Maple Leafs Latest Original Six Team to Play the Fool

The two goalies were 79 years old between them. Their captain was 36. Their best defenseman was 36 as well. One of their top centermen was 39 years old. Another defenseman was 40 years old.

The 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t a hockey team, they were a senior center. The official team drink was Geritol.

This gang of grizzled veterans surprised the hockey world 48 years ago and won the Stanley Cup.

It was the last season of the Original Six before expansion doubled the size of the NHL for the 1967-68 season.

The ’67 Maple Leafs, with their aging legs, managed to plow through the Chicago Black Hawks in six games in the semi-finals before dispensing of the defending Cup champions, the Montreal Canadiens, also in six games.

Terry Sawchuk (37) and Johnny Bower (42) shared goaltending duties. Captain George Armstrong (36) didn’t contribute much offensively (nine goals, 24 assists) but he was practically Mr. Leaf. Marcel Pronovost (36), a former Red Wing, led the Toronto blue liners in savvy and smarts. Another former Red Wing, Red Kelly (39), who was a defenseman in his Cup-winning days in Detroit, had turned into a center in Toronto and chipped in 14 goals. Allan Stanley (40) was a defenseman who did the team’s dirty work in a very clean way (20 penalty minutes).

The 1966-67 Maple Leafs averaged over 28 years in age, by far the oldest team in the league. Yet they wheezed and gasped their way to the Cup.

The story of the ’67 Maple Leafs comes to mind because they are still the last Toronto team to win the Stanley Cup, and that 48-year drought doesn’t seem to be nearing an end anytime soon.

Today’s Maple Leafs are stumbling through the NHL. They recently experienced a 12-game winless streak, which is almost unheard of in today’s NHL of parity.

Toronto, at the time of this writing, is 23-29-5 and seventh in the eight-team Atlantic Division, ahead of only the wretched Buffalo Sabres, that once-proud franchise on the other side of Lake Erie from Toronto.

The nearly half century that has elapsed since the Maple Leafs’ last Stanley Cup is grating on the nerves of fans in Toronto. The only other NHL teams that have a Cup-less streak nearly that long are the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres, still looking for their first Cup since becoming members of the league in 1970.

But the Canucks and Sabres are relative NHL newbies compared to the Maple Leafs, who started playing in the league when ice was something folks used to keep their refrigerators cold more so than skated on.

The Maple Leafs not only haven’t won the whole thing since those old men did it in 1967, they haven’t really come close.

The Leafs made the NHL’s Final Four in 2002, losing to Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals. And they made it that far in 1993, bowing to the Los Angeles Kings, but aside from those two years, the Stanley Cup has been as elusive for the Maple Leafs as the Nobel Peace Prize has been to Al Qaeda.

From the slapstick days under the ownership of Harold Ballard in the 1970s and 1980s to the futility of today, the Toronto Maple Leafs long ago supplanted the Red Wings as Original Six team-turned-laughingstock.

In the 1970s it was the Red Wings that couldn’t get out of their own way, missing the playoffs every year but once between 1970 and 1984.

Today the Maple Leafs are that Original Six team with the iconic logo that have become the Chicago Cubs of hockey.

The Maple Leafs and their fans are finally getting sick of having snow sprayed in their faces by the rest of the league.

As each day passes with Red Wings coach Mike Babcock not signing a long-term contract extension (his current deal expires after this season), Toronto’s hockey fan base and media gets more sugar plums dancing around their heads with the thought of Babcock bolting Detroit and coaching the Maple Leafs.

Babcock, for all the success he has had in Detroit, is a borderline hero in Canada, from Prince Edward Island to British Columbia.

The hockey fans in Canada love the Olympic Gold Medals (two) Babcock has won for their country. He’s also won a World Junior Championship gold medal while coaching Team Canada, as well as an International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship for the country with the Maple Leaf on its flag.

And, of course, Babcock is a Stanley Cup champion coach and a three-time Finalist.

Nowhere is Babcock more idolized from afar than in Toronto, a city whose hockey fans would be delighted to see Babcock not only coach a team wearing the red-and-white Maple Leaf flag, but also one sporting the blue-and-white Maple Leaf on the jersey.

The Toronto media is perhaps even more smitten with the idea of Babcock coaching the Maple Leafs than the fans.

Column upon column has been written, touting the benefits of a Babcock-coached Maple Leafs team. The Leafs fired Randy Carlyle after a 21-16-3 start and his replacement, Peter Horachek, has gone 2-13-2 since taking over.

Babcock is the one man, the scribes in Toronto think, who could deliver the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1967. The fans mostly agree.

But Babcock’s tardiness in re-upping with the Red Wings shouldn’t be confused with a desire to coach elsewhere. He has it good in Detroit and he knows that. He works for a terrific owner, has a good relationship with his GM and his family has firm roots in Northville.

In Toronto, Babcock wouldn’t be hired to just make the playoffs a few times. He’d be brought in to win the whole shebang, and sooner rather than later. Patience is already razor-thin in Toronto; even someone with Babcock’s name and resume wouldn’t be given a very long leash. It would be the shortest honeymoon since Cher and Gregg Allman’s.

Whether Babcock would choose to turn his cozy home and hockey life upside down to work in the pressure cooker of Toronto, which is Canada’s New York when it comes to hockey, is highly debatable. In fact, it’s worse—it’s damned unlikely.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs continue to wander around, lost in the NHL’s frozen tundra with no Saint Bernard in sight to rescue them.

The Original Six have taken turns acting the fool over the last 20 years or so.

First it was the New York Rangers, who went 54 years (1940-94) between Cups. Then the Red Wings took over, going Cup-less from 1956-96. The Boston Bruins didn’t win a Stanley Cup between 1973 and 2010. The Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup in 1961 but not again until 2010.

Even the venerable Montreal Canadiens haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993.

But the Toronto Maple Leafs are now firmly entrenched as the Original Six team with the most ignominious past.

Babcock joined the Red Wings when the team was rich with talent, very used to winning and was a Cup champion as recently as three years prior to his hiring.

If he went to Toronto this summer, none of the above would apply to the Maple Leafs. Not even close.

The Maple Leafs need help, no question. But they’d better look elsewhere than Joe Louis Arena’s coaching room for it.

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1954-55 Red Wings: Terry Sawchuk

THE TERRY SAWCHUK FILE:

Born: December 28, 1929; Died: May 31, 1970

Position: Goalie

NHL games played: 971 (734 with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): GP: 68; MIN: 4040; GA: 132: GAA: 1.96; ShO: 12

CAREER: GP: 971; MIN: 57,194; GA: 2,389; GAA: 2.51; ShO: 103

When discussing the “best ever” at any position in any sport, certainly the arguments are subjective.

Anyone can crunch numbers to support their viewpoint.

Was Babe Ruth the best ever baseball player because of those 714 home runs and that .342 BA, plus all his other amazing statistics?

Or was it Ty Cobb for his .367 career BA and those 4,191 hits, plus the 892 stolen bases?

And so on.

Terry Sawchuk, however, seems to be widely recognized as the best goalie in NHL history. Period.

And this isn’t just coming from Red Wings fans.

Sawchuk played in nearly 1,000 games, which by itself is mind-boggling. He posted 103 shutouts, which was a league record for nearly 40 years before Martin Brodeur broke it.

But beyond raw numbers, impressive as they are, Sawchuk is considered the best because of the good old-fashioned “eye test.”

Sawchuk’s exploits exist today on grainy footage that can be found on YouTube, but the folks who actually saw him play in person—players, coaches and writers—readily rattle Sawchuk’s name off when asked who was the best goalie in NHL history.

But for as talented and blessed as Sawchuk was on the ice, he was equally as tormented off it.

He battled depression for years. He was, for all intents and purposes, an alcoholic. He was by far his own harshest critic. He didn’t smile very much, according to teammates.

Sawchuk did three separate stints with the Red Wings, but he also played for Boston, the New York Rangers, the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Such was the greatness of his longevity that he won his first Stanley Cup in 1952 at age 22 and his last in 1967 at age 37.

Perhaps no greater goaltending will ever be seen as what Sawchuk did in the 1952 playoffs.

There were only two rounds back in those Original Six days, and the Red Wings swept both series to capture the Cup.

Sawchuk was unbelievable that spring.

In going 8-0, Sawchuk posted four shutouts and had a tiny goals against average of 0.63.

A native of Manitoba, Canada who was of Ukrainian descent, Sawchuk’s mental darkness started when he was a youngster. A younger brother died of scarlet fever, but even worse, Sawchuk’s older brother, an aspiring goaltender who Terry idolized, died of a heart attack at age 17.

It is believed by many that the tragic death of Sawchuk’s older brother had ramifications for the rest of Terry’s life.

Another blow came in the spring of 1955, when the Red Wings traded Sawchuk to Boston not long after Detroit won the Stanley Cup. Already hyper-critical of himself, Sawchuk took the trade very hard. The Red Wings wanted Glenn Hall to be their new full-time goalie, and Sawchuk saw the trade as an insult to his abilities.

Sawchuk hated it in Boston. The fans’ criticism was relentless. He suffered a nervous breakdown and briefly retired from hockey.

The Red Wings rescued Sawchuk in 1957, reacquiring him from the Bruins for Hall of Fame forward Johnny Bucyk.

Sawchuk played in Detroit until 1964, at which point the Red Wings left him unprotected in the intraleague waiver draft because they wanted to go with the younger Roger Crozier in net.

The Toronto Maple Leafs snatched Sawchuk up on June 10, 1964 and the Leafs won the Stanley Cup three springs later with Sawchuk teaming with veteran Johnny Bower in goal.

Then it was off to Los Angeles to play for the expansion Kings in 1967.

The Red Wings brought Sawchuk back to Detroit yet again in an October, 1968 trade.

In June of 1969, the Red Wings dealt Sawchuk to the Rangers, where he finished his magnificent career.

Sawchuk was just 40 years old when he got into a scuffle with Rangers teammate Ron Stewart in late-May of 1970. The two fought over outstanding bills for an apartment they shared and planned to vacate for the summer. In the rumble, Sawchuk fell into a barbecue and suffered internal injuries. He passed away on May 31, 1970. No charges were filed against Stewart, as the death was ruled accidental.

In fact, on his deathbed, Sawchuk emphasized that Stewart was not to blame for the tragic incident.

“It was a fluke,” Sawchuk told Shirley Fischler, wife of legendary hockey writer Stan Fischler. “A complete, fluke accident.”

Sawchuk is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Pontiac, MI.

The Red Wings retired Sawchuk’s no. 1 in 1994.

Sawchuk once summed up his career thusly.

“The day they put me in the net I had a good game. I’ve stayed there since.”

NEXT WEEK: Center Glen Skov, whose older brother Art was a longtime NHL referee.