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You want a big trade? While we wait, remembering a summertime deal in 1965 that set the stage for Toronto’s last Cup…

At the moment, much (not all, I realize) of the Leaf populace is hoping for a fairly significant trade that would give the roster a nice little jolt heading into the 2012-’13 NHL season.  We’ve discussed that issue at some length lately, and I thought I’d take a break from that story line and instead, reflect on a trade that the Leafs made a long time ago—a deal that ended up having a lot to do with Toronto’s last Stanley Cup triumph in 1967.

Of course, times were vastly different in those days, to say the least.  There were only six NHL franchises.  The Leafs were one of the “powerhouses” (at least at that particular point in their history—that wasn’t so much the case through most of the 1950s, for example, but they were very good in the early '60s).  Hockey trades were real hockey trades.  There were smaller rosters and no salary cap.  Most teams were just beginning to carry two goaltenders on a regular basis.

In the off-season of 1965, the Leafs were just one season removed from having won three Stanley Cups in a row.  They were still a very competitive team, though Chicago and Montreal had much stronger rosters, with a lot more offensive pop in their line-up. The Bruins and Rangers were still a few years from turning the corner in those days, while the Red Wings had been to the finals in 1961, 1963 and 1964—but couldn’t quite finish the job and were looking to make changes. (The summer previous, the Wings had lost their superstar goalie, Terry Sawchuk, pictured at left, to the Leafs in what was in those days called the “Intra-league” draft.  Sawchuk was available at the time because a youngster, Roger Crozier, was emerging as the next great goalie in Detroit.) 

In the late spring of ’65, Leaf GM and Coach Punch Imlach swung a huge deal with the Red Wings, sending future Hall-of-Famer Andy Bathgate to Detroit. (Bathgate, right, had been acquired from the Rangers and then played a key role in the Leafs winning the Cup in 1964).  Over time, Bathgate did not like the way Imlach ran practices, feeling the Leafs were often exhausted by the time they played games and didn’t have much left in the tank.  Not one to invite—much less accept—dissent from his players, Imlach dealt Bathgate to the Wings in an 8-player exchange. Playmaking center Billy Harris and minor-leaguer Gary Jarrett (who later had a nice career in the early expansion era) went with Bathgate in return for Larry Jeffrey (a gritty Red Wing winger that  I really liked), speedy Eddie Joyal, minor-leaguer Aut Eriksson, Lowell MacDonald and veteran defenseman Marcel Pronovost.

Joyal never really got a chance to show what he could do with the Leafs, but eventually had a fine career with the LA Kings.  The principles in the deal were really Bathgate and Pronovost.  (Harris should have been, but he never seemed to adjust to not playing in Toronto, which he loved…).  In Bathgate, the Leafs were giving up a guy who had been a superstar, really, an NHL scoring champion and end-of-season All-Star during his ‘hey day’ with the Rangers.  But his best days were largely behind him, and Imlach no doubt sensed that.

At the time, Leaf fans wondered what Pronovost (seen in action with the Wings at left wearing number 3- that's "Red" Hay of the Hawks next to him...) would bring to the table.  He was already 35 in his first season with the Leafs, after 15 years with the Red Wings.  In that era, most players were considered over the hill by the time that they were in their mid and later 30s.

The trade did not look terribly good for the Leafs that next season (1965-’66), when Toronto was eliminated by the Habs in four straight in the first round of the playoffs.  Meanwhile, Bathgate helped the Red Wings get to the Cup finals against Montreal, where they ultimately lost in 6 games.

Things still looked bleak through much of the ensuing 1966-’67 season.  The Leafs struggled through a 10-game losing streak at one point.  Imlach spent time in hospital, suffering from, according to reports at the time, nervous exhaustion.

Eventually he returned to the Leaf bench and the team righted the ship, but things did not look promising heading into the playoffs in that spring of 1967.  But remarkably, behind some determined team play and  great goaltending (at least in the games they won; they were blown out a few times throughout the playoffs) from Johnny Bower and Sawchuk, the Leafs upset the first place Chicago Blackhawks in the semi-finals. (I remember that Larry Jeffrey, part of the big trade, played well in the first series. However,   he got hurt in Game 6, unfortunately, and couldn't play in the finals.)  Then, in the finals, they managed to get by Montreal in six often riveting games.  That set off the last Stanley Cup parade ever seen in the city of Toronto.

If you ever have a chance to watch some of the old films from those playoffs games, by all means take the time.  You’ll see how well Pronovost played.  The future Hall-of-Famer and defense partner Larry Hillman were standing up at the blueline, sometimes even cutting off the attack at center ice, making it hard for the opposition to set up shop in the Leaf end most nights.  (Of course, the Leaf forwards were back-checking a ton, which helped).  It’s not just a legend, but a statistical fact, that Hillman (who had been kind of a journeyman defenseman with the Bruins and Leafs, albeit a talented one, who later went on to play for several other teams) and Pronovost were not on the ice for a single even-strength goal in either playoff round.  That’s remarkable in any era.  (If you look up the scores, you’ll see the Leafs gave up a lot of goals in some of those games, so the pairing of Tim Horton and Allan Stanley must have been on for a fair number of goals….)

On paper the Leafs were badly over-matched in those series, but they played well enough, long enough, to win the championship.  And Pronovost was a huge factor, even though, approaching the age of 37, he was a slower version of his former self.  He had been a strong offensive defenseman in the 1950s, but by this point in his career, positioning, angles and smarts were a huge part of his game.

I’ve often said here I wished the Leafs had never traded Dickie Duff—who was a wonderful, tough and highly-skilled little player—and the other good young players like Bob Nevin, Rod Seiling and Arnie Brown in the 1964 Bathgate deal with the Rangers.  But it did help us win that third Cup in a row, and the subsequent trade for Pronovost (with Bathgate as the key guy going to Detroit) was huge in the ’67 victory.

Yes, trades can make a difference.  They don't always work out, but when they do, it’s sweet.  And it sure was in 1967.

We can wait - and wonder - if history will ever repeat itself....


  1. Great story, and an inspirational one, Michael. These always seem to put some wind beneath my wings. We'll get there, some day, somehow.

    Kind of reminds me of the times whan my hometown team, Oulun Kärpät, won back-to-back chanpionships after wading for over a decade in the lower tiers of our domestic hockey. The interesting tidbit in that was, that we had a goaltending tandem of Niklas Bäckström (with Minnesota Wild, currently), and Pekka Rinne (Predators).

    But it was years of frustration, including a bankruptcy, between the one championship we had won in 1981, and getting back there in 2004. None of that frustration mattered once we got it again. Or actually it did, and made it all the sweeter.

    And the Leafs will get there, too. And that is why we talk, speculate and often criticize. And we'll keep doing that through the hope and disappoinment, through the excitement and frustration, because once the Leafs get there, it will give meaning to all of these disappointing years.

  2. I'm calling it right now - in the 2016-17 Stanley Cup final, it will be Conn Smythe winner Phil Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf leading this team to it's first Stanley Cup in 50 years..

  3. the leafs could sure use pronovost's talent today. there's a lot of proud history in the maple leafs organization... i wonder how many of the current players/management really grasp/appreciate it?

  4. Couldn't agree more, CGLN. (Loved your example of your local team struggling for years, then finally winning! It didn't hurt, I'm sure, to have those two goalies...)

    Often the "lousy" times make us appreciate success even more, like in any aspect of our lives. The fact that we talk about it, think on it, debate and yes, criticize at times doesn't mean fans are not loyal- in fact, it often demonstrates the passion and loyalty that so obviously exists.

    Why else would we be discussing hockey and the Leafs in the middle of July!

    Well said. Thanks CGLN.

  5. I'll highlight your post today, HB- and we'll talk at the end of the 2016-'17 season!!

  6. So true, Alex C. I wonder, too, if some of the players care about that history? They may care about playing for "the Leafs", but how many take the time to grasp the legacy of the team they play for?

  7. This story has reminded me of one of the very few reasons to purchase LeafsTV, that being the "Leafs Classics" games they rarely show from the 50s through 70s and more commonly 80s through 90s.

    While it is great to watch those former Leafs greats in action, it is certainly something to watch them (in the very early games shown by the Classics program) also participate in what relative today I can only describe as a completely chaotic style of play.

  8. It's true, RJ, that the play in those days is just so different from what we witness now.

    It's the same sport, but a very different game. Slower-paced, so many give-aways, long shifts. For me personally, it's a chance to watch with adult eyes something that I was fortunate to see the first-time around as a kid...

    Thanks RJ.