For fans of a certain age, the hullabaloo over the Toronto Maple Leafs’ recent slide has a familiar ring.
Fifty-two years ago the Leafs went on an even worse bender, losing 10 consecutive games between Jan. 15, 1967, and Feb. 12. Head coach and general manager Punch Imlach, considered the most exacting taskmaster of his day, threatened player demotions and trades. The fans were outraged, although they had no social-media outlets to really ratchet up the panic level.
The 1966-67 Leafs, of course, wound up winning the franchise’s last Stanley Cup. Several of the players from that team agree the turnaround actually came three games after the losing streak ended when Imlach was forced into hospital because of heart problems. He was replaced by the team’s court jester, King Clancy, and the Leafs blossomed under his far more player-friendly approach, during which there was also a key line change.
“Imlach was a very oppressive coach,” said Brian Conacher, a member of the famous hockey family who was a 25-year-old rookie at the time. “Some of the games we were losing, we weren’t losing by much but the team was just at a point where I think they had – quit is the wrong word – but they just basically stopped playing for him.
“Historically, the life of a coach is three to five [years] no matter how great you are. You just sort of run out of the motivation. I think Punch had pushed this team as far as he could.”
There are many differences between the 1967 champions and today’s Maple Leafs. The biggest one is their age and experience – the ’67 Leafs had eight regulars over the age of 35, topped by a pair of 41-year-olds in goaltender Johnny Bower and defenceman Allan Stanley. Those Leafs won with their defensive game, a sore point with today’s Leafs, which was based on two Hockey-Hall-of-Fame goaltenders in Bower and Terry Sawchuk, a relative spring chicken at 37.
However, there are also some similarities between the two teams.
Depth on the roster, which drew some criticism from current Leafs head coach Mike Babcock earlier this week, is an issue with his team just as it was in 1967. One of the reasons the 1967 Leafs hit the skids was injuries and one of the reasons they recovered was a few of the youngsters stepped up.
While Babcock is not a “screamer” as more than one Leaf player described Imlach, he is the modern version of a taskmaster. The Leafs head coach is relentless in his demands and doesn’t mind describing himself as a grinder who is not sympathetic to anyone prone to coasting now and again.
But even Babcock has not been known to single out players for withering criticism like Imlach could dish out. When the Leafs made it seven losses in a row on Feb. 1, 1967, scoring just 11 goals in those games, Imlach told reporters his team had no leadership because Red Kelly was injured. He said Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich, Bob Pulford and Eddie Shack were not pulling their weight.
The fact the Leafs were without some of their best players did not cut any ice with Imlach. Aside from Kelly, the Leafs were also missing Sawchuk and Mahovlich for long periods during the losing streak. Even Bruce Gamble, who was called up to back up Bower while Sawchuk battled a back injury for two months, could not escape the injury bug.
The Leafs ended the streak with a tie and then posted a couple of wins by mid-February but they were still a tired and hurting group. That is when Imlach, 48, was hospitalized with chest pains – the first signs of heart trouble that would plague him the rest of his life.
There were discussions with team owner Stafford Smythe about the best replacement for Imlach. Toronto Marlboros coach Jim Gregory, later the Leafs’ GM, and farm-team coach Joe Crozier were considered. But Clancy, Imlach’s best friend at the time and the Leafs’ assistant GM, was given the job. While he had coached the Leafs a bit in the mid-1950s, even Clancy would admit he was not a master tactician. But that was not what the Leafs needed.
“King was kind of like the good uncle,” said Pete Stemkowski, another rookie on the team, one whose career would pick up under Clancy. Stemkowski said the players realized at Clancy’s first practice life was about to change for the better.
“Usually with Punch our practices were about an hour,” Stemkowski said. “Maybe 10 minutes with the puck and about 40 minutes of up-and-down sprints. If [Imlach] didn’t like a line rush, when a pass went awry, he would say, ‘Put the pucks in the net and let’s start skating around the ice.’
“The first practice we had [with Clancy], we did our line rushes for about half an hour and he goes ‘okay, everybody line up at the end of the ice.’ We went down to the other end and back, next line down and back. Then Clancy says, ‘Okay, [Dave] Keon your line up and back once.’ They go up and back. He said, ‘Stemkowski, your line up and back once.’ Up and back once.
“Then he blew the whistle and said, ‘That’s it.’ We go what? What? We had half-hour practices and a big cloud seemed to lift from us. Guys got looser, more energetic.”
Clancy did one other thing that would also have a great impact on the Leafs’ fortunes. He threw together some lines, including one with Stemkowski between Jim Pappin, who did not get a lot of ice time under Imlach, and the veteran Pulford.
“He said ‘Stemkowski you go to centre’, he goes ‘Pappin you go right side and Pully why don’t you go left side over there?’ ” Stemkowski said. “There it was, Pulford, me and Pappin. We happened to click.”
With Pulford digging pucks out of the corners, Stemkowski winning faceoffs and Pappin serving as the sniper, the line resurrected the Leafs’ offence. The return of Sawchuk was the other major boost to the lineup. He earned his 100th career shutout on March 4, 1967, the day Imlach was released from the hospital.
The Leafs went undefeated in the 10 games following the losing streak. When Imlach returned to the bench on March 12, Clancy had a 7-1-2 record as head coach. But he refused to take any credit.
“I haven’t done a damned thing,” Clancy told reporters. “Our goaltending got good when Bower and Sawchuk got healthy and everything began to click. This is Imlach’s team. It’d gone three games without losing when I took over and I’m certain it’d have gone right on winning, regardless.”
The players thought otherwise.
“When [Imlach] came back, everything was in place,” Stemkowski said. “We got confidence. If you’ve got it from the head up, things are going to start working from the shoulders down. We believed in ourselves, Imlach came back and basically all he did was just the line changes [during games] and we went on and won the Stanley Cup.
“There’s no question King Clancy taking over was huge.”
The Leafs did not charge to the top of the standing in the NHL’s last season as a six-team league – they finished third – and few considered them a Stanley Cup contender because of their mix of age and inexperience. But with the Stemkowski line leading the way in scoring (Pappin had 15 points in 12 playoff games with Stemkowski adding 12 and Pulford 11), several stars on defence and two Hall-of-Famers in goal, the Leafs knocked off the flashy Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Then they outlasted the Montreal Canadiens over six games in the final.
When he looks back, Conacher sees a lesson for today’s team in how the ’67 Leafs won.
“I think every player on that team was as surprised when we won the Stanley Cup as the next person,” he said. “I think historically, and I think we were an example of it, it’s not always the best team that wins the Stanley Cup, it’s the team that plays the best in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It really doesn’t matter what you did during the season, it’s that whole new season.”