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Why This Team Matters

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

Mike Ulmer has worked for seven news organizations including the National Post  and, most recently, the Toronto Sun. Mike has written about the Leafs for 10 years and wrote Captains, a book about the club's greatest leaders.

February 12, 2007

(TORONTO) -- Everything changed after May 2, 1967. That's why it matters so much.

On May 2, 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 to win their fourth Stanley Cup in six seasons.

Sat., Feb 17 at Air Canada Centre, that championship team will be reunited to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their unexpected triumph of a club nicknamed "The Over The hill Gang," by coach Punch Imlach.

"We had eight guys who were over 30" said Johnny Bower, who was 42. The older players knew they were running out of time. "Guys who hadn't won figured they needed to give 150 per cent so they could take advantage of the chance they had." Bower said.

The Leafs dismantled their team about the time they started sweeping up the popcorn boxes.

Terry Sawchuk, a standout in the last two games, headed to Los Angeles in the expansion draft where he would play for rookie coach and former Leaf Red Kelly.

Kingpin Frank Mahovlich and Pete Stemkowski, a vital performer in the 1967 playoffs would be swapped to Detroit the following March.

Nineteen-sixty-seven brought the summer of Expo. Canada's global aspersions seemed imminently reachable on the 100th anniversary of Confederation. The Habs were said to be ready to put their most recently won Cup on display at Expo.

Instead, George Armstrong's empty-netter clinched the final game played in the old six-team league.

The NHL would double in size from six to 12 teams over the summer and that seismic shift would bring irrevocable change the NHL. The 12-team league, absolutely imperative in retrospect, ushered in some of the worst, lopsided hockey ever. It also ended the owners' cozy six-team lodge and signaled a demand for talent that prompted the Wild West signings of the WHA.

  • Why This Team Matters
  • Showing Keon & Co.Some Love
  • Chief Remembers '67 Squad
  • Red Has Fond Memories
  • Keon Reminisces
  • Three years later the October Crisis darkened the national mood and amplified the depth of the country's divisions. Change, pervasive change, had taken hold.

    It is easy to forget, or to have never known, the particular magic of that 1966-67 team. That Leafs lost 10 consecutive games in the regular season and then rallied to go unbeaten in 10 when illness forced Punch Imlach from behind the bench in favor King Clancy.

    If you aren't old enough to remember Game 6, a few hours spent with archived videotape is an eye-opener.

    Despite the tremendous abilities of Dave Keon and Mahovlich, the most productive line of the deciding game was the unit of Jim Pappin, Pete Stemkowski and Bob Pulford. That unit accounted for eight goals in the playoffs including four games winners.

    "Pappin was an intelligent player who could score," recalled Pulford, now an executive with the Chicago Blackhawks. Stemkowski was a very strong player, he could really forecheck and he could hit. They were great teammates."

    The Canadiens, built on Jean Beliveau and Yvan Cournoyer were flashier but former Leafs bristle at the notion that they were hopelessly outgunned.

    Look at the blue line. Despite the immortality he would later find, Tim Horton wasn't the most dominating Leafs' defenceman. Veterans Marcel Pronovost and Larry Hillman were a superb unit. That duo did not allow an even strength goal through the playoffs.

    "We had great players," said Armstrong.  "Larry Hillman isn't in the hockey Hall of Fame but he was on six Stanley Cup teams. Marcel Pronovost, five Stanley Cup teams and a Hall of Famer."

    There were no ads on the boards, no anthem singer, just an instrumental version of O'Canada piped into Maple Leafs Gardens. Public address announcer Paul Morris, a study in understatement, used only the last name of players for announcements.

    Imlach's hunch to deploy defenceman Allan Stanley for the game's pivotal faceoff wasn't unusual. He used defencemen for faceoffs frequently in the Leafs end. He even sent five defenceman onto the ice for one game in Montreal, just to muddy the waters.

    Jean Beliveau is remembered as the hockey's consummate gentleman. He was physically dominating against the Leafs and combed Stanley's scalp with his stick without being penalized.

    The 38-year-old Terry Sawchuk was magnificent in the Leafs goal. The Canadiens outplayed Toronto by a healthy margin and Sawchuk was superb in the final two wins.  Three years later Sawchuk would be dead of internal injuries after falling over a barbecue while play-fighting a New York Rangers teammate.

    Leaf fans booed Canadiens enforcer John Ferguson every time he touched the puck. Leafs coach Punch Imlach had a different treatment. Whenever Ferguson hit the ice, Imlach would immediately dispatch the moderately talented but always enthusiastic Eddie Shack.

    "He took a very aggressive player out of the mix for the Canadiens," said Bower. "That slowed the Canadiens down."

    Only two players in the game, Montreal's Bobby Rousseau and J.C. Tremblay wore helmets.

    It ended, as it should have, with Armstrong chugging up ice to knock in the winning goal into an empty net. Armstrong was the conduit between the acerbic Imlach and the rest of the team. He sacrificed his offence to become a dependably conscientious forward and he was not only admired, he was loved.

    "Without George Armstrong, that championship doesn't happen," insisted Pulford. "He was the one guy who brought it all together."

    Once there was a time when penalty minutes weren't considered an admirable statistic, a time where Leafs named Mahovlich and Keon and Bower and Horton were as familiar as family, a time where the Maple Leaf was the emblem of a champion and where spring in Toronto came complete with  pipe bands at the Stanley Cup parade.

    A championship team played here in 1967. It says so on videotape, on banners at the Air Canada Centre, and in the hearts of the men who won that title.

    The living players will reunite Feb. 17, in a ceremony at Air Canada Centre.

    The players return, not just legends, but as evidence that if it happened before, it could happen again. That is why they matter. They are not just figures of the past. They return the owners of a moment that was shining and noble, a moment that seems, in the light of their presence, a little bit easier to recreate.

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