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Ian Turnbull: Aggravating, enigmatic - and talented

After a very poor 1972-’73 season, the Leafs had one thing to look forward to: they held three draft choices in the first round of the 1973 amateur (now called entry) draft.

As a Leaf follower, I was keen to see who they would select. Having attended the University of Toronto that year as a freshman, I took in a number of Junior A Toronto Marlie games, so I had a reasonable sense of who was available, at least from the Ontario junior loop.

The first pick, 4th overall, was Lanny McDonald, who struggled mightily in his first couple of seasons (so much so that a Toronto Star beat reporter actually wrote that McDonald would never be a top NHL goal scorer. McDonald went on to score 500 career regular season goals.) The young winger turned a big corner in this third season. You could just see the confidence developing. I remember clearly that on consecutive Saturday nights at the Gardens, he gave big-time hip checks to Booby Orr and Dennis Potvin as they were both carrying the puck out of their zone, sending them flying. This showed me that he had toughness, and he began to build some confidence. He started to try things, including his attempts to power around defensemen and use his strong shot more. He of course eventually teamed beautifully with Darryl Sittler, won a Canada Cup and then a Stanley Cup in his final season in Calgary. He went out like Jean Beliveau- a Cup winner in his last game and eventually a Hall-of-Fame inductee.

Bob Neely was the Leafs next choice. A huge (for his day) defenseman, Neely never fully developed as he should have in Toronto. I saw him play with the Peterborough Petes as a junior, and while he was big man on campus in a league full of smaller guys, I don’t think he had the required work ethic, and he was never as tough as his size. He was not a fighter, but he could hit, had a booming shot and was a wonderful skater for a big man. As I’ve written in a previous post, I always though that with the right coaching and commitment, he could have been a player.

But the real sleeper in the Leafs’ draft, and the pick I loved, was the selection of Ian Turnbull in about the 15th slot.

Turnbull had played many years with the Junior Canadiens in Montreal, and finished his junior career with the Ottawa 67’s playing with future #1 overall pick and Hall-of-Famer Denis Potvin.

When I watched them play together with the 67’s, I often felt Turnbull had as much, maybe even more talent than Potvin. He was nowhere near as dirty or tough as Potvin, but Turnbull could skate, shoot and seemed to have good vision.

I just didn’t know he would be so seemingly lazy or unmotivated.

Turnbull always presented like a very thoughtful, well-rounded young man, and no doubt was. He had other interests and hockey seemed to be something he did as a job, not because he loved it. That may be a very unfair or inaccurate impression, but I well remember I was not the only one who felt that way all the years he played in Toronto.

Oh, he showed superior skill at times with the Leafs (5 goals one night against a poor Red Wing team), and he was something like plus 45 in the 1976-’77 season—outstanding in any era. But he took way too many sloppy penalties and never seemed to reach his elusive “potential”. In fairness, an early-career knee injury had to be a factor.

He certainly never became the player I thought he would become when I saw him with the 67’s, while Potvin went on (admittedly with a much better team) to lead the Islanders to 4 Cups in a row by the early ‘80s. (By then, Turnbull’s career was already on the wane.)

No, he never achieved what many of us though he would, until and except for one particular period of time.

It was the playoffs of 1978. The Leafs were playing the Islanders in the quarter- finals, and the Islanders at the time were the emerging NHL team—young, talented and well coached by former Leaf Al Arbour. They had two good young goalies in Chico Resch and Billy Smith, and a lot of toughness in guys like Clark Gillies and Bob Nystrom among others.

They were certainly favored to knock off the Leafs, though Toronto had finally traded for a guy I had wanted, as a fan, for years. That was winger Dan Maloney, who came up in the very early 70s with Chicago and was traded to Los Angeles, where he became a captain and a feared, tough individual. He ended up with the Red Wings as compensation in the Dale McCourt fiasco (a free agency attempt gone sideways, as I recall).

In any event, Maloney came to the Leafs before the trade deadline in 1978 for Errol Thompson and two high draft picks, and provided toughness that they certainly needed.

That all said, despite having young Mike Palmateer in goal, Borje Salming on defense and Sittler and a few others up front, they should have been no match for the Islanders—especially when Salming went down with a serious eye injury early in the series.

It was at that precise time that, for all external appearances, Ian Turnbull decided to take hockey seriously.

For the rest of that series, Turnbull, in my view, was the best player on the ice pretty much every night. McDonald scored the overtime winner in Game 7, a wonderful moment for Leaf fans, but it was Turnbull who led the team with his play at both ends of the ice.

While the Leafs were swept by Montreal in the subsequent semi-final series Turnbull again was by far the best Leaf throughout.

Then came summer, and well, then, not much.

By the early ‘80s he was playing in LA, among those sent away in the purge of Punch Imlach. He then played briefly in Pittsburgh. He retired (or just stopped playing, I can’t remember) while Potvin was still winning Cups.

Whatever others may think about his career, Turnbull proved, over about a two-week period in the spring of 1978, how good he could have, might have, been.

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