Michael Langlois of Vintage Leaf Memories will stop by Maple Leafs Hot Stove throughout the Maple Leafs’ centennial season to provide his reflections on past Leaf teams and players from his sixty-plus years of following the Blue and White.
Making comparisons between players past and present can be fun, but the comparisons are usually a stretch and not truly accurate. Players are rarely really alike, though there can certainly be similarities in style.
In thinking today about two of the NHL’s most dynamic rookies—Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine (who match up in Toronto on Tuesday night)—I won’t be “comparing” them as such, but rather harkening back to why their talent and impact remind me a bit of the circumstances around two old-time NHL greats, Frank Mahovlich and Bobby Hull. My point of reference has to do with what Matthews and Laine are doing for their clubs and what Hull and Mahovlich did for theirs in turning those franchises around years ago.
Everyone knows Matthews and Laine were selected one-two in the most recent NHL entry draft. Since, they have both more than lived up to their billing and draft status. They are both tremendous players—Matthews having turned only 19 in September, with Laine to follow suit in April. And most observers would no doubt agree that they are not the type of players who will be one-year wonders. They have all the attributes of young men who will stand out in the league for many years to come. Focused and determined, they both have size, immense talent and the kind of attitude that will separate them from most other players in the years ahead.
And importantly, they just may be the players who most help make their franchise winners before too long.
It was much the same back when Frank Mahovlich joined the Leafs in the latter part of the 1950s. He was 19 when he played his first NHL game with Toronto in 1956-’57 while still a star with his junior team at St. Mike’s. He made the jump to the NHL the next season at as a 20-year-old and earned the Calder Trophy as the best rookie in the league. He did so despite the presence of his soon-to-be longtime rival, Bobby Hull of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Hull made the move from Chicago’s Junior A “farm” team in St. Catharines to the big leagues at the age of 19, and many thought he should have been named as the Calder winner the year that Mahovlich won the award. Both were left-wingers, which only added to the debate as to which one was the better player.
To provide some perspective as it pertains to where Laine/Matthews and the Jets/Leafs are now, it’s worth noting that neither the Hawks of Leafs were playoff teams at the time, but a rather intense personal rivalry between Hull and Mahovlich was put in motion nonetheless.
In the late 1950s, both franchises were creating a pretty strong talent pool. In Toronto, names like Dick Duff and Bob Pulford, along with Mahovlich, were the cornerstones for future success. In Chicago, Hull was joined by individuals like Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote and Bill “Red” Hay to form a nucleus that would make the team competitive for years to come.
Both Hull and Mahvolich were young, great skaters, with powerful shots. Frank had those long, graceful slides; Hull was perhaps more dazzling in the way he navigated the ice. They were considered big, strong players for their time. Mahovlich was listed at 6’1, 205 pounds; Hull was a bit shorter but about the same weight. He was powerfully built, with natural strength borne out of years of work on the family farm in southern Ontario.
While fairly different style-wise in many ways, both were hard to stop when they had built up a head of steam. Both could take the puck deep in their own zone and skate and/or stickhandle their way through the opposition—or in some cases, bull their way through the defense. Both had wicked slapshots. Hull, of course, was known to be one of the “creators” of the so-called curved blade, along with teammate Stan Mikita, though I believe then New York Ranger great Andy Bathgate was part of that innovation as well.
In terms of off-ice temperament, they were very different. Hull was positive-sounding, outgoing and always had that million-dollar smile when being interviewed or when meeting his fans. The man they called “The Big M” seemed to be a more reluctant superstar. He was quiet, more reflective. He played in a hockey fishbowl in Toronto, which likely didn’t help a man who seemed to prefer some privacy. And he played for a coach (and also the team’s General Manager) in Punch Imlach, who wanted his team to be defensively conscientious and generally play with preventing goals as a priority.
Hull, on the other hand, was the perfect fit for a Blackhawk team had been drawing fleas for years. The Hawks were a franchise that had been in the doldrums. They were the organization that other teams traded their “malcontents” to—though it should be noted that that really meant guys who tried to support the fledgling Players Association. Even great players like Ted Lindsay and Toronto’s Tod Sloan ended up there.
So the Hawks needed some pizzaz and Hull gave them plenty of that. The club was simultaneously turning into (like the Leafs at the time) a serious contender. Chicago was coached by Rudy Pilous, and later in the 1960s by former Montreal forward and one-time Leaf coach Billy Reay. Though they had some great defensemen like Pilote, ex-Hab Dollard St. Laurent and “Moose’ Vasko in those days, Chicago favoured an offensive style. They had a stellar netminder in Glenn Hall, but were a high-scoring club. And Hull, along with Mikita, were their most dangerous weapons.
The Hull-Mahovlich rivalry reached a peak in the early 1960s. In fact, in 1960-’61, Mahovlich appeared virtually certain the reach the hallowed 50-goal mark. That was the benchmark established by the legendary Rocket Richard in the 1940s for goals scored in a single season. (For hockey fans, it was similar to the notion of someone equaling or surpassing Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a single season, which Roger Maris actually did in 1961.) No one had equaled the mark set by Richard more than fifteen seasons earlier, though Gordie Howe did score 49 one year. But in that 1960-’61 season, Mahovlich was playing with confidence and scoring goals seemingly by the bushel full. His center was the clever veteran “Red” Kelly, who had come to the Leafs in a much-discussed trade the season prior.
I vividly remember as a young hockey fan that year, all of seven years old, being excited every single Saturday night as I got ready to watch Hockey Night in Canada on CBC. The question was always: would Mahovlich score again tonight, and get closer to the magic 50 number?
Unfortunately, Kelly got hurt in the second half of the season, and that combined with the constant attention Frank was receiving may have contributed to a bit of a goal-scoring slump. I remember that he had 47 goals heading into the final two games of the regular season, and scored number 48 against the Bruins in a Saturday night win at the Gardens. But Mahovlich didn’t score the next night in New York, and ended the season with 48.
What really stung is that Montreal winger “Boom Boom” Geoffrion had gotten really hot in the second half of the season, and he actually scored his 50th goal of the season against Toronto in a game during the last week of the season against Toronto at the old Forum. (Cesare Maniago was in goal for the Leafs.)
Rubbing a bit of salt into the wound of Leaf fans at the time, Chicago went on to upset the Habs in the playoffs, and then defeat the Gordie Howe-led Red Wings to capture the Stanley Cup. (After making to the finals under Imlach the previous two seasons only to lose both time to the vaunted Habs, Toronto was expected to get there again in 1961. But they were upset by Detroit in the semi-finals.)
The next season, it was Hull who reached 50 goals for the first time, joining the select “club” that, to that point, included only the Rocket and Geoffrion. Mahovlich scored “only” 33 goals that season—still a great total in those days. But importantly, he was a big part of the Leafs beating the Hawks in the Cup finals in the spring of 1962.
It was Toronto’s first Cup victory in more than a decade.
There was another twist to the so-called rivalry: before the 1962-’63 NHL season, the Blackhawks made an offer of one million dollars straight up to “purchase” Mahovlich. Various accounts at the time suggested Chicago thought they had a deal with Leaf ownership at the time, but Imlach had no desire to lose his best player, so the apparent handshake agreement between the owners was scuttled. The idea of Hull and Mahovlich on the same team would have been exciting, obviously. Fortunately for Leaf fans, it didn’t happen.
Nonetheless, the story was huge at the time. A million dollars was a lot of money back then in sports terms, and that furthered the Hawk-Leaf/Mahovlich-Hull rivalry.
Both Hull and Mahovlich went on to have marvelous careers from there. The Hawks, despite all their talent, somehow never won another Cup in those years. Toronto won three more and Mahovlich was a big part of all of them, though he never came close to scoring 50 goals again in a Leaf uniform.
Like Frank, Hull became one of the greatest players of all-time. He not only broke the 50-goal barrier many times (eight, in fact), but he made a decision in the early 1970s that affected the economics of the game from then on: he signed a long-term contract with the Winnipeg Jets of the new World Hockey Association, and helped ratchet up salaries in ways unimaginable to that point in time for other hockey players. (In a certain sense, his impact was somewhat similar to what Joe Namath did for football players when he signed with the New York Jets of the old American Football League in 1964, a move that ultimately helped trigger the merger between the old NFL and AFL. And while the circumstances were very different, it also brings to mind Curt Flood’s courageous stand against the baseball establishment, which in some ways led to later court challenges that created free agency for baseball players.)
For his part, Mahovlich was traded by the Leafs during the 1967-’68 NHL season. Frank was a thoughtful, sensitive man, and Punch’s methods, which may have been effective with some Leafs (like the ageless Johnny Bower), were not a fit for The Big M.
Freed from Punch, Mahovlich seemed to find joy playing again in Detroit. He teamed with aging legends Gordie Howe and Alex Delvechccio on a high-scoring line. In fact, he scored 49 goals one season, establishing a new career high.
In my mind, Mahovlich actually played the best all-around hockey of his career in his years with the hated Habs in the early 1970s. He was dealt to the Habs during the 1970-’71 season and was a force at both ends of the ice in the playoffs that spring. With Frank, Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, John Ferguson, Henri Richard, J.C. Tremblay, Ken Dryden and many others playing so well together, Montreal upset the “Big Bad Bruins” of Bobby Orr and later, Hull’s Blackhawks.
Mahovlich and the Canadiens repeated their success in the spring of 1973, giving him six Stanley Cup rings when he decided to accept a nice contract with the WHA’s Toronto Toros (later the Birmingham Bulls).
Hull and Mahovlich continued to play against each other in the WHA through much of the mid-later 1970s. Frank retired at the age of 40 at the end of the 1977-78 WHA season. After the two leagues merged before the 1979-’80 season, Hull split his final season between Winnipeg and Hartford, where he played at times on a line with Gordie Howe and ex-Leaf great Dave Keon.
Hull finished with over 900 regular-season goals between his time in the NHL and WHA. Mahovlich ended up with over 600, but also with the aforementioned six championships to his name. Hull may have been an end-season first or second team All-Star more often than Frank, but any team at the time would have loved to have either player.
It’s always hard to predict what a young player will become. But Mahovlich and Hull showed early on they were special, and became two of the best players of all-time, recognized as such recently by the NHL in the league’s “Top 100” list.
Hockey is very different now than it was when Hull and Mahovlich broke into the league, of course. There were far fewer teams then. The game is much faster now. It’s also a more international sport and the media exposure is much broader now. But in their day, Mahovlich and Hull were household hockey names, as Laine and Matthews are now—and heroes to thousands of kids across Canada.
Will Matthews and Laine achieve the kind of individual success Mahovlich and Hull did? Based on early observations, it’s quite possible. But there is a long road ahead.
For fans, beyond any budding rivalry between Laine and Matthews, maybe most importantly there is simply an opportunity to see two remarkable young talents in action in the years ahead as they look to help bring a championship to two hockey markets that would dearly appreciate it.