frank mahovlich: guess you could say I like dancing to after-dinner music

Frank Mahovlich scored a pair of goals on this date in 1968, the day of his 30thbirthday, powering his Toronto Maple Leafs to a 2-1 win over the visiting Detroit Red Wings. But the man they called the Big M wasn’t long for the Leafs at that point: a little more than a month later, after almost 12 years in the blue-and-white, Mahovlich was traded to those very same Wings in a seven-player deal. Heading for Detroit with him were Pete Stemkowski, and Garry Unger (along with Carl Brewer’s rights); the return for the Leafs was Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith, Norm Ullman, and Doug Barrie.

Born in 1938 in Timmins, Ontario, Mahovlich grew up to be a golden boy in Toronto, of course, starting in the mid-1950s with a starring Junior-A role as a St. Michael’s Major. Profiled by Hockey Pictorial’s Margaret Scott after he won the Calder Trophy in 1958 as the NHL’s superlative rookie, Mahovlich divulged his boyhood heroes (Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay) and discussed what he liked to eat on a game-day (steak at lunch, eggs around four o’clock). In terms of his record collection, well, he admitted a partiality for musicals like Oklahoma! and the “semi-classical” stylings of Mantovani. An “enthusiastic” dancer, Mahovlich acknowledged that no-one had to coax him onto a dancefloor, unless the music playing was rock ’n’ roll. “I guess you could say I like dancing to after-dinner music,” he told Scott. “Something nice and quiet and not too fast.”

The impact that Mahovlich continued to have as a Leaf left winger is hard to overstate. Twice named to the NHL’s First All-Star team, he featured on a very good Toronto team that would win four Stanley Cups in six years through the 1960s. Writing in Maclean’sin ’61, Peter Gzowski thought he could be a defining figure in NHL history, the rightful heir to Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. At 23, Mahovlich was, Gzowski felt, “making an honest, exciting and, it appears now, worthy bid to claim the new era for his own.” Even if that didn’t quite work out as planned, The Globe and Mail’s Louis Cauz had no trouble deeming him “the most productive goalscorer the Leafs have ever had.”

That was in 1967. Earlier the same year, Leaf legend King Clancy offered this on Mahovlich: “He’s as nice a man as I’ve ever known in this game. Perhaps that is his trouble. He has the talent to be the greatest hockey player who ever lived, if only he was a little meaner. But he isn’t, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”

For all the goals scored and the Stanley Cups hoisted, it’s true that life as a Leaf came with a cost for Mahovlich, who was twice treated in the 1960s for what the papers variously termed “emotional breakdown,” “tension,” and “nervous depressions.” The second time, in the fall of ’67, Mahovlich missed 11 games. Gordie Howe was one who weighed in with a diagnosis at the time — of the Leaf faithful. “If Toronto fans would appreciate his great talent and give him the cheers he deserves, instead of booing him, maybe the pressure wouldn’t cook the guy.”

Mahovlich had his ups and his downs when he returned to the fold in ’67, dominating one night, lagging some others. The boos continued. Leafs coach and GM Punch Imlach was said to be dissatisfied, too, with Mahovlich’s defensive play, and by time Imlach sent him to Detroit in March of ’68 all the talk of rifts between coach and fans and player meant that the trade didn’t come as a surprise to many.

That’s not to say it didn’t traumatize Toronto. Indignant fans jammed the switchboard at Maple Leaf Gardens with complaining calls the morning the deal was announced, while others out in front of the rink stopped traffic on Carlton Street with their moody milling. In the wake of the trade’s announcement, The Globe and Mail reported that shares in MLG Inc. fell by $1.50 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

For Mahovlich, the shift to Gordie Howe’s Red Wings was as good (on the ice) as a rest: he would thrive in Detroit, scoring a career-high 49 goals the following season, 1968-69. He eventually went to Montreal, where he enjoyed his best years, statistically, in a three-and-a-half-year stint that saw him help Canadiens to Stanley Cup championships in 1971 and ’73. Mahovlich played three seasons in the WHA after that, returning to Toronto as a Toro in 1975 before following the team when they moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and reconstituted as Bulls.

Lightly interrogated by Norman Brown for the 1965 edition of Canadian Boy, a magazine published by the Boy Scouts of Canada, Mahovlich had said he thought he had another eight years of hockey in him. “I don’t know. I’d say I might quit around 34 or 35.”

As it was, he was 41 in the fall of 1979 when he made a bid to return to the NHL with the Red Wings before deciding that it wasn’t to be. “He gave it everything he had,” said Detroit coach Bobby Kromm. “When the exhibition games were over, he came to us and said he didn’t think he could hack it. I’m glad it happened that way, that we didn’t have to go to him. He was a great player.”

 

 

 

 

imaginary numbers: maple leaf math edition

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“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:

duff interim

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

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?