With Hall of Fame week just wrapping up, the same old debates on who should or should not be included in the Hall resurface. One of the go-to names as an example of Hall of Famers who are undeserving of inclusion is Bob Pulford. The question is; Is it fair to use Pulford as a Hall of Fame "whipping boy" or is he truly worthy of inclusion?
Pulford's raw stats (1079 Games, 281 Goals and 643 Points) don't exactly scream Hall of Famer, however, he was much more than the raw numbers. In his prime, Pulford was possibly the greatest defensive forward in the game. He was Bob Gainey before Bob Gainey...with more scoring punch. During the first five years the NHL counted Shorthanded Goals as an official stat, Pulford had the most. If the Selke Trophy for defensive forward was around in the 1960's, he undoubtedly would have won it on multiple occaisons.
In the Weekend Magazine supplement of Canadian newspapers on Jan. 15, 1966 there is a three page article about Pulford written by Andy O'Brien titled "Bob Pulford: He's So Good You Don't Notice Him". In it are the following quotes which really sum up what Pulford was as a player.
"Pulford is one of my private headaches," says Gordie Howe, "because he has to be classed as one of hockey's greatest forecheckers. There's a deep knowledge of the game in his forechecking - hook, poke check, strength of arms, quickness, the whole bundle of wax." "Pulford is a piece man," says coach Milt Schmidt of the Boston Bruins."Any time he's near you he gets a piece of you. He's possibly the most combative of the modern players." As far back as March 1960, coach Sid Abel of the Red Wings tagged Pulford "the most dangerous of the Leafs."
On top of his defensive excellence, Bob Pulford scored the 14th most goals during the 1960's, only 14 less than Dave Keon and 11 less than Andy Bathgate. Perhaps one of his biggest goals came on
April 11, 1964 in the first game of the Stanley Cup finals versus Detroit. "Bob Pulford scored with just two seconds remaining in regulation time to give Toronto a 3-2 win before 14,075 fans in Maple Leaf Gardens Saturday night. Red Wing ace Gordie Howe, the all-time scoring leader in National Hockey League playoff competition, described Pulford's unassisted breakaway goal as "a perfect play". Howe chased Pulford as the Toronto centre raced in on Terry Sawchuk in Red Wings nets and backhanded a shot into the upper corner at 19:58 mark of the third period. "Pulford had one stride on me," Howe said after the game. "But when he changed sides and went to his backhand he had me. It was a perfect play." The 28 year-old Pulford, noted for his penalty killing and clutch scoring, said he didn't know how he got the goal. "It was from about 20 feet out," he said. "I don't know how I got it, but any shot is good if it goes in. You don't think. You just take a quick look and shoot."
Even early in his career, Pully was recognized as an extremely valuable asset by his coach Punch Imlach. In the summer of 1960 it was reported; "New York Rangers were to have offered Andy Bathgate, Larry Popein and Eddie Shack to Toronto for Bob Pulford, Dick Duff, Ron Stewart and Billy Harris. Leafs said no. The Leafs indicated that any proposal meaning the loss of Pulford wouldn't get anywhere." Imlach thought so highly of Pulford he offered the following when asked about an exchange of Ranger Bathgate for Pulford; "They're asking me to give up a battleship for a rowboat."
After the 1962 Stanley Cup finals in which Toronto won their first Cup in eleven years, Imlach stated; "Actually, I think our success can be attributed to our three centres - Keon, Pulford and Kelly. Those three are better than any three of the Hawks, and I'm including Stan Mikita in there."
Most arguments against Pulford's Hall of Fame credentials centre around the belief that he gained inclusion merely because he was a member of the Leaf Cup victories of the 60's. This of course plays a part in it, but let's look at exactly how big a part of those wins Pulford was. Among the nine skaters who played in all four Cups (1962, 63, 64 & 67) here is what they produced (GP-G-A-Pts);
Horton 48- 7- 25-32
Stanley 48- 2- 17-19
Baun 46- 2- 9- 11
Shack 40- 2- 2- 4
So, on top of all of his defensive excellence Pulford was as much a point producer as anyone on the Leafs. Incidentally, each of the top seven on the list are members of the Hall of Fame.
The crowning achievement for Pulford came April 25, 1967 in Game three of the Stanley Cup finals as described by the Canadian Press;
Bob Pulford, an apple-cheeked veteran of 83 playoff games, scored his first ever overtime goal last night to give the Toronto Maple Leafs a dramatic 3-2 victory over the Canadiens and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup final. The 31 year-old Pulford connected after 28 minutes and 26 seconds of spine-tingling extra play during which Johnny Bower and Montreal rookie Rogatien Vachon.
Overall, the inclusion of Bob Pulford in the Hockey Hall of Fame is well deserved in my opinion. I have no problem with defensive excellence being rewarded by the Hall, and Pulford was one of the best.