Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Trade

When the subject of "The Trade" comes up, most people think of the Wayne Gretzky trade in August 1988. For this writer, "The Trade" actually took place on March 3, 1968. The key figure was Toronto Maple Leaf left winger Frank Mahovlich. As a young hockey fan, this was the first transaction that made a meaningful impact on how I viewed the game. How could Punch Imlach trade away one of my favourite Leafs? How could we possibly obtain fair value? Today, marks the 43rd anniversary of "The Trade".

The newspaper headline streamed across page one of the front page - LEAFS GIVE UP ON MAHOVLICH, TRADE HIM TO DETROIT. This story couldn't be restricted to the sports pages, it was too enormous.

The chess players in this case were Imlach and Detroit general manager Sid Abel. Going to Detroit with Mahovlich were Pete Stemkowski, Gary Unger and the pro rights to Carl Brewer. Coming from the Red Wings were Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith.

There is little doubt the Big "M" was the centrepiece of the deal. Earlier in the decade, the Chicago Black Hawks thought they had secured his services via a cash (one-million dollars) transaction. However, the trade never came to fruition. Conn Smythe emerged as the voice of reason for most Leaf followers - "If (the) Leafs have a man who is worth even half that much, he should remain in Toronto."

With the anniversary of the trade, I decided to view a Classic Game which occurred on March 2, 1968. It was Mahovlich's last game in a Leaf uniform. The tape starts with the opening face-off of the second period. Toronto was hosting the Los Angeles Kings at Maple Leaf Gardens. Mahovlich played on a line with Stemkowski and right winger Brian Conacher. On one shift, Stemkowski was replaced by centre Gary Unger.

In retrospect, it was a typical Frank Mahovlich performance, taking into account he was in the late stages of his time in Toronto. He didn't seem to have his head into the game and didn't stand-out from a an offensive point of view. He was more physical than usual, planting solid body checks on Doug Robinson and Bill White. There were flashes of his skills and ability to bring the crowd out of their seats. Mahovlich taking a pass at the Leaf blue line, one hand, his right, on the stick, pushing the puck forward. Those wonderful long strides propelling him forward. Bearing down on a defenceman, he placed his other glove on the stick for complete control of the puck.

His final shift in a Leaf uniform came late in the final frame. His line mates combined for a goal at 16:49, with Conacher converting a pass from Stemkowski. Conacher's shot beat Kings goalie Wayne Rutledge. Mahovlich, didn't earn a point on the play. With 2:38 remaining in the game, Leaf defenceman Larry Hillman flipped the puck into the Kings bench. The stoppage in play resulted in a Leaf line change. The Big "M" made his way to the bench. The final curtain had dropped on his 11 year career as a Toronto Maple Leaf.

As fate would have it, Detroit Red Wing, Frank Mahovlich, would return to Maple Leaf Gardens the following Saturday (March 9/68). The trade, resulted in a magical atmosphere during the entire game. The crowd was constantly buzzing, often jumping up and filling a portion of the television screen.

True to form, Mahovlich dazzled the crowd. In the first period, he took a pass from defenceman Gary Bergman just outside the Leafs blue line. In full stride, he out raced the defence pairing of Larry Hillman and Marcel Pronovost. Skating in on goalie Bruce Gamble, Mahovlich deked to his right and lifted a backhander over the outstretched Leaf netminder. The effort brought the jubilant 16,154 fans to their feet.

In a frenzied third period, the crowd was unified in it's support of the Leafs who trailed 4-2. By the 6:05 mark, the Blue & White had rewarded their fans by taking a 5-4 lead. The emotional roller coaster continued when Nick Libett tied the score at 6:45. Just as quickly, at 6:56, Dave Keon put the Leafs ahead 6-5. Mike Walton would score on a penalty shot to give his club an insurance goal.

Looking back, one can realize Imlach's motivation in trading the Leafs all-time leading scorer (296 goals). His effectiveness and impact had run it's course in Toronto. Their contentious relationship was clearly hampering Mahovlich's productivity and state of mind. A change of scenery was necessary for both the Leafs and Mahovlich.

A final note. The owner of the Detroit Red Wings was Bruce Norris. In 1962, it was his brother, Jim Norris, who attempted to purchase Mahovlich from Toronto.

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