Thanks to Vintage Leaf Memories’ Michael Langlois for stopping by to share some memories ahead of tomorrow’s Alumni games, set to be played in Comerica Park at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.
When Alec Brownscombe asked me if I was interested in developing a piece for MLHS about the Winter Classic Legends games, my first thought was: who is on the roster? Will I enjoy writing about these guys?
As I jogged through the list of the “first” Leaf team, I didn’t see a lot of promise. Oh, they were all names of pretty solid NHL players, all Leafs at some point in their careers. But aside from a couple of guys, I can’t say I was too cranked up or “passionate” in terms of wanting to draw on my memory bank to write about those individuals.
But a scan of the “other” Leaf squad of old-timers (that’s still what I tend to call them) brought some inspiration. So my response to Alec was, naturally, yes, I’d love to write about some old-time Leafs—players that surely meant a lot at the time, and maybe even since—to the blue and white faithful.
Now, I readily acknowledge that many of the Leafs I remember most fondly on these lists are those that are evidently part of the so-called “non-playing” group. This list includes great names like Johnny Bower, Pat Quinn (who will be the coach for the Legends game), Ronnie Ellis, Red Kelly, Brian Conacher, Jim Dorey, Dan Maloney and the unforgettable Jim McKenny, a colourful Leaf if there ever was one.
There are so many memories that any one of us could share (who were around during their playing days, as I was) about each of these wonderful ex-Leafs. I’ll share a few observations that spring to mind:
-Bower was a backbone of four Leaf Stanley Cup teams in the ‘60s, and he was surely one of the finest “money” goalies I have seen in my many years (dating back to the late ‘50s) of observing NHL hockey. He was so much more than the “poke check” guy that people always seem to refer to when they talk about Bower. An old-school, stand-up goalie, yes, but the man had nerves of steel. He was, simply, a big-time player. He worked like mad during practice to get—and stay—in shape. As a result his physical fitness extended his marvelous career, playing as he did until his mid ‘40s. A devoted disciple of Punch Imlach (the long-time GM and coach) and appreciative of the late-life opportunity that Punch gave him, Bower’s desire and competitive nature probably helped him get as much out of his ability as any athlete I’ve ever seen.
-Ellis was good enough to come achingly close to winning the Calder Trophy for the Leafs in his rookie season as a 19 year-old in 1964-‘65 and went on to a lengthy and memorable career. He scored a huge goal in the Cup clinching game in the spring of 1967 and was of course a key winger on the Bobby Clarke line during the ’72 Summit Series. But what I remember most about Ellis was his consistency, his sheer professionalism. He was just about everything you’d want a Maple Leaf player to be, in good times and bad.
-Red Kelly was a top-three NHL defensemen throughout the 1950s with the Detroit Red Wings, but a falling out with his GM led to a trade that brought him to the Leafs, where he finished his career as a center under Imlach. How good was Kelly? Well, he was immensely instrumental in the Wings capturing four Cups in the early ‘50s as a rearguard, and then was a cornerstone as a forward for the Leafs as they won four themselves in the ‘60s. A smart puck-handler, smooth, with great vision, he was a very clean yet rugged player. Importantly, he played through so much pain but just kept going. All class.
-Jim Dorey was a favourite Leaf of mine, who joined the club in the late ‘60s but was unfortunately traded (too soon, in my view at the time) during the 1971-’72 season. A tough as they come blueline, he had a great shot and could skate and move the puck, though he was best known for taking on all comers. He really was fearless. I loved him as a Leaf, short though his time here was.
-Brian Conacher (yes, part of the famous Conacher hockey/sports clan) had a modest NHL career, but his shining moment came in the 1967 semi-finals. In Game 6 at Maple Leaf Gardens, with the Leafs needing a win to avoid facing a seventh game back in Chicago against the heavily favoured Blackhawks of Glenn Hall, Pierre Pilote, Bobby Hull, “Moose” Vasko, Kenny Wharram and Stan Mikita (they were an awfully good team), he scored two goals to lead the Leafs to a clinching victory. I remember his second goal that night distinctly. He knocked Chicago defenseman Ed Van Impe off the puck, retrieved the puck himself and scored against Hall. Timely goal, a great moment—and a tremendous memory for Leaf fans.
-Dan Maloney is a player I wanted to be a Leaf so badly for years before he actually arrived here in a big deal with the Red Wings. He was the epitome of a power forward, though his skating was a bit choppy (he was pretty slow). While he never had the success here I had hoped for, he was absolutely crucial in the Leafs upsetting the then emerging Islanders in Game 7 of the 1978 quarter-finals. That was the famous Lanny McDonald overtime winner (Game 7) series that still ranks as a special moment for Leaf fans of that generation.
-I should throw in Doug Favell’s name too. He was a tremendous athlete (lacrosse player in the summer—I saw him play in person at the old Windsor Arena in the early ‘70s, if I’m not mistaken). He may have been one of the most naturally gifted—if unorthodox—goaltenders I’ve ever seen. His challenge was consistency, but what a quick, agile netminder he was.
Now, as for the former Leafs who may actually play in the Legends game, one of the biggest names on the “list” seems to be Borje Salming. The original Gumbi on skates, Borje immediately was embraced by the Leaf faithful in his rookie (1973-’74 season) year. Why? Well. For a host of reasons, but largely because of the second game of the season, on the road, at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia. The “Broad Street Bullies” tried to run him every way they could. He did not flinch and never backed up. Not one iota. Even the Flyers noticed. I remember the newspaper clippings the next day. The Flyers were duly impressed. Word soon spread that this Swede with the unusual skating style was no “chicken Swede” (not my term—a negative phrase used at the time by detractors of Swedish/European players).
Salming scored one of the most exciting playoff goals in my Leaf memory. It was against the hated Flyers (defending Cup champions at the time, I believe) in the spring of ’76. (I’m going to say it was Game 4 at the Gardens, but I stand to be corrected.) I can’t recall in vivid detail all that led up to it, but he scored a brilliant solo goal against Bernie Parent, dashing in on a semi breakaway from his defensive position. The Leafs lost the series, but were becoming a good team around Sittler, McDonald, Turnbull, Tiger Williams, etc. Salming played forever in Toronto (including through the mostly difficult and at times depressing ‘80s). He blocked more shots with his body, I’m guessing, than any Leaf in history.
-Al Iafrate was maybe the most gifted young Leaf defenseman I’ve ever seen. He showed flashes of absolute brilliance, but a serious knee injury early in his Toronto tenure really set him back. He still went on to a nice career elsewhere, but I don’t think we ever saw fully what Al could have been. What a talent.
Bryan Berard? He may have been a close second to Iafrate in terms of “potential” as a young Leaf defender with sublime skill. But that horrific eye injury against the Senators, while not ending his career fully, prevented him, I think, from attaining the star status he was headed for.
-Mike Palmateer, in the late ‘70s, was a very popular Leaf. Cocky (and left-handed) and maybe even arrogant, he played a role in stabilizing the Leaf goaltending situation that had been wonky off and on in the mid-‘70s. He was part of the Leaf squad that faced the vaunted Habs in the playoffs in both 1978 and 1979. We did not win a single game, but the Montrealers were so deep, so good, hardly anyone was a real match for them during that period.
-Like Palmateer before him, Potvin came out of the minors at an early age and supplanted a veteran goalie. (For Palmateer it had been Wayne Thomas, an ex-Canadien; in Felix’s case, it was former Edmonton superstar Grant Fuhr.) You know what my fondest memory of Potvin is? Not so much one moment, or one game, though there were certainly big-time playoff stops and some huge playoff wins; no it was that, at playoff time, whenever he struggled in a game, you could invariably count on him to rebound with a big-time effort the very next game. In that sense he reminds me of, in current Leaf terms, James Reimer. Not the most naturally gifted netminder around, but a battler and super-competitive.
-For many Darryl Sittler will be the biggest Maple Leaf “name” on hand for the Legends game. And that makes sense. He was the captain during a spirited time in Leaf history from the mid ‘70s to the early ‘80s. He had the famous 10-point game against the Bruins (I was there that night up in the old greys; I really was, I swear) and that equally startling 6-goal playoff performance against the Flyers and Parent. But I remember him before he was captain, as a rookie winger (the Leafs were strong up the middle that season), making his way on a pretty good club in 1970-’71. What a fantastic representative of the Maple Leafs Darryl was. And unlike his center/captain counterpart in Philadelphia (do I need to name him?), Sittler could stand up for himself.
-Lanny McDonald was a personal favorite of mine. When he struggled in his early Toronto years (he had been a major goal-scorer out west in junior hockey) a prominent Toronto Star hockey reporter wrote one day that Lanny would never be a scorer in the NHL, but also said basically that Lanny might turn into a good player. Well, McDonald went on to score 500 goals and captained Calgary to the Cup in 1989. I remember him best for that classic wrist shot—and also for knocking Bobby Orr and Denis Potvin head-over-heels on successive Saturday nights at the Gardens with thundering open-ice hip checks in games in the early ‘70s. Those moments were a sign, for me, that he was on his way to becoming an all-around great Leaf.
-I can’t say much about “Wendel” and “Dougie” that hasn’t been said countless times. I’ll just say that, in hockey terms, Clark was the classic warrior. He could fight and he could play. And when he was charged up, boy could he play. Will any Leaf supporter of the time ever forget Game 6 of the semi-finals against Gretzky and the Kings in LA.?
-Gilmour, as has been said countless times, may have been the best player in hockey for a two-year period in the early ‘90s. Though his Leaf career was relatively short, I can’t conceive that anyone who saw him play in that era will ever forget his contributions to the Leafs. We were ‘this close’ to meeting the Hab in the finals in ’93. (My Sittler/Clarke reference above aside, I always admired Bobby Clarke’s on-ice work ethic. I never believed a hockey player could work harder then Clarke did. But Gilmour, for that brief period with the Leafs, came pretty darn close…)
Others who will suit up for the good game in one of the Legend match-ups? Russ Courtnall could skate like the wind. Gary Leeman had that 50-goal season. I wish Steve Thomas had never left the Leafs the first time, and I also wish he had had one last chance to finish his career here.
I almost forgot to include Mike Walton, the Leaf speedster (to this day, he was one of the fastest Leafs I have ever seen, and a truly exciting player). He helped us win the Cup in ’67 and later won one with the Bruins, too.
Mat Sundin? I’ve written about him so often. I’ll simply say there was never a player who seemed happier about the success of his teammates (you could see it in that genuine smile whenever the Leafs scored a big goal) than Mats. (editors note: Sundin will presumably be a part of the ceremonies, but will not play in one of the games due to an injury). Gary Roberts? We sure could use him now—and I mean right now, even in his late 40s, or whatever he is.
I won’t go on about Pat Quinn because well, I’m biased. As I’ve long acknowledged at my “Vintage Leaf Memories” site, I’ve had professional and personal relationship with Pat for many years. I’ll say this however: He was an old-school, rugged, stay-at-home defensemen in his playing days with Toronto, Vancouver and Atlanta (where he was a respected captain and player rep). He won a Memorial Cup as a junior player.
And while he never coached a Stanley Cup team (he did lead two teams to the finals, and a shockingly terrible off-side call cost the Flyers big time in the 1980 finals against the Islanders), goodness, he won everything else there is to win, it seems. We all remember the 2002 Olympics. He led the Canadian to a World Junior Championship. He also coached our Canadian U18 team to a world championship. (What other coach has that trifecta? And remember, he supposedly was not good with young players—what crap.) He still is one of the winningest coaches in NHL history, I believe and somehow is not in the Hall-of-Fame.
I know there are some other distinguished names on the roster for the Leaf old-timers (Corson, Borschevsky, Mike Pelyk, Jamie McCoun, Brad Marsh…) but it would take forever to share thoughts on every single guy who will be part of what will be a marvelous event.
The important thing, to me, however, is that all these ex-Leafs will get a chance to be together, and, in a sense, will remind us of the proud legacy they have all helped to create, build, enhance—and maintain. God Bless them all for the memories they gave so many of us.
Michael Langlois writes the popular “Vintage Leaf Memories” blog and has now authored “The Maple Leafs of My Youth” to help bridge the past and present for Toronto Maple Leaf fans around the world. Born in 1953 and a Leaf supporter since the late 1950s, Michael shares personal stories and memories about players, events and moments from his younger days as a fan that are part of the unique and lasting legacy of the Maple Leaf franchise. “The Maple Leafs of My Youth” is not a book about statistics, research or what is commonly known about the blue and white. It is in fact a very personal memoir of what it has meant to be a follower of the Leafs through very changing times, and why the franchise still matters to this day to countless supporters—despite decades without a Stanley Cup championship.
Buy Michael’s book, “The Maple Leafs of My Youth,” in Kindle edition here.