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.”

 

 

 

 

the five leaf retirements of george armstrong

Born this day in 1930, George Armstrong turns 87 today. He remains, of course, the most recent captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs to have hoisted the Stanley Cup in victory.

That was in May of 1967. Armstrong was 36, with four Cups to show for his 16 NHL seasons. In June, he announced a decision he’d made. “I’m retiring,” he said. “That’s it. It’s taken all my guts to quit. I wasn’t too happy with my year. Sure I played well at the end, but does one month make up for seven bad months?”

There was some question whether would be protecting in the summer’s expansion draft: that was another factor. Still, Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach was said to be shaken by the news. “I don’t accept his resignation,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I don’t even know about it.”

Four days later, after Los Angeles and California, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh had plucked Terry Sawchuck, Bob Baun, Kent Douglas, Brit Selby, Al Arbour, and others from the champions’ roster, Imlach did end up shielding Armstrong, and by September, when the Leafs headed to Peterborough, Ontario, for training camp, the captain was back in the fold.

He admitted to being a little embarrassed. “To say you’re going to quit is easy,” he told Louis Cauz. “It’s harder to do it, especially when hockey has been your whole life.”

He’d been thinking on it all summer. “I can’t pin it down to one day when I suddenly made up my mind. About a month ago, I started watching my weight. Maybe I made up my mind then and I didn’t know it. Subconsciously my mind was made up, though. You’d have to be a psychiatrist to figure it out.”

He played the season and, points-wise, improved on his 1966-67 numbers. He was back at camp in September of ’68, preparing for the new season when he called it quits again. He just didn’t think he could help the team.

The Leafs told him to take some time. “I guess they hope I’ll change my mind,” Armstrong said. “I could. The easiest thing in the world is to change your mind. But right now my mind is more or less made up — I’m through.”

He wasn’t. He ended up rejoining the Leafs in early December.

“When I said I was retiring, I meant it,” he insisted after he’d made his comeback. “I said I was going into the hotel business, but I didn’t try that hard to get into it. I missed hockey and Punch kept asking me to come back.”

Summer of ’69, he decided again that he was finished — no, really.

It didn’t take, though. “I got bored,” he said, back in Peterborough again, come September. “When you’re a hockey player, you don’t lose interest until you die.”

“My mind was more made up to stay retired last year,” he said, “than it was this year.”

He didn’t mind that the Leafs’ named a new captain that fall, Dave Keon. “The C is on the guy who should be wearing it,” he said. After all, Armstrong was only going to play that one last year.

The Globe had lost count of Armstrong’s unsuccessful retirements by the time the 1970 rolled around, announcing that he was ending his third retirement to rejoin the Leafs that fall when in fact it was his fourth.

Never mind. He signed a one-year contract in November, played out the year.

Do I even need to say that he was back getting ready for a new campaign in the fall of ’71? “I feel good,” he said, “and am enjoying camp.”

Coach John McLellan wasn’t making any promises, though. “The Chief is a tremendous guy to have around,” he said, “great with the younger players.”

“But he has to beat out a young guy and right now that looks like a rough job.”

He was still in the picture as the new season approached. “He is skating every day in Toronto,” the coach said, “and would be ready if we called him.”

It didn’t work out, in the end. It was mid-October when the Leafs announced that George Armstrong would be packing his skates away for a fifth and final time, and joining Leafs’ management as a scout.

(Image, from 1963: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505690)

we want quinn: a short history of the quinn-orr wars of 1969

1969-70 O-Pee-Chee #186 Pat QuinnPat Quinn was a coach and a manager and a hockey co-owner and the tributes continue to mount following news of his death a week ago in Vancouver at the age of 71. If you’ve seen them, you’ll know that he was a straight-shooting cigar-chomping golden-hearted remarkable-CV’d guy’s guy old-school big-presenced Hamiltonian ornery Irishman larger-than-life goofy-grandfatherish intimidating great-story-telling three-piece-suited unconventional level-headed adaptable keeping-it-simple father-figurely high-acumened gruff-exteriored kindly personality’d news-conference-maestro hockey-beauty-loving square-jawed much-respected fine-broth-of-a-lad time-for-everyone-even-the-Zamboni-driver well-educated charismatic legendary Hibernian lion whip-smart could-have-done-anything-in-his-life heart-on-sleeve Gordie-Howe-idolizing player-trusting sarcastic not-a-detail-freak smart-cookie winner who left his indelible mark on the game and everyone who met him.

You’ll have heard, too, if you hadn’t before of a famous hit of his, when he was a defenceman in 1969 for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s been getting a lot of ink; here’s more.

Quinn’s active-NHLer adjectives included bruising, fearsome, give-it-his-all, tough, no-nonsense and not-afraid-of-a-good-fight. But while he may have played 617 NHL games over nine seasons for three teams, scoring 18 goals and 132 points while incurring 971 minutes of penalty punishment, but mostly the memorializing distills all that into the several seconds it took him to cross forty(ish) feet to desolate Bobby Orr with a bodycheck.

It was the first game of the playoffs, early April, in Boston. A crushing hit, CBC.ca was recalling last week, that rendered Orr unconscious. The Globe and Mail ran a photo of what it looked like the moment after the two men fell.

You have back up, though. To tell the story. March 15, nine games to go in the season, Boston came to Maple Leaf Gardens. The Leafs were battling Detroit for the final playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Division while the Bruins were sitting 14 points ahead, safely in second. They were a scoring juggernaut. The team was about to set an NHL record for goalscoring in a season. Headed for a scoring title, Phil Esposito already had more points than anyone ever had in the league. And Orr was closing to setting a new record by points by a defenceman.

quinn orr

Orr Wrestled Quinn: March 16, 1969, Boston’s famous #4 topples Toronto’s mighty #23. (Photo: The Globe and Mail)

But the Bruins were slumping. That’s what GM Milt Schmidt said. Coach Harry Sinden had injuries to contend with, ailing goalies in Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston and a pair of limping Eddies, Shack and Westfall. Plus Boston hadn’t won in Toronto since 1965, 21 games ago, back when Orr was still skating for the Oshawa Generals.

And the Leafs did prevail, 7-4. Walloped was a word Louis Cauz used in The Globe and Mail. Toronto played it rough. Bruce Gamble played great in the Leaf net. Well, once they went down 3-1 he did. After that, as Toronto came roaring back, Gamble shone. Ron Ellis scored a couple of goals to — what’s the word? — pace the Leafs. Toronto was Ellis-paced.

Oh, and high sticks. There were those, too, and several elbows, and sundry punches. Those contributed something, I’m thinking. Or didn’t. Anyway, a 26-year-old Pat Quinn was involved in a lot of this. Towards the end of the first period, he and Boston’s Don Awrey exchanged … glances? funny faces? fuck-yous? The Boston Globe called it potential squaring off. I guess the linesmen intervened before the two players got any squares off and while:

Brent Casselman was restraining Quinn, the big youngster pushed the official around quite enthusiastically.

In another report, he shook Casselman. Coach Sinden preferred tossed him around. The Bruins couldn’t believe he wasn’t ejected from the game and summarily suspended, which was had happened to Esposito earlier in the year when he manhandled a referee: two games. But Quinn got away with an elbowing minor.

In the third, Bobby Orr was in front of the Toronto net when Gamble made a save and Quinn was there to charge him head first into the sidebar (Boston Globe, March 16) or cross-check him into the Leaf goalposts (Toronto Star, March 17) or run him into the crossbar (Boston Globe, March 17) and Orr wrestled Quinn to the ice after the two had traded punches (Star, March 17) or tipped over his larger opponent (Boston Globe, March 16) and (also) Quinn kicked Bobby a few times in the process (Boston Globe, March 17).

That was the Saturday night. Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day, the two teams met again in Boston. The crowd chanted “We want Quinn” and possibly “Kill Quinn,” but they were disappointed: he didn’t play let alone get murdered. His groin was, well, pulled, and after skating pre-game he withdrew from the line-up. Without him, Toronto lost 11-3. Esposito had five points. Derek Sanderson scored a hattrick — or I guess notched.

“I was eating my heart out not to be out there,” Quinn told The Globe and Mail. “I’ve never wanted to play in a game as much as that one.” Continue reading