|Punch Imlach (Photo: Buffalo Sabres) |
When George ‘Punch’ Imlach accepted a job as manager of the Buffalo Sabres in 1970, he did so for two very distinct reasons:
First, he wanted to establish a winning hockey club and take on the unique challenge of building an expansion team from scratch.
Secondly, he desperately wanted to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Prior to joining the Buffalo staff, Imlach served as the head coach of the famed Canadian squad for 11 years – from 1958 until 1969 – claiming four Stanley Cup Championships during his tenure.
He did so by maintaining an unwavering policy of loyalty with both his players and the personnel around him, preferring to build around a core group of athletes.
Unfortunately for Imlach, that mentality also led to his downfall in Toronto.
While the team was still rejoicing over their latest Cup conquest in 1967, Imlach was forced to begin making some changes. The individuals who he had based his team around for the better part of a decade were aging; and some fresh legs had to be brought into the organization.
Imlach needed time to rebuild, but the pressure was mounting from General Manager Stafford Smythe as the Leafs dropped in the standings. In the 1967-68 season, Toronto went from defending Stanley Cup Champions to missing the playoffs altogether for the first time in six years. The following year proved to be just as difficult as the squad was bounced from the first round of the playoffs in just four games. Eventually Imlach was relieved from his coaching duties.
Angry about the early dismissal, the vacant position in Buffalo was just what he needed to exact his revenge.
The media did their part in hyping the teams’ first head-to-head match-up as the Sabres made their way to Maple Leaf Gardens. Smythe also added to the publicity by stating that he believed Toronto would defeat Buffalo in every meeting of their inaugural season.
On November 18, 1970, Smythe not only found that he had underestimated the young team, but that Imlach would in turn find the redemption he had been searching for.
The Maple Leafs’ crowd foreshadowed the evening by giving Punch a raucous standing ovation upon his return to the Toronto building. And as the game began, it was evident that the Sabres would follow suit.
After falling to a 1-0 deficit in the first period, Buffalo came back with a vengeance. Captain Gerry Meehan put the visitors on the board early in the second period before Mike Walton and Larry Keenan scored just over a minute apart to make it 3-1.
The teams would again exchange goals for a 4-2 Buffalo lead. However, the Leafs would fail to come close again and Buffalo would finish the game with a commanding 7-2 final score.
Paying homage to their former coach, the Toronto crowd continued to cheer as the Sabres swarmed netminder Roger Crozier after the victory. And as Imlach exited the bench for the locker room, it was rumored the stoic coach did so bearing a smile.