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1967 Was End Of An Era

Thursday, 11.4.2010 / 12:00 PM ET / Mike Ulmer's Blog
By Mike Ulmer  - Mapleleafs.com commentator
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1967 Was End Of An Era
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They must have thought it would last forever.

When the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1967, the win was their fourth in the decade.
Expo 67 had invigorated Canada’s self image. The future for the country, as well as its flagship English Canadian franchise, seemed limitless.

The 1967 Cup was instead the last thunderbolt from an ebbing storm and its echo is so far removed from the present date, what was once a near annual parade is now the stuff of derisive jokes.

The Leafs 1967 Cup win was the high-water mark of an era chronicled by Kevin Shea and three others in a book called Toronto Maple Leafs, Diary of a Dynasty 1957-1967.

Last seen 43 years ago, was the wide-eyed optimism of a country and for the Leafs, a period of unrivalled superiority, an era where a Stanley Cup final between the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens seemed normal, not momentous.

The 1967 Stanley Cup brought with it the end of the innocence.

“It was the end in so many ways,” said Shea. “It was the end of the original six era as well of flower power and those things. It was an entirely different world after that. The league changed. There were wholesale changes with the Leafs as well.”

The company built and directed by Conn Smythe had already been passed over to his son Stafford but his death in 1971 would usher in 20 years of catastrophic ownership by Harold Ballard.

The glitzy promise of the Trudeau era would evolve into the October crisis. Woodstock and the values it espoused would signal the final stirrings of the most idealistic decade. By 1970s, its two icons, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin would die via overdose. That’s a far cry from an environment of three years before when players were sometimes afraid to marry lest they offend their team’s general manager.

“Maybe the innocence existed in the sense that players were naïve to the context of how much money we made and how much control the managers and coaches had over our lives,” said Brit Selby, the last Leaf to win a Calder Trophy (1966).

“I played for three really authoritative coaches: Punch Imlach with the Leafs, Bert Olmstead in Vancouver when I was in the minors and Scotty Bowman in St. Louis. I think I started to question who I was as a hockey player when I got to Philadelphia and saw the way a coach like Keith Allen treated hockey players.

“That’s not to put down Punch Imlach. He was a great coach who won four Stanley Cups. But he was a military man and had experienced World War II and the trials and tribulations of building a hockey team. Here I was a kid, just 20.”

Eddie Shack was traded to Boston in the summer of 1967.

“You were playing Gin Rummy with Johnny Bower all the time,” he said. “We were playing for 25 cents. When you had breakfast, most of the guys tipped 15 cents. Everything has changed.”

The six-team league doubled overnight in 1968.  Frank Mahovlich, the most charismatic player the Leafs ever owned, was traded to Detroit the following year. A year later, Imlach was fired.

The tortured Terry Sawchuk died a year later.

The Leafs, unrecognizable to many, rocketed down the standings. The covenant between the team and its followers was broken.

“The Maple Leaf history and their following didn’t exist by accident,” said Dick Duff, a Stanley Cup winner in Toronto and Montreal. “Those people trusted the guys who played that it was a valid game and these guys were worthy to watch: a Horton, a Beliveau, a Rocket, Lindsay, Bower, Kelly.”

You can make a compelling argument that the universe has righted itself inside the rink and out. “The National Hockey League was very, very fortunate that the Iron Curtain came down,” said Duff. The idealism of the late 1960s has evolved into a more pragmatic view of the world.

Certainly the innocence that Selby described did little to benefit the players.

The era innocence may or may not have been better. But there were parades, and that’s worth something too.

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