For English Canada, the ‘poster boy’ for greatness in the 1960s was Frank Mahovlich. Big, strong, skilled and filled with a sense of wonder for the game. Even as a man, he was a big kid and played the game just that way. Frank Mahovlich–in English Canada–was a giant of the game.
In our continuing series on the 1967 expansion draft, we arrive at the Toronto Maple Leafs. The first two installments are here (covering the protected lists and rules) and here (covering the Habs and Sam Pollock’s mammoth tilting of the playing field).
In order to properly understand how badly Toronto screwed up the expansion draft, I think it might be wise to describe the organization as it stood in the spring of 1967. The Leafs won Stanley in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967–4 in 6 years–entering the draft and could have won more in the following years save for 4 things:
- Pollock’s grand and public buggering of the league via his expansion rules.
- Imlach’s insane protected and pullback list, which consisted of old men.
- The Leafs sold the Rochester (AHL) franchise and their roster players.
- The Leafs sold the Victoria Maple Leafs (WHL pro) franchise and their roster players.
Now this is in addition to the players lost via the expansion draft. So, an organization that enjoyed such incredible depth they could force a quality defenseman like Al Arbour into the minors for a long stretch of his career would now be reduced to a subpar original 6 squad.
How did the selling of Rochester and Victoria hurt? Well, its difficult to describe but an example might be the trade in May 1969 that saw Toronto send Rene Robert and Brad Selwood to Vancouver (WHL pro league) for Ron Ward. Ward was a player who would have been under the Toronto umbrella at the 1967 NHL expansion draft. The mind boggles in terms of how good this team might have been if not for internal madness.
The NHL would ultimately feature minor league teams who were supplied exclusively by the big league clubs; at this time however, a WHL pro team could have high quality players who were signed to a contract with that team–these men had no NHL parent team in their contract. Toronto’s minor league system was not as good as Montreal’s but it was large all the same. Here’s a quick description of their minor league teams in 1966-67:
- Rochester Americans (AHL): This was a strong, strong minor league team. Had they gathered in an NHL expansion city in the fall of 1967 and played a big league schedule, it’s a very good bet the Amerks would have made the post-season. Led by Eddie Joyal and Al Arbour, 11 players from this team would be NHL regulars in 1967-68.
- Victoria Maple Leafs (WHL): The league is long gone, which makes explaining it difficult. Suffice to say it was a small step down from the AHL but a strong league all the same. Victoria missed the playoffs in 66-67 but still managed to deliver 6 players to the NHL in 1967-68.
- Tulsa Oilers (CPHL): The Central Professional Hockey League was designed as a feeder league for the AHL. 20-year olds fresh from junior who couldn’t handle the AHL pace would settle in here and proove themselves. Tulsa finished last, but did boast three players who would play in the NHL in 1967-68.
Below that, Toronto would also lend out players to various clubs in leagues like the IHL and EHL. This was during the ‘sponsorship’ era, so the Leafs also owned players on junior teams like Toronto Marlboros and London Nationals and were always a major sponsor of the Canadian National Team.
Do you want to know how bad it was? I’ll show you. Below are the players Imlach ‘pulled back’ after the beginning of the expansion draft–followed by the men he let go. The games played total is all games after the expansion draft. Hold on to your hat.
- Murray Oliver 597
- Allan Stanley 128
- George Armstrong 223
- Duane Rupp 365
- Darryl Sly 77
- Red Kelly 0
- Gerry Ehman 297
- Dick Gamble 0
- Don Cherry 0
- Norm Armstrong 0
- Bronco Horvath 0
- Les Duff 0
- Barry Watson 0
- Stan Smrke 0
- Milan Marcetta 54
Toronto’s fifteen pullbacks among skaters netted them 1,741 NHL games. I’d argue the Oliver pullback was the only good choice in the group.
- Bob Baun 362
- Kent Douglas 145
- Eddie Joyal 345
- Brit Selby 277
- Larry Jeffrey 122
- Al Arbour 231
- Don Blackburn 179
- Darryl Edestrand 455
- Terry Clancy 93
- Mike Corrigan 594
- Larry Keenan 232
- Autry Erickson 66
- Lowell MacDonald 460
- Bill Flett 689
- Mike Laughton 189
Toronto’s fifteen draft losses among skaters totalled 4,439 NHL games. You could argue–correctly–that the NHL games played by expansion picks would dwarf an established team, but none of the other NHL clubs protected so many guys who were at or near the end. It’s incredible, they pulled back Don Cherry but left Corrigan, MacDonald and Flett stay out there so long.
After the draft Toronto had no ability to cover for injuries among veterans aside from brand new pro’s and the old timey AHLers. So, beginning in 67-68 with Duane Rupp and Darryl Sly (AHL vets) plus Mike Pelyk and Jim McKenny (kids) Imlach was trying to plug holes behind the aged foundation of Tim Horton, Marcel Pronovost and Allan Stanley–all 36 or older on expansion draft day. If Imlach had kept Baun and Arbour, and found a way to keep MacDonald, Flett and Corrigan, Toronto’s fall 68-70 would have been much smaller and they could have contended.
Imlach would be gone as coach and GM about the time Allan Stanley told the Flyers he wasn’t coming back–spring 1969. Before ownership punted him, Imlach would create a fracture in the fanbase that continues to this day when he traded Frank Mahovlich. He’d return to create another one a decade later, this time using Darryl Sittler to kill Canada’s team once and for all time.
Holy hell what a disaster for Toronto.
Up next: in the moments before the expansion draft, two trades seal a dynasty.
Also in this series: