Friday, May 4, 2012

Jerry Toppazzini: 1931-2012

After winning the first three games in their Memorial Cup showdown with the Winnipeg Monarchs, the Barrie Flyers were on the verge of a series sweep. With game four pencilled in for May 7, 1951, the obstacle facing Barrie wasn't the Monarchs, but the Winnipeg Amphitheatre.

Prior to game time, a valve broke in the ammonia plant, resulting in fumes being dispersed throughout the building, and game four being rescheduled  for the next evening, May 8th.

For Jerry Toppazzini and his teammates, the delay only strengthened their resolve to end matters as quickly as possible.

Playing in his final game as a junior, Toppazzini wasted no time putting Barrie on the scoreboard. His tally at 3:49 of the first period, against Don Collins, set Barrie on the path to victory. Toppazzini added a second goal early in the middle frame, as the Flyers coasted to a 9 to 5 win and a Memorial Cup championship.

On April 21, 2012, Jerry Toppazzini passed away at the age of 80.

Following his stint as an amateur, Toppazzini was assigned to the Hershey Bears to begin his pro career in 1951-52. His rights were held by the Boston Bruins. In 54 contests with Hershey, Toppazzini scored 20 goals and produced 45 points.

During the 1952 playoffs - the six-foot-180 pounds - Toppazzini was summoned by the Bruins for their series against Montreal. With both clubs winning on home ice, action shifted to the Montreal Forum for game five. Going along for the trip were Toppazzini and goalie Gordon Henry.

Although Toppazzini never took part in game action, it was an experience to be with the big league club, and to get a taste of what life was like in the National Hockey League.

Toppazzini's chance to stay with Boston came in 1952-53. To the surprise of many, he didn't crack the squad at his usual right wing position, but as a defenceman.

Coming out of training camp, Boston's blueline consisted of Hal Laycoe, Bob Armstrong, Warren Godfrey and Bill Quackenbush. When Armstrong couldn't answer the bell for a tilt versus Montreal, Boston called-up Frank Martin from Hershey. This plan fell through when it was discovered Martin had a charley-horse injury. The job fell to Toppazzini, who became Boston's fifth defenceman.

In this role, Toppazzini received spot duty from coach Lynn Patrick, filling in when necessary.

When Warren Godfrey went down with an injury, Toppazzini was given a shot at gaining a regular spot on the Bruins blueline.

His debut as a starter came when Boston faced Chicago on November 9, 1952. Toppazzini didn't disappoint. Not only did he tend to his defensive responsibilities, but he chipped in with two assists.

The star of the night for Boston, Fleming MacKell, scored a hat trick. Initially, MacKell's second goal was given to Toppazzini. During the intermission he claimed the goal wasn't his, and the officials credited MacKell with the goal.

It didn't take long for Toppazzini to record his first goal in the National Hockey League. A crowd of over 8,000 Bruin fans were in Boston Garden to witness the event on November 23, 1952. With Leaf rearguard Leo Boivin off for holding, the home team went on the power play. At 10:19 of period one, Toppazzini beat Toronto goalie Harry Lumley to provide Boston with a two goal cushion. The helpers on Toppazzini's first NHL marker went to Milt Schmidt and Woody Dumart.

As the '52-'53 season progressed, Toppazzini proved to be a versatile performer. By mid-February, he notched eight goals, with five scored at right wing, two at left defence, and one at centre.

The next year, 1953-54, Toppazzini was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks. The February 16, 1954 transaction saw the Bruins securing the services of Gus Bodnar in exchange for Toppazzini. Boston management, fearing an injury to Milt Schmidt would weaken their attack at centre, made the deal for Bodnar.

Over the next two years ('53-'54 & '54-'55), Toppazzini skated in 84 matches for Chicago. His point total only reached 35 with his new club.

An off-season trade in May 1955, sent Toppazzini to the Detroit Red Wings. Suiting-up for only 40 games with Detroit, he only scored once. He fired home Detroit's final goal in a 5 to 2 victory over Montreal on January 5, 1956.

There was a familiar face in the crowd when Toppazzini scored his lone goal as a member of the Detroit Red Wings - Lynn Patrick. Sensing Toppazzini could turn around his game with a second tour-of-duty in Beantown, Boston traded for their former prospect on January 17, 1956.

Lynn Patrick and company certainly assessed the situation correctly. In 1956-57, Toppazzini's goal production hit 15 in 55 games. Late in December 1956, he was asked about his sudden knack for lighting-up the goal lamp. "The big difference this season in confidence and experience. When I shoot the puck this season, I'm not just hoping - I'm expecting it to go in," explained the Boston forward.

Toppazzini's season was cut short due to a serious injury suffered on February 7, 1957. Detroit star, Ted Lindsay, described the collision between himself and Toppazzini, which resulted in the Bruin being hospitalized for a period of time. "He was coming at me head-on and I was moving towards him. I automatically brought up my stick," said Lindsay.

Lindsay's stick-work inflicted serious damage on Jerry Toppazzini's face. He suffered fractures and lacerations to the nose and face. He didn't return to the ice until a game in New York on March 13, 1957. He missed 14 games, and failed to score in the final 5 contests of the regular season. Many believe he was on pace to hit the twenty-goal mark for the first time in the NHL, a feat he would accomplish in the next campaign.

His most productive year on the goal front did indeed come in 1957-58, when he got 25 past opposition goalies. On the subject of his goal scoring prowess, Toppazzini said, "All I asked was a chance to play regularly. I had to learn to play all over again, and it wasn't until this season started that I began to feel right on the ice. My reflexes were gone, but they've been all right for some time now."

Also, Toppazzini earned a reputation for being an excellent penalty killer. In March 1958, the Toronto Daily Star conducted a poll which included all six NHL coaches. Toppazzini, was voted the top penalty killer.

The next year, he once again reached the benchmark of 20 goals, hitting the twine 21 times.

Toppazzini played in 783 National Hockey League games, amassing 407 points (166-Goals & 244-Assists). When his time in Boston came to a close after the 1963-64 season, he played in Pittsburgh (AHL) and Los Angeles (WHL). His final stop coming in 1967-68 with the Port Huron Flags (IHL).

As described previously, Toppazzini became a versatile asset with Boston during his early years in the organization. He held his own, tackling the difficult chore of converting from forward to defenceman, then getting back in sync as a right winger.

On Sunday October 16, 1960, Jerry Toppazzini completed the cycle.

When Boston goalie Don Simmons went down with a cut eye, courtesy of an Eric Nesterenko blast, the Bruins were in need of a goalie. With only 30-seconds left in period three, and trailing Chicago by an insurmountable score of 5 to 2, Boston selected not to employ a substitute netminder. Instead, Toppazzini guarded the Bruins cage, taking his spot between the pipes. He didn't bother exchanging his shin pads for goalie pads. The Hawks never got a shot on goal after Toppazzini replaced Simmons.

Jerry (Gerald) J. "Topper" Toppazzini was born in Copper Cliff, Ontario on July 29, 1931. He passed away on April 21, 2012.


1 comment:

  1. I remember jerry altho I was really young at the time when TV first came on the scene.

    RIP Jerry