Monday, December 31, 2012

New Years Eve 1967; Fifth-String Goalie Al Smith Plays

From the Canadian Press: December 30, 1966 the headline reads "Newest Toronto game is naming the goalie."
"Terry Sawchuk is still out with back trouble and Johnny Bower is acting as referee in practices until his broken right hand heals. Punch Imlach says he won't know until later today which of his far-flung goalies will be called up. Bower's replacement could be Gary Smith of Rochecter Red Wings or his teammate, Bobby Perrault. Al Smith of Victoria Maple Leafs is another consideration as is Al Millar of Tulsa Oilers and Bob Whidden of the Toronto Marlboros junior club."

Johnny Bower's hand was broken a few days prior when he stopped a Frank Mahovlich slapshot in practice and Sawchuk had been sidelined since Dec. 8. Third goalie, Bruce Gamble was ruled out for the New Year's eve game against Chicago after taking a Jim Pappin shot in the face during practice a day after Bower was injured. Luckily Gamble was wearing a mask.

Ultimately it was Al Smith called up to take on the Black Hawks, he had played parts of two games with Toronto the previous season allowing two goals in 62 minutes of play. He would however not fare so well against the high-flying Hawks on New Year's Eve 1967. Ken Wharam and Doug Mohns scored in the first followed by Bobby Hull and Phil Esposito before Pappin made it 4-1 after two periods. Dennis Hull rounded out the 5-1 win as Chicago fired 35 total shots at Smith. Gamble was able to return the following day, kicking out 42 shots as Toronto beat the Rangers 2-1.

Al Smith was sent back to Victoria for the remainder of the year where he finished with a 24-26-5 record and a 3.20 GAA. He worked his way through the Leaf farm system playing in Tulsa in 67/68 and Rochester in 68/69 before being claimed by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Intra-League draft. He went on to play 233 NHL games as well as 260 WHA games with the New England Whalers.His 3.25 career GAA in the World Hockey Association ranks as the best all-time in that circuit.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing Day 1991, Pens 12 - Leafs 1

Twenty-one years ago today, Leaf call-up Kevin Maguire opened the scoring in Pittsburgh. Maguire, known more for his toughness notched the first goal of the game with an assist to Todd Gill. It was all downhill from there for the Leafs and goalie Grant Fuhr. Pittsburgh scored the next TWELVE goals to win 12-1.

Fuhr was aerated for all 12 goals making only 20 saves on 32 shots in the worst game of his career. It was far from his fault alone. Daniel Marois and ex-Pen, Mike Bullard were minus six on the evening and Peter Zezel clocked a minus five. As for Pittsburgh, the usual suspects were doing most of the damage as Mario Lemieux had 2 goals and 7 points. Joe Mullen potted 4 goals for the second consecutive game and also had 2 helpers, Kevin Stevens tallied 2 goals and 6 points as well. Second-year Jaromir Jagr chipped in a pair of goals to the onslaught.

The debacle in Pttsburgh may have been the final straw, and the catalyst for a major trade for Toronto. After losses to Detroit and Quebec, on January 2, Toronto General Manager Cliff Fletcher pulled the trigger on the biggest trade in team history. Sitting with a record of 10-25-5, the boss proceeded to fleece the Calgary Flames andin the process turn around a franchise. Fletcher aquired Doug Gilmour, Jamie Macoun, Ric Nattress, Kent Manderville and Rick Walmsley for Gary Leeman, Alex Godynyuk, Jeff Reese, Michel Petit and Craig Berube.

Gilmour would score 49 points in 40 games after the trade while Toronto pulled out of the doldrums to finish the season at a 20-18-2 clip. The Leafs fell three points shy of the playoffs, but would be serious contenders for years after.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Spengler Cup, Canada Primed and Ready

No NHL hockey until at least mid-January means pumped up rosters for not only the World Juniors, but also the prestigous Spengler Cup tournament. Canada will be sending perhaps it's best sqauad ever to to Davos, Switzerland. The NHL stars that will be wearing the maple leaf starting December 26 are as follows:
(current Euro league stats GP-G-A-P)

Tyler Seguin (Biel)    27-24-14-38

John Tavares (Bern)    23-16-22-38

Patrice Bergeron (Lugano) 19-11-17-28

Jason Spezza (Rapperswil)   26-9-17-26

Jason Williams (Ambri-Piotta) 29-11-12-23

Jason Demers (Karpat FIN)   30-5-16-21

Matt Duchene (Frolunda FIN)  20-4-10-14

Sam Gagner (Klagenfurter) 18-10-8-18

Cam Barker (Texas AHL) 23-3-5-8

Also playing are Ryan Smyth and Carlo Colaiacovo who have not played anywhere this season.

The goaltenders for Canada are Jonathan Bernier who has played 13 games for Heilbronner Falken of the German Second Division with a 2.57 GAA and Devan Dubnyk who has yet to play this year.

Ex-NHLers on the squad and currently playing in Europe are:

Byron Ritchie (Bern)   30-13-22-35

Josh Holden (Zug) 30-10-10-20

Brett McLean (Lugano) 31-7-16-23

Derrick Walser (Rapperswil) 10-0-4-4

Travis Roche (Bern) 16-2-11-13

Of course, the other teams at the Spengler Cup will also benefit from the lockout as host Davos will have their share of NHL stars:

Joe Thornton 28-7-22-29
Rick Nash      17-12-6-18
and Patrick Kane added from Biel (15-9-8-17).

Mannheim Eagles boast Dennis Seidenberg (23-1-13-14) and Marcel Goc (16-3-13-16).

Vitkovice HC has NHL defenders Roman Polak(22-2-6-8) and Filip Kuba (11-0-4-4).

Personally, I will definitely be checking out some Spengler action to go with the World Juniors. Should tide me over until mid-January, after that, if there's still no NHL I guess it's back to National Geographic documentaries for me.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

This Day in 1980's Leaf History; Dec. 12, 1984

Sick of waiting for the asses of the NHL and PA to solve their seemingly minuscule differences, I'm going to delve into a topic near and dear to my heart...the Toronto Maple Leafs of the 1980's. Why this time period? The Leafs of the 80's were awful. They never had more than 71 points in a season and won only two playoff series. But, this was my childhood and for some reason I still loved them. In lieu of looking at current NHL hockey, let's look at this day in 1980's Leaf history; a decade of crap.

"No Joke-Leafs Now Worst Team" exclaimed the headline by the Canadian Press on December 12, 1984. The Vancouver Canucks had won their second in a row the previous night to climb ahead of Toronto and out of the NHL's basement. The Leafs 4-19-5 record was one point behind the Canucks.

In an attempt to break their 10-game winless streak, Toronto called up their second new goaltender of the week. Rick St.Croix was summoned from St.Catherines of the AHL and sent 20 year-old Allan Bester down. Just a few days before, Toronto re-called Tim Berhardt and sent Ken Wregget to the farm.

With the Leafs struggling as they were, the Gardens faithful had recently taken to donning paper-bags on their heads and chanting, "We want Albert". This was a nod to the popular Canadian Tire commercial of the time in which a player rises to stardom after being shunned on the pond as a child.
Check it out below.

Man, that brings back memories. I'm still not sure why Albert wore his first name on his sweater's nameplate. Anyway, the Leafs sure could have used a player like Albert.

St.Croix and the Leafs would surprise the second overall Philadelphia Flyers on this night with a 6-3 victory, prompting paper-bags to be thrown aside for the moment. The Flyers would lead 2-0 after one before the Leafs finally woke up. Peter Ihnacak potted two and Stewart Gavin one as the Leafs scored three on 18 shots against Pelle Lindbergh. Bill Derlago, Mirko Frycer and Gavin with his second rounded out the Leaf 6-3 win.

Alas, the chants for "Albert" and the bag-headed fans returned soon after as Toronto dropped 11 of the next 12. By January 10, they possessed a record of 6-30-5 for 17 points. At this point they were fully entrenched in the league basement, 8 behind Vancouver. They finished the season with 48 points, still last overall. They would draft their "Albert", Wendel Clark  with the first overall pick in 1985.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

When Toronto Was So Bad, the NHL Cancelled the Season

Recently, in looking at the various seasons of nonsense that my Toronto Maple Leafs put forward during the 1980's, I realized their worst single year didn't actually take place in that decade. The worst season in Maple Leaf history wasn't suffered by a squad known as the Maple Leafs even. It came in 1918/19, the second year of the National Hockey League, when the Toronto franchise was known as the Arenas. Sure the 1980's gave us four of the five worst seasons in club history, but they were all slightly better percentage-wise than the 1918/19 campaign. In this season, Toronto won 5 games, lost 13 and things got so bad for the Arenas that by February of the 18/19 season, they offered to withdraw from the league to enable Ottawa and Montreal to start their playoff earlier. Ultimately, Toronto was so bad that the NHL ended it's season early.

The Toronto Arenas of 1918 were coming off a year in which they finished tied atop the newly incorporated National Hockey League with the Montreal Canadiens. Toronto bested Montreal in the NHL Finals by a total goal count of 10 to 7. They went on to host the Vancouver Millionaires in the Stanley Cup Finals winning by 3 games to 2. The defence of the Cup the following season did not start off very well, and got worse from there.

Toronto opened the campaign on December 23 with a 4-3 loss at home to the Canadiens. The headlines in The Toronto World newspaper read; "Canadiens Waltz Away With Opener". Toronto did apparently carry the play for most of the match and led 3-2 with five minutes to play when Jack MacDonald, then Newsy Lalonde notched goals to steal the victory. Arenas goal-keeper Hap Holmes was "the bright shining light for the locals. He played in midseason form and turned aside a dozen shots that looked dangerous". Toronto defender Harry Mummery had wired from Brandon that he was suffering in the hospital with the flu and expected to arrive in Toronto about Jan. 1. According to The World, even at this early stage of the season, "He is needed".

Game two for Toronto was played on Boxing Day in Ottawa. Before 6,000 fans and they were bested by the speedy Senators 5-2.  They would fall to 0 and 3 with a 6-3 loss in Montreal on Dec 28, a game that featured new goaltender Bert Lindsay. Previous year's Cup winning goalie Hap Holmes had bolted for the west coast and his former team the Seattle Metropolitans. Holmes had played two previous years for Seattle, winning the first Stanley Cup for an American squad in 1917. Apparently it only took two losses for Holmes to see what was in store that year in Toronto. Bert Lindsay (Terrible Ted's father) was signed as a free agent on December 28, 1918 to take over the goaltending duties.

Toronto won it's first match on New Years Eve, beating Ottawa 4-2. They then proceeded to lose the next three straight, culminating with a 13-4 loss in Montreal on January 11 to fall to a 1 and 6 record. The headlines after the latest debacle proclaimed; "Blueshirts Given a Sound Trouncing, Canadiens Win Uninteresting Match in Montreal". The article described the play of the game, "The Toronto forwards and defence played far below their standard, and left the greater portion of the work to be done by Goalkeeper Lindsay. He was unequal to the whole job, and the blue shirted players were given a sound trouncing...Lalonde was the outstanding player in the game, he scored four goals and retired at the conclusion of the second period and witnessed the final twenty minutes from the stand."

The destruction at the hands of the Canadiens seemed to awake the Toronto squad as they won the next two matches at home, 5-2 over Ottawa and a return routing of Montreal 11-3 on January 21. The headline in The World for this game was particularly descriptive; "Listless Frenchies Beaten Eight Goals." According to the game report, "Newsy Lalonde was not with the visitors, and without him it was a team that could do nothing right. The Montrealers played as if they didn't care how soon it was over. About four thousand fans viewed the contest and were pleased with the local win, but were not taken with what was offered by the Frenchies." The paper continued with talk of legendary Georges Vezina's game,"Eleven goals against Vezina is something to talk about. It will hardly be seen again, and this was one of the sweet pills for the local fans to roll around in their mouths."

Unfortunately for Toronto, this would amount to the highlight of the season for them, as they would win only two of their final nine games. They reached rock-bottom on February 1 when they lost in Montreal by a score of 10-0. On this occasion, the newspaper was far more respectful in declaring; "Les Canadiens Turn Right Round and Wallop Toronto." In describing the affair they said,"The play was too one-sided to be interesting, Torontos playing like a lot of school boys against seniors."

After losing 9-3 in Ottawa on February 20, The Arenas were officially eliminated from playoff contention and their General Manager Charlie Querrie was asked if they "would disband after tonight's hockey game at Ottawa as was rumoured to be the case. He replied: 'We are willing to quit, or we are willing to continue to the end of the season - just whatever the league says. There are two games to be played here, and two away, but if we quit now the games at the coast could be played earlier.'  Upon hearing of Querrie's comments, 'The Ottawas immediately got in touch with President Calder and proposed the Ottawas and Canadiens should play four out of seven games to decide which club should go to the coast to play for the Stanley Cup.'

This is indeed what happened. Whereas the previous NHL season extended to March 6 and the following one went to March 13, the 1918/19 regular campaign had it's last game on February 20. So, instead of the 20 games each team played in the inaugural NHL season, and the 24 games in the third season the second season saw each team play only 18 games and also saw the first best of seven series in NHL history due to the ineptitude of Toronto. The NHL would go a full twenty years before reverting to the best of seven format in playoff competition in 1938/39.

When all was said and done, The Arenas technically withdrew from the NHL on Feb 20, 1919 only to be incorporated once again as The St.Patricks prior to the next season with much the same ownership group.  The Canadiens would best Ottawa by four games to one in the extended NHL Final and travel west to face Hap Holmes and Seattle. This series would be tied at two wins and a tie apiece before being cancelled due to the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1919.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

This Day in 1980's Leaf History; Dec. 1, 1988

Sick of waiting for the asses of the NHL and PA to solve their seemingly minscule differences, I'm going to delve into a topic near and dear to my heart...the Toronto Maple Leafs of the 1980's. Why this time period? The Leafs of the 80's were awful. They never had more than 71 points in a season and won only two playoff series. But, this was my childhood and for some reason I still loved them. In lieu of looking at current NHL hockey, let's look at this day in 1980's Leaf history; a decade of crap.

Thursday, December 1, 1988; Bernie Nicholls goes off.
In front of 11,924 spectators at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, the Kings dismantle the Leafs by a score of 9-3. Bernie Nicholls counts EIGHT points in this cakewalk to assume the leadership in NHL scoring ahead of Mario Lemieux and teammate Wayne Gretzky.

Toronto came to the West Coast with a record of 11-13-1 and sat in second place of the Norris Division behind Detroit. The Kings, although they sat third in the Smythe with a 16-9-0 mark, had scored 133 goals in 25 games; a full 18 goals more than any other NHL squad. Their fire power would be on full display this evening.

Bobby Carpenter, Dave Taylor and Luc Robitaille scored in the first, all with helpers from Nicholls to give L.A. a 3-0 lead. Taylor (from Nicholls) and Bernie himself scored before the game was half over and Vinny Damphousse got the Leafs on the board. Nicholls tallied a shorthanded goal to make it 6-1 after two and give him six points on the night. He would increase that to eight points and the Kings had a 9-1 lead when Daniel Marois and Danny Daoust scored meaningless goals in the last 1:07 of the game. Final score 9-3, Glenn Healy stopped 25 of 28 shots for the win, while Kenny Wregget was aerated for nine goals on 39 shots. Leaf d-man Rick Lanz was a minus five on the day, while King Steve Duchesne was plus six.

The big night for Bernie leap-frogged him over Mario and Wayne for the NHL scoring lead with 63 points in 26 matches. Lemieux stood at 61 (in 22 games) and Gretz at 60. Mario was just getting rolling though, as he ended December with 43 points in 14 games, while Nicholls put up 30 points. By the All-Star break in February Lemieux had wrestled full control of the NHL scoring lead away from Nicholls and Gretzky as he sat with 141 points in 51 games. Gretz was well back with 117 and Bernie was tied for third with Steve Yzerman with 113 points.

As for Toronto, General Manager Gord Stellick denied in the press that their next game in St.Louis two nights later would decide coach John Brophy's job status. Stellick said, "We've been having reports like that before every game for the last three weeks. I'm out of reactions." Toronto would of course lose to the Blues 3-0. It still took six more winless games however before Brophy was turfed and replaced with George Armstrong. Their 11-20-4 mark had dropped them to fourth in the Norris and "Army" couldn't do much more than Broph. They finished a slightly better 17-26-4 yet still fell to last by season's end, out of the playoffs again. Both Stellick and Armstrong were gone by the next season.

Rookie Wayne Gretzky; The 15th Best Centre in NHL

Check out what I found in this old hockey magazine (Sports Special Hockey, Spring 1980). It was published in the fall of 1979, just as Wayne Gretzky was beginning his NHL career after a season in the WHA. Conventional wisdom was that "The Kid" would have a difficult time adjusting to the rigors of the best league in the world.

The Centreman rating chart from this magazine was probably fairly indicative of how many in the hockey world felt about the 18 year-old wunderkind.
Very interesting rating system they came up with. I have no issue with Trottier being rated the NHL's best Centreman in the fall of 1979. Sittler, Dionne and Bobby Clarke in the top five work for me too...Ulf Nilsson ranked third though? Sure he'd scored 66 points in 59 games of his first NHL season the year prior after four straight years over 114 points in the WHA, but ranked higher than Dionne?

The rankings give perfect 5.0's to Nilsson in Passing, Stick-handling, Back-Checking and Skating. He scored lowest (3.5) at Durabilty and Corner play, both are apt. Trottier's lowest rank was a 4.0 in the Big Play category, a score which would surely be raised soon after as Trotts had yet to garner six Stanley Cup victories before he retired.

As for Gretz, he is scored no higher than 3.5 in any category (He got that in Passing, Stick-handling, Skating and Power Play) and was given a mere 2.5 in Durability and Strength in Front. I'm not sure how one rates the durability of an 18 year-old who has yet to play an NHL game, and in the end this would prove to be one of his strong suits.

Gretzky would soon start to make a mockery of these rankings as he would sit fifth in league scoring by the halfway point of the 1979/80 season. After 40 games Gretzky had notched an impressive 60 points, still 30 behind the amazing year Marcel Dionne was having. By the end of the season, Gretzky had made up the difference with 77 points in his final 39 games. Another guy to come into his own in the second half was fellow WHA grad, Hartford's Mike Rogers who didn't even make the top 15 centres in th chart above. Rogers would crank out 65 points in his final 40 games and finished fifth in NHL scoring proving the 'experts' wrong.

In the end, the chart proved to be nothing more than pre-season frivolity as guys who didn't even get ranked (Bernie Federko, Kent Nilsson, Pierre Larouche) out-performed most of the guys on the list. Gil Perreault was inexplicably ranked 12th among centres in the pre-season chart only to finish fourth in NHL points with 106. However, nobody was more slighted than Gretzky, who would go on proving critics wrong for 20 years.

Although, I belive it was the year after that Toronto writer Dick Beddoes said Gretzky would be no more than the fourth line centre on the late 1947/48 Leaf squad. This team featured Hall of Famers Syl Apps, Max Bentley and Teeder Kennedy down the middle. Maybe Dick had a point...however, that debate is for another time.

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