Custom Search

Lanny meet Bob

When the Leafs had the opportunity to select three players in the first round of the summer 1973 NHL draft, those of us who followed and cared about such things knew they needed to make the right choices.

The team had lost some emerging young talent – Rick Ley, Brad Selwood and Bernie Parent, among others - to the World Hockey Association, and missed the playoffs the previous season.

They had the fourth pick overall in that draft, and chose high-scoring Medicine Hat right-winger Lanny McDonald, who had played with Tom Lysiak (drafted second overall the same year by Atlanta) on a very successful line in the Western Junior league.

McDonald had always been, by his own account, a big Leaf fan, so it was very much a dream come true.

He arrived and ended up in his first game playing on a line with the hockey idol of his youth, Dave Keon. In the first game of the 1973-’74 season with the Leafs sporting at least 5 rookies- McDonald, fellow draftees Bob Neely and Ian Turnbull and Swedish imports Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom), Keon scored twice and McDonald earned two assists. He played without a helmet for the first time in his hockey career, and wore #7.

Unfortunately, he landed on his head after receiving a hip check from Buffalo forward Richard Martin (who was usually a gunner more than a hitter) and missed some time because of a concussion. McDonald subsequently went back to wearing a helmet.

Though that first game at Maple Leaf Gardens was an auspicious debut, McDonald struggled significantly in his first two seasons with the Leafs. He seemed often injured, fell down a lot and his play generally lacked confidence. (He would, in later years, reveal that he had a poor relationship with his one-time idol, Keon, which I'm guessing perhaps created issues that did not help his performance. Keon was known, as Leaf captain, to sometimes be hard on young Leaf players- much the same way Bert Olmstead was not the easiest teammate to have in the early 60’s if you weren’t pulling your weight. That said, I have no idea what the issues between McDonald and Keon might have been.)

McDonald came in with a big contract, probably earning as much or more than guys who had played with the Leafs for years. He actually could have made more in the World Hockey Association, as he was drafted first overall in that fledgling league by the Cleveland Crusaders. But he chose a dream over the extra money.

Sitting up in the ‘greys’ most nights, I saw a change in McDonald’s game in his third season, 1975-’76. He started carrying the puck more on the wing, trying to beat defensemen to the outside. He made some big hits on star players like Bobby Orr and Dennis Potvin on back-to-back Saturday night games at the Gardens, and his game had an edge to it. He was gaining more and more confidence, which accelerated his development. It didn’t hurt that coach Red Kelly played him on a line with Darryl Sittler and Errol Thompson.

As he developed his offensive prowess, other teams started paying particular attention to McDonald and his line. The Islanders would often use huge Clark Gillies (another Westrner) against McDonald, and those were tough battles for the smaller McDonald.

But my favorite match-up to watch was McDonald and Montreal left-winger Bob Gainey.

Gainey was drafted the same year as McDonald, 8th overall out of Peterborough. Gainey was known as primarily a defensive specialist, though he was a fantastic skater, with long strides and a hard shot. He was one of those guys that wasn’t a natural scorer, though he’d get his share of goals.

What he had, though, was speed, smarts and true toughness. He wasn’t interested in fighting, but he would run through guys and when he made a hit.

Gainey just kept getting better and better, playing on a line with veteran Jimmy Roberts and former junior teammate Doug Jarvis. By 1976, around the time of the first Canada Cup, (Gainey and McDonald actually played with Sittler on a line for Team Canada) one of the great Soviet hockey legends, Anatoli Tarasov, I think it was, said Gainey was the best player in the world. I said much the same thing on my radio show at the time. He was such a complete player, dependable, hard to knock off his feet, just a wonderful all-around player, someone you could build a team around.

The match-ups between he and McDonald were classic. I never saw them fight, but I saw them crash into one another many times over the years, especially when I was following the Leafs closely in the mid-70’s. Gainey’s team was certainly more talented and usually had the upper hand, but head-to-head they were evenly matched. McDonald was a scorer who could hit, Gainey could check you to a standstill, hit and score on occasion.

It always struck me that there was an unspoken but very real respect between two highly competitive elite athletes.

While Gainey was part of 5 Stanley Cup winners with the Habs over his 15 years in the league, McDonald and his last team, the Calgary Flames, won the final important match up between them in the 1989 Cup finals.

Gainey was captain of the Habs, McDonald, when he played, wore the captain’s “C” for the Flames.

In Game 6 of the finals at the Forum, McDonald scored the clinching goal, and the Flames became the first opposing team ever to win the Cup on Forum ice.

It was a sweet way to end his career, beating Montreal- who had defeated his Leafs in the playoffs in 1978 and 1979, and his Flames in the 1986 finals.

And, he finally beat his old rival Gainey.

Two classy players, both deserving Hall-of-Famers.

No comments:

Post a Comment