Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Original Six: Boston vs. Toronto

As the 2011-12 NHL regular season enters the home stretch, it is interesting to watch clubs gear-up for the playoffs.

Such was the case last night when the Boston Bruins made a visit to the Air Canada Centre. The fact Boston and Toronto are chartered members of the Original Six era only added to the experience of being in attendance for the match-up.

The two franchises first contest against each other in the Golden Age of Hockey (1942-43 to 1966-67) took place on the eleventh anniversary of the opening of Maple Leaf Gardens - November 12, 1942.

With the new season just getting underway and many line-ups depleted due to regulars being engaged in military service, it provided an opportunity for others to gain a roster spot. One such player was Toronto's Jack McLean. The 19 year-old rookie only inked a contract with the Leafs several days before the 1942-43 campaign.

"Jackie meet your new linemates, Gaye Stewart and Bud Poile. Try and get acquainted tonight," Leaf coach Hap Day told the native of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

It didn't take the trio long to form some chemistry on the ice. After a scoreless first period, McLean, Stewart and Poile went to work. Living the dream of every Canadian youngster, McLean scored his first National Hockey League goal in his initial big-league contest. The tally came at 13:13 of the middle frame with the new Leaf beating Boston goalie Frank Brimsek.

Writer Ed Fitkin described the goal in his game report. "He was Johnny-on-the-spot when Hank Goldup wound up, circled the Bruin defence, shoved the disc out from back of the cage. Jackie flicked his stick and that was goal No.1," wrote Fitkin.

Fitkin's evaluation of McLean's overall play included this wonderful comparison. "McLean flitted about like a dragon fly, darting in for passes, setting up plays with speedy precision, sweeping back like a boomerang to muck up Bruin sorties."

Shortly after his own goal, McLean assisted on a marker by Gaye Stewart. His pass to Stewart sent the 1942 Calder trophy winner into a one-on-one encounter with defenceman Johnny Crawford. After getting past Crawford, the Leaf forward deposited the puck behind Brimsek.

In the third, it was McLean and Stewart combining with rearguard Bucko McDonald to inflict some damage against Boston. Upon receiving a pass from McLean's stick, the rugged Leaf defenceman sent a blast towards the Bruins goal. In position for a deflection was Gaye Stewart. His tip found the back of the net and gave Toronto a three-to-nothing  edge over Boston.

Defending at the other end for Toronto was netminder Turk Broda. His bid for a shutout was ruined at the 8:32 mark of the final frame when Buzz Boll's second whack at the puck finally slipped past Broda.

Following sixty-minutes of action, McLean and company waltzed-off the ice with a 3 to 1 victory. The scoring hero for the home side, having been involved in all three goals, summed-up his first NHL game. "Swell, but I didn't think I was going to last the first period. It was really tough, but after that I got the hang of it," McLean told reporters.

The 5-foot 8-inch, 165 pound McLean would participate in 67 regular season games over three years ('42-43 to '44-45) with the Maple Leafs. His season in 1944-45 was cut short due to an ankle injury suffered in a contest against the Detroit Red Wings on December 14, 1944. However, he would return to skate in four playoff tilts and help Toronto nail down the 1945 Stanley Cup.

The tradition of rewarding Leaf Cup winners with championship rings began in 1948. During the Steve Stavro ownership regime, the team decided to honour pre-1948 winners in the same fashion. As a result, two former teammates, Jack McLean and Gaye Stewart, were among a group of individuals eligible for the jewelery.

Living in Ottawa, Ontario the 79 year-old McLean received his Stanley Cup ring in 2002. He passed away in October 2003.

Nearing the conclusion of the 1966-67 season, Boston and Toronto would face-off for their final Original Six era meetings. The schedule maker penciled in two dates for Boston and Toronto to bid farewell to the era, prior to expansion taking place.

On March 25, 1967 the two clubs gathered in Maple Leaf Gardens to close out the Toronto portion of their rivalry. A crowd of 15,885 took in the event. Prior to the puck drop, NHL president Clarence Campbell presented Terry Sawchuk with a clock and a plaque. Both gifts were in honour of Sawchuk's 100th NHL shutout recorded against Chicago on March 4, 1967 at the Gardens. In the same encounter as Sawchuk's feat, captain George Armstrong potted his 250th NHL goal. The quiet Leaf leader declined an invitation to be honoured in the same manner as Sawchuk. The future Hall of Fame member made reference to the fact two of his teammates, Red Kelly and Frank Mahovlich, didn't have a similar celebration when they reached the 250 goal mark.

"It wouldn't be right," commented the popular Leaf known as "The Chief".

Going into the final period of the game on March 25th, Toronto held a one-goal advantage over the visitors. Their 3 to 2 lead came as a result of goals scored by Larry Jeffrey, Mahovlich and Peter Stemkowski. Getting Boston on the scoreboard were Don Awrey (a call-up from Hershey to replace Ron Stewart) and Murray Oliver.

The Bruins evened the score thanks to Tommy Williams goal early in the final period.

Although he didn't take centre stage to obtain a gift from president Campbell and receive a well deserved standing ovation from the faithful, George Armstrong did lift the fans out of their seats late in the contest. At 18:44, Armstrong scored the game-winning goal to give Toronto a 4 to 3 win. As time was ticking down, the Leafs attacked the Boston zone and play moved behind the Boston net. With his linemates, Jeffrey and Dave Keon, in the thick of things behind goalie Eddie Johnston, Armstrong positioned himself away from the activity. When Keon moved the puck to the front of the goal, big number ten with the "C" affixed to his jersey dashed in and sent the puck past the goal line.

The 1966-67 regular season came to a close on April 2, 1967. It also marked the end of the Original Six era. All six teams were in action with the New York Rangers hosting the Chicago Black Hawks and the Montreal Canadiens travelling to the Motor City for a game against the Detroit Red Wings. In the Boston Garden, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins went to battle.

Entering the final weekend of play, the Leafs and Rangers were embroiled in a tussle to determine which club would take third-place in the standings. Toronto beat New York at home on Saturday night to give them a one-point edge. Thus, their season ending fling in Boston would be of some importance.

In Boston, it was the close to another lousy campaign for the Gold and Black. The Bruins were buried at the bottom of the standings with only 44-points (70-17-43-10). The one bright spot and hope for the future was a rookie by the name of Bobby Orr. Prior to meeting the Leafs on Sunday, Orr was presented with two awards - the Elizabeth C. Dufresne Memorial trophy (most valuable player in Boston home games) and the Eddie Shore Trophy (favourite player) - from the Bruin fans.

With little on the line, Boston fell behind the Leafs 3 to 0 after twenty-minutes. Johnny "Pie" McKenzie would score the lone goal in the second period. The Leafs would add to their 3 to 1 lead in the final period with goals coming from Bob Pulford and Dave Keon. The final Original Six era goal between these two historic franchises came courtesy of Boston right winger Wayne Rivers. Playing in his eighth NHL game of the season, it was Rivers' second goal of the year for the Bruins.

The Leafs, with their 5 to 2 win over Boston, combined with Chicago's 8 to 0 blasting of New York, held onto third spot behind Chicago (1st) and the Habs (2nd). This translated into a $750. bonus for each Leaf player.

A newspaper report the next day made note of the changing times with this headline - ERA ENDS IN THE NHL. The reference relating to the League expanding from six to twelve teams.

In the closing moments of their final contest, Bruin fans were chanting "We're number six, next season number 12." On May 2, 1967 the Maple Leafs and their supporters were celebrating a Stanley Cup win over the Montreal Canadiens.

Watching the warm-up between Boston and Toronto last night, 45 years since expansion, I could only think of how the tables have been turned. The Bruins are defending Stanley Cup champions while Leaf fans chanted at the previous home game about firing their coach (leading to Ron Wilson getting axed) and hoping for any edge to climb into a playoff spot.

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