Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Celebrating the 1961-62 Toronto Maple Leafs

Prior to the Leafs and Caps game on Saturday February 25, 2012 members of the 1961-62 Stanley Cup team were honoured.

Gathered at centre ice in the Air Canada Centre were: Johnny MacMillan, Bob Nevin, Larry Hillman, Red Kelly, Johnny Bower, Eddie Shack, Dick Duff, Bobby Baun, Bob Pulford and George Armstrong.

Unable to attend the party was: Al Arbour, Bert Olmstead, Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich, Allan Stanley and Ron Stewart. No longer with us are Don Simmons, Carl Brewer, Tim Horton, Eddie Litzenberger and Billy Harris.

The above nucleus formed the roster for the 1961-62 edition of the Maple Leafs. The line combinations consisted of Kelly between Mahovlich and Nevin; Pulford between Olmstead and Shack; Keon between Duff and Armstrong. Filling out the bench and always ready when called upon were Harris, Litzenberger and Stewart.

Protecting Bower and Simmons in goal were Horton and Stanley along with Baun and Brewer. Sharing the role of fifth defenceman were Hillman and Arbour.

The crowning win in April 1962, kicked-off three straight Stanley Cups for the Toronto Maple Leafs. As is always the case, the first taste of victory is always the sweetest.

On September 10, 1961, fifty-seven candidates gathered in Peterborough Ontario for the opening of training camp. Before hitting the ice, medicals were conducted by Dr. Jim Murray, Dr. Hugh Smythe and Dr. Joe Fulton. Trainer Bobby Haggert helped to work out some kinks by putting the players through their calisthenics. On ice drills were pencilled in for 3:00pm and 7:30pm.

Two individuals were granted leave from the early portion of camp. Defenceman Carl Brewer was absent due to the passing of his father. Goalie Johnny Bower was excused to look after some business concerns.

The training camp roster consisted of a nice blend of veteran talent and guys hoping to crack the line-up. General manager Punch Imlach, fresh off of signing a new three-year contract in the summer, was known to lean on older players. This didn't mean he ignored a gift-horse when one was presented. In 1960-61, rookie Dave Keon proved he belonged in the NHL. At camp in 1961, Imlach had a large contingent of junior players on hand. It was an opportunity for the likes of Larry Keenan, Bruce Draper, Arnie Brown and Gerry Cheevers to strut their stuff.

One of the interesting battles in camp involved the starting goaltender position. It was expected incumbent Johnny Bower would be challenged by Don Simmons. A native of Port Colborne Ontario, Simmons was obtained by the Imlach from Boston in exchange for fellow goalie Ed Chadwick on January 31, 1961.

Besides the objective of rounding their players into shape, every organization hopes to avoid the injury bug in camp.This is often difficult to accomplish when jobs are on the line and players are trying to make an impression. A confrontation between Bob Nevin and Johnny MacMillan resulted in a nasty gash being inflicted on Nevin's nose, courtesy of his teammates stick.

Following five days of camp, Toronto played their first exhibition game against the Boston Bruins in Niagara Falls Ontario. The robust action from the training sessions spilled over when the two clubs faced-off in front of 4,500 spectators in the Falls. When all was said and done, Boston and Toronto racked-up 100-minutes in penalties. Once again, Bobby Nevin was in the thick of things. Skating behind the Bruins goal, Nevin was thumped by defenceman Ted Green. This was the signal for everyone to pair-off and exchange hostilities.

After sixty-minutes of play, Boston skated off the ice with a 4 to 2 win over the Maple Leafs. Scoring for Toronto were Bill Dineen and Eddie Shack.

A new hockey year wouldn't be the same without some scuttlebutt coming out of camp. This was provided by Leaf executive Stafford Smythe. For a while, the Leafs expressed some interest in acquiring New York Ranger captain Andy Bathgate. Smythe, blurted-out the names of personnel they would be willing to send the other way. Included on Smythe's list were Ron Stewart, George Armstrong, Billy Harris and possibly Dick Duff. If Bathgate was out of their reach, Boston's Don McKenney would be considered a decent alternative.

Although neither player became Leaf property in the upcoming season, both Bathgate and McKenney would be packaged in a deal to Toronto on February 22, 1964. McKenney was traded to the Rangers from Boston on February 4, 1963. The huge deal between Toronto and New York came on the afternoon prior to their Saturday evening tilt at Maple Leaf Gardens. It certainly was a blockbuster. To secure the two forwards, Imlach sent a boatload of players to the Rangers - Dick Duff, Bob Nevin, Arnie Brown, Bill Collins and Rod Seiling.

With September coming to a close, the Leafs travelled to western Canada to continue their exhibition schedule. Punch Imlach took care of some business shortly before the team headed out to Edmonton and it involved his goaltending situation. Imlach informed Don Simmons he was being assigned to the Rochester Americans (AHL). As expected, Johnny Bower prevailed in his quest to remain the Leafs number one puck-stopper.

When camp came to an end, most experts pointed to centre Dave Keon as the most consistent player in the exhibition games. Entering his sophomore year, Keon was named winner of the Calder trophy as the NHL's top rookie for 1960-61 the previous spring.

Imlach, known for his gimmicks, like gazing into a crystal ball to tell the future, set high standards for himself and the 1961-62 Leafs. His slogan for the new campaign left little doubt as to his expectations -STANLEY CUP TOO IN 62 - anything else but the ultimate prize would do. To help him achieve this feat, Imlach signed two camp holdouts - Bob Pulford and Billy Harris - with mere hours remaining until the first puck drop to start their 70 game schedule.

Toronto opened their regular season against Detroit in the Olympia on October 12, 1961. A crowd of 10,234 watched as the Leafs and Red Wings played in 85-degree heat. The first Leaf to score was Red Kelly. On the play, Kelly took a pass from Frank Mahovlich and fired a 40-foot shot at the Detroit net. His drive beat goalie Terry Sawchuk. Also hitting the twine for Toronto were Eddie Shack, Bob Pulford and Dick Duff (into an empty net at 19:51).

With a 4 to 2 road win safely tucked into their hockey bags, Toronto headed home to face the Boston Bruins at the Gardens on October 14, 1961.

Keeping with tradition, the 48th Highlanders' marched and played in front of 13,672 fans in a pre-game ceremony. George Armstrong and Boston's Don McKenney were summoned to centre ice to take part in the puck drop conducted by former Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent. Leaf centre, Red Kelly, was presented with the J.P. Bickell Memorial trophy for his outstanding work in 1960-61, his initial season with Toronto.

Hoping for a quick start, Toronto fell behind when Doug Mohns scored in the opening period. The Leafs got on the scoreboard when Allan Stanley, with helpers going to Keon and Duff, scored in the second period. This set the stage for a thrilling final twenty-minutes of hockey.

Big Leaf left winger, Frank Mahovlich emerged as the scoring threat in the final frame. He assisted on the Leafs second goal when Kelly tipped in his shot. Then, he finished off the scoring for Toronto by beating Boston goalie Don Head. The Leafs sent their faithful home happy with a 3 to 2 triumph over the visitors from Beantown.

Mahovlich would continue with the hot-hand throughout the first month of the season. He led the club in scoring with three goals and five assists. Toronto held down third spot in the standings with nine points (4 wins-2 losses-1 tie).

NHL president Clarence Campbell made a trip to Toronto on November 11, 1961 and he didn't come empty handed. Although Christmas was more than a month away, Campbell came bearing gifts for three members of the Leafs. His luggage included three pieces of NHL silverware. As the Leafs and Red Wings waited to square-off, the NHL head honcho presented the Vezina trophy to Johnny Bower, the Lady Byng trophy to Red Kelly and the Calder trophy to Dave Keon. The festive mood lasted right through the entire contest as the Leafs breezed to a 5 to 1 blasting of Detroit.

News concerning the Maple Leafs wasn't limited to action on the ice. On November 13, 1961 came an announcement, via Conn Smythe, that his son, Stafford, resigned from his position as chairman of the Hockey Committee. The committee, known as the silver-seven, was in-charge of running the hockey team. Speculation immediately surfaced relating to Stafford's future role in Maple Leaf Gardens Limited. The best bet had the elder Smythe stepping down as president and handing the office keys over to his off-spring.

The guessing game concluded on November 23, 1961 in dramatic fashion. The appointment of Stafford Smythe as MLG president followed a business transaction involving Conn, Stafford, and the younger Smythe's partners - Harold Ballard and John Bassett. The trio gained controlling interest by purchasing 50,000 shares of stock (at $40.00 per) for $2,000,000 from Conn Smythe. It wasn't, however, the final chapter in Conn Smythe's long relationship with professional hockey. He replaced W.A.H. (Bill) MacBrien as chairman of the board.

On February 8, 1962 Conn Smythe relinquished his position as the NHL governor for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He held the post from February 14, 1927 when he became part-owner of the former St. Pats. His responsibilities at the league level were passed onto Stafford. At the 1962 summer meetings held in Montreal, Conn Smythe was given the distinction of being elected as a "life governor of the National Hockey League." At a dinner hosted by Hartland Molson, Smythe was presented with a sterling silver tray.

By mid-December, the Leafs were on a roll when skating on Maple Leaf Gardens ice. Going into a game against the New York Rangers on December 16, 1961 they had strung together an unbeaten streak of ten wins and two ties. Toronto would extend the streak to 13 with a 6 to 1 hammering of the Rangers.

Not only did the Gardens ownership and management undergo changes with Smythe, Ballard and Bassett now in control, but the building was in-line for a transformation. In December, work crews began installing 36 new box seats.

Young Canada Night took place on December 23, 1961 with the Leafs hosting Boston. A Christmas tradition established in the 1930s, the event made special considerations for youngsters to attend. For those hoping to witness the Leafs extending their unbeaten home streak, one obstacle stood in the way. The Boston Bruins exploded for seven goals and defeated Toronto 7 to 4.

Unlike today's NHL, there was no mandatory break in the schedule during the Original Six era to allow players to spend Christmas with family. On December 25, 1961 the Leafs battled the Black Hawks to a 3 to 3 draw in Chicago Stadium.

Chicago and Toronto resumed action on December 27, 1961 in Maple Leaf Gardens. Fans who liked the defensive style of hockey got an extra Christmas gift in this post Boxing Day game. The Leafs and Hawks once again skated to a tie, but this one was unique. Neither team managed to score, with Bower and Glenn Hall each stopping thirty shots. For Toronto, it was their first scoreless match since December 4, 1957 versus the Habs. The Black Hawks participated in the last league-wide zero to zero outcome on December 28, 1957. Their dance partner were the Boston Bruins.

Always looking to improve his club, Imlach made a waiver claim on December 29, 1961. After being made available by Detroit the previous day, Imlach plucked Eddie Litzenberger off the waiver wire for $20,000. The Leafs were in a position to acquire the big forward after New York, Boston and Chicago passed on the opportunity.

When it was time to take down the 1961 calendar, Imlach and the Maple Leafs had posted an impressive record. The sat in second-place, trailing league leading Montreal by four points. In 34 dates, Toronto earned 43 points with 19 wins, 10 losses and 5 ties.

Putting up their new calendar for 1962, the Leafs circled January 3rd as the day they would return to action. First up was a visit by their longtime rival Montreal. After Dick Duff  opened the scoring, Dave Keon went to work and dazzled the home crowd. In addition to potting two goals, the St. Michael's graduate just missed a third tally - in spectacular fashion. Taking a penalty shot against Jacques Plante, number 14 of the Leafs beat the masked goalie, but his shot hit the post. Thanks to Keon's offensive output, the Leafs began 1962 with a 3 to 1 victory.

Following a pattern established earlier in the season, Toronto continued their dominance at home. As they were about to face the Boston Bruins in Toronto's hockey palace on January 20, 1962, the Blue and White had amassed 17 wins in 21 games. Going up against the Bruins, Toronto failed to collect a point as Boston handed them a 5 to 4 loss. On the road, their results, 8-10-3, were less fruitful.

There would be no change in the standings for Toronto following their final regular season game in Boston Garden. The Bruins edged Toronto 5 to 4. In 70 games Imlach's crew won 37, lost 22 and tied 11. Their 85 points was good enough for second-place behind Toe Blake's Canadiens.

On the individual front. Frank Mahovlich led the team in scoring and points. Playing in all 70 contests, he finished with 71 points (33 goals & 38 assists). Ten points behind the Big "M" was Davey Keon.

In the semi-finals, Toronto met the fourth-place New York Rangers. With games one and two slotted in Toronto, the Leafs defeated New York in both by scores of 4 to 2 and 2 to 1.

When play shifted to Madison Square Garden for games three and four, it was the Rangers turn to enjoy some home cooking. New York evened the series at two games apiece with 5 to 4 and 4 to 2 victories.

The pivotal fifth game occurred on April 5, 1962 on Toronto ice. After sixty-minutes, Toronto and New York were tied a two goals each. The matter wasn't decided until the 4:23 mark of the second period of extra time with the winning goal coming off Red Kelly's stick.

Under normal circumstances, the two teams would travel to New York for game six. However, instead of hockey being the marquee attraction at MSG, it was the Big-Top invading the Big Apple. Similar to previous occasions, the circus was booked into the Garden resulting in the Rangers being stripped of vital home dates.

With home ice being a major factor through games one and five, the advantage tilted in Toronto's favour as the venue for game six was Maple Leaf Gardens. Leaf supporters were hoping their team's success at 60 Carlton Street through the regular season and early in the playoffs would continue.

In a position to boot their opponent out of the post-season competition, Toronto didn't let their advantage slip away. Knowing they were only one win away from a trip to the final, the Leafs came out with all guns blasting. When the bloodbath was over, Toronto had delivered a 7 to 1 pounding on their opening round opponent.
Next up for Punch Imlach and his collection of warriors was a winner-takes-all showdown with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Black Hawks. The Leafs had only one goal in mind - wrestle the big silver cup away from the current holders of Lord Stanley's gift to hockey.

The final got underway on April 10, 1962 with Bobby Hull and Chicago's other offensive weapons  arriving in town. Due to gaining second-place, the Leafs held home ice advantage heading into the home stretch of the 1962 playoffs.

Like their previous series against New York, the Leafs excelled on home ice, taking games one (4 to 1) and two (3 to 2).

In Chicago for games three and four, the Leafs fell to the Black Hawks in both encounters. On April 15th Chicago blanked Toronto 3 to 0 with Glenn Hall blocking all 19 shots Toronto directed at his net. Two nights later, the two teams became embroiled in a nasty contest which included slashing majors and game misconducts to Mahovlich and Stan Mikita. Perhaps, the busiest men on the ice were referee Frank Udvardi and linesmen Neil Armstrong and Matt Pavelich. Although the scoring summary was filled with penalty information, the Hawks were only concerned with one statistic - the final score - a 4 to 1 drubbing over their challengers for hockey supremacy.

Heading back home, the Leafs were confident their success on home turf would continue in game five. Having scored only one goal away from the friendly confines of Maple Leaf Gardens, it was vital the Leafs get their firepower in gear. And they wasted no time in rattling the Chicago defence. Seventeen seconds after the opening face-off, Bob Pulford put Toronto on the board with assists going to Nevin and Olmstead. At 17:43 of the first period Pulford registered his second goal. He would complete his hat trick in the third while Toronto was on a power play.

Again, the Leafs were able to respond in a key fifth game with the teams splitting the previous four. Their doubling of the Hawks, 8 to 4, gave Toronto a three games to two advantage as the clubs jetted back to the Windy City for game six.

Only needing one more win to capture their first Cup since 1951, the Leafs had two kicks-at-the-cans to accomplish their goal. The pressure clearly was on Chicago - win or wait until next year.

The Leafs, with Don Simmons in goal having replaced Johnny Bower in game four, took to the ice for game six on April 22, 1962.

Bobby Hull's goal at 8:56 in the third gave Chicago a one goal lead. Hull got control of the puck after Dick Duff mistakenly directed it in front of his own goal. At 10:27, Bob Nevin knotted the score at 1 to 1. As expected, the stakes were high as the clock ticked down. The next goal would be enormous  and an overtime atmosphere engulfed Chicago Stadium.

At 14:14, as though scripted for a Hollywood production, the Leafs produced the go-ahead-tally. In the starring role was the character that let himself and his teammates down on the Chicago goal by Hull. Taking centre stage, positioned underneath the spotlight was one of the team's smallest players, who now stood ten-feet tall in his skates, Dick Duff.

"I picked up Army's (George Armstrong) pass behind me whirled and shot. But I didn't know it went in. Glenn Hall had gone down to block and I couldn't see, but wow what a thrill when that light went on," commented Duff when describing his Cup winning goal.

"STANLEY CUP TOO IN 62" was no longer just a slogan. On April 22, 1962 it became a reality.

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