aide-mémoire: a short history of nhl assistant coaches

Mike Nykoluk was an up-and-coming 21-year-old forward when he played for the Winnipeg Warriors of the old WHL in 1955-56, a team loaded with former NHLers, including goaltender Ed Chadwick, defenceman Bill Juzda, and forwards Bill Mosienko and Paul Masnick. Also manning the Warrior blueline that year was a former New York Ranger, 30-year-old Fred Shero, who was just about to launch a coaching career that would take him to Philadelphia in the early 1970s.

It was there, of course, that Shero would contriveto guide the Flyers to successive Stanley Cup championships, in 1974 and ’75. Nykoluk was there for those, too, you might remember: following his brief NHL career (32 games with the ’56-57 Toronto Maple Leafs) and a longer cruise (16 seasons) in the AHL, Shero had hired him as an assistant coach in June of 1972.

Mike Nykoluk, I’m sorry to say, died last week at the age of 87. In 1978, he followed Shero when he went to New York to coach the Rangers. Mostly he was referred to (again) as an assistant, though Shero preferred to call him a co-coach. Eventually, between 1981 and 1984, Nykoluk got his chance to be the boss, seeing service through parts of four seasons as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Something he was not: the NHL’s first assistant coach.

That’s a claim that has been often repeated over the years, with confidence. Eric Duhatschek, for instance, in a 2017 Globe and Mail feature about the evolution of the role of coaches in the NHL declared that Shero had “hired the first official full-time assistant coach, Mike Nykoluk, in 1972.” History doesn’t agree.

Reminders of Nykoluk’s (supposed) trailblazering resurfaced last week, too, so maybe time for some clarifying. For all his achievements through the years, Nykoluk wasn’t even close to being the NHL’s original assistant coach.

Jeff Marek, Sportsnet’s esteemed hockey broadcaster, keeps a careful eye on hockey’s history, and he was attentive in seeing the record corrected …

… up to a point.

Because while Al McNeil and Doug Harvey did indeed precede Nykoluk as NHL assistants, others went before. Many others. Onward into the obscurity.

The first? That distinction would seem to belong to Dick Carroll, in Toronto, all the way back in the league’s inaugural season, 1917-18. There’s some cloudiness to this, so bear with me, if you will.

To start with, some straightening out of terminology is in order: in those early decades of pro hockey, teams tended to have one man who both coached and took care of player personnel, and he was usually called (in the baseball way) the manager. This was true, for example, in the mid-1920s, with icons like Art Ross in Boston, Lester Patrick of the New York Rangers, and Jack Adams in Detroit.

Toronto’s manager for the 1917-18 season was Charlie Querrie, who happened to be the man who ran Toronto’s Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, home to the new team. Querrie was appointed in early December of ’17, two weeks before the NHL’s opening night. Dick Carroll’s appointment as Querrie’s aide was announced at the same time.

So there it is: Dick Carroll was the NHL’s first assistant coach.

Ottawa’s Journal reporting the news (and misspelling the name) in December of 1917.

If that’s clear enough, here’s some cloud to obscure things: as the modern-day Maple Leafs recount it, Carroll was head coach in 1917, steering the team through its first 40 games and onward through to 1919. Querrie’s 1917 service is recognized in the team’s list of GMs; as a coach, he’s recognized for two later tours he served in the ’20s, by which time the team had turned into the St. Patricks.

Got that?

Wrong, I’d say, in my nitpicking way, with a kicker to the effect that, by failing to acknowledge the way things used to be, the Leafs have (not for the first time) muddled their own history.

Further fogging things is the fact through the course of the 1917-18 season, Toronto’s bench was anything but settled.

Charlie Querrie had taken the job in Toronto on the understanding that he’d be free to operate without the interference of Eddy Livingstone, the NHA owner, Toronto hockey eminence, persona non grata — it was to ostracize and spite Livingstone that the NHL was formed in the first place in November of 1917. Livingstone’s ongoing meddling seems to have prompted Querrie’s resignation at the end of December, after Toronto had played just three NHL games, leaving Dick Carroll in charge: the assistant coach was now the coach.

Unless Querrie didn’t quit.

Newspapers that had reported that Querrie was finished were soon correcting the record to say that he was still on the job, or would be again as soon as the team’s owners at the Montreal Arena Company guaranteed him that Livingstone would really, truly, be kept away from the team. Querrie also seems to have sought to download some of the coaching he was doing to Carroll.

This all seems to have taken some negotiating, leaving Carroll in charge. Querrie did return to the fold, but as of January of 1918, Carroll does seem to have assumed day-to-day — and game-to-game — control of the team, with Querrie moving more into the realm of — well, yes, what we would today recognize as GMing.

That April, when Toronto won the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era, accounts of the final series only confirm this division of labours: Carroll was coach, Querrie was manager. Glory to them both, along with a footnote or two: Querrie’s NHL’s coaching record should include those first three games that he coached, the very ones that constitute Carroll’s entire tenure as the league’s original assistant coach.

Hawk’s Nest: Helge Bostrum (left) and Clem Loughlin in May of 1934. The caption on this photo, as it appeared in the Chicago Tribune: ‘Loughlin’s appointment as the new manager of the Chicago Blackhawks was confirmed yesterday morning. Helge Bostrum, former Hawk defense star, will be his assistant.”

Next in the NHL’s long line of assistant coaches? A non-definitive listing might look to Boston.

Sprague Cleghorn was 37 in 1927, playing out the last year of his long, distinguished, and very brutal career with the Boston Bruins. He was team captain again that year, as he had been previously, and he had a new role, too, as manager Art Ross’s (playing) assistant. Cleghorn was running practices and stood in as interim coach for several games in early 1928 when Ross was home with a stomach ailment. So he seems to have been second among assistant coaches.

Born in Copenhagen, Emil Iverson went from head coach of the University of Minnesota hockey team in the 1920s to being hired as the NHL’s first full-time physical director when Major Frederic McLaughlin brought him on with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1930. Iverson was appointed head coach after that (the league’s first European-born pilot), only to be replaced in 1933 by Tommy Gorman … whom Iverson continued to serve as assistant.

Gorman departed in 1934, having won the Stanley Cup. When Clem Loughlin was named his successor, the newly retired Chicago defenceman Helge Bostrum signed on as his assistant.

More and more teams in the ’30s were hiring deputies, a review of newspaper archives shows, some of them who were still playing, some others fresh off hanging up their active careers. To wit:

Bill Cook aided Lester Patrick with the New York Rangers in 1936-37, with Frank Boucher stepping in to take up the same role the following season, ’37-38.

Frank Boucher’s Ranger role was reported in September of 1937.

Larry Aurie served as a playing assistant to Jack Adams with the Detroit Red Wings in 1938-39.

Paul Thompson was Chicago coach Bill Stewart’s playing assistant that same season.

When the Montreal Canadiens shifted coaches in the latter stages of that season, swapping in club secretary Jules Dugal to replace Cecil Hart, Babe Siebert was named captain and playing assistant.

In Chicago in 1938, Carl Voss was hired to assist Paul Thompson, now the coach of the Black Hawks. And in 1941, Helge Bostrum resurfaced as an assistant to Thompson.

The Bruins had a run of distinguished assistants through the ’40s and ‘50s, with Dit Clapper, Jack Crawford, and Milt Schmidt all appointed to the role at one point or another.

In 1958-59, Bert Olmstead served as a playing assistant to Toronto Maple Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach. King Clancy, too, served Imlach and the Leafs the same role in Toronto in the ’60s, as well as working as assistant GM.

This is, again, no official register, but it does make clear that at least 17 men served as assistant coaches in the NHL before Mike Nykoluk started in Philadelphia in 1972.

I don’t know exactly how the Nykoluk glitch get into regular rotation, but it seems it started at the source. Discussing the hiring that June, 50 years ago, Flyers GM Keith Allen is quoted in several newspaper reports as confirming Nykoluk as a pioneer, with Fred Shero weighing in on the breakthrough, too. Why not add an assistant? “Football and baseball have assistant coaches,” Shero opined, “and those sports are not as physical or mentally demanding as hockey.”

The error was enshrined early on in the local literature. The Flyers’ 1975-76 yearbook, for instance, casually mentions it.

In Full Spectrum, a comprehensive history of the team from 1996, Jay Greenberg scales it back a bit: Nykoluk is identified there “one of the NHL’s first assistant coaches.”

Keith Allen is quoted as crediting Flyer owner Ed Snider for the hire. “Eddie came from football, where they had assistant coaches, and thought Freddie could use some help,” Allen recalled. “Mike had never been fast enough to play in the NHL,  but he was a smart player and I had a lot of respect for him.”

Helpmeet: A team-issued photo of Al McNeil, who appointed an assistant to Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Ruel in 1970 and, a few months later, succeeded him.

 

charlie conacher lends a hand

Palmistry: Charlie Conacher, in the foreground here, shows goaltender Earl Robertson how it’s done at Madison Square Garden circa 1940. Otherwise, from the right, that’s Ranger Dutch Hiller (#8), Amerks’ Busher Jackson in the distance, and Ranger Phil Watson tussling with (I think) Art Chapman. Note the chicken-wire fencing protecting the fans. The only question: where’s the puck?

Birthday tidings today for the great Charlie Conacher — unless those are due tomorrow, or on December 20? Questions abound; you can review them here, if you’re in a mood. The scene here dates to the Big Bomber’s latter NHL years when, after ten seasons starring for the Toronto Maple Leafs and another year’s stop in Detroit, Conacher played his final two seasons with the New York Americans. Red Dutton’s team was not very good in those years, going 15-29-4 in 1939-40 and 8-29-11 the following year. Conacher’s own returns were modest, compared to the heady days when he was playing the Toronto wing, earlier in the decade. In New York, he contributed 10 goals and 28 points in 47 games his first year, 7 and 23 in 46 in his last.

Take a note, here, of the hand he’s showing. Cutting the palms out of hockey gloves is an old trick, of course, that someone like Conacher might have pleaded allowed him a better grip on his stick. That may have been the case; palmless gloves also aided in the freer and more surreptitious clutching of opponents in tight quarters. The NHL eventually cracked down on the practice, though not until 1964, when Leaf defenceman Carl Brewer was caught in the act and copped to the reason why his gloves were doctored. A new rule followed: all NHL gloves, after that, had to be fully palmed.

Toronto, remember, was on a three-year run winning Stanley Cups at the time. Coach Punch Imlach griped about the new rule, and others: he thought they were part of anti-Leaf campaign to throw the team off its championship form. “Those changes are aimed at us,” he said.

paying for it with punch

Could be, I guess, that Punch Imlach’s job experience as a youthful bank teller shaped the methods he used, later on, as an NHL coach.

Imlach, who died of heart failure at the age of 69 on a Tuesday of this same date in 1987, piloted the Toronto Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, including the team’s last (er, most recent) championship in 1967. He also had several stints as GM of the Leafs, and served, in his time, as coach and GM of the Buffalo Sabres.

“Crusty and short-tempered at the best of times,” is how Donn Downey described Imlach in an obituary in Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “No-one disputed his astute knowledge of hockey, but when it came to people, Mr. Imlach lacked what is referred to in the personnel offices as communication skills.”

“He understood players in terms of the six-team league when hockey jobs were scarce and bargaining between a player and management usually consisted of five words: take it or leave it.”

As a young centreman growing up in Toronto, Imlach played for Ed Wildey’s junior Young Rangers, and it was Wildey who got him a job at the Dominion Bank in the late 1930s. The salary was eight dollars a week, with all the bank-league hockey he could play thrown in as a bonus.

The value of a buck did re-surface as a bit of a theme during Imlach’s tenure with the Leafs. There’s the famous scene in March of 1960, for instance, when Toronto was down a game in their Stanley Cup semi-final against the Detroit Red Wings.

Ben Ward of the Canadian Press described Imlach’s pre-game prepping of his team:

Just before the start of the game, while the Leafs were warming up, Imlach dropped 10 wads of $1 bills on the dressing room floor and scrawled this message on the blackboard:

“Take a good look at the centre of the floor. This represents the difference between winning and losing — $1,250.”

The money represents the extra pay for each player on the clubs reaching the Stanley Cup finals.

(Toronto won that game, and the series, to make the finals, though they fell there to the Montreal Canadiens.)

Imlach was also fond of fines.

In 1967, when defenceman Tim Horton delayed his arrival to the Leafs’ training camp in Peterborough, Ontario, in a contract dispute, Imlach declared that he’d be penalized $500 plus a further $25 for each additional day he missed.

A year later, Imlach celebrated the NHL’s new era by decreeing that each Leaf would be fined $100 for every game Toronto lost to an expansion team. This seems to have been a post-Christmas measure imposed in early 1968, after the defending champions had already dropped games to the neophyte Oakland Seals, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, and Pittsburgh Penguins.

It doesn’t seem to have worked quite as effectively as the coach might have wished: by mid-February, the Leafs were down $300 a man after losing again to the Seals, Flyers, and Kings.

Imlach also fined his players $5 every time they gave the puck away in a game. I don’t just how long this was in effect, or how much it raised, though I’d love to know the totals and the dressing-room grumbling associated with that.

The money accrued did find its way back to the players, it turns out: in the ’60s, at the end of each season, the Leafs gathered with wives and partners for an annual Giveaway Party, funded by their own on-ice sloppiness.

Imlach avoided these occasions, usually, until 1969. “He had always been invited,” the Globe and Mail noted that spring, “but stayed away so the players wouldn’t feel crimped with the boss around.” The venue that April was the midtown restaurant Ports of Call, located at the time on Yonge Street, where today the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto has its offices.

Imlach and his wife Dodo sat at a table with Bob and Rosyln Pulford, Paul and Eleanor Henderson, Bibs and Norm Ullman, and assistant trainer Tommy Nayler. Nobody felt crimped, apparently — but then Imlach wasn’t the boss any longer: he’d been fired as Leafs coach and GM three days earlier, within two minutes of the team’s having been swept out of the playoffs in the first round by the Boston Bruins.

over the hill and far away

Embed from Getty Images

Jim Pappin scored the decisive goal in a 3-1 win, and Terry Sawchuk was the Toronto goaltender on a Tuesday of this date in 1967 when the Maple Leafs clinched their last (most recent?) Stanley Cup by overthrowing the Montreal Canadiens in six games. Punch Imlach’s underdog gaggle of Leafs included a couple of 40-year-olds in Johnny Bower and Allan Stanley, as well as 39-year-old Red Kelly; Sawchuk and captain George Armstrong were 36. The soggy scene here dates to what happened, back in the dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens, after the Leafs won on this night 53 years ago. That’s Bower bared with 21-year-old Toronto winger Ron Ellis and assistant manager King Clancy, who was 64. Clancy had been seeing Stanley Cups for a while at this point: he won his first, as a defenceman for the original Ottawa Senators, at the end of March of 1923. He helped the Senators win another in 1927 and was part of a third championship team when he played for the Leafs in 1932.

leafs in boston, 1959: we’re just too good a hockey team for them

It’s been 60 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs overthrew the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup playoffs — in April of 1959, the teams took their semi-final to a seventh game, which the Leafs won at Boston Garden by a score of 3-2.

Going into the series that year the Bruins were favourites. They had finished the regular season that year eight points ahead of the Leafs (this year’s gap, you’ll remember, was seven). Familiar ice proved advantageous: starting at the home, the Bruins won the first two games before the Leafs tied the series once it switched over to Maple Leaf Gardens. Back home, the Bruins took the lead once again before the Leafs prevailed in the sixth game.

Going into game seven, the Bruins were hurting. With three key defencemen on the limp, they seemed to be (as Rex MacLeod put it in the pages of The Globe and Mail) “in a grim state of decrepitude.”

Boston coach Milt Schmidt wasn’t arguing. “If this was February 7 instead of April 7,” he said, ahead of the decisive game, “three of our players wouldn’t even be dressing for tonight’s game — [Bob] Armstrong, [Fern] Flaman, and [Doug] Mohns.”

The keys to victory for his battered team? “We’re going to have to forecheck the Leafs like fury,” Schmidt said, “and stay on top of them every minute. Keep the puck out of our end as much as possible.”

“I said it would be a long series. Leafs hit their stride late in the season and I figured it would be difficult for any team to contain that momentum. I’m not going to predict how the seventh game will go, but I think home ice is in our favour, and a team with the spirit my gang showed in Toronto is going to be hard to stop.”

Toronto coach Punch Imlach didn’t buy it. He was willing to foresee an outcome, happy to, telling reporters that the Leafs would not only be beating the Bruins, they would go on to dispense with the Montreal Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup.

“We’re just too good a hockey team for them,” Imlach announced as his team headed into enemy territory. “Forget your injuries and we can match Boston any way they want to play it. If they want it rough, we can take them man for man and earn a decision. I have proved that fact to my men on the blackboard. If they want to throw it wide open, we have the legs to leave them in that type of game.”

“All things being equal, we should win,” Imlach said. “We could lose on a fluke goal or a bad call, but I’m convinced it won’t happen.”

Bold talk. As it turned out, the game was “boisterous” and “rabble-rousing,” the “best of the series,” according to MacLeod of the Globe. The score was tied 2-2 in the third period when, with fewer than three minutes remaining, Leafs winger Gerry Ehman beat Boston goaltender Harry Lumley to win the game. With Johnny Bower standing tall in Toronto’s goal, the Leafs (MacLeod wrote) put in some dedicated checking and “somehow held off a raging, infuriated Boston team for the final two minutes.”

Punch Imlach wasn’t entirely a man of his word. In the Finals, the Leafs fell in five games to the mighty Canadiens, who won their fourth consecutive championship.

all hat, four stanley cups

Today’s the day that Punch Imlach was born, on a Friday, in 1918, in a Toronto that was about to see the local professional team play for (and win) the Stanley Cup in the NHL’s first season. George was the name he was given that year; the nickname dates to the late 1930s, and seems (unfortunately) to have been concussion-based. Knocked out playing senior hockey for the Toronto Goodyears, Imlach is supposed to have revived and started swinging at teammates, who dubbed him “Punchy.” That was eventually trimmed as Imlach played on, never in the NHL, but notably with the QSHL Quebec Aces, with whom he would start his coaching career and oversee, in so doing, a young Jean Béliveau.

Imlach joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1958 as an assistant GM. In his first 11 seasons as Leaf coach, he steered the team to four Stanley Cups. Fired in 1969, he went to join the fledgling Buffalo Sabres as coach and GM. That’s the era from which this team-issued photo dates. “His dry acerbic wit is as much an Imlach characteristic,” the caption on the back explains, “as the intriguing hats he wears behind the players’ bench.” After a year-and-a-half’s tenure in Buffalo, he had another stint with the Leafs in the late 1970s, but it wasn’t pretty and — under Harold Ballard’s erratic stewardship — didn’t last. His 370 regular-season coaching wins remains a franchise record for the Leafs; he won 44 more in the playoffs, second in team history to Hap Day’s 49. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1984, Punch Imlach died at the age of 69 in 1987.

four score

The Detroit Red Wings are honouring Red Kelly tonight, retiring the number four he wore for most of the 13 seasons he spent with the team before he retired this month in 1960. Kelly, who’s 91, will be on hand at Little Caesars Arena for the ceremony, which will take place ahead of Detroit’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs — the team he unretired to join two days after quitting. He wore a four in Toronto, too, a number the Leafs honoured in his name (and Hap Day’s) back in 2016.

The story in 1960 was that the Red Wings tried to trade a 32-year-old Kelly, along with teammate Billy McNeill, to the New York Rangers in exchange for Bill Gadsby and Eddie Shack. But neither Kelly nor McNeill were having any of it, and both decided to retire. Kelly reconsidered when a new deal was arranged to take him to Toronto — the Leafs got Marc Reaume. (McNeill went home to Edmonton to play for the WHL Flyers. He would return, briefly, to the Red Wings in 1962.)

As a defenceman in Detroit, Kelly won four Stanley Cups, a Norris Trophy, and three Lady Byngs. Coach Punch Imlach shifted him to centre in Toronto, where he won a further four Cups and another Lady Byng. His career as an NHL coach saw him steer the Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Leafs, too. Red Kelly was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969.

Kelly published a memoir of his own in 2016, called (straightforwardly enough) The “Red” Kelly Story. (Waxy Gregoire and David Dupuis aided in the effort.) But it’s to 1971 I think we’ll return here, to Red Kelly, a short and vividly illustrated biography that Stan Obodiac wrote as part of the “Great Hockey Player Series.” It’s here that we discover just what fuelled number four in his hockey-playing days:

Kelly loved his breakfasts and this is what he ate: pineapple juice (he says it’s good for your wind), cereal, usually Corn Flakes (at St. Michael’s College he ate so many boxes of corn flakes that the students called him “Corn Flakes Kelly”), coffee, toast, and honey (even in his adult life Kelly ordered honey by the case from a Simcoe supplier, because it was the kind of honey he loved as a boy.)

At lunch he usually had pineapple juice again, fruit salad, again ordered by the case, a T-bone steak, peas, and a baked potato — the standard foods for a hockey player. He loved ice cream and, when the season right, his father used to send him strawberries from his Simcoe farm.

For extra pep and energy, Red concocted a mixture of orange juice, one raw egg, the juice of one-quarter lemon, and three teaspoons of sugar.

we all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger

It’s a leaping Paul Henderson who lives in the national imagination, a Henderson launched by relief and joy at having put one last decisive puck past Vladislav Tretiak — if Yvan Cournoyer hadn’t been there to tether him, Canada’s 1972 goalscoring hero might have boosted up and out Luzhniki Ice Palace and into orbit. Henderson, who’s turning 76 today, is in Ottawa this very morning, where he’s being received and saluted in the brand-new temporary West-Block House of Commons. There will be talk there, count on it, of Henderson’s game-winning goals in Moscow, especially that last one; the calls for Henderson to be admitted to the Hockey Hall of Fame will be front and centre, too, no doubt, reviving one of hockey’s enduring debates: is Henderson due, or no? Here, above, we’ll cast back to 1968, before Henderson had scored any goals in the Soviet Union. He was a 25-year-old winger when he arrived in Toronto that March as part of the trade that sent Frank Mahovlich to the Detroit Red Wings. Toronto GM Punch Imlach was glad to have him: “a fine young player,” he rated Henderson, “just reaching his peak.”

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

how I spent my summer vacation: toronto’s 1963 maple leafs

Smokestick: Red Kelly was still a Red Wing in 1956, and not yet a politician, when he had Detroit teammate Marty Pavelich (middle) and his wife, Anna Jean, down to his Simcoe, Ontario, tobacco farm for a visit. Here he shows, as you might, a stick of dried tobacco leaves.

The Toronto Maple Leafs won a second successive Stanley Cup in April of 1963 when they rolled over Detroit in five games. They finished it off at home, beating the Red Wings 3-1 in the final game on two goals by centre Dave Keon and another (the winner) from left wing Eddie Shack. Afterwards, the Leafs poured champagne on one another, except for Carl Brewer, who was in Wellesley Hospital getting a broken arm tended to. Next day, the Leafs paraded through a crowd of 40,000 on their way up Bay Street to City Hall, where Mayor Don Summerville presented them with golden tie clips.

Then, next — it was the off-season, then, and the Maple Leafs dispersed to do what hockey players do when they’re not playing hockey. Some went to school, some on vacation. Many had jobs; a lot of them, then as now, played a lot of golf. They did not, in 1963, get an opportunity to invite the Stanley Cup to visit their various hometowns — several more decades would pass before that turned into a tradition.

How did the Leafs spend the summer of ’63?

Centre Red Kelly, one of the team’s elders, was the Member of Parliament representing the ruling Liberals for the Toronto riding of York West. Originally elected in 1962, he’d been re-upped the night before the Stanley Cup finals opened in early April, healthily defeating his Progressive Conservative rival, 30-year-old Alan Eagleson.

Kelly was a busy man. On top of the pucking and the politicking, he owned both a tobacco farm and a bowling alley back home in Simcoe, Ontario.

At the end of May, he gave his maiden speech in the House of Commons. Secretary of State Jack Pickersgill said it was one of the best performances he’d everseen in Ottawa; a Toronto Star editorial that didn’t go that far deemed it “sensible,” “well-considered,” and likely to put paid to the Conservative canard that the election of a hockey player had somehow lowered the dignity of the House of Commons.”

“Mr. Speaker,” Kelly began, “I am not sure whether or not it is because I do not have on my skates, but it feels much more slippery here than it does on the ice.”

It was a wide-ranging debut, lasting ten minutes, and delivered without notes. Kelly made light of his having waited a year to speak, and he likened the Speaker to a referee. He talked about his riding and gave some views on flags and anthems. Hearing “O Canada,” he said, before a game in place of “God Save The Queen” made him very proud. “My chest stood out a little more.” People wondered why he’d decided to run for Parliament and he said he told them it was because of how excited he was about where Canada was headed. He wanted to be a part of that, and to help the country grow.

Also, the Liberal leader and prime minister Lester Pearson? Such a great guy. The more Kelly got to know him, the more he thought he might just be “the tonic Canada needs.”

“I felt he could do a whale of a job for the future of Canada,” Kelly said.

Other Leafs who were working on the country’s future included left winger Frank Mahovlich and his wife, non-winger Marie, who had their first child in the summer ’63, a son, Michael Francis. Sylvia Harris and her husband, centreman Billy, welcomed twins.

Left winger Dick Duff, the team’s last bachelor, golfed in Florida for a while before flying north to enroll at the University of Toronto for courses that would lead him towards an undergraduate degree. When he wasn’t hitting the books, he had a job selling cars at Gorrie’s on Gerrard Street at Yonge. It’s possible that while on campus he ran into teammates: both Brewer and centre Billy Harris were both pursuing B.A.s that summer too. Brewer, his arm in a cast, was taking French courses while also working part-time as a car salesman.

Leafs’ defenceman Bob Baun was in the car business, too, as was trainer Bobby Haggert. The latter took a vacation at the Calgary Stampede in July before returning home to work the lot at Ron Casey Motors in Newmarket. The Leafs’ rented a house in Florida that players used, and Baun spent time there before getting back to work; he also had a gig as host at George’s Spaghetti House on Sherbourne at Dundas.

Eddie Shack and his wife had their own Florida getaway before Shack returned to join with the NHL All-Star team that toured Ontario through July and August playing softball. Centre Bob Pulford spent part of his summer working in the ticket office at Maple Leafs Gardens. Right winger John MacMillan already had an engineering degree to his name; he spent the summer working on an education degree at the University of Denver in Colorado.

In March, when Richard, Dave Keon’s 18-month-old son died, died of pneumonia, the Toronto papers took a respectful step back. I think that’s what it was; it did mean that their muted mentions in the local papers explaining why the Leafs’ centreman missed the final two games of the regular-season was filed in as awkwardly as possible alongside tidings of Frank Mahovlich and his flu, and John MacMillan’s injured elbow.

Keon returned for the first game of the playoffs, wherein the Leafs beat Montreal 3-1, and he contributed two assists to that. Leaf fans were outraged, in April, when Keon wasn’t named to the NHL’s 1st or 2ndAll-Star teams — Stan Mikita and Henri Richard were elevated above him — but he did win the J.P. Bickell Cup, which used to be awarded to the Leafs’ team MVP. Keon and his wife flew to Hamilton, Bermuda soon after the Stanley Cup paraded, so he didn’t learn until later that he’d also won the Lady Byng as the league’s most gentlemanly player.

“The Hamilton paper,” he explained later, “only carries cricket and soccer results.”

The rest of Keon’s summer involved golf (he caddied for an American pro at the Canadian Open in Scarborough, Ontario) and chocolate bars (he worked for a candy company, promoting their product). He also travelled to his hometown with another native son, Leafs’ defenceman Kent Douglas, to be fêted by friends and old neighbours in Noranda-Rouyn, Quebec.

Goaltender Johnny Bower passed most of his summer on the ice in British Columbia, working with 119 eager youngsters at George Vogan’s Nelson hockey school alongside Detroit centre Norm Ullman and the former Red Wing Metro Prystai. The Leafs’ second goalkeep, Don Simmons, was back home near Boston running the real estate and insurance business he owned there. Defenceman Allan Stanley went prospecting in north Ontario, near Blind River.

In August, the list of 62 players that Leafs’ coach and GM Punch Imlach was inviting to training camp in Peterborough, Ontario, in early September included the names of defencemen Don Cherry and Terry Clancy, King’s son.

Most of the late-summer Leaftalk in the papers had to do with the team’s seniormost citizens, Kelly and Stanley and Bower, whether they’d be retiring, what that would mean for the team’s prospects. Stanley was 36 and Bower was — well, hesaid he was 39, though the newspapermen in Toronto thought it was more like 42.

Kelly, who was 35, was thinking that hockey might have to give way to politics, though he hadn’t quite made up his mind. The commute, he said, was killing him.

(All three, in the end, kept playing, helping the Leafs to defend their title in the spring of 1964. And they were all still on the job, of course, when the Leafs won the Cup again in 1967.)

Imlach’s letter in August of ’63 was like others he sent in those years. Winter is coming, was the gist of it, be ready. He asked players to report to camp weighing no more than seven pounds over the weight they usually played at. He said that they should be prepared to show him 25 sit-ups, 25 push-ups, and 30 knee bends, “on command.” Young and old, Stanley Cup champions or not, the Leafs should expect to be awoken at 6.15 in the morning; lights-out was 11.15.

There would be golf, but no golf carts. And as far as getting from their downtown digs at the Empress Hotel to the ice at the Memorial Centre, two kilometres — they’d be walking that, too.

red rover

Fore And Aft: Traded from Detroit to the New York Rangers in 1960, Red Kelly refused to report. So Detroit tried again, sending him to Toronto in exchange for Marc Reaume. (He went. ) When Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach shifted Kelly from defence to forward, he joined a line with Bob Nevin and Frank Mahovlich. When this portrait was taken in February of 1961, Kelly was on his way to setting a club record for assists (50). He also won the J.P. Bickell Memorial Cup that year, as the Leafs’ outstanding player. He added his fourth Lady Byng Memorial Trophy to his mantelpiece, as well, becoming the first player in the trophy’s history to have won it playing two different positions. (Image: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada/e00234374)

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)