The Toronto native played for (and later coached) the Quebec Aces, with Hockey Hall of Fame forward Jean Beliveau among his star players. It soon became apparent to NHL executives that Imlach had two primary qualities; he was super smart and extraordinarily motivated.
In time, he was hired by the Boston Bruins, but it wasn't until he moved on to the Toronto Maple Leafs that the name Imlach became synonymous with success in the 1960s. Matter of fact, Imlach pulled off two miracles that eventually graced Toronto with the past four Stanley Cup championships in its history.
What impressed many observers about Imlach was his brash attitude and assertiveness. Although there are realistic limits to the power of positive thinking, it never bothered him. This was apparent during the homestretch of the 1958-59 season.
The rookie coach/GM of the Maple Leafs should have known better than to predict his team would make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Not even the NHL schedule-makers believed him.
"Near the end of the season, the official announcement from League headquarters had Montreal, Boston, Chicago and New York making it. There was no mention of Toronto against anybody," Imlach wrote in his autobiography, "Hockey is a Battle."
Then again, a less-optimistic Punch would have known the reason why.
"By March 9," Imlach said, "we were nine points out of fourth (the last playoff berth). But I still said we'd make it."
That got a laugh out of New York Rangers coach Phil Watson, who had a long-running feud with Imlach.
"Imlach can crow all he wants," needled Watson, "but it will be the same this year as last. The Rangers will make it, the Leafs won't."
Watson's confidence was rooted in a Rangers lineup that included future Hall of Fame players Gump Worsley, Harry Howell, Bill Gadsby and Andy Bathgate. Maple Leafs patriarch Conn Smythe was so skeptical of Imlach's confidence that he wondered out loud, "Did we get a coach or a madman?"
What nobody could have forecasted was the curious turn of events that damaged the Rangers' playoff bid. Their downfall began inside the dressing room, where players were in open rebellion against Watson, who worked them to exhaustion in practice.
"Down the stretch," Camille Henry said, "Phil nearly killed us with a one-hour workout right after we played a game."
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Still, on the weekend of March 14-15, 1959, New York could have disposed of Toronto's playoff chances during their home and home clash. All the Rangers needed was one win, and all of Imlach's predictions would have the shelf life of smoke rings.
The Maple Leafs trashed Watson's troops 5-0 that Saturday, but Watson figured that wasn't a problem. Even a tie on Sunday would crush the visitors. Late in the third period of a 5-5 tie, Watson almost got his wish. Then, it happened.
Before going off on a line change, and merely to kill time, Toronto's Bob Pulford sent an ordinary wrist shot towards Worsley. It strangely eluded "The Gump" and gave the Maple Leafs a 6-5 win, pulling them within three points of the Rangers with three games left to play in the season.
It all came down to two weekend games for each team. The Rangers opened with a 5-2 road win against the Detroit Red Wings in the afternoon. The Maple Leafs responded with a home win against the Chicago Blackhawks. That meant the race would be settled Sunday night. First, the Montreal Canadiens against the Rangers in New York, then, an hour later, Toronto at Detroit.
Canadiens coach Toe Blake angered the Rangers by starting goalie Charlie Hodge, who defeated New York 4-2. Prior to the late starting game at Detroit's Olympia, Maple Leafs boss Stafford Smythe greeted Imlach.
"Well," comforted Smythe, "at least you had a good try."
With that, Imlach exploded: "What the [heck] are you talking about? We've come too far to lose now. Don't be stupid."
Smythe was smart enough to know only a Maple Leafs victory would ensure a playoff berth. With the third period underway, the game was tied 4-4. But Dick Duff scored early in the third, and Bill Harris scored to cement a 6-4 win. The chap Conn Smythe previously called a "madman" had done the impossible.
"They got madman all right, but they didn't know it at the time," Imlach said. "In the coaching business, there's a thin line between a madman and a genius."
How astonishing was Imlach's feat? Typically reserved Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot put it bluntly: "It rates as one of the most spectacular sports comebacks of all-time." However, Proudfoot wrote those words before Imlach was to produce another amazing Cup win.
The next question was this: How in the world did the Maple Leafs ever manage to win their fourth Stanley Cup in six seasons in 1967?
For starters, they survived a midseason 10-game losing streak and remained in playoff contention. When Imlach was hospitalized because of exhaustion and fatigue, Smythe's replacement choice, Rochester's Joe Crozier, refused to undercut Imlach and take the coaching reins. Instead, Imlach's sidekick, Francis "King" Clancy, went behind the bench and inspired an unlikely winning streak.
Meanwhile, Johnny Bower, 41, and Terry Sawchuk, 37, each managed to play as if he was in his prime, as did the Maple Leafs' over-the-hill defensemen, Allan Stanley, Marcel Pronovost and Tim Horton, who averaged 38 years of age. More than anything, Imlach emerged from the hospital oozing more confidence in his team than the two million citizens of Toronto put together.
Punch Imlach holds an ice cream cone as he shakes hands with Allan Stanley in the locker room while Dave Keon looks on (Courtesy: Getty Images)
Amazingly, the Maple Leafs made it to the playoffs but faced the League-leading Blackhawks, who finished 19 points ahead of Toronto in the standings. After losing the opening game, Imlach was unfazed.
"I had a feeling we'd bounce back," he insisted.
As predicted, his team eventually took a 3-2 series lead. The suddenly sizzling Brian Conacher scored the series-clinching-goal in Game 6.
"He knocked down defenseman Ed Van Impe, retrieved the puck, went in and scored," Imlach remembered.
That catapulted the Maple Leafs into the final round against the Canadiens. After the opening game, just about everyone wondered how Imlach's players ever got into the playoffs. Sawchuk looked like he couldn't stop a Goodyear Blimp and, after two periods, Bower replaced him. The Canadiens won 6-2.
Montreal skated like Mercury compared to the snowshoeing Leafs. The horde of Toronto media skeptics left Imlach, who remained defiant and hostile but, most of all, undaunted. The morning after the one-sided defeat, he brazenly marched into the press room and boasted to one and all that his Maple Leafs would win the Cup.
In "Hockey is a Battle," Imlach recalled how a novice hockey writer from Los Angeles approached him in astonishment.
"All he did," he wrote, "was peer at me for a long time and, then, slowly said, 'Are you for real?'"
Imlach showed the same bravado an hour later when he strode into a clothing store and ordered a bizarre green-checked suit. He told the tailor he planned to wear it "on the night we win the Cup." The clothier shot back that Imlach would then have to wait several years before donning the wild looking outfit.
No way. Inspired by their seemingly mad leader, the Maple Leafs rebounded to take a 3-2 series lead, but at a great cost; Bower popped a muscle, leaving Toronto with a battered Sawchuk. Imlach knew Bower wasn't done yet and demanded his cracked "China Wall" sit in uniform on the bench.
"You won't be asked to play," Imlach said, "but just be there."
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With his players gearing up in the dressing room, Imlach, who was thought to have a paving stone for a heart, suddenly turned so sentimental that he moved some of the veterans to tears.
"It's been said," he told them, "that I stuck with you old men so long we couldn't possibly win. For some of you, it's farewell. Go out there and put that puck down their throats."
His speech completed, he donned his green-checked suit and walked to the bench.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens figured they had the game in the bag; they had defeated Sawchuk twice by a 6-2 score. Imlach just prayed Sawchuk, still feeling the effects of a bashed ankle and smashed nose, would hang in there.
Sawchuk held on while Ron Ellis and Jim Pappin staked the Maple Leafs to a 2-1 lead, which lasted into the final minute of play, but with the faceoff in the Toronto zone. Then, to everyone's astonishment, Imlach turned sentimental once more, gambling on his venerable core. He told some of his senior skaters (George Armstrong, Red Kelly, Horton, Stanley and Bob Pulford) to get out there and defuse the Canadiens.
"I figured it would be the last game some of them would play," he said. "What better than to turn to my old guard?"
Stanley, a defenseman, won the faceoff against Beliveau while Kelly retrieved the puck and passed to Pulford, who spotted Armstrong on the right wing. The captain hit the bulls-eye and Toronto won 3-1 for its fourth championship in six years.
"It was the most satisfying Stanley Cup I ever won," Imlach said.
And, as most of Toronto and the civilized hockey world know, the Maple Leafs haven't won the Cup since.