The members of the Leafs that year knew they were flawed. They were mostly old by hockey standards (2 were over 40 and 5 others were 36 or older), lacked scoring, included some erratic personalities and they had endured a season in which at one point they lost 10 straight games. This team was essentially the same team that the previous year had been swept in the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens.
What the players did not know was that behind the scenes, the owners were stealing money from the team, that their general manager Punch Imlach was involved in some questionable dealings to bolster the value of a minor league team that he owned at the expense of the big league team that he managed. Imlach had a few loyalists on the team and his reputation in the press (which he controlled) bordered on portraying him as a genius, since he had won three Stanley Cups in the early 1960s. But in reality, he was despised by most of the team and made one bad decision after another. He had completely alienated the team’s one certain superstar, Frank Mahovlich, and most of the promising younger players such as Jim Pappin and Pete Stemkowski. (The Leafs in those days incredibly could have easily had both Bobby Orr and Brad Park playing for them.)
Team captain George Armstrong tried to unite the failing team in a classic “team meeting" on 30 January, telling his teammates that they had to ignore their animosity toward Imlach and solve their problems themselves. Unfortunately, the team went on to lose another three games.
On 18 February, lightning struck when the imperious Imlach suffered a health problem and the team asked legendary King Clancy to step in. Suddenly, everything changed. Clancy gave players out of favour a chance. He put together a line of Bob Pulford, Pete Stemkowski and Jim Pappin that would endure. The team won 7, lost 1 and tied 1 under Clancy. When Imlach returned, the Leafs lost 5-0 and crawled into the playoffs.
One of the many conflicts between Imlach and his players had to do with a sea change that was occurring in the relationship between management and players. The new players’ union landed like a grenade in the dressing room and it eventually helped to destroy a team like the Leafs, whose management simply could not accept any change in their authority.
1967 Stanley Cup Semi Final
The Leafs managed to finish third and under the strange rules of the six-team National Hockey League, this meant that they would play the first place Chicago Black Hawks. (The fourth-placed team got to play the second-place team.) In one of his controlling antics, Imlach flew the team to Peterborough, Ont, and put them through a boot camp that made the players resent him even more.
The Black Hawks were heavily favoured. With Glenn Hall in goal and the likes of Bobby Hull and Stan Makita, they seemed a team for the ages. The exhausted Leafs suffered a 5-2 thrashing and flew back to Peterborough. This time Imlach eased up and the Leafs, with 42-year old Johnny Bower in goal, shocked the Hawks 3-1 in game 2.
Back in Toronto on 11 April, the Leafs won again 3-1, but on 13 April with Bower in net, Chicago got back on track, winning 4-3. In the critical game 5 back in Chicago, Sawchuk relieved Bower after the first period. In the most dramatic moment of the series Sawchuk was felled by a blast from Bobby Hull. He lay inert on the ice for a minute, but stayed in the game and the Leafs prevailed 4-2. Another pattern had established itself now, with the line of Stemkowski, Pappin and Pulford that Clancy had assembled becoming the scoring leaders, and journeyman Larry Hillman and ex-Red Wing Marcel Pronovost becoming the standout defensive pair.
1967 Stanley Cup Final
The Leafs’ opponent in the final was the Montreal Canadiens, the team that swept them the year before and that had just won 15 straight games, including a sweep of the Rangers in the other semi final. The Canadiens were particularly strong at centre with the brilliant Jean Béliveau, Henri Richard and Ralph Backstrom. The only potential weakness appeared to be in the rookie goaltender Rogie Vachon and Imlach famously focused his attention on the young player, calling him a “Junior B" goaltender. The psychology had no effect in the first game, however, which Montreal won 6-2. Just as against Chicago, the Leafs looked to be overmatched only to bounce back in game 2 in Montreal. Bower was back in net and played brilliantly. The determined Dave Keon controlled Jean Béliveau and the Leafs put three goals past Vachon for a 3-0 win. In game 3 in Toronto the Leafs’ fate hung in the balance through 2 overtime periods before Bob Pulford scored what he always considered the most important goal of his career. Following the Chicago pattern, however, the Leafs lost another Thursday game on 27 April. Bower injured his groin in warm-up and Sawchuk played poorly, losing 6-2.
Game 5 was the critical game. If Montreal won, they could lose in Toronto and still come home for game 7. However, the same patterns of success continued for the Leafs. Pappin was leading the entire playoffs in scoring. Stemkowski was ruthless in his fore-checking. Brian Conacher, the grandson of Canada's greatest athlete Lionel Conacher, was a relentless physical force. Hillman and Pronovost were impenetrable, allowing only 1 even-strength goal the whole playoff. Keon maintained his mastery of the powerful Béliveau. The Leafs won 4-1 with goals by Pappin, Conacher, Pronovost and Keon. Sawchuk played his best game of the playoffs on 2 May back in Toronto. The Leafs led 2-0 until former Leaf Dick Duff scored with a few minutes to go. In a fitting end, George Armstrong iced the game with an open-net goal. In those days the on-ice celebration was short, perhaps 5 minutes in all. The city celebrated a few days later with a parade that ended with thousands cheering at city hall.
The Aftermath of the 1967 Stanley Cup Victory
What followed this most unlikely triumph by an overage, underdog team was the haphazard, reckless, even vindictive demolition of the champion by its general manager Punch Imlach. In one of the worst trades in NHL history, Imlach traded away Mahovlich, Stemkowski and young Gary Unger (who went on to become the league “ironman" by playing 914 consecutive games). He dumped Pappin, who starred in Chicago. Imlach botched the expansion draft, losing key players like Bob Baun. By 1969 there were only four players left of that championship team. He treated Larry Hillman, without whom arguably the Leafs could not have won, so badly in contract negotiations that the player put the “Hillman curse" on the Leafs— one that seems to endure. He alienated the great Dave Keon so badly, that Keon has to this day had nothing to do with the organization he immortalized. Keon was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for that 1967 playoff as the most valuable player.
Meanwhile, the great organization that Conn Smythe built was crumbling. When Smythe’s son Stafford and Harold Ballard rode in the lead car with George Armstrong and the Stanley Cup, they both knew that they were stealing money from the team. Stafford would die before going to trial. Ballard spent five years in jail before taking over the team and desecrating it with his aberrant and arrogant behavior, becoming perhaps the worst owner in all professional sport. Conn Smythe quit the team in disgust saying “I cannot go along with the policy of present management to put cash before class." Even worse, the great edifice that Smythe had built in the depth of the Depression, Maple Leaf Gardens, was being befouled by a gang of sex offenders.
The Leafs, along with Montreal Canadiens the most storied franchise in Canadian sports, have not returned to the Stanley Cup finals since 1967 and seem to defy the efforts even of those with winning records such as Brian Burke or Cliff Fletcher to remake them. Ownership has not helped either as Fletcher was denied by ownership a deal he made to bring Wayne Gretzky to the Leafs in the 1990s. Maybe it just cannot happen until Hillman lifts his curse. It certainly will not happen without the devotion to team shown by the Leafs of ’67.
Editor in chief James Marsh has been a Maple Leaf fan since 1951 when he was present in the Gardens to see Bill Barilko score that famous cup-winning goal. He was also present as Armstrong put the puck in the open net in 1967. He never attended another Leaf game when Imlach traded away Frank Mahovlich.
Names of the 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs on the Cup: George Armstrong* (captain), Bob Baun, Johnny Bower*, Brian Conacher, Kent Douglas, Ron Ellis, Larry Hillman, Tim Horton*, Larry Jeffrey, Red Kelly*, Dave Keon*, Frank Mahovlich*, Jim Pappin, Marcel Pronovost*, Bob Pulford*, Terry Sawchuk*, Eddie Shack, Allan Stanley*, Pete Stemkowski, and Mike Walton. Autrey Erickson and Milan Marcetta qualified by playing briefly. *denotes player is in the Hockey Hall of Fame.