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.
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.
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)