By the time forward Norm Ullman was traded from the Red Wings to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1968, he had already played 875 games over the course of 12 ½ seasons. In the history of the Detroit franchise, only nine other players have played more regular-season games. So it’s no surprise that the versatile forward was a little disoriented the first time he laced up with the Leafs to play against the Wings.
“That was really strange,” Ullman said. “The first time we played Detroit, you’re so used to that uniform – the Detroit uniform and everything – that you just automatically thought you were with them for a split second and then you realize ‘No, I’m not’. You always wanted to pass the puck to somebody in the red and white sweater.”
The first game against his ex-teammates was memorable for more than just the strangeness of skating against his old team. Ullman had been part of a multi-player deal that traded him, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith to Toronto in exchange for Frank Mahovlich, Pete Stemkowski, Garry Unger and the rights to Carl Brewer.
The trade came as a shock to many Leafs’ fans, most of whom couldn’t imagine trading Mahovlich, one of their most productive stars at the time. As a result, when the two teams met in Toronto less than a week after the trade, the intensity of the game was charged by the recent events.
“The first game after the trade, that was unbelievable,” Ullman recalled. “The way the game went, the tension and everything. The game started and Detroit jumped into us, they were beating us 4-0 at the end of the first period. People started cheering for Detroit. You almost felt like crawling under the bench or something.”
Despite Detroit’s lead, Ullman and the Leafs didn’t end up disappointing their fans that night.
“The second period, we come back, we scored two goals and made it 4-2,” he said. “And then we’re going into the third period and we scored five goals or something in the last period. And all of a sudden we took the lead and then the fans were going crazy.”
As it turned out, it was Detroit fans that ended up having more reason to be upset about the deal, as the Wings made the playoffs only once in the 10 seasons that followed.
“A little while after that, after he had retired, I met Gordie Howe at a golf tournament,” Ullman recalled, “and he said, ‘Really a brutal trade. They never should have made that trade.’ ”
According to Ullman, Detroit would have come out of the trade successfully if they had kept the players they had acquired. Collectively, the four players that Detroit received in the deal played just over 11 seasons with the Wings.
“They didn’t keep those players,” he said. “Unger turned out being a pretty prolific goal-scorer but they traded him after a couple years. Mahovlich I think was there two years, they traded him. And then they traded Stemkowski, so after a couple years they didn’t even have anybody that they got in that trade.”
As for the change of scenery, Ullman remembers that the camaraderie and close-knit atmosphere with the Wings wasn’t matched in his 8 ½ seasons in Toronto.
“You get acclimated after playing in Detroit for 13 years,” Ullman said. “It was kind of a homey atmosphere, especially with the guys that stayed there in the off-season and so on. Had a little bowling league going in the summertime. It was kind of family-oriented. There wasn’t any of that going on in Toronto.”
Although the off-ice relationships may not have been as strong in Toronto, it was a boon for Ullman to be able to play with his former teammates, Henderson and Smith, when he joined the Leafs.
“It was quite easy because I came with those guys,” Ullman said. “We played together on a line in Detroit. The three of us played together when we got here so that made it very easy; if you’d put one guy each on a different line or something then it might have been a little tougher to adjust.”
Ullman never won a Stanley Cup – missing his opportunity by a year each time he was traded – but he did set a NHL record for the fastest two playoff goals while playing with the Wings. In Game 5 of the 1965 semifinals between Detroit and Chicago, Ullman managed to net two goals within five-seconds of each other.
“The first goal, I just picked the puck up in our end and came down the ice,” he said. “I was all by myself, and they had two defensemen back. It was unbelievable that they would even let me get a shot away but they backed up at the blue line.”
Moments later, the faceoff at center ice gave the forward an opportunity to steal a Black Hawks’ pass and hammer the puck past goalie Glenn Hall again.
“I saw him as he picked it up,” Ullman said of the Chicago player who turned over the puck. “He looked over his shoulder toward the defenseman and I thought, ‘He’s going to put it over there rather than just chip it out.’ So I directly headed in between where the defenseman and he was, and, sure enough, he passed right across to the defenseman and I was right there to get it. As soon as I picked it up, that defenseman came towards me, and I was quite a ways out, I wasn’t really moving that fast or anything so I just used him as a screen and let it go again and it went in.”