Custom Search

Mid-season coaching changes fairly rare in Toronto, but could the impact this time be like the spring of ’59?

I've long held the view that it's best not to make hasty (positive or negative) judgments about the first game when a new coach takes over.  It's not usual for a team to be energized by a new voice.  They have a chance to  strut their stuff while impressing a new set of eyes.  The real proof of whether any coaching change will have a legitimate impact will only come well down the road.

All that said, for one night, things returned to normal in Leafworld.  Not that the Habs were a major test.  But it was a nationally-televised game on a Saturday night, in Montreal.  Carey Price played well, though his teammates did not.

For their part, the Leafs were a bit more like their earlier-season selves.  Grabovski loves playing in Montreal and it showed Saturday night.  Frattin looked about as comfortable and confident as he has all season when he has skated with the big club.  Steckel had the kind of impact he was demonstrating early in the season.  Even Connolly looked engaged.

Komisarek, Schenn and Phaneuf all delivered some crunching hits.  Brown ignited things with a fight, standing up for a teammate.

In goal, Monster overcame some early game uncertainty and played nicely thereafter.

Again, it is only one game, but in the East- where there are still plenty of teams trying to find their way (and a playoff berth) five months into the season- the Leafs still have time.


Off the top of my head, I don’t think there have been that many mid-season (or late-season) coaching changes in the time since I started following the Maple Leafs in the late 1950s.  While there have been quite a number of new coaches brought in, especially in the past 35 years, most moves (firing/hiring) were done after the season and/or in the summertime.

The most famous Toronto mid-season “near” firing was when owner Harold Ballard dismissed the ever-creative (if very defensively-oriented) Roger Neilson during the latter stages of the 1978-’79 season.  The Leafs had a good team but were under-performing in Neilson’s second year at the helm.  He was axed, but then-captain Darryl Sittler (left) and some fellow teammates begged Harold to keep Roger on, and Ballard relented.  (Yes, the story has been told many times that Ballard demanded that Neilson show up at the Gardens on Saturday night and wear a bag over his head as he came out from the Leaf dressing room and walked to the bench. This was because Ballard had not publicly revealed he was “re-hiring” Neilson and wanted to get a publicity boost out of the “mystery coach” angle.  Neilson refused but kept his job anyway—at least until the Leafs got waxed in four straight by the powerful Habs in the playoffs that spring.  Then, he got whacked again, along with long-time GM Jim Gregory. (Interestingly, Randy Carlyle is actually, in some ways, pretty close to Neilson in their approach to coaching.  Both preach/preached a defensive style, with each player having a very clear role on the team.  They also like/liked having some toughness throughout the roster.)

In any event, the actual firings that I seem to recall in the relatively recent modern era would be in the early ‘80s.   I’m trying to recall if Punch Imlach (who had returned to the Leafs as GM after Neilson and Gregory were fired in the spring of 1979) kept his new coach, Joe Crozier, on for the entire 1979-’80 season.  (Let me know if you remember- I can't.)

My memory is that, after Imlach was fired for the second time in his Maple Leaf career (this time by Ballard, while Punch was in hospital, as I recall, suffering from heart issues), the Leafs brought in Mike Nykoluk to replace Crozier, but I could have my facts all wrong.  I seem to recall that Nykoluk (a Fred Shero assistant in Philadelphia and a former Maple Leaf player in the 1950s) gave the team a boost when he arrived on the scene when the Leafs were struggling in mid-season.  I think they beat the Flyers on a cold Saturday night at Maple Leaf Gardens in his first game as coach (’81-’82 season, I’m thinking?).  But maybe I’m dreaming all this.

Nykoluk lasted about three seasons behind the Leaf bench followed by Dan Maloney and the one-of-a-kind John Brophy.  All were hired in the summer.  But then, after a horrible start to the 1988-’89 season, the Leafs (under a very young and inexperienced Gord Stellick as GM) fired Brophy and asked former Leaf captain (and former successful Toronto Marlie coach) George Armstrong to take over.  Armstrong (seen at right in his glory days as Leaf captain) would have preferred to eat tin.  Disliking the spotlight, he really didn’t want to coach the Leafs but accepted the job, reluctantly, out of loyalty to the organization.  The team really tanked and the move had no impact, though the players, for what it was worth, were far more relaxed under the easy-going Armstrong than they were under the volatile Brophy.

Later, Doug Carpenter was fired during the 1990-’91 season, replaced by former Winnipeg and Vancouver head coach (and very successful at the University of Toronto, as well) Tom Watt.  But there was no marked improvement again that time. The Leafs missed the playoffs, as they had the year Armstrong took over for Brophy.

The last time the Leafs changed coaches in mid-stream was during the 1995-’96 season.  Pat Burns was well into his fourth season here, and the players were not responding as they had in his first two seasons in Toronto.  General Manager Cliff Fletcher decided to make a change and brought in Nick Beverley (I’m going to say Beverley had a scouting or administrative position in the organization) to finish a disappointing season.  (That spring, the Leafs did make the playoffs, but fell to the Blues in the first round in 6 games.)

Since then, Mike Murphy, Pat Quinn, Paul Maurice and of course, Wilson, have all come and gone.  But Wilson is the first to lose his job during the season.

This all got me thinking, though, to the time when the Leafs made an in-season coaching change and it actually made a huge difference. That was during the 1958—’59 season.

Now, in reality, the situation was quite a bit different from what we have with the Leafs today, of course.  Hockey was a very different game in those days, nowhere near the speed game it is today.  Rosters were smaller. Each team carried only one goalie.  There were certainly no "assistant" coaches.  It was a 6-team league and the schedule was only 70 games long.  Those were just a few of the notable differences I’ve discussed in this space in the past.

But that season, the Leafs were struggling under coach Billy Reay.  To provide some context, Reay had been a prominent player with the very successful Montreal Canadiens, a Cup-winner himself.  The Leaf position was his first NHL head coaching gig. (He went on to have a tremendous career coaching for more than a decade with the Blackhawks.)  But Punch Imlach (mentioned above), in his first incarnation with the Leafs,  had been brought in by ownership the previous summer to be the team’s “assistant” General Manager, operating under Stafford Smythe, son of owner and team founder Conn Smythe.  Punch didn’t like the way the team looked through the first few weeks of the season, and went to the Board to ask for permission to fire Reay.  It was a bold move for a new NHL executive.  The Board relented, while also giving Imlach additional authority—giving him the full title of General Manager.

But the real shock was that Imlach took over himself behind the bench.  The Toronto media had a field day, making fun of the Leafs for letting a guy who was a career minor-league executive (and had never played a single game in the NHL) not only run the team upstairs but take on coaching responsibilities as well.  (Imlach, though, had been a successful minor-league coach, running the Quebec Aces when Jean Beliveau played there.)

In any event, not to prolong this story, but while the team improved, it was nowhere near being in the true playoff hunt.  (Four of six teams made it in those days.  The Leafs were hanging around 5th spot most of that season and were not that much better under Imlach than they had been under Reay.)

Come March 1, they were well behind the New York Rangers.  I don’t have the precise numbers right in front of me, but I believe they were more than ten points out of the playoffs, with exactly 11 games to go.  For his part, Imlach, who was, as I’ve written here before, like Brian Burke in some ways, kept saying the Leafs would make the playoffs.  He went on TV and predicted it.  People thought he was making himself look silly.

With about half a dozen games to go, they were still like 8 points behind the Rangers.  Despite having a record of 2 wins, 3 losses and a tie in the previous six games, Imlach (right) continued to say the team would make it.

What happened? Well, the Rangers started to lose. Toronto won a game, then another, and another—including a big win over the Canadiens right in Montreal. 

By the final weekend, they needed the Rangers to lose twice, and Toronto needed to win both of their games.  They hammered Chicago Saturday night at home, and when the Rangers lost again, the Leafs were within a point of New York going into the last game of the season for both teams on Sunday night.

The Rangers were hosting the Habs in a game that started about an hour before the 8 o’clock start in Detroit, where Toronto was visiting Detroit.  The Wings had lots of offense but finished in last place that year.  They gave up a lot of goals.  After hearing the news that Montreal had defeated the Rangers, the Leafs staged a stirring third-period comeback (there were big games that night from Dickie Duff and Larry Regan, I believe…) and the beat Detroit 6-4, to sneak past the Rangers and into fourth place.

Interestingly, the Leafs carried that momentum into the semi-finals, where they upset a very good Bruin teams (populated with a number of really good ex-Leafs that I remember, like Harry Lumley, Leo Boivin, Jim Morrison, Fernie Flaman and Fleming Mackell).

They lost to Montreal in the finals in 5 games, but it was a stirring late-season comeback for Leaf fans.  And it all started with a gutsy decision to fire a coach during the season.  It culminated in a remarkable late-season push, when most believed they had not chance of a playoff berth.

Hey, I’m not predicting anything about the current Leafs' situation under Carlyle—just sharing a memory.  But a win in Montreal Saturday night was a good start, eh?

As always, I’d look forward to hearing from you.


  1. Though it is could happen. Perhaps the Leafs can make the playoffs.

    I'm starting to feel far more comfortable with Carlyle. Last night the Leafs were still making defensive mistakes, but they were fewer, smaller and the Leafs seemed to be trying to recover more quickly like they knew Carlyle was watching and they would pay if they didn't.

    If the Leafs could tighten up defensively that could do wonders for their playoff chances.

    I was also impressed by the attention to line-matching employed by Carlyle.

    I never complained about Wilson, I actually sorta liked the guy but sometimes I questioned the choices he made or the lines that he inadvertently put out. I think his line choices actually cost a few games this year. Carlyle won't get this wrong.

    The other thing that is making me more comfortable with Carlyle is my recent recognition that Wilson isn't a great defensive coach. It's not just the players. The past few days of some newscasts and articles have repeated some interesting statistics and facts like: Ron Wilson is 6th all time in wins...but third all time in losses.

    I always thought it was important for a team to be able to play shutdown defense when the goals aren't coming easily.

    I saw Lupul block a shot last night

    Perhaps Carlyle makes Kessel a better two way player like Hitchcock did with Brett Hull.

  2. I looked up the 1979-80 season and Floyd Smith coached 68 games, Dick Duff coached 2 and Punch Imlach coached 10.
    As to the current coaching change, it was nice to see an animated coach actually talking to the players during the game. It was also nice to see a coach paying attention to matchups. I was getting awfully tired of seeing our top line start in the defensive zone and spend their entire shift there.
    I remember the 1958-59 season fondly. It may have been the most exciting Leaf season I have witnessed. There were six 20 goal scorers on that team (at a time when 20 goals was a standard 0f excellence). Duff-29, Pulford-23, Harris-22, Mahovlich-22, Stewart-21 and Armstrong-20. Imlach was the architect of this team and after a 5-12-3 start under Reay, took over and led it to the Stanley Cup finals. It was also a very young team but with a mix of solid veterans (Stanley, Horton, Olmstead, Bower). I believe that type of veteran leadership is one of the major deficiencies of this current Leaf team.

  3. Well articulated, DP. We all expected the Leafs to play well in their first few games under a new (and more demanding) coach. The proof will be how they respond not only this next 17 games, but next year and beyond. Things almost always look rosy under a new coach, and a new "voice" at first.

    I like your comment on Hitchcock-Hull. It happened with Modano, too, and with Yzerman under Bowman in Detroit. If the player is willing, they become a much better all-around presence. We can look at Stamkos now in Tampa. He is an elite offensive player, but busts his butt to play in his ow end, too.

    Thanks DP.

  4. Thank you for chiming in on this one, Pete Cam. You hit the nail on the head with your comment about that '58-'59 team. They had nice balance, scoring-wise, but as importantly, they had some fine veterans to help lead the way for the emerging kids.

    I absolutely instincts suggest this current group will need some high-end veteran leadership, something I've tried to mention in this space for some time. It's great to have young legs and speed. You usually need the rest of the "pie" pieces to really contend, though.

    Appreciate your comments on Carlyle. He will, like any new coach, bring different attributes than the previous guy, and focus on different things.

    Thanks PeteCam.

  5. One game doth not a playoff spot make... to paraphrase that old sports fan Aristotle... but if what we saw is an indication of what will be, the Leafs will be fun to watch again.
    Things that caught my eye: the solid physical play of our D; the chemistry of MacArthur/Grabowski/Frattin; Gunnarsson slowly getting more confident; the feistiness of of the forecheckers; and Brown standing up for his Captain. I think the Lupul/Bozak/Kessel line is going to have to do some adjusting, though they didn't play too badly.
    But we'll see how it goes two weeks from now.
    As for the Imlach change in '59... that coincides with my younger self's getting interested in the Leafs. Without really understanding the ins and outs of what happened, I grasped that we made the playoffs on the last day, got to know the players (most of whom will forever be "my" Leafs), and got on the roller coaster that has been Leaf fandom ever since. The challenge now, it seems to me, is that the change has been made so late in the season. Punch had a few more games to work with.

  6. I'm with you on both counts, Gerund O' (and who knew Aristotle was a sports guy, eh?).

    One game means precisely that, especially with a new coach (who doesn't work their tail off to try and impress the new man behind the bench?). But if it is a harbinger of things to come, yes, we'll like some of what we will see, for sure.

    As for the '59 playoff push, absolutely, Punch had the better part of three months to try to turn that ship around. And, as PeteCam said, he had some wonderful vets to help lead the way.

    But good memories. And it never hurts to hope that they can be rekindled again.

    Thanks Gerund.

  7. Paul Maurice lived in Oakville during his time with the Leafs at the same time I did. My family and I would see him at our church (St. Andrews) occasionally and the man is as nice in person as he seems in front of the camera. With that being said I despised his style so much, that I refused to buy into all the bad press about Wilson basically being a jerk and not well liked by certain players (Jason Blake etc..) I wanted to believe that a hard nosed approach was the right way to go. Well that didn't work out that well, so who am I too say if Carlyle will just suddenly find a way to turn this team into a more responsible crew. I "Think he will" i "Hope he will" but you just never know. The only thing I do know is I won't be reading so many articles per season about the coach's relationship (or lack thereof) with the media and instead more about the coaches relationship with the players.

  8. Thoughtful comment, LeafluvrCC. Thank you.

  9. Lines from Sunday practice:

    Lupul - Bozak - Kessel
    MacArthur - Grabovski - Frattin
    Kulemin - Steckel - Armstrong
    Brown - Lombardi - Connolly - Crabb

    There has to be some trades coming in the off season.