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.”

 

 

 

 

my first hockey game: eric zweig

Eric Zweig’s expertise in matters concerning hockey history is shared out, along with his enthusiasm, through a score of books. His first was a novel, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada (1992), about the Renfrew Millionaires. In recent years he’s published a deep-delving biography, Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins (2015), and, this fall, the comprehensive Toronto Maple Leafs: The Complete Oral History.

 Zweig, who lives in Owen Sound, Ontario, is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research, and has been one of the editorial forces helping to shape the NHL’s Official Guide & Record Book. You can find his work in the pages of The New York Times and elsewhere, as well as on his lively blog at http://www.ericzweig.com. Today, as part of Puckstruck’s ongoing series, he weighs in with memories of his earliest first-hand encounters of big-league hockey.  

I grew up in Toronto and attended my first NHL game when I was seven years old. The date was December 30, 1970. It was a Wednesday night during the Christmas holidays. The Maple Leafs always seemed to play at home on Wednesdays and Saturdays when I was a kid. This night, they were playing the California Golden Seals. The Leafs won 3–1.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that all the players who would become my early favourites did something good for the Leaf that night. Dave Keon scored just 33 seconds after the opening face-off. Garry Monahan (he autographed my cast when I broke my arm in the summer of 1973) got the second. Norm Ullman set up Paul Henderson for the third. But goalie Jacques Plante became my favourite of them all. The Toronto Star reported that the Leafs’ goalie was “excellent” that night. “Plante had his moments…” said the Star, “and the youngsters in attendance because of the school holidays rocked the Gardens with their applause.”

I was one of those youngsters!

Author and historian Eric Zweig shows off a famous wrench. Hurled (the wrench) at Toronto GM Charlie Querrie in the early ’20s, it was later fitted with a clock and given as a gift to Boston’s Art Ross.

Now, I’ve always been a person with a great memory for places and dates (though, sadly, that’s not quite as true as it used to be on the other side of 50). That being said, I have realized over the years that I don’t actually have a great memory for visual details. All I really remember about that first game was the score, the teams, and the fact that Plante played so well. (Also, the troughs for urinals in the men’s washroom. Gross!) I had to look up the rest. Even so, I would have to say that, before that game, I have no memories of hockey whatsoever. Since that game, I have been a lifelong fan.

I wish I could remember more from that night, but really, I was lucky enough to attend many games in Maple Leaf Gardens over the years (Leafs, Marlies, Toros) and most of those from my younger days blur together. I’m pretty sure the next Leafs game I attended was December 26, 1973. Another Wednesday night during the Christmas holidays: Toronto beat Montreal 9-2. I was there with my brother, David, who had turned eight the day before. I was 10. We went together, by ourselves, on the subway. Imagine anyone letting children do something like that today.

It was Norm Ullman’s birthday, and David and I carried a homemade sign that read “Leafs Win For Norm” using a team logo for “Leafs” and the number 4 for “For.” I remember the older kids who sat next to us saying that would have been a lot smarter of us if Ullman wore #4 instead of #9 … but that didn’t stop them from leaning in and trying to get on television every time we held up our sign.

My other memories from that night include just how amazed we were to see the Leafs score nine goals and so thoroughly dominate the Canadiens. I also remember a fantastic save by Doug Favell (I always liked the goalies) and the fact that rookie Bob Neely played a very strong game. I have no idea why that stands out. (Looking up this one, I find that Ullman had an assist on the goal Neely scored. Maybe that has something to do with it?)

Among my most vivid memories over the years was seeing Gordie Howe in the stands at a Marlies game during the 1972-73 season. He was watching his sons, Mark and Marty. Two years later, I saw all three Howes at the Gardens again, this time playing together for the Houston Aeros against the Toronto Toros. But one thing that lingers most strongly in my memories of Maple Leaf Gardens has nothing to do with the action on the ice. It’s of an ancient-looking woman working in the concession stands using her bare hands to place a hot dog I’d ordered into a bun. It was a long time before I ate a hot dog at the Gardens after that.

 

 

(Ullman: hockeyMedia & The Want List on flickr; Zweig: Stephen Smith)

 

toros, toros, toros

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The Toronto Toros began their brief life in the World Hockey Association as the Ottawa Nationals, and they ended it as Birmingham, Alabama’s own Bulls. The Toros played just three seasons, starting in the fall of 1973. They were gone by 1976. Their best year was that first one, when they played in the division finals, before losing to the Chicago Cougars.

This weekend, the drove of elder Toro alumni that gathered for a private reunion at the Toronto home of historian and collector Mike Wilson included Frank Mahovlich, Paul Henderson, Vaclav Nedomansky, Wayne Carleton, Gilles Gratton, and Rick Vaive. Herewith, a look back at some Toro luminaries and some of their selected milestones.

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June, 1973

A group of businessman headed by John F. Bassett had bought the Nationals for $1.8-million. The players they inherited included rising talents like Tom Simpson and Gavin Kirk as well as veterans like Les Binkley. It wasn’t long before the team was introducing itself to the city it was now calling home.

While Toros doesn’t have the euphemistic ring to it Bassett Hounds had, it was market-tested from a hatful of 80 different names, including Twinkies and Tweedies.

The color combination was the survivor of 23 combinations, but it put the Toros in direct competition with league rivals Winnipeg Jets. However, there will be no conflict in color schemes, because road uniforms are a strong contrast to home uniforms.

There had been anticipation that Bassett was about to reveal the signing of Darryl Sittler, or Paulin Bordeleau, or Syl Apps — or even announce the site of their home games — but he could reveal nothing new on these subjects.

• Gord Walker, The Globe and Mail, June 12, 1973

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July, 1973

The Toros did find a home: Varsity Arena (or as The Globe and Mail had it in an early summer story, “Variety Arena”). A month into the team’s history, Bassett announced that they’d sold approximately 2,400 season’s tickets for a rink with a capacity of 4,800.

“That’s pretty encouraging.”

The Toros have been unable to tempt any player into abandoning the National Hockey League, although they had Darryl Sittler wavering for a while. Perhaps they were consoled in that they helped make him a rich man. He signed with Toronto Maple Leafs, supposedly for $750,000.

There were rumors that the Toros might try to sign Alex Delvecchio, 42-year-old centre of Detroit Red Wings.

“We’re not interested in Delvecchio,” said Bassett. “I’m not denigrating him as a player but we did very well in the draft and we think we’re all right.”

In the same article, Bassett shared his vision of the future, which turned out to be more or less on the money, give or take four years:

He assumes it is evitable that the WHA will merge with the NHL. He figures this will happen within two years, “at the very outside.”

• The Globe and Mail, July 26, 1973

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October, 1973

The Toros played their first game, in Toronto, at Varsity Arena, a 4-4 tie with the Chicago Cougars.

After four years of looking at a pillar in Maple Leaf Gardens, Michael Lynch “decided to pack it in and come down here.”

“Here” was little Varsity Arena, all spruced up with shiny red paint last night to welcome 4,753 hockey fans and The Toronto Toros, the World Hockey Association’s alternative to the Leafs.

It was the Toros’ first night in Toronto, an event quite unlike Hockey Night in Canada, which for people like Michael Lynch was just fine.

Bob Garbutt, 26, was there “because I think the Leafs have ripped off the citizens of Toronto long enough. They’re getting too big for Toronto. The city is going to win this team [sic].”

“The Leafs have become too sophisticated,” added Bill McQuaid, 25. “I think this league’s got a good chance of going places — and I like to back an underdog.”

• Elaine Carey, The Toronto Star, October 8, 1973

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June 1974

All-Canadian hero Paul Henderson, 31, signed on for a five-year term with the team. That same month, 36-year-old Frank Mahovlich signed a four-year deal. His terms were said to amount to $1-million of the course of the contract. Henderson wasn’t talking about his:

He refused to disclose the financial terms of his contract, but said, “I’m not making a million dollars.”

• Associated Press, June 11, 1974

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July, 1974

When the Toros added another player that summer, The Toronto Star made room on its front page for the news, with a story headlined “Czechs’ Gordie Howe defects to the Toros.”

His name is Vaclav Nedomansky and he’s known in international hockey as Big Ned.

He’s 30 years old, he’s a centre and he has been an amateur star for 12 years, the latter years as captain of the Czech national team.

Ron Bull, information officer with Manpower and Immigration in Toronto, said today that Nedomansky is in Canada as a legitimate landed immigrant, not as one seeking political asylum.

“He was on holiday in Switzerland and while there applied to Swiss authorities for asylum,” Bull explained. “During this period he also applied to the Canadian immigration office for landed immigrant status.

“The office in Berne is not a busy one and because of this his application was processed quickly,” Bull said.

“He had a job offer to play professional hockey. Because he is a good hockey player with a high degree of skill he was given high points for this. Good hockey players are in high demand in Canada.”

• The Toronto Star, July 18, 1974

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October, 1974

The Toros eventually moved from Varsity Arena over to a Carleton Street address, where they rented Leaf ice from Leaf owner Harold Ballard.

A crowd of 14,141 turned out at Maple Leaf Gardens to see Hull and his Jets go against the Toros who emerged with a 3-1 victory.

“It really felt like a hockey game with all those people here,” said Toros winger Paul Henderson who has been accustomed to crowds of more than 16,000 when he played for the National League Toronto Maple Leafs until last year.

The Toros averaged a little more than 4,000 fans for their games last season at Varsity Arena and averaged about 8,000 in their first four games this season at the Gardens.

• Canadian Press, Ottawa Citizen, October 25, 1974

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March, 1975

The heart of a young Toros’ goaltender goes out to 50something former Leaf great Johnny Bower, who’s taking a turn in the practice nets for Toronto NHL team one day on Gardens ice.

If Bower looked behind him, back of the protective glass, he would see a young man with somewhat the air of a street punk passing by. He is Gilles Gratton, 22, who plays goal for Toronto’s WHA entry, the Toros, and is on the first year of a five-year contract that will pay him $645,000. The Toros practised earlier, and Gratton is on his way to the parking lot; in his pocket, fingers play against the keys of a canary yellow Porsche 911-S Targa — value: $16,670 — which was provided by the Toros free of charge. Every two years he gets a new one; it’s in his contract. When Maple Leaf practice is over Johnny Bower will change into gray flannel slacks and a blue Maple Leaf blazer. The blazer is provided.

“Just look at him, Gratton says, obviously impressed with Bower’s ancient abilities. “I’ll never be half the goaltender he was. But I’ll make more in the next five years than he made in his life. All he ever he had was hockey — it was his work, man, and that’s why he couldn’t walk away from it. I see somebody like Bower playing and it makes me sad. For him there was nothing else.”

• Roy MacGregor, Ottawa Citizen, March 27, 1975

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December, 1975

Nedomansky made an impression in his first North American season, though perhaps not quite the one that he and everyone else had hoped for.

“We were somewhat disappointed,” says former Toros general manager Buck Houle, fired at the start of this season in a front-office shuffle. We thought he’d get at least 50 goals, probably more. We thought he’d show more leadership than he did. Mind you, there were adjustments for him. It was all new. Still, we thought he could have been more aggressive than he was.

“He’s the greatest centre in hockey,” says Toro owner Johnny F. Bassett, “but if he used the body more, he’d have been even better.”

“Vaclav was better in Czechoslovakia,” says Zoltan Sausik, a Toronto businessman and Czech Canadian who knew Big Ned back home. “Here he seemed lost sometimes. He must play the Canadian way more. He must hit more, he must shoot more.”

Big Ned smiles, shakes his head. “You must understand, it is much different for me,” he says in his fast-improving English. “The ice is much smaller. I turn around and — boom — there are the boards. Everybody thinks I must be a big star, I must score many goals. Why? Hockey is for six players, not one player. Here it is one player all the time. Always he wants to keep the puck and score the goal because the scoring championship is a big, big thing. It is too big. It is not important what one player does. For me, it is better to do what is good for the team, not for me. You understand? Hitting is the same. I can be rough too but hockey is hitting puck with the stick — not hitting the player.”

• Earl McRae, Montreal Gazette, December 5, 1975

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 April, 1976

Talk of the Toros’ demise — or at least, their departure — circulated for months.

“I just don’t know,” Bassett said when asked if the Toros would be back at Maple Leaf Gardens next season. There had been talk that the team might move to Hollywood, Fla., if attendance at home games did not pick up. The Toros played to much larger crowds after the rumors of the move were reported.

• Associated Press, April 5, 1976

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May, 1976

The end came quickly. Way to go, Blue Jays.

The Toronto Toros are leaving town.

The team’s last-ditch attempt to gain a foothold on the local hockey market was abandoned yesterday, three seasons and about $4 million in losses after the World Hockey Association club burst onto the Toronto scene as the alternative to the Maple Leafs.

Heavy financial losses — $1.5 million on last season’s operations alone — plus failure of a recent season ticket drive, were principal factors in team president Johnny Bassett’s decision to move the franchise.

Bassett listed the arrival of major league baseball in Toronto and the World Cup hockey tournament to be played next fall as factors in his decision to move.

• Jim Kernaghan, The Toronto Star, May 5, 1976