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From one hitter to another: Phaneuf evokes memories of Bobby Baun and his Maple Leaf revival

One of the things Leaf fans will love about Dion Phaneuf is that he plays a physical game. He can hit.

Well, throughout Leaf history, there have been a few defensemen who liked to hit, but perhaps none more than Bob Baun.

Now, every living, breathing Maple Leaf fan of a certain age knows the name Bobby Baun. If nothing else, they are aware of his “heroics” during the 1964 Stanley Cup finals, when he scored a flukey overtime goal in game 6, to give the Leafs a chance to play Game 7 at home (which they won).

The “heroic” part relates to the fact that, in the third period of that famous game, Baun was hit on the ankle with a shot, and it later snapped during a face-off. After being carried off on a stretcher, he returned and scored the winning goal a few minutes into overtime, on a long shot from the point (which hit Red Wing defenseman Bill Gadsby and behind Terry Sawchuk into the net).

I don’t intend to rehash one of the most familiar stories in Leaf lore, as memorable as it is. Rather, to highlight the fascinating “turnaround” in Baun’s Maple Leaf career.

Baun came up in 1956-’57 and played part of an NHL season with Toronto when he was just 20, before the legendary Punch Imlach was even on the scene. He went on to establish himself as a regular defenseman. When Imlach took over behind the bench part-way through the 1958-‘59 season, he paired Baun with another young defender, Carl Brewer, who was a bit more of an offensive defenseman. Brewer was skilled, a deft skater and rather dirty. Baun was positionally sound - and rugged.

I remember as a kid watching Baun, and though he was all of 5 foot 9, he played much bigger. He was a big-time open-ice body checker, and he’d go after anybody.

As an aside, I recall my Dad, a big Montreal fan, was particularly upset with Baun one time—it had to be during the 1971-‘72 season, if this happened as I remember—when he hit Montreal’s Serge Savard with an open-ice check. The result was a broken leg. Dad was particularly upset because Savard had suffered a broken leg just the season before. He hated Baun’s low-bridge “hip checks” and felt they were dirty and too often led to potential injuries.

But hitting was part of Baun’s game, a very big part of it.

He tangled regularly with Chicago’s Bobby Hull, in fact I recall that he seemed to take particular pleasure in hammering away at the Black Hawk left-winger every chance he got.

Aside from his 1964 playoff heroics, Baun was a dependable defenseman who helped the Leafs win those three Cups between 1962 and 1964. (We’ve included a photo of Baun from what I believe was Game 6 of the 1964 semi-finals against Montreal.) He was part of “the Big Four”—Baun and Brewer along with Tim Horton and Allan Stanley on the Leaf defense.

But Brewer retired abruptly during training camp in the fall of 1965. I don’t know if this had any impact on Baun over time, but by the 1966-’67 season, Baun saw less and less playing time as the season wore on.

Larry Hillman, kind of a journeyman defenseman but a solid guy who was great to have around, starting taking a more regular shift alongside former Detroit great Marcel Pronovost. Horton and Stanley were still the other pair, and while various younger defensemen would slip in and out of the line up, those five guys were the core.

That said, in those days, teams for the most part went with four defensemen. They might use a guy (like ex-Leaf Kent Douglas) on the power play, but they played with four.

So as the playoffs approached Imlach had a decision to make. Did he stick with the guy who played big minutes during those earlier Stanley Cup years, or did he go with the “hot hand” in the journeyman, Hillman?

Imlach went with Hillman. Baun got some time in the playoffs, but not much. In fact, I believe he only dressed for 10 of the 12 playoff games that spring. Baun was so frustrated by his benching that, when the final game of the Montreal final series was over, he was off the ice quickly and didn’t really take part in the post-game celebration that night.

The final “statement” was made when Baun declined to show at the Stanley Cup parade, saying he felt he hadn’t been called upon to contribute. He was obviously bitter, and perhaps rightfully so.

The reality is that Hillman was outstanding in the playoffs that spring. It’s hard to believe, but he and Pronovost were not on the ice for any even-strength goals in those two playoff series against Chicago and the Habs. I was impressed watching when I was a kid, and remain impressed with Hillman’s play when I get the opportunity to watch games from that ’67 series. He was standing up, anticipating the play well, forcing the other team into mistakes, just playing strong hockey.

That summer, Baun was exposed in the expansion draft, and was picked up by the Oakland Seals where he played under his former teammate, Bert Olmstead. Olmstead made him captain, and Baun worked hard that year, a leader with the new franchise. But it had to be a major hockey culture-shock for Baun, going from hockey-mad Toronto to a place where hockey was, at best, a lower-tier spectator sport.

After that season Baun was traded to the Red Wings, and while he was re-united with his old mate Brewer (who had come out of retirement and traded to Detroit), they didn’t always play together as a pairing with the Wings. I was living near Detroit at the time and saw Baun a lot with the Wings. He was a good player but he never quite fully recaptured his early career standard, I don’t think.

He helped the Wings make the playoffs in 1969-’70, playing not only with the old Wing greats like Howe and Delevecchio but also former teammates Frank Mahovlich, Pete Stemkowski, Brewer and young Garry Unger.

Despite that, he was waived by the Wings early during the 1970-’71 season. Within a matter of days he went from Detroit to Buffalo to St. Louis. St. Louis sent him back to the scene of his greatest glories in a deal for former rookie-of the year Brit Selby (who himself had just finished his second stint with the blue and white.)

During that 1970-’71 season, the Leafs were really struggling when Baun arrived. It was the second year of the Jim Gregory regime, and he took a chance on a player who had bounced around the league and seemed to be on the decline.

The Leafs had six young defensemen with precious little big-game experience. Jim Dorey, Rick Ley, Mike Pelyk, Brad Selwood, Brian Glennie and Jim McKenny were all talented but there was no leadership.

Baun came in, took these guys under his wing, and reveled in his role as leader of the Leaf ‘kiddie corps’ defense- a scant four seasons after he had been an afterthought in the mind of Punch Imlach.

Now, he was a cornerstone again.

I watched Baun closely that season. He played well, really well. He was consistent, night after night. It was, to use the over-used expression, like he was re-born as a Leaf. He had, in my view, an outstanding season, hitting, headmanning the puck, playing within himself and stabilizing the Leaf back-end with a smart, simple game.

Baun helped lead the Leafs to an in-season rebound. Shortly after he arrived, the team started to win. They then picked up young goalie Bernie Parent, who teamed with venerable Jacques Plante. The Leafs made a strong showing in the playoffs, losing a tough series to a solid Rangers team in 6 games.

The next season Baun was solid and the Leafs made the playoffs again, though they were bounced by Bobby Orr and the Bruins in the first round.

Things went downhill from there for the veteran Leaf, as a serious neck injury early the next season ended Baun’s career.

Baun went into coaching for a while, with the WHA Toronto Toros in the mid- 1970s. But it was a difficult adjustment, I think, with the old-school Baun dealing with the more modern attitudes of a lot of the young guys in that era.

For me, Baun is one of those guys who wouldn’t be in line to have his number retired (I realize the Leafs don’t do that), but he certainly could be “honored”. He wore number 21 in both his stints with Toronto (though he started by wearing number 26). He certainly wore that number—and the Leaf sweater—proudly and helped the club achieve a great deal of success during his fourteen seasons in Toronto.

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