Punch Imlach (Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)
In a new Strange But True feature, Stan Fischler examines legendary Leafs coach Punch Imlach and Toronto's improbable run to the playoffs in 1959.
There are realistic limits to the power of positive thinking. Trouble is, nobody bothered convincing George ‘Punch’ Imlach of that during the home stretch of the 1958-59 campaign.
The rookie coach-GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs should have known better than to predict his team would make the playoffs. Not even the NHL schedule-makers believed him. “Near the end of the season the official announcement from league headquarters had Montreal, Boston, Chicago and New York making it,” Imlach wrote in his autobiography, Hockey Is A Battle. “There was no mention of Toronto against anybody.”
Then again, a less optimistic Punch would have known the reason why. “By March 9th,” added Imlach, “we were nine points out of fourth (the last playoff berth.) But I still said we’d make it.” That got a laugh out of Rangers coach Phil Watson, who had a long-running feud with Imlach. “Imlach can crow all he wants,” needled Watson, “but it will be the same this year as last. The Rangers will make it, the Leafs won’t.”
Watson’s confidence was rooted in his starry lineup that included future Hall of Famers Gump Worsley, Harry Howell, Bill Gadsby and Andy Bathgate. Maple Leafs patriarch Conn Smythe was so skeptical of Imlach’s confidence, he wondered out loud, “Did we get a coach or a madman?”
What nobody could have forecast was the curious turn of events that damaged the Rangers’ playoff bid. Their downfall began inside the dressing room where players were in open rebellion against Watson, who worked them to exhaustion in practice. “Down the stretch,” Camille Henry said, “Phil nearly killed us with a one-hour workout right after we played a game.”
Still, on the weekend of March 14-15, 1959, the Rangers could have disposed of Toronto’s playoff chances during their home and home clash. All New York needed was one win and all of Imlach’s predictions would have the shelf life of smoke rings.
The Leafs trashed Watson’s troops 5-0 on Saturday, but Watson figured that wasn’t a problem. Even a tie Sunday would crush the visitors. Late in the third period of a 5-5 tie, Watson almost got his wish. Then, it happened. Before going off on a line change – and merely to kill time – Toronto’s Bob Pulford sent an ordinary wrist shot towards Worsley that strangely eluded the Gump and gave the Leafs a 6-5 win, pulling them within three points of the Rangers with just three games left to play on the season.
The usually reliable Worsley was failing. With another chance to secure the playoffs, he lost to Boston, 5-3. “I can’t understand why our goalie has lost his touch,” said GM Muzz Patrick, whose bleats turned into screams a night later when the Leafs played Montreal at The Forum, usually a guaranteed loss to the soon-to-be four-straight Cup champs. Alas, the unseen hand was on Imlach’s side. Hall of Fame goalie Jacques Plante was injured and always-reliable backup Charlie Hodge was available, but, inexplicably, coach Toe Blake started inexperienced Claude Pronovost. His lack of experience showed. The final score was 6-3 for the Leafs, who climbed within one point of New York.
It all came down to a pair of weekend games for each team. The Rangers opened with an afternoon 5-2 win in Detroit. The Leafs replied with a home win over Chicago. This meant the race would be settled Sunday night. First, Montreal against the Rangers in New York, then, an hour later, Toronto at Detroit. Blake angered the Rangers by starting Hodge, who beat the Blueshirts, 4-2. Prior to the late-starting game at Detroit’s Olympia, Leafs boss Stafford Smythe greeted Imlach. “Well,” comforted Smythe, “at least you had a good try.” With that, Imlach exploded: “What the hell are you talking about? We’ve come too far to lose now. Don’t be stupid.”
Smythe was smart enough to know only a Leafs victory would ensure a playoff berth. With the third period underway, the game was tied 4-4. But Dick Duff scored early in the third and Billy Harris scored to cement a 6-4 win. The chap Conn Smythe called a “madman” had done the impossible. “They got a madman all right, but they didn’t know it at the time,” Imlach said. “In the coaching business there’s a thin line between a madman and a genius.”
How astonishing was Imlach’s feat? The normally reserved Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot put it bluntly, “It rates as one of the most spectacular sports comebacks of all-time.”
Stan Fischler is an award-winning writer and broadcaster who's covered the game since 1954. He's been a contributor to The Hockey News since 1955 and you can continue to find his Strange But True features in almost every issue. He's also produced the hockey newsletter, The Fischler Report, for the past 20 years. Fischler's latest book is Behind the Net: 101 Incredible Hockey Stories.