best bower

Backstop: Born in 1924 on a Saturday of this date in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Johnny Kiszkan got a new surname in 1946, which is why we talk about Johnny Bower breaking into the NHL in 1953. He started out a New York Ranger, but it’s as a beloved and highly effective Toronto Maple Leaf that he’s remembered, not least because he helped the team win four Stanley Cups in the 1960s. Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976, Johnny Bower died in 2017 at the age of 93.

mr. elbows

Born in Flin Flon, Manitoba, on a Tuesday of this date in 1933, Eric Nesterenko turns 86 today. Having made his NHL debut in 1952 as an 18-year-old right winger for Toronto, he played parts of five seasons with the Leafs and a further 16 in Chicago, helping the Black Hawks win the 1961 Stanley Cup. At the age of 40, he put in a single season in the WHA, 1973-74, for the Chicago Cougars. “He was a player who does everything well,” is a summing-up of Andrew Podnieks’. “He scored, played physically, stickhandled nicely, and backchecked.” He accumulated a whole parcel of nicknames over the course of his hockey career: Mr. Elbows, Nester, The Hinge, Eric The Great, Swoops, Sonja, the Shadow, the Silent One. Off the ice, he coached, worked for a brokerage firm, and as a ski instructor. He had a bit of an acting career, as well, featuring in a 1979 CBC movie about hockey violence called Cement Head. More famously, he took on the role of Blane Youngblood, father of the eponymous hero played by Rob Lowe in that 1986 epic of the ice, Youngblood.

tangled up in blue

Happy Day: The last Leaf to lead the NHL in regular-season scoring, Gordie Drillon, left, poses with coach Hap Day and defenceman (and future MP) Bucko McDonald. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

Question: who’s the last Toronto Maple Leaf to have led the NHL in regular-season scoring?

The answer, of course, is Gordie Drillon, a right winger who topped the table back in 1937-38, when the league’s eight teams played a 48-game schedule. He finished the year with 26 goals and 52 points, just ahead of his Leafly linemate, centreman Syl Apps, who counted 50 points. Moncton-born in 1913, Drillon died on a Tuesday of this date in 1986 at the age of 72. Big, obstinate, and opportunistic in front of the net, he was a purveyor of what in Phil Esposito’s day would come to be known as the garbage goal, the kind you score at close range, mostly out of pure doggedness, because you’re there with your stick on the ice, refusing to be evicted. Drillon served just four penalty minutes in ’38, and that won him a Lady Byng Memorial Trophy to go with his scoring title. He was also named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team that year, and the next. All of this you’ll find listed in his Hall of Fame profile; he was elevated to that hockey pantheon in 1975.

Given that Drillon played six of the seven seasons he skated in the NHL for the Leafs, you’d think he might rate as one of the team’s all-time greats, except for, well, no, he isn’t, is he, having been more or less booed out of town in 1942. Later Leafs (thinking of you, Larry Murphy; hey there, Jake Gardiner) would find themselves similarly hounded by fickle Leafs fans, accused of — what, exactly? Drillon was deemed to be lazy, a floater, not a team man. None of those subsequent Leafs, I’m going to say, suffered so harshly as him. ’42, was the year Toronto roared back in the finals from three games down to overthrow the Detroit Red Wings in seven games and win the championship. Gordie Drillon got his name on the Cup, but he wasn’t on the ice for the heroics. By then, Leafs’ majordomo Conn Smythe had turned on him, too, sending word to coach Hap Day to bench him. Drillon was peddled to the Montreal Canadiens that off-season, but he only lasted a year there. He was out of the NHL at 29.

leafs’ training camp, 1935: have skates, will travel

The Toronto Maple Leafs took their training camp on the road this morning, flying a squad of 75 players, none of whom was Mitch Marner, for four days of pre-season prepping in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The Leafs, of course, have been getting out of town ahead of an upcoming NHL campaign for a long, long time, going back to 1928, when they fled north to Port Elgin, Ontario, on the Lake Huron shore.  By 1935, the Leafs were convening just down the King’s Highway in Kitchener. Thirty-three players gathered there that October (the season started November 9) under coach Dick Irvin’s supervision. That’s him, of course, here on the right, posed at Maple Leaf Gardens in packing mode the week before camp commenced with the team’s tan managing director, Conn Smythe.

 

(Image: Archives of Ontario)

rookie move

Calder Candidate: If the question is, who was the first NHLer to win a Stanley Cup before he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie then the answer is no different than if the question were a multi-part one to the tune of, is this 1943 we’re talking about and is it true this was also Maurice Richard’s first year and did he not win the Calder that year and if not, who in the world could have superseded him? In both cases it’s Toronto Maple Leafs left winger Gaye Stewart. (Calder-wise, in 1943, Montreal’s Glen Harmon finished second in the voting; Richard didn’t rate in the top five. On the Stanley Cup side, Ken Dryden, Tony Esposito, and Danny Grant all subsequently won championships before they won Calders.) Born in Fort William, Ontario, on a Thursday of this date in 1923, Stewart put a pause on his NHL career to serve two years in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War, returning to the Leafs in 1945. In 1947, he helped the team win another Stanley Cup. What else? Stewart was a First Team All-Star in 1946, the same year he scored 37 goals to lead the league — the last Maple Leaf to do so. In his latter NHL years, Stewart played for Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Montreal. He died at the age of 87 in 2010.

to the maple leaf born

Drafted: A busy month, June of 1962, for the Kelly family of Toronto. On the 18th of the month, in the federal election, father Red was elected the Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of York West. Five days later, mother Andra gave birth to the couple’s second child, a son they would name Patrick. (Not shown here: sister Casey.) All this came two months after Red had helped his Maple Leafs beat the Chicago Black Hawks to win their tenth Stanley Cup.