Richard, yet he has not barred the door to further discussions with me.”

Toronto’s interest in Richard met with nothing but derision in Montreal. “Toronto’s retarded bid,” Gazette columnist Dink Carroll called it in the not-so-sensitive parlance of the day. “All the money in Toronto wouldn’t buy him,” Selke scoffed, in unwitting echo of other scorn, in another time — you’ll get to it, if you keep going to the end. “In other words, no matter what Leafs offered, he’s not for sale.” If, on the other hand, Toronto was interested in selling, Selke announced a spoofing interest in buying Max Bentley, Bill Ezinicki, Harry Watson, and Garth Boesch.

“Propaganda,” Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin proclaimed. “All this is merely an attempt to upset my boys on the eve of a game.”

The Leafs ended up winning that one, 4-1 — so maybe it worked. Montreal management continued to ridicule the Leafs’ presumption. The following week, after the teams tied 2-2 in Toronto, the Gazette was only too pleased to report a phone conversation between Irvin and Selke. Richard had played an outstanding game, the coach reported. “The Rocket got two goals last night. Ask Conn Smythe how much he’ll pay for him now.”

Selke’s reply: “Don Metz got two goals, too. Ask Smythe how much he wants for Metz.”

November, 1947

The deal that sent centre Max Bentley and winger Cy Thomas to Toronto was the biggest in NHL history at the time, with Chicago getting back a full forward line in Gus Bodnar, Bud Poile, and Gaye Stewart along with defencemen Ernie Dickens and Bob Goldham. Later, Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe confided that just before getting Bentley, he’d been trying to pry defenceman Doug Harvey away from Montreal, offering Stewart straight up in a one-for-one deal.

October, 1933

The Boston Globe reported that there was nothing to the rumour that GM Art Ross was angling to trade swap right wingers and send captain Dit Clapper to Toronto for Charlie Conacher. Victor Jones was on the case: “Charlie, a great athlete, has a stomach ailment which doesn’t make him an A-1 risk.”

April, 1929

Reports had Montreal’s superstar centre Howie Morenz heading to Boston, with defenceman Lionel Hitchman and US$50,000 coming north; Canadiens’ GM Cecil Hart sharply denied it. “It looks like a deliberate effort to create discord in the team,” Hart said. “Put this down: Morenz won’t be sold to anybody. He will finish his professional hockey career where he started it, with the Canadiens.”

He was right, though Morenz did go on a bit of an odyssey in the mid-1930s, returning to Montreal for one last season before his career came to its sudden end in 1937.

A rumour in 1933 had Morenz going to Chicago for goaltender Charlie Gardiner, whom Canadiens’ GM Leo Dandurand admitted to coveting in a bad way. Like Hart before him, Dandurand vowed that Morenz (and teammate Aurèle Joliat, too) would never play for any team but Montreal. The following year, Montreal’s Gazettelearned from “a reliable source” that Morenz was Chicago-bound in exchange for right wingers Mush March and Lolo Couture. The actual deal took a few more months to consummate saw Morenz go to Chicago with goaltender Lorne Chabot and defenceman Marty Burke for right wing Leroy Goldsworthy, and defencemen Lionel Conacher and Roger Jenkins.

January, 1929

Howie Morenz had a bad knee, and Eddie Shore an ailing ankle, so when Canadiens visited Boston early in 1929, both teams had to do without their marquee players. The game ended in an underwhelming 0-0 tie with press reports noting that Montreal appeared “weakened” while the Bruins lacked “their usual dash.” The crowd of 15,000 did get some good news on the night, which they seem to have received, extraordinarily, via the Garden PA announcer. We’ll leave to John Hallahan of the Globe to pass it on:

It was announced that a rumour had been spread about that Eddie Shore had been sold to the New York Rangers. The management declared such a report ridiculous, adding there was not enough money in New York to buy him.

A great cheer went up at this statement.

It was also announced if the fans in the upper balcony did not stop throwing paper on the ice that means would be taken to screen the sections.

make way for the leafs

standwitness

Toronto’s upstart Maple Leafs head into tonight’s game with the Washington Capitals with a five-game winning streak in hand, but the real news may be the optimism and glad-heartedness attending the team in the wake of Sunday’s outdoor overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings feels like something of a new commodity in the city. The surging Leafs have their fans talking about making the playoffs for the first time in four years, even as they bask in the lustre of the bright youth of Connor Brown, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and the incandescent Auston Matthews.

Toronto has, in fact, seen the hope before. It was this very time of the year in 1992, for instance, when GM Cliff Fletcher orchestrated the ten-player trade that brought in Doug Gilmour from the Calgary Flames.

A new day dawns for the team that forgot how to win

was the headline in Toronto’s Financial Post on this day 25 years ago, while in The Windsor Star, columnist Lloyd McLachlan wrote about the notion of Gilmour as, “if not the second coming of Dave Keon, at least a playmaking Moses possibly capable of helping inspire a miracle escape from the wilderness.”

Twenty years further back, Stan Fischler’s 1975 book Make Way For The Leafs outlined an end for another era of Toronto hockey woe. Once, he wrote in opening his thesis, the Leafs had been Canada’s own New York Yankees: “the supreme professional sports organization.” By the end of the page, he’d outlined the glories composed by Conn Smythe, emphasized the success of his teams, the colour of its characters, the team’s toughness, his material proof of which cited Bingo Kampman,

a defenceman of such herculean strength he would win bets that he could lift heavy dinner tables just by placing a side of the table top between his teeth and then hoisting the table using sheer mouth power.

Fischler’s quick sketch of Toronto’s downfall centred mostly on GM Punch Imlach. His account of the team’s ongoing resurrection got going in chapter two with Imlach’s sharp young successor, Jim Gregory, along with the savvy coach he hired in Red Kelly, and a cadre of “youthful skaters” like Darryl Sittler, Rick Kehoe, and Lanny McDonald.

Fischler pegged the start of the Leafs’ “rebirth” to the opening of the NHL’s 1973-74 season — just as, it so happens, team president Harold Ballard was getting out of prison after serving a sentence for theft and fraud.

Ballard isn’t everyone’s idea of a hero, of course. Fischler called him “the most intriguing and one of the most engaging personalities in Toronto sports,” framing him as “a hard man in what he feels is a hard world.” In ’73, Fischler said, Ballard believed the Leafs were three years away from establishing a Stanley Cup-winning team.

They did get to the semi-finals in 1978, losing there to the eventual champions from Montreal. That was as good as it got, though: what the Leafs had to look forward to beyond that were the grim ’80s. Was the team’s wilderness ever so deep and dark as it was in that decade in which they traded away McDonald and Sittler, and squandered one draft pick after another?

The legacy of those years under the Ballard regime lingered a long time. It’s what Cam Cole was alluding to in ’92 as Doug Gilmour arrived from Calgary, and it’s something that Leaf-loving hearts trust is history of a kind that doesn’t repeat itself.

Players turn to mush in Loserville North

Cole’s Edmonton Journal column that January morning was headlined, and it carried on in a key that even, now, still, in these heady times of Marners and Matthewses, can send a shudder through a city:

For reasons not clearly understood to this day, good players turn to mush instantly upon contact with Toronto. It may be the acid rain. Veteran star, proven role player, promising draft pick — you name it, the Leafs can ruin it.

post captains

 

Stamp Act: Canada Post launched its newest line of hockey stamps this week with six sticky-backed forwards. “The 2016 NHL® Great Canadian Forwards stamps highlight some of the greatest goal-scorers ever to play in the NHL,” the press release touts, and yes, it is an impressive cadre: Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Darryl Sittler, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, and Sidney Crosby.

Hard to fathom how the crown corporation came up with this particular group. Crosby, of course, is a natural — who wouldn’t want Canada’s own captain on their lettermail? But if it is indeed meant to reflect distinguished goal-getters, then why no Wayne Gretzky, best of them all? He already got on a stamp, of course, in 2000, so maybe that’s all he gets. Same with Gordie Howe and Marcel Dionne, the next ones down the all-time list of high-scoring Canadians. If that’s how the choosing was done, statistically, then, yes, Phil Esposito is deserving. But what about Mike Gartner, who outscored both Messier and Yzerman? Nothing against Lafleur, but he’s way down the list, well below Mario Lemieux and Luc Robitaille. Is that really fair? And what about Dave Andreychuk? How do you think Andreychuk feels knowing that Sittler got in ahead of him having scored 170 fewer career goals? How would you feel, philatelically speaking?

27 x 10 (+ 40)

Embed from Getty Images

It’s 40 years tonight that Darryl Sittler, 65 now, went on his famous bonanza at the expense of the Boston Bruins and their permeable goaltender, Dave Reece. Sittler, as Lance Hornby of The Toronto Sun put it so delicately, made Reece “look silly” on the night of February 7, 1976 as he compiled six goals and four assists in an 11-4 Leaf routing.

1970s me, harshly reviewed by the passport office

1970s me, harshly reviewed by the passport office

I was there with my dad that night, a not-quite-ten-year-old. As I’ve written before, here, it was a noisy occasion on which I did not too badly on the quiz in the back of the Maple Leafs program. I don’t remember much more than that. I can recall the general outlook from our seats — reds, maybe? — looking down on the ice from the southwest corner of the rink. There’s no doubt that I would have been thrilled just to be in the building for an NHL game, and that I would have repeated the names of favoured players — Salming, Turnbull, Ratelle — as though to work a spell. I think I remember standing up for all the ovations we gave Sittler and, being small, having my view swamped by all the joyous Leaf-loving adults around us.

The Leafs are the road today, so the team celebrated Sittler’s feat early, in word online and in deed ahead of their home game last Thursday against the New Jersey Devils. Dave Reece was in on the celebrations, invited up from his home in Vermont to pay tribute to the man who tormented him out of the NHL all those years ago. For a man whose NHL fame is fixed on his worst night in the net and who never played another game in the league, he seems to have a kept his sense of humour about him. He told Lance Hornby that he wasn’t aware at the time that a record was in the making. “All I knew was the fans were going berserk and this guy keeps scoring. I’m thinking: How many goals does he need?

A couple of other anniversary notes:

• Bert Olmstead’s name seems to have gotten a little lost in this week’s excitement. Maurice Richard was the first, it’s true, to establish the record that Sittler broke in 1976: the Rocket scored five goals and added three assists in a 9-1 Canadiens win over Detroit on December 28, 1944. But as much of the media coverage has failed to acknowledge, Olmstead, who died in November, matched that mark in a 12-1 Montreal win over Chicago on January 9, 1954. The long, lean winger, The Globe and Mail called him that night: he had four goals and four assists. Richard couldn’t get a goal, but he did contribute five assists, and managed to tint if not entirely overshadow Olmstead’s feat of scoring.

Richard had published a newspaper column that week criticizing NHL president Clarence Campbell and the Forum crowd showed up prepared to voice their support of the beloved winger. Fifteen plainclothes’d policemen were on duty to help keep the peace. When the president showed up (late) to take his regular seat, Dollard St. Laurent had just scored to make it 3-0 Habs, but the cheers turned to boos as fans saw Campbell.

The Canadian Press:

The crowd of 13,930 booed the league president lustily between cheers for goal after goal, gaped at him between periods and at the end gave up a few yells of “go home, Campbell, go home.”

Occupying his usual box-seat in the south end of the Forum, Campbell took it all in stride and didn’t appear in the least flustered. He was not molested personally and the crowd, happy over the mounting score, was not openly belligerent.

• I’ve wondered, as the Februarys have passed, whether my memory had made up or exaggerated the brass blare from the Gardens’ loudspeakers that heralded Sittler’s goals in 1976. Milt Dunnell’s Toronto Star column from the Monday following suggests I didn’t. A great night it may have been in Leafland, but remember who ruled the kingdom: Harold Ballard. Maybe the owner was trying to channel the call-to-arms of British cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo, Dunnell mused:

Ballard’s bugler assaulted the eardrums of friend and foe alike with a canned version of “Charge” that had been wired into the sound system. No one seems to know who the bugler is. Maybe it’s just as well. This town has enough homicides already.

Dunnell also recounts that only that morning, Sittler had invited his parents to the game — Leaf teammate Greg Hubick had extra tickets — and while the Sittlers thought they were busy to make it, they did in the end make the trip from St. Jacobs, Ontario.

It’s not surprising that Harold Ballard was largely scrubbed from this week’s commemorations of Sittler’s big night — why sour the celebrations? — but the Leaf despot’s pre-game rant is worth a mention all these years later. A day before Sittler ran amok, Ballard had told reporters of his determination to find “a sensational centre” to play between wingers Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson. “We’d set off a time bomb if we had a hell of a centre in there,” he said.

Sittler, of course, was asked about this after the Boston game. The Star’s Frank Orr took down his answer:

“Undoubtedly, Mr. Ballard will figure his little blast inspired me to set the record but it just isn’t that way,” Sittler said.

“Maybe now he won’t have to hunt quite so hard for that centre he wants.”

ghost coach

 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?

trademarked

Call It Macaroni: Trades made Phil Esposito depressed and angry. Here, in happier times, he makes the case for Kraft Dinner at the airport. Out on the tarmac. With a side salad.

Brett Hull grinned when he was traded from Calgary to St. Louis in 1988. “Yesssssss,” he said, and I quote. A few months later and a little to the north, Wayne Gretzky departed for Los Angeles amid a storm of shock and tears, anger and accusations. That, the latter, is probably closer to the norm when it comes to what hockey players go through when they’re swapped, one team to another. A lot of the time they feel what Arnie Brown felt when the New York Rangers sent him to Detroit in 1971: “depressed, bitter, and shocked.”

Dave Schultz was dazed. His head felt heavy. He never thought it would come to this. Traded for draft choices! This was in 1976 when Philadelphia sent him south to do his hammering in L.A. He was angry. He blamed Bobby Clarke. After all he’d done for the Flyers in the way of punching their opponents! Not to mention them punching him! Humiliating. He said some things, which a reporter heard and published. There was a furor. “It’s dislocation pure and simple — and rejection,” he’d wax later. “You don’t think that someone else wants you; you think that somebody doesn’t.” Continue reading