It’s natural for sports fans to have a favourite team or a favourite player. Most individuals who visit this site are naturally Leaf supporters. So my guess is that there is (or was in an earlier era) a particular Leaf that you really enjoy/enjoyed following.
I can’t really speak to the last 100 years in this Centennial season but given that my “Leaf life” dates back to the late 1950s, there have been a fair number of Leaf squads to reflect on when determining which was my all-time “favourite”.
There was, of course, the last Cup team in ’67, for example—the so-called “over the hill gang”, with Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk (despite some off nights in the playoffs) in the nets helping the Leafs pull off a massive upset in the playoffs.
I loved the 1970-’71 Leaf team under then coach John McLellan. Future Hall-of-Famers Jacques Plante and Bernie Parent were in goal. That roster had six kids (Dorey, Ley, Glennie, et al) on defense with oldtimer Bobby Baun to show them the way. Dave Keon and Norm Ullman had marvellous seasons at center, with rugged newcomer Jim Harrison to back them up. Ron Ellis, Paul Henderson and some relative unknowns like Billy Macmillan and Brian Spencer grinded their way through a great playoff series against the tough and talented New York Rangers of Brad Park, Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield Eddie Giacomin, ex-Leaf Tim Horton and Rod Gilbert. They lost but they were a memorable bunch.
A few years later, it was hard not to like the Roger Neilson Leaf squads of the late ‘70s—Mike Palmateer in goal, Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Tiger Williams leading the way offensively, with Borje Salming anchoring the defense. They upset the up and coming Islanders in the playoffs in the spring of ’78. Dan Maloney was a really tough forward picked up in a trade with the Red Wings. Leaf followers of the time certainly remember Ian Turnbull’s performance in the playoffs that year. Randy Carlyle and Trevor Johanssen were emerging kids on defense. Rugged forwards like Scott Garland and Pat Boutette contributed, too. Great memories.
While the ‘80s didn’t always provide a lot of great memories, there were some exciting playoffs series against the Blues, Hawks and Red Wings in particular. Players like Wendel Clark, Gary Leeman, Dan Daoust and others generated some buzz. But those were not among my all-time favourite Leaf squads.
Of course Leaf fans will always remember fondly the Pat Burns and Doug Gilmour-led team from 1992-’93. Felix Potvin had come out of nowhere to take over the top job in goal. They had a no-name defense built around Dave Ellet, Jamie Macoun, Sylvain Lefebvre, Todd Gill and Bob Rouse. Wendel Clark had one of his last great seasons with the Leafs that year (though he returned twice more after being traded…). It was a team with just the one guy playing like a superstar (Gilmour) and everyone else simply playing their role very well, from high-scoring Dave Andreychuk to the tenacious Bill Berg. We came so close to a finals matchup with the hated Habs. The 7-game playoff loss against the LA Kings is one I think Leaf supporters still see as a missed opportunity.
The 2001-’02 Leaf squad helmed by Pat Quinn was special, too. That was another one that “got away”. Still not sure how we lost to Carolina (of all teams) in the semi-finals, thus missing a chance at playing for the Cup against Detroit, I believe it was. Sundin was our go-to guy, CuJo in net. Gary Roberts played larger than life. Shayne Corson blocking shots. Tomas Kaberle blossoming into a tremendous defenseman. Bryan McCabe becoming an end-of-season All-Star. The ever enigmatic and still talented (if aging) Alexander Mogilny. Such a good team, that came achingly close to making it to the finals.
Taking all that into consideration — and recognizing that my fondness for the old days may have influenced my thinking — the team that stands out most in my mind was the 1962-’63 Maple Leaf side.
Why? Well, they won the Stanley Cup that season, but it was more than that. It was just a great time to be a Leaf fan. Though it was a different world back then and a very different (certainly slower, overall, which I liked) game, the Leafs were led by a high profile coach fans typically either loved or hated—Punch Imlach. He was both General Manager and coach. He antagonized and infuriated opponents. He was loathed by many of his own players. His critics suggest his teams should have won even more Cups than they did, but he did lead Toronto to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s. And that was at a time when the Montreal Canadiens were still the vaunted Habitants and the Chicago Blackhawks were an absolutely outstanding squad, with great player like Glenn Hall, Pierre Pilote, Moose Vasko, Stan Mikita, Red Hay, Bobby Hull, Kenny Wharram and many others.
One thing that stands out about that team—and helps put them on the top of my “list”—is that they were the last Leaf team to finish in first place in the overall standings. The Leafs have not (amazingly) finished first at any point since that season and it had been a long time before 1962-’63 since they had finished in first place (though I’d have to look it up to know exactly how long).
Johnny Bower was our guy in goal that year, though left-handed back-up Don Simmons (who was a big-time contributor the season prior, winning the deciding Game 6 of the Cup finals in Chicago after Bower had been injured earlier in the series) played close to 30 games during the regular season. Tim Horton and Allan Stanley, Bobby Baun and Carl Brewer were our minute-eating defense pairs, though Kent Douglas played enough as a “5th defenseman” to earn the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie-of-the-Year award.
The “Big M”, Frank Mahovlich, was our scoring leader up front, though one of the best all-around players in the league at the time was a then young 22-year-old Dave Keon. The Leafs also had smallish, speedy (and tough) Dickie Duff, as well as “The Chief”, captain George Armstrong, who was so good in the corners. Bobby Pulford, as I posted here recently, was the best “third line” center in hockey, more than ably supporting Keon and the great elder statesman up the middle, Red Kelly.
Billy Harris was the play-making back-up center who still put up points despite limited ice team. The flamboyant Eddie Shack was already becoming perhaps the greatest one-man entertainer on skates, despite playing for the stern, defensive-minded Imlach. (He also scored a big goal in the third period of the deciding Game 5, as I recall.) Bob Nevin was such a fine two-way winger. Ron Stewart, who ended up playing about 20 years in the league because he was so versatile (he actually played defense for the Leafs early in his career in the 1950s), was a highly dependable forward.
Forward Eddie Litzenberger was in the midst of helping his teams win four Stanley Cups in a row. He was the captain of the Chicago squad that won the championship in the spring of 1961 (ex-Leaf stalwart Tod Sloan was on that team, too), then moved to the Leafs before the 1961-’62 season. Eddie was a big part of those three early-60s Cup teams. Then, believe it or not, he went on (if I’m not mistaken) to win two more championships in a row with the American Hockey League Rochester Americans. I have to believe no one in sports has won a championship six years in a row.
Young players like Bruce Draper and Rod Seiling each played a game for the Leafs during the regular season (Seiling going on to a tremendous career on the blueline with the New York Rangers). Ex-Bruin great Bronco Horvath (part of the famed “Uke” Line with Vic Stasiuk and Johnny Bucyk with Boston in the late 1950s) spent some time with the Leafs that year, as did another former Bruin, Norm Armstrong. Young Johnny MacMillan was on that Cup team as well.
Interestingly, defenseman Larry Hillman, who was part of the Leaf Cups teams in ’64 and ’67 (he was really good in the ’67 playoffs against Chicago and the Habs, paired with Marcel Pronovost), played a few games for Toronto during the regular season as well.
One thing I remember vividly, though I was only nine at the time: the Leafs clinched first overall on the last Wednesday night of the regular season in a game at Maple Leaf Gardens in late March against their arch-rivals from Montreal. Keon scored from Jacques Plante’s doorstep with six second remaining in the game to give the Leafs a 3-3 tie (there was no overtime in the regular season back then), ensuring their first-place status with a couple of games left in the season.
They went into the playoffs a confident bunch, and ran through the Canadiens in 5 games, winning the first three games of the series. They won Game 5 by a score of 5-0, before going on the beat the Red Wings in 5 games as well. That was a real team—and winning a championship was a classic “team effort”, without question. That said, if there had been a Conn Smythe Trophy back then, Keon would surely have won it. He was so good that spring, killing penalties and leading the team with 12 points in those 10 games.
For me, looking back, finishing first and then overpowering two very good teams in Montreal and Detroit on the way the to their second Cup in two seasons demonstrated just how good the Leafs were that season—and how much better they were than the rest of the league.
Again, while they had an offensive gunner in Mahovlich, a strong backline with the aforementioned Horton, Stanley, Baun and Brewer and a great goaltender in Bower, they won not because they were a team of stars, but because it was a squad with really good players who were well coached and worked their tails off—which is often the case when we crown the NHL champion at the end of any given season. Stars help, for sure, but you need to have a roster of guys who are on the same page, and are willing to be unselfish enough to do their jobs well. That was the 1962-’63 Maple Leafs.
I recognize that Leaf history, especially looking back to the 1930s until the very early ‘50s, is filled with some great teams. But for me, the one that stands out the most is indeed the Cup winning squad from 1962-’63. But we all have our own memories—and our own favourites.
As we get ready for this year’s January 1 outdoor “Centennial classic” in Toronto, I invite you to share your memories of your favorite Leaf squad of the past…