Youth is Wasted on All the Wrong People. Maybe.

This is Jim McKenny. He was pretty popular with the females about 35 years ago, even got a part in a movie called FACE OFF (which starred Trudy Young who I had a crush on btw) and he was one of a myriad of young Toronto Maple Leafs defenders who struggled before finally emerging perhaps 4 years after they began to arrive.

The names? Well, lordy. Let me quote Punch Imlach, from HOCKEY IS A BATTLE: I moved in a lot of guys, especially on defence. I knew I was going to give Mike Pelyk a lot of work, Jim Dorey was a real tough egg from Tulsa and he was going to get a shot at it. Another tough guy was Pat Quinn, and a real surprise in camp was Rickey Ley, a junior from Niagra Falls with no pro experience. So we had all those guys, plus Tim Horton, Marcel Pronovost and Pierre Pilote.

I knew that with all these young guys there were going to be mistakes. They were going to cost us goals. But I was going to have a team that would try and would play entertaining hockey. I knew we would be life and death to make the playoffs…..

They did make the playoffs, lost in Round 1 to Boston by scores of 10-0 and 7-0 before making it more respectable at home with losses of 4-3 and 3-2.

Back then, I liked Jim Dorey because he fought (and won) and he was really nasty. I also liked McKenny because he had some offense, and didn’t like Mike Pelyk because they kept talking about how great he was in junior.

By the time the Leafs made it into the second round of the playoffs, most of the kids listed above had been replaced. Jim McKenny was still on the team, but the leader on D was young Borje Salming from Sweden. Brian Glennie had survived, and there was a veteran from a trade (Rod Seiling), a bizarre success story (Claire Alexander, don’t ask) and a couple of pretty good kids in Bob Neely and Ian Turnbull.

I’ve missed a few names here and there, guys like Brad Selwood and John Grisdale. Suffice to say that between 1969 and 1974 you could turn on the Maple Leafs on HNIC at any point and there was a new, pretty good defenseman learning on the job.

Looking back, I enjoyed watching Trudy Young more.

What is the ratio for young/veteran defensemen that works for an NHL team? The Oilers currently employ Denis Grebeshkov, Mathieu Roy, Ladislav Smid, Matt Greene and Tom Gilbert among their top 7 defenders. Steve Staios, Joni Pitkanen (injured), Sheldon Souray (injured) and Dick Tarnstrom are the veterans.

And while we’re at it, let’s just say right here that by the time this young blueline plays games deep into spring for the town team we’ll be adding names like Taylor Chorney and Jeff Petry to the list, while flushing a few from the current group. The problem is we don’t really know who is going to be an actual player, he hasn’t appeared to us yet. If I had to guess, Smid and Greene would be the two choices but listening to MacT lately you’d think Grebeshkov is a key man.

Jim McKenny played more games for the Leafs than pretty much any of the others and he wasn’t close to the best. A guy like Jim Dorey lost a ton of his career to injury, and then he and guys like Rick Ley spent so much time in the WHA their career stats don’t look overly impressive.

These guys could play. However, Toronto didn’t have enough veteran help back there to guide them while remaining successful. I believe that’s the lesson here.

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10 Responses to "Youth is Wasted on All the Wrong People. Maybe."

  1. godot10 says:

    One potential difference between now and then is the quality of coaching today.

    P.S. The Oilers once had a defense of Kevin Lowe (1st year player), Charlie Huddy (1st year player), Paul Coffey (rookie), Risto Siltanen, Lee Fogolin, and Doug Hicks.

    Pitkanen == Siltanen, Staios == Fogolin, Souray == Hicks.

  2. Lowetide says:

    godot10: Lowe was a first year player in 1979, Coffey a rookies in 1980 and Huddy’s first full season began fall 1982.

    That 1979 team was ripped apart by the expansion draft, they lost Dave Langevin, Paul Shmyr and Joe Micheletti left town too.

    So 1979 was catch as catch can, and Sather had an amazing run of procurement on the blueline that included Gregg, Huddy and Don Jackson as well as Fraser’s drafting of Coffey, Lowe and the leadership of Fogolin.

    As for the difference of coaching quality, I’ll argue that one. The Oilers D has been caught running around over the last 14 months almost as much as those kids did in 1970.

  3. Ribs says:

    It feels like I go to the History of Hockey school every weekend when I check in on your blog, LT. Thanks for everything that you do.

    I’ve been wondering, would it be possible to have some links to each category of posts you make so that older posts are more easily accessible? Just nice archived sections of the site for Tracers, Game Days, Prospects, Top 20′s, Oilers, Around the NHL, Blast from the Past, etc..? Kinda like what you have started at the top right of the page, but for everything.
    Just an idea.. If you don’t have the time it’s understandable.

  4. Lowetide says:

    Ribs: I don’t know. IS it possible? I’ll check on the blog thingy. :-)

  5. Dennis says:

    OK, LT, what’s the story with Claire Alexander?

    And, just fess up, you like McKennie because he was hot.

  6. Steve says:

    You think both Greene and Smid are more likely to be players than Gilbert?

  7. Lowetide says:

    Dennis: McKenny was kind of smokin’. :-)

    Briefly, because it’s so fricking silly, the Claire Alexander story. He played only one season of junior (for the Kitchener Rangers) and he was 20 when he did that. One of the guys he hung out with was a fellow named Gerry McNamara. Remember the name it’s important.

    Played in the EHL fall 1966 and that isn’t even a pro league really, it was pretty much what you see in the original SLAP SHOT!. Anyway, he plays a season in the EHL (for Johnston and Knoxville) and then he pretty much gives up hope of a pro career and goes home to play for the town team (Collingwood is his home town) in the Ontario Senior League.

    Now Sr League hockey is pretty damn good all over the country in the mid-60s, and I’m sure it was excellent in Ontario. Alexander plays in that league for SIX YEARS, getting into a couple of Allan Cups along the way and getting some press for his crazy slapshot. He spends some time with Collingwood and then plays for Orillia in the same league, apparently making ends meet by delivering milk to Gordon Lightfoot and other locals in the town.

    Okay, now he’s 29 years old and delivering milk and hell he’s doing okay probably but you know it’s more about the dozen beer thann the hockey puck by this time and that’s okay too, you know?

    By his own admission Alexander had been turned down by lots and lots of hockey people in lots and lots of leagues. We can assume this would be the AHL, the WHL (pro league), the IHL (which was a good league too) and maybe even the EHL because he hadn’t lit up the league or anything.

    Have I drawn a clear picture?

    Okay. Remember Gerry McNamara? Damned it he doesn’t get a job as a Leafs scout and they’re always looking for players since they’re jumping three at a time to the WHA because Harold Ballard is cheaper than me for crying out loud.

    Alexander shows up at 29 years old, fresh from the two beer after each game league and of course makes the team. He becomes something of a celeb, the “Milkman” and damned if he doesn’t score goals every Saturday night and plays like a freaking machine.

    Scores a freaking hat trick, just to make it more Roy Hobbs than any movie mogul would dare. 1976 spring he had a really good playoff for the Leafs, that’s probably the high water mark, and then he goes to Vancouver Canucks and the WHA Oilers and then Germany and then the Leafs have him coach in the 80s.

    His 73-74 with Okla City of the CHL was one for the ages for minor league defenders. 23-37-60 in a full season, and he won all the awards too. CHL First All Star Team, CHL Rookie of the Year, CHL’s Top Defenceman.

    Many years later I’m driving around Edmonton and a local rock DJ is doing a rant pretending to be a weirdo Leaf fans and starts ripping off names. Keon, Ellis, Henderosn, Ullman.

    And Claire Alexander. The Orillia Milkman. The Honest Milkman.

    He was so famous for a time it was ridiculous, and was due EXCLUSIVELY to the fact that Toronto signed him to a 5-game tryout (TULSA CHL) in early 1973.

  8. Rube Foster says:

    Is it just me or does that photo of McKenny look like Tom Brady in a Leaf Jersey?

    LT, thanks for the great story about Alexander and the beauty analogy of the Leaf’s defense in the early seventies.

    I can’t wait till the Oiler’s 2009 version of Borje Salming materializes and makes all of our current day McKenny’s irrelevant. A Turnball or two wouldn’t hurt either.

  9. Dennis says:

    Awesome story, LT. Thanks, bud!!

  10. Bruce says:

    I followed the Leafs through those years, and after three years of watching that young defence gradually gain enough experience to be decent, along came the WHA who took advantage of Harold Ballard’s intransigence and parsimony to gut the roster. The rival league signed Bernie Parent and Jim Harrison as well as three young defenders: Jim Dorey, Brad Selwood and Rick Ley. So it was back to the drawing board, as the ’72-73 season saw the likes of Joe Lundrigan and Larry McIntyre wearing the blue and white.

    As for Claire Alexander, you didn’t mention he played a season for the WHA Oilers in 1977-78. While he was, shall we say, “limited” in many aspects of the defensive game, the Milkman had one of the best slapshots I have ever seen. I will never forget one rocket he unloaded which caught a big piece of the crossbar and ricocheted up over the reds, over the blues and thunk! off the catwalk at the very top of the west end of the Coliseum. There was about a 1.5- to 2-second delay between the ping! and the thunk! Good thing there were sound effects, cuz that missile was faster than the eye could see. The other sound effects were the buzzing in the crowd for pretty much the rest of that game.

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