For many NHL players who have played for an Original Six team, the opportunity is typically a boon to their careers. But for former defenseman Arnie Brown, his time on with the Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs told a different story.
Brown’s best seasons were spent with yet another Original Six team – the New York Rangers – in the middle of his career. By the time he ended up in Detroit in 1971, plagued by bad knees, Brown was winding down his career, and the dismal state of the team certainly didn’t help to delay that process.
While the team that Brown played for at end of his career was a non-cohesive group under poor leadership, the Leafs that he started his career with was equally frustrating, but for different reasons.
“It was a very structured team in Toronto,” Brown recalled. “At that point in time (Harold) Ballard was the general manager and owner there, and (Punch) Imlach was there and I came there for a few games.”
While playing for the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League, Brown was given six chances to play in games with the Leafs. Because of Coach Imlach’s preference to work primarily with mature players, the Leafs’ system made it difficult for a young player like Brown to advance within the organization.
“I was up a couple times, got on the ice a couple times each time, but (Imlach) wasn’t interested in training young guys,” Brown said. “He was more interested in getting older players and working the hell out of them, getting them in shape, and he felt to win the Stanley Cup, that’s what he had, older players.”
It didn’t help Brown’s situation that Imlach’s formula was working at the time that Brown was hoping to break into the NHL: the Leafs won three consecutive Stanley Cups from 1962-64 while Brown was playing in Rochester.
“It was very difficult to break into that team after them winning the Stanley Cup,” he said.
Brown remembers getting called up near the end of the season due to injuries. After being assured that he was going to stay up with the Leafs, the defenseman played in only two games. Despite helping to produce the game-winning goal against Chicago, Brown was still returned to Rochester after his outing.
According to Brown, the Imlach regime had a knack for grooming minor leaguers until they were ready to blossom in the NHL, then trading the young players in packages for seasoned veterans, which is precisely what happened to Brown when he and four other players were bundled and sent to the Rangers in exchange for Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney.
“The whole thing as far as Toronto was concerned at that point in time was Imlach had his guys,” Brown said. “He didn’t disturb those guys, and for a young guy to break in was very, very difficult.”
While Imlach had no interest in working with the young players, Brown saw a sort of reversal of management styles when he was traded to Detroit in 1971 after spending much of seven seasons with the Rangers. The lack of cohesiveness on the team was only exacerbated by the mid-season addition of new players to the roster.
“We had really kind of a bad scramble of different guys there and we didn’t do very well,” Brown said. “They had made several trades and brought in two and three individual guys from the trade being made, and we didn’t know each other.”
With over 10 games remaining in the season, the Wings were already out of the playoffs, a factor that only served to worsen the team dynamic, especially when some of the players who had been acquired in trades had been guaranteed playoff spots on their previous teams.
“Most of us were in the playoffs like I was with the Rangers; now all of a sudden you’re out of the playoffs at the end of the season,” Brown said. “So it was a very difficult time in Detroit at that point in time.”
Brown spent only two seasons with the Wings before making brief appearances with the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames. Having played in 681 NHL games, Brown retired in 1974.