Punch Imlach. (Barry Philp/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
The Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967 with a past-their-prime roster and a coach-GM who had a gut feeling.
So how in the world did the Toronto Maple Leafs ever manage to win their fourth Stanley Cup in six years in 1967?
For starters, the Leafs survived a mid-season 10-game losing streak and remained in playoff contention. When coach-GM Punch Imlach was hospitalized because of exhaustion and fatigue, president Stafford Smythe’s replacement choice, Rochester’s Joe Crozier, refused to undercut Imlach and take the coaching reins. Instead, Imlach’s sidekick, Francis ‘King’ Clancy, went behind the bench and inspired an unlikely winning streak.
Meanwhile, Johnny Bower, 41, and Terry Sawchuk, 37, managed to play as if they were in their primes, as did the team’s over-the-hill defensemen – Allan Stanley, Marcel Pronovost and Tim Horton who averaged 38 years of age. More than anything, Imlach emerged from the hospital oozing more confidence in his team than the two-million citizens of Toronto put together.
Amazingly, the Leafs gained a playoff berth but faced the league-leading Chicago Black Hawks, who finished 19 points ahead of them in the standings. After losing the opening game, Imlach was unfazed. “I had a feeling we’d bounce back,” he insisted. As predicted, his club eventually took a 3-2 series lead. The suddenly sizzling Brian Conacher scored the series-clinching goal in Game 6. “He knocked down defenseman Ed Van Impe, retrieved the puck, went in and scored,” Imlach remembered.
That catapulted the Leafs into the final against Montreal and, after the opening game, just about everyone wondered how Imlach’s players ever got into the playoffs. Sawchuk looked like he couldn’t stop a Goodyear blimp, and after two periods Bower replaced him. Final score: 6-2 for the Habs. Montreal skated like Mercury compared to the snowshoeing Leafs. The horde of Toronto media skeptics left Imlach both defiant and hostile but, most of all, undaunted. The morning after the one-sided defeat, he brazenly marched into the pressroom and boasted to one and all that his Leafs would win the Cup.
In his autobiography, Hockey is a Battle, Imlach recalled a novice hockey writer from Los Angeles approached him in astonishment. “All he did,” he wrote, “was peer at me for a long time and then said slowly, ‘Are you for real?’ ”
Imlach showed the same bravado an hour later when he strode into a clothing store and ordered a bizarre green checked suit. He told the tailor he planned to wear it “on the night we win the Cup.” The clothier shot back that Imlach would then have to wait several years before donning the wild-looking outfit.
No way. Inspired by their seemingly mad leader, the Leafs rebounded to take a 3-2 series lead – but at great cost. Ever reliable Bower popped a muscle, leaving Toronto with a battered and inconsistent Sawchuk. Imlach knew Bower was done yet demanded his cracked ‘China Wall’ sit in uniform on the bench. “You won’t be asked to play,” Imlach said, “but just be there.”
With his players gearing up in the dressing room, Imlach – who it was said had a paving stone for a heart – suddenly turned so sentimental he moved some of his vets to tears. “It’s been said,” he told them, “that I stuck with you old men so long we couldn’t possibly win. For some of you it’s farewell. Go out there and put that puck down their throats.” His speech completed, he donned his green-checked suit and walked to the bench.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens figured they had the game in the bag. They had beaten Sawchuk twice by 6-2 scores. Imlach just prayed Sawchuk, still feeling the effects of a bashed ankle and smashed nose, would hang in there.
Sawchuk held on while Ron Ellis and Jim Pappin staked his Leafs to a 2-1 lead, which lasted into the final minute of play but with a faceoff in the Toronto zone. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, Imlach turned sentimental once more, gambling on his venerable core. He told some of his senior skaters – George Armstrong, Red Kelly, Horton, Stanley and Bob Pulford – to get out there and defuse the Habs. “I figured it would be the last game some of them would play,” he said. “What better than to turn to my old guard?”
Stanley, a defenseman, won the faceoff from Jean Beliveau while Kelly retrieved the rubber and passed it to Pulford who spotted Armstrong on the right wing. The captain hit the bulls-eye and Toronto won 3-1, its fourth championship in six years. “It was the most satisfying Stanley Cup I ever won,” Imlach said.
And as most of Toronto and the civilized hockey world know, its most recent Stanley Cup.