There was a running gag about defenseman Lawrence Morley Hillman. The suggestion was that his name should appear in a universal hockey record book (one that's yet to be printed) under the category of "Most Teams Played For," with a side entry for "Most Teams Traded By."
The native of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, played for 15 teams during his 22 pro seasons. Twice in his career, he had the dubious distinction of being the property of three NHL teams in one day. Perhaps his slogan should have been, "Have Hockey Stick, Will Travel."
Hillman's NHL career included stints with the Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Minnesota North Stars, Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres, as well as briefly being the property of (but not playing for) the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. He also played for the Cleveland Crusaders and Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association, as well as Buffalo, Providence, Rochester and Springfield in the American Hockey League. Then there were the 46 games he played for Edmonton of the Western Hockey League early in his career.
Not that he objected to playing in the minors. After all, as he noted years later, "It was better than the backbreaking work in the Kirkland Lake gold mines."
Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that Morley (his friends liked his middle name better) was a winner and enormously admired wherever he played. For proof, there's the fact that his name is on the Stanley Cup six times, four as a member of the Maple Leafs and once each with the Red Wings and Canadiens. He also helped the WHA Jets win the Avco Cup in 1976, then coached them to another title two years later.
Hillman's saga began in junior hockey. Even then, he was a man on the move; after playing for Windsor of the Ontario Hockey Association in 1952-53, Hillman was traded to Hamilton before the 1953-54 season. Red Wings general manager Jack Adams scouted the 18-year-old with Hamilton during 1954-55 and signed him to an NHL contract in time to play six regular-season games and three more during the 1955 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That was enough to get his name engraved on the Cup for the first time when Detroit won its fourth championship in six seasons.
But Hillman was still too green to suit Adams, who sent the young defenseman to Buffalo for part of the 1955-56 season and to Edmonton for most of 1956-57. However, other NHL teams had their eyes on Hillman, and in the summer of 1957 he got the break he was waiting for when he was claimed by Chicago in the NHL Intraleague Draft.
Here's where the fun starts.
Before Hillman could play a game for Chicago in 1957-58, the Bruins claimed him on waivers. At last he felt secure; Bruins coach Milt Schmidt loved Hillman and proved it by playing him in all 70 games, more than any other Boston defenseman, as well as in 11 playoff games.
This was Hillman's roller coaster at its height. In 1959-60, the by-then-floundering Bruins handed him a one-way ticket to Providence. Undaunted, he played his heart out, winning the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL's best defenseman and earning a spot on the league's First All-Star Team. Hillman also caught the eye of Maple Leafs general manager-coach Punch Imlach, who selected him in the 1960 intraleague draft.
Hillman's time in Toronto started well. Imlach employed his new acquisition in 62 regular-season games and five more in the playoffs during 1960-61.
That was the good news. The bad? The Maple Leafs had a star-studded defense, with future Hockey Hall of Famers Allan Stanley and Tim Horton topping a group that also included Carl Brewer and Bob Baun, along with Hillman and Al Arbour. Finding playing time became increasingly difficult.
"Morley and I were like yo-yos," Arbour said, "going up and down to Rochester (Toronto's AHL team)."
After being a small part of four Cup-winning teams during eight frustrating seasons under Imlach, Hillman began visualizing the lights of Broadway after the Rangers acquired him in the intraleague draft on June 12, 1968. But before he could even think about packing his bags for the Big Apple, North Stars boss Wren Blair was on the phone. "Congratulations," Blair said after drafting him from the Rangers. "You're with us."
Hillman was tickled to join the second-year North Stars because his kid brother, Wayne Hillman, was already with Minnesota. The Hillman brothers had a ball for a dozen games before Larry's phone rang again. For the second time in less than six months, he was property of three different teams in one day. On Nov. 22, 1968, he was claimed by Pittsburgh from Minnesota on waivers, then quickly traded to the Canadiens.
Going to the powerful Canadiens was an unexpected surprise for Hillman. A day earlier, a sign on the North Stars bulletin board announced that there would be a press conference the next morning, which meant a trade would be announced.
"We were all afraid someone was being traded to the Oakland Seals," said Hillman, referring to the team that had finished last in the NHL in 1967-68 and was the weakest of the six teams that joined the League in the 1967 expansion.
Sure enough, he was on the move -- but not to Oakland.
"You never saw so many jaws drop all at once in the North Stars dressing room," Hillman said of joining one of the NHL's powerhouses. "Slowly it started to sink in that I wasn't going to Oakland, and they all started congratulating me on escaping from the Seals."
Hillman's reward for helping the Canadiens win the Cup was to be claimed by the Flyers in the 1969 intraleague draft. No sweat; he had NHL career highs in goals (five) and points (31) in 1969-70 for Philadelphia, where they loved him -- for two seasons.
Next stop, Los Angeles, in a trade for forward Larry Mickey on June 13, 1971. He played 22 games with the Kings until Imlach, his old boss, was back on the phone. "I guess you never expected to play for me again," said Imlach, who was now running the Sabres, "but we need you in Buffalo."
Hillman was comfortable in Western New York until the WHA came calling in the summer of 1973. He wound up signing and playing two seasons with Cleveland, where he was reunited with brother Wayne, then moved on to Winnipeg. At age 38, Hillman played a supporting role on a team with Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson in 1975-76, helping the Jets win the WHA championship before calling it a career.
But his involvement with hockey wasn't through. Hillman returned to the Jets in 1977-78 as their coach and added another title to his list of career achievements when Winnipeg defeated the defending champion Quebec Nordiques in the Avco Cup final.
Happiness for Hillman? Peace of mind? Security?
With 19 games to go in the 1978-79 season, the Jets fired him.