How Punch Imlach set the Leafs on fire

Trent Frayne November 7 1959

How Punch Imlach set the Leafs on fire

Trent Frayne November 7 1959

How Punch Imlach set the Leafs on fire

In three mad months last season, this bald, brash one-time bank clerk begged and bullied his last-place Leafs into the Stanley Cup final with a strange gospel that defies analysis. Can he cast his spell this year?

Trent Frayne

A year ago George (Punch) Imlach was an obscure, newly-hired assistant general manager to a non-existent general manager in the confused hierarchy of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Three months later he was the general manager, had personally fired the coach and appointed himself as the replacement, and was one of the most uncontrollably optimistic barkers ever to make a pitch for the sleepy show inside, in this case the lethargic, lastplace Leafs. And three months after that Imlach was a practising prophet, the newest miracle man in hockey, a minor Moses who had led the Leafs out of the darkest period in their history.

Few people who own a television set or have a nodding acquaintance w ith the sports pages arc unaware that Imlach and the Leafs were dead last after sixty games of the National Hockey League's seventy - game schedule. Then they won their last five games to vault past the staggering New York Rangers and the stagnant Detroit Red Wings into the fourth and last play-off position. For the next three weeks they played the classic role of aroused underdogs. They eliminated the Boston Bruins in seven semi-final games, and declined to be chased out of the rink by the awesome balance of the Montreal Canadiens in the final.

Montreal won, four games to one, but that margin was sufficiently flattering that from one coast to the other the talk was not of the unprecedented fourth straight Stanley Cup for the Canadiens but of Toronto’s return to respectability and of the man w'ho set them on fire, Imlach.

Today, with Imlach launched into his first full season as house thinker at Maple Leaf Gardens, a number of questions confront the legions who fill the Toronto team’s playpen game in and game out: (a) Was Imlach responsible for the surge? (b) If he was, how did he succeed where three predecessors had failed? and (c) Having done it, can he do it again?

The answers to (a) and (c) are relatively simple. On the evidence, they appear to be yes, he was responsible for the Leafs’ resurgence last spring, and likely, he can do it

again. But (b), namely how he did it the first time, is somewhat more complicated and involves the personality of the man himself and the manner in which it bounces off the help. In the words of Toronto defenseman Tun Horton. “lmlach is always preaching, and he preaches a strange gospel, but he gets results.” George Armstrong, the captain and right-winger, notes, "You have to go for this guy; he got us off the floor and put money in our pockets.” Frank (King) Clancy, the former coach who is now assistant manager ( not assistant general manager: the hierarchy is still confused; there is no manager) says in some awe. “He's a wizard to be able to get so much out of those players."

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How Punch lmlach set the Leafs on fire

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“You have to go for this guy. He got us off the floor and put play-off money in our jeans”

There you find the note of incredulity inside the lodge that characterized the fans’ reaction outside it last spring. Even more remarkable, perhaps, and indicative of the kind of man lmlach is. was a decision he made last summer when he had top management in an untenable position. He had the prerogative of appointing a new man as coach while retaining his job as general manager — and a mighty palatable prerogative that was. If the new man failed, it was obviously because he was not as capable as lmlach. If he succeeded, well, why shouldn’t he succeed? Hadn’t lmlach already proved the players were capable? Off his 1959 record, then, lmlach couldn't possibly look bad in I960 if he appointed a new coach. He had security — an uncommon commodity in recent years at Maple Leaf Gardens — in a bottle and the stopper in his hand.

He threw away the stopper.

"My friends all advised me to get a new coach,” lmlach said recently when asked why he'd stayed on. "but, well, hell, the Lord hates a coward. I'm where 1 am because the fellows played hockey for me, eh? Because of them I even met the Queen. So why should 1 duck? liesides, it wasn't as altruistic as all that. To me, if 1 can't find someone 1 think can do a better job I have the headache, anyhow, as general manager.”

I his was the headache, to use Imlach’s word, that confronted him last November 21 when Stafford Smythe, the chairman of a committee of seven Toronto businessmen who run the club, announced that lmlach had been promoted from assistant general manager to general manager. "The committee is not satisfied cither with the performance of the players through lack of consistency or with the coaching through lack of consistency." said Smythe, the dour, blond, flat-voiced son of Conn Smythe, Maple Leaf Gardens president. "It will be Imlach’s problem to correct this."

Exactly a week later lmlach fired the coach, Hilly Reay, whose team, in its first twenty games, had picked up thirteen points out of the possible forty.

T still think Hilly is a good hockey man. lmlach said. "Nobody knows

more about the game. Hut he hasn't been getting anything out of the players lately. There was no spirit or drive on the team.”

Reay had turned down an opportunity to become general manager before Imlach joined the organization. Reay said he wanted to prove, "that I can coach this club." He declines to speak for the record on his dismissal but it’s no secret that he has remained somewhat unkindly disposed towards his executioner. lmlach. who will speak for the record on anything, says he had no alternative: "We had thirteen points out of a possible forty, eh? We sure as hell weren’t going to make the play-offs at that pace. My orders, as outlined by Staff Smythe. were to correct a problem. I figured I might as well be shot for a sheep as a lamb. So Reay had to go. eh?"

lmlach puts "eh." with the question mark, at the end of positive statements, a habit acquired in Quebec where the practice seems common. He lived in Quebec City for eleven years as player, coach, general manager and eventually part owner of the Quebec Aces, a senior and later a minor-pro club. He has another speech idiosyncrasy which has nothing to do with Quebec, an addiction to an army word that can be used as a verb, a noun or an adjective. Repetition seems to numb the listener's senses to the word but it accounts for player Horton's observation that lmlach preaches a "strange gospel." lmlach says the word has no real meaning to him: “It's kind of a term of endearment, eh?"

At forty-one lmlach packs a somewhat flaccid hundred and sixty-eight pounds on his five-foot-nine frame. His hairline began moving back early and disappeared altogether before he'd reached his mid-thirties, a casualty, he declares, “of constant thinking.” He is small-boned and as a player weighed about a hundred and thirty-five. But every pound was full of determination, a point illustrated some twenty years ago when he acquired his nickname. He was playing for the Toronto Goodyears in a senior game at Windsor and was crashed into the boards and knocked unconscious. When Trainer Bill Smith brought him around, Imlach leaped up and began punching like an addled ex-fighter hearing a bell. It turned out he had a mild concussion but when a couple of his sports-writing friends. Red Burnett and Bunny Morganson, heard of the dressingroom shadow-boxing incident, they goodnaturedly began calling him “Punchy” in print. “It became ‘Punch’,” smiles Imlach, “when a kindly typesetter left off the ‘y’.”

Burnett, who has been friendly with Imlach ever since, says of him, “He’s one of the most honest characters I’ve ever met. He’s cocky, confident and competent; he knows this game backwards.”

Stafford Smythe, who hired Imlach, calls him a throwback. “There are very few men in the world who can put the blame on the right man when something goes wrong on the ice," he says. "It may seem that a defenseman, for example, has made the mistake that costs a goal. But a man with Imlach’s eye knows that the defenseman got into difficulty because he was covering up for somebody else’s lapse. So he rarely rants at the wrong man. The old guard of hockey had this ability—men like my father, Frank Selke and Art Ross could pinpoint the right guy. I don't think the knack can be acquired—a guy’s born with it.

"He always had a tough row to hoe,” Smythe says. “He successfully fought the Selke forces in Quebec for years. Selke had to turn that entire Quebec league professional to get Jean Beliveau away from him.”

Jean Beliveau of the Canadiens, regarded by many hockey men as the top player in the game today, played senior for Imlach’s Quebec Aces for two seasons while Selke, the deceptively mild managing director of the Canadiens, strove vainly to lure him to Montreal. When the Quebec senior league took on professional status six years ago its players became eligible for drafting by NHL clubs. Thus the Canadiens acquired Beliveau.

Smythe says Imlach can minimize a player's shortcomings while bringing out his strong points. “He doesn’t try to make a player do something he can’t do,” Smythe expands. “For example, he told me last season that Gerry Ehman, who was playing for Hershey at the time, could score twenty goals for us. He said Ehman wouldn’t do this and wouldn't do that but he would score twenty goals. Other coaches would have insisted that Ehman forecheck, backcheck and get twenty goals. We got Ehman on December 23 and, counting the playoffs, he got us eighteen goals. Imlach plunked him down on a line with Billy Harris and Frank Mahovlich, whose strong points made up for Ehman’s shortcomings, and vice versa, and all of a sudden we had a helluva line.”

Until Imlach gave them Ehman as a playmate, the young veterans Harris and Mahovlich were less than spectacular. As of January 3 when the line was formed, Harris had twenty-four points and Mahovlich eighteen, with the season half over. Through the last half, they moved their totals to fifty-two for Harris and forty-nine for Mahovlich. Ehman, who starred in the ensuing play-offs with twelve points in twelve games, got twenty-six in his thirty-nine league games.

Until mid-season the mercurial Mahovlich, who perennially has been tabbed as a potential superstar, had far more downs than ups and was. indeed, the object of prolonged abuse in his home rink. He had been tried at all three forward positions and apparently was headed for still another season as a potential great player until Imlach set him down at left wing and kept him there.

"1 knew this guy was a left winger, not a centre and certainly not a right winger.” Imlach said recently when asked about Mahovlich’s emergence. "In the first place, lie thinks he is, and that's important, In the second place, he's too fast to he a centre; his wingmen can't keep up to him. When he slows down for them he loses his effectiveness. On right wing, he’s plainly uncomfortable. So I put him alongside Harris, who's a good playmakcr, at a time when he'd scored seven goals. He had twenty-two when the season ended, and he got six more in the playoffs,”

Imlach did a good deal of experimenting before settling on the combinations and even the individual players who were to work miracles in the spring, but he feels that siftings and groupings were a lesser part of the Leaf resurrection. Ihe root of the team's problem when he took over, Imlach feels, was the approach of the players to their jobs.

"To do something well, you've got to enjoy doing it,” he says now. ”1 felt the Leaf hockey players weren't enjoying it. They were doing it because they had to —to get their dough.”

It wasn’t a difficult attitude to appreciate. Since 1951, the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup, the team had shown a definite distaste for success. They’d missed the play-offs altogether three times, and in the years when they did get in they'd lost sixteen out of eighteen games.

Moreover, they were second-last in the standings in 1957, last in 1958. Now, after front-office turmoil that had seen the departures of Joe Primeau, Hap Day, Howie Meeker, King Clancy and Billy Reay, they w'ere last when Imlach ascended The podium.

If Leafs were an overnight sensation to the casual hockey fan, they w'ere nothing like it to Imlach. “I_ figured I had to undertake a salesman's approach,” he says of the early weeks. “I had to sell them on their prod-? net, which is hockey, by pointing out that thousands of kids looked up to them as the best in the business. I wanted to sell them on themselves, by making them realize that they were twenty of the hundred and twenty best hockey players in the world, the number of men there are in the whole world good enough to play in the NHL.”

Imlach talked constantly to his players and to the press about his unqualified conviction that the team would make the playoffs. He reasoned that if he could get the players enthusiastic, they'd work harder, and if they worked harder they w’ere bound to succeed. He emphasized that hockey could be fun, that it didn't have to be drudgery. He tried to identify with the players, rather than with management, a theory he regards as essential to any coaching success. When discussions of the players’ guild came up. a labor movement opposed by Leaf management, Imlach made a speech to the players.

“I don't care if you’re considering eighty unions,” he said. “If you play hockey for me you stay on this club. If you don't play hockey, you go.”

He didn't burden them with training rules, but he insisted they be in shape. He didn't spy on them after a game, feeling that if an occasional player indulged in an occasional beer it was the player's own business. It has frequently been charged that Toronto coaches have been interfered with by their employers. Imlach tolerated no interference, he says, because there was none. For his part, Stafford Smythe says there was no interference because Imlach made it unnecessary.

“Fun back in the game”

“But that was no special concession to Imlach,” Smythe says. “His predecessors wouldn't have had any if they’d done the job properly, if they'd taken control and held on to it. But what would you expect from any employer if he gave a man certain responsibilities and he didn't measure up to them? Would you just sit back and let him make mistake after mistake?”

The turning point for Imlach was reached during a road trip to Boston and Montreal. As he recalls it: “We were lousy in Boston so I ordered a morning practice there. Then we went to Montreal and we had a couple of tough practices there. I figured the guys weren't in shape and I was determined to get them in shape.”

After the second workout in Montreal Imlach walked impassively into the dressing room. The tired players sat grimly in front of their lockers. George Armstrong, perspiring heavily, looked up when Imlach entered. Then his voice broke the still of the room.

“Yep, we gotta put the fun back into the game,” he said dryly, parroting a favorite Imlach speech.

Players started to chuckle and then they started to laugh. Their laughter spread until it filled the room. Other players shouted other Imlach aphorisms. “Boys, the play-offs put money in your pockets,” somebody mocked, and there was more laughter. “The Canadiens climb into their pants one leg at a time, boys, just like you and me,” another cried.

Imlach smiles as he looks back on that tableau.

"We'd turned a corner,” he recalls. “If you can make ’em work and they wind up laughing you know you're getting somewhere.” Sports consumed Imlach as a youngiter growing up in the east end of To-onto. He played baseball, football, lacrosse and hockey and he never went nway in the summer because there w;as a community playground near his home. He went there every morning at nine and except for meals he didn't leave until dark.

As a junior hockey player with Young Rangers he used to get up at 4 a.m. to catch a streetcar that ran every hour so that he could be at the rink for a 5o'clock practice. One morning he overslept, missed his streetcar and hitched a ride with the milkman in fifteen-below weather. The players weren't exactly highly paid. "We d get a milk-shake from the coach, Ed Wildey.” Imlach recalls, "if Ed happened to have any money, that is.”

Imlach's father was a building superintendent on the street railway. Although his income wasn’t lavish, "there was always bread and butter on the table,” Punch recalls. Imlach graduated from high school in 1938, when jobs were scarce, but he found employment with a bank because he could play hockey. The bank that hired Imlach was in a commercial hockey league and gave him a job as an eight-dollar-a-week junior.

Later, he played senior hockey with the Toronto Marlboros and Goodyears where he centred a line for Hank Goldup and Don Metz, both of whom graduated to the Maple Leafs.

Imlach joined the army in 1941, was sent to Cornwall. Ont., for training and played hockey in a strong army league that included the Ottawa Commandos who had Neil and Mac Colville and Alex Shibicky of the New York Rangers as one line. In this company, Imlach won the scoring championship. He did well as a soldier, too. He went to NC O school at Long Branch and then was selected for officer training at Brockville. He became a first lieutenant in the infantry and was retained at Brockville as a platoon instructor until the end of the war.

After the war he got a trial with the Detroit Red Wings but he had ballooned to a hundred and eighty pounds and was dropped. The Anglo Canadian Paper Company in Quebec City gave him a job in the accounting department so he'd play hockey for the senior Aces, which the company then owned. During his eleven years in the provincial capital he helped develop Jean Beliveau into a great player—and one who was to haunt Imlach years later as a Montreal star.

The speed of Bcliveau s shot and skating stride both were improved by Imlach who noticed that Beliveau was missing scoring chances because he was slow getting into position. In practice Imlach put a player in the centre of the faceoff circle at one end of the ice and lined Beliveau behind him on the circumference. Then Imlach dropped the puck on the other player’s stick and Beliveau’s job was to try to overtake him as he sped up the ice.

"At first he couldn’t catch his man,” Imlach recalls, “but after a couple of weeks he could.”

So then Imlach ingeniously assigned a different player to the circle each time he dropped the puck, forcing Beliveau to pursue a fresh man each trip. Soon he was overtaking the fifteenth man almost as quickly as the first.

Imlach has recently been using a variation of his Beliveau method to get Frank Mahovlich breaking more quickly into his top stride. He puts Mahovlich in the centre of the circle and another player on the circumference. He drops the puck on Mahovlich's stick and encourages the big winger to break away quickly with the puck and stay beyond the pursuing player.

After eleven years at Quebec, in which he reached the league’s final eight times and never missed the playoffs. Imlach was ready to listen to an offer from Lynn Patrick, general manager of the Boston Bruins, to join their organization. It meant giving up the security of his job at the paper mill where he’d built up a substantial pension benefit and it meant uprooting his family from the home they'd bought in Quebec. But Punch's wife, the former Dorothy Simons of Toronto, whom he married in 1943. said she was ready to take young George Brent Imlach, who is now twelve, and Marlene Frances Imlach. who is eight, to Boston if that's what Punch wanted.

“Hockey is my life, eh?” Imlach says now. "Three years ago at Quebec we had a first-place club, even won the Edinburgh Trophy as national minor-league champions, and we still were drawing only thirty-five hundred people. So l told Lynn 1 was ready." Assigned as manager to Boston's farm at Springfield in the American Hockey League. Imlach set the cliff-hanging pattern for his season at Toronto. The Springfield Indians sneaked into the playoffs in the second-last game of the schedule and then knocked off Cleveland in the seventh and deciding game—in overtime — in the semi final. As the Canadiens beat him a year later, so did the Hershey Bears in the league final. But, again, it was a tight fit and Imlach. undeniably, had done a job.

That sold Stafford Smythc. He got permission from Lynn Patrick to negotiate with Imlach and signed him to a two-year Toronto contract August 1, 1958. Last spring that contract was shredded and Imlach signed a new one for the next two seasons at an estimated fifteen-thousand dollars a year.

Imlach feels the late Leaf surge was indicative of the team's true merit, that the players finally have proven to themselves they are as good as he’s been telling them they are. He points out that youngsters such as Bob Pulford, Carl Brewer, Bobby Baun and Mahovlich “will be at least fifty percent better,” and is undismayed w'hen it’s mentioned that coot campaigners such as Allan Stanley, Bert Olmstead and Johnny Bower are on the wrong side of thirtythree.

“Nonsense, nonsense,” cries the eternal optimist, “they’ll be better than ever. We hope they’re better than ever. And where there’s hope there’s life, eh?” +