Stanley defied the odds throughout HOF career

Sunday, 10.20.2013 / 3:25 PM
Davis Harper  - Staff Writer

In the spring of 1966, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Allan Stanley suffered a season-ending knee injury. Stanley was 40 years old, had won three Stanley Cup championships and written himself into the history books of four of the Original Six NHL franchises. Billed throughout his career as a plodding, purposeful player, "Snowshoes" had grown even more labored with age. In short, the injury was clearly of the career-ending variety.

"Stanley was the best left defenseman in the business," coach Punch Imlach said at the time, with a touch of nostalgia.

"Nobody can be called indispensable in a team game. But if there was one guy we couldn't afford to lose, it was Stanley," added longtime defense partner Tim Horton, as if Stanley had already announced his retirement.

But he hadn't. In a career spent defying odds and ignoring naysayers, Stanley had one more comeback up his sleeve. The Hall of Fame defenseman returned in 1966-67 to provide a vital, calming dimension to the "Over the Hill Gang" in Toronto as they skated to their fourth Stanley Cup title in six seasons.

Stanley died Friday. He was 87.

There's no doubt he battled until the end, because that's the only life he knew. Growing up in Timmins, a remote, hockey-crazed mining outpost in northern Ontario, Stanley was pitted against future legends like Real Chevrefils, Bep Guidolin and others on the frozen ponds that dotted the territory.

Early on, it was clear Stanley's talent was a special one. But there was one problem: No one could see him play. In the 1930s and early '40s, the only prospectors not mining the metal- and hockey-rich region were professional scouts.

That would change when a wealthy mine owner culled the region's best players into a team known as the Holman Pluggers. The team was raw and rag-tag, but their talent was undeniable. In 1942-43, the Pluggers shocked the amateur hockey world when they beat southern Ontario power St. Catharine's in Maple Leaf Gardens to win the Ontario Championship.

It was Stanley's first triumph on the famed ice of the Maple Leafs, but it wouldn't be his last. In fact, it would take nearly two decades for Stanley's steady, quiet persona to be appreciated League-wide.

After five seasons spent refining his game in the minors, the New York Rangers acquired the 22-year-old blueliner from the AHL's Providence Reds in 1948. So smitten were the Rangers with Stanley that they paid $70,000 plus Ed Kullman and Elwyn Morris to bring him to Broadway.

During his rookie season Stanley showed flashes of future brilliance -- he played with "a poise and confidence rarely seen in rookies," according to "The New York Rangers: Broadway's Longest Running Hit," a history of the team -- and finished second in the Calder Trophy voting to teammate Pentti Lund.

In his five seasons with the Rangers, New York qualified for the playoffs just once. As the fourth and final qualifier in 1949-50, the Blueshirts shocked Montreal in the first round and pushed Detroit to the brink, losing in the Final in seven games. Stanley had two goals and seven points in 12 postseason games that season, and coach Lynn Patrick called him the best player on the ice in the Game 7 loss to the Red Wings.

But Stanley was notoriously unpopular with Rangers fans, who almost immediately deemed his measured disposition as boring and bland. At one point, Stanley told reporters he would avoid starting the attack from behind the net, since that was where the fan abuse was worst.

Eventually, he was literally booed out of the building. Ire from fans was so strong that Patrick considered playing him just in away games. Ultimately, general manager Frank Boucher sent him to the Vancouver Canucks of the WHL in 1953-54.

"Boucher made it clear to me it wasn't because of my play," Stanley said. "I was hurt and relieved at the same time. I knew I'd get another chance."

There would be multiple chances, as nearly every Original Six franchise was desperate for the type of defensive stability Stanley embodied.

He spent one season in Vancouver, the most offensively productive of his semi- or professional career. He had six goals and 30 assists. New York reacquired him at the end of that season but quickly dealt him to the Chicago Black Hawks. After two seasons in Chicago -- both postseason misses -- Stanley's carousel ride around the Original Six continued with the Boston Bruins.

The move was a homecoming of sorts for Stanley, who started through the professional ranks with the Boston Olympics -- the B's farm team -- in 1945-46. Stanley was also reunited with Patrick, now Boston's general manager.

Again, Stanley proved his worth, leading Boston to the Stanley Cup Final as their most valuable performer in 1957-58. Unfortunately, he again fell out of favor with his organization, as Boston deemed Stanley, at 32, too old to continue. That offseason, the Bruins dealt him to Toronto. There, Imlach had just introduced himself as coach with a promise to take the last-place Leafs to the playoffs in a season's time.

Despite many doubters, Toronto qualified in the last game of the season, thanks in large part to players like Stanley. Considered castoffs elsewhere in the League, Stanley and his cohorts were given new life under the eccentric Imlach. The coach paired the veteran Stanley alongside Horton, who had failed to produce consistently in six seasons in Toronto. Together, the pair flourished.

"Horton was my buddy. I roomed with Tim," Stanley later said. "We played together for most of 10 years. On the road, we were inseparable. It seemed like all the defensemen were pretty close, but Tim and I, wherever we went, we went together."

The pair, along with veteran goalie Johnny Bower, anchored Toronto's rise from cellar dweller to contender, as Toronto made the playoffs in Stanley's first three seasons in Maple Leaf Gardens.

In his fourth season, 1961-1962, Toronto roared into the playoffs, finishing second in the regular season. Stanley exacted a measure of revenge when the Leafs slayed the Rangers, 4-2, in the semifinal round, setting up a classic Final between Toronto and another former Stanley employer, the Black Hawks.

Led by the prolific Bobby Hull, the Black Hawks were the defending Stanley Cup champions. On his way to his second of three Art Ross trophies, Hull had set a team record with 50 goals and 84 points in 1961-62. But the "Golden Jet" would meet his match in "Snowshoes," who held him to a relatively slim four goals over the six-game series. With Horton periodically bombing forward or starting attacks from deep, Stanley was relied on to shore up the gaps in front of Bower.

The next season, Toronto finished at the top of the League and breezed through the playoffs once again. In the Final -- this time against Detroit and the legendary Gordie Howe -- the Leafs allowed just 10 goals in five games. Imlach made a point of playing the Stanley-Horton pair in any critical situation, creating a "balance" he said was vital to the Leafs' success.

"There's nothing unusual in the Leafs' success," Imlach told Sports Illustrated at the time. "We have balance. We have the best center in hockey in Dave Keon. We have the best old pro who ever played in Bower. And we work harder and practice longer than any of the other clubs."

Stanley continued to skate under the radar throughout the 1960s, criticized League-wide but providing invaluable positional play to an attacking Leafs side. Named to the 1966 Second All-Star team, it appeared Stanley's career would end on that high note when he later succumbed to a season-ending knee injury.

But it was not to be. With an average age of 31, the "Over the Hill Gang" added one final chapter to their legend in 1967. Stanley, the second-oldest at 41, skated in 66 games alongside his old buddy Horton.

To the end, Stanley was loyal to his team, though his teams were never very loyal to him. He was let go a season later, and, improbably, joined the freshly-minted Philadelphia Flyers for the 1968-69 season. Stanley had his finest season in years, scoring four goals and adding 13 assists.

That quartet of goals gave Stanley an even 100 for his career, to go along with 333 assists. In a career marked by volatility -- among teams, fans and media -- the career goals mark was a rare moment of continuity. Then again, in a career marked by consistent play on the ice regardless of what team Stanley played for, perhaps those moments of continuity weren't as rare as they seemed.

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