From our recent special issue, we look at No. 10 on our list of the best teams in NHL history.
If you were looking for a hockey team that employed future Hall of Fame players at every position – and more importantly, got crucial contributions from the top of the lineup to its bottom – the 1962-63 Toronto Maple Leafs would represent your ideal choice.
“We were an older team, but we had some younger guys who could play, too – and I was one of the young guys,” said Hall of Famer Dick Duff more than 47 years after that ’62-63 Maple Leafs team won the organization’s 11th Stanley Cup.
“We didn’t play well at times during the season, but we knew what was at stake in the playoffs and the guys came together so well and took care of business. Everybody stepped up at different times…and that’s what makes good teams great.”
The Leafs kicked off the ’62-63 campaign as defending champions who had just won their first Cup in a decade. And most of the components from that team – including captain George Armstrong, coach-GM Punch Imlach, leading scorer Frank Mahovlich and starting goalie Johnny Bower – were back in Blue and White. In Imlach’s estimation, the Cup victory should’ve only made that ’61-62 team even more dangerous.
“Now they’ve got confidence because they know they’re the best,” Imlach said in the fall of 1962. “It’s up to the other (teams) to come up to our level and knock us off.”
Knocking off that Leafs squad required an impossible amount of knocking.
In fact – in what looks like an early warning to the NHL’s other five teams – not even Mother Nature herself could’ve derailed Toronto that season: After they’d beaten Chicago early in the year, a plane carrying the Leafs home was struck by lightning, but the flight continued on and concluded safely.
The business angle of the game also threw a few wrenches Toronto’s way. Mahovlich, center Billy Harris, D-man-turned center Red Kelly and Allan Stanley all were contract holdouts who signed with the team just prior to the signing deadline.
Once they agreed to new, improved salaries – and once other key Maple Leafs were given raises –Toronto wound up with the highest payroll in the league. The Leafs also were tied with Detroit as the NHL’s oldest team (28.2 years) – and big money plus big accomplishments equalled big things were expected of them.
The problem was, the Leafs began the season looking anything but experienced and confident. And the pressure they faced necessitated rapid change.
Once Toronto lost four of its first eight games and six of its first 11, Imlach benched Bower (then a 38-year-old who in the previous three seasons with Toronto had won 98 games and his first Cup). However, by November, new starter Don Simmons was felled by the flu, and Imlach worked Bower back into the mix in a platoon system once both goalies were healthy.
But, according to one ex-Leaf who retired after winning a championship with the team in 1962, Toronto’s talent level made netminding decisions almost an afterthought.
“(The) Leafs have such a good club, it shouldn’t matter who plays goal,” said future Hall of Famer Bert Olmstead at the time. “With three well-balanced lines and two good defense pairs and excellent reserves, they shouldn’t give the opposition enough good scoring chances to cause their goalie any worry.”
Up front, Toronto had all sorts of veteran warriors: Mahovlich (a nine-time 30-plus goal-scoring left winger; Armstrong (who Imlach had said was washed up a year earlier, yet was still a formidable two-way center); left winger Bob Pulford (who scored at least 17 goals in 10 of his 14 seasons with Toronto); and center Ron Stewart (who represented the Leafs in four NHL All-Star Games).
Right winger Bob Nevin was only 24 and playing his third NHL season. Eddie Shack was a 25-year-old left winger whom the fans adored for his on-and-off-ice rambunctious enthusiasm. Best of all, center Dave Keon was an emerging star who hadn’t celebrated his 23rd birthday before the season began.
“If I had to pick one out of my men, it would be Keon,” Imlach said in February of 1963 when asked to identify Toronto’s most important player. “I made that statement before the season began and what’s happened since then makes me more positive about it. He’s our best man, the top center in the National Hockey League and the most consistent player in the business.”
The Leafs’ situation on defense was just as impressive. Thirty-five-year-old Kelly – a Norris and Lady Byng Trophy winner who was a politician in Canada’s national parliament at the time – was now a center, but behind him on ‘D’ was 32-year-old perennial all-star and ferocious ironman Tim Horton.
Stanley was a 36-year-old stay-at-home defenseman who played for each of Toronto’s last four Cup-winning teams; 24-year-old Carl Brewer had a breakout year in ’62-63 and was named to the league’s first all-star team; and Kent Douglas was a 26-year-old rookie D-man who won the Calder Trophy that season.
“We had so many good defenseman, we were able to continue on playing well even though we’d lost Bobby Baun for a while there,” Duff said, referring to the Leafs legend who was out of Toronto’s lineup from December to February with strained knee ligaments. “I mean, we missed Bobby, but everybody knew their role and that made it easier on the team as a whole.”
The Buds coach recognized it, too.
“You’d never know our defense was the best by looking at the goals-against statistics, but they can be the best any time they want to work at it,” said Imlach in ’62. “Douglas, for example, has been our steadiest defenseman…Horton is the best defensively…(and) Brewer carries the puck better than any defenseman we’ve got.”
Toronto’s all-around depth helped the Leafs correct their sluggish start. The Leafs were the NHL’s hottest team before Christmas, with eight wins and three ties in 13 games. They also led the league in goals through the first 28 games (93 goals, including 17 from Mahovlich).
Unfortunately for the players, the iron-fisted Imlach wasn’t completely satisfied. Especially when he was comparing his Leafs to Gordie Howe’s imposing Red Wings.
“They keep winning the big games,” Imlach said. “What they’ve got over us is the fact they can beat the poor teams. We can’t. Every time we get a chance to look like a big club, we blow a game to some tail-end team.”
However, with the steady scoring touch of Mahovlich – who’s 36 goals put him two behind Howe for the league lead – Toronto fought off Chicago down the stretch and edged out the Blackhawks by one point to finish first with a 35-23-12 record.
It was the first time in 15 years the Leafs had won the Prince of Wales Trophy as top team in the league, but it didn’t help them avoid a first-round playoff showdown with their archrivals from Montreal.
The Leafs also had added incentive when the league announced the payout to the Cup-winning team would rise to $63,000 ($36,000 for a Cup win and $27,000 for an opening-round series win).
That meant the payout to each player on a Cup champion would be $3,600.
“That was nothing to sneeze at back then,” Duff said with a laugh. “We wanted to win, anyway, but that didn’t hurt the cause.”
Toronto’s focus was on display immediately against Montreal. The Leafs won the first three games of the series, leaning heavily on Bower (who stopped 80 of 83 shots in those games) and the aforementioned spread-out attack on offense.
The Canadiens won Game 4 by a score of 3-1, but the Leafs stormed back in Game 5 and dominated in a 5-0 victory.
Toronto’s win over the Habs set up a Cup final against the Red Wings that served as a rubber match of sorts between the two franchises. The Leafs and Detroit had met 18 times in the playoffs prior to 1963 – and both teams had won nine series apiece.
But Toronto got on track very early in the final – thanks to Duff’s two goals in Game 1, which established a record for fastest two goals to start a game by a single player (68 seconds) – and the Leafs won 4-2.
In Game 2, the Leafs were without Mahovlich (who was out with a bruised knee), but little-used forward Eddie Litzenberger – who was released by Detroit in 1961 – scored a goal and assisted on two others for another 4-2 win for Toronto. Former Leaf Alex Faulkner scored midway through the second period of Game 3 to secure a 3-2 victory for Detroit. But Kelly and Keon combined for three goals and four points for Toronto in Game 4 (a 4-2 Leafs win) – and in Game 5, Keon opened the scoring and Shack deflected Douglas’ shot for the Cup-winning goal in Toronto’s 3-1 series clincher.
When it was over, Imlach made clear who his best player was.
“I’d have to take Davey (Keon),” Imlach said when asked to pick a playoff MVP. “It may sound like a lot of big talk, but I wouldn’t trade him for Gordie Howe.”
This is an excerpt from THN’s special issue, Greatest Teams of All-Time.