George Imlach was the only child of George Alexander Imlach and Isabella Cheyne, both of Scotland, who came to Canada in 1911. George A. Imlach had served in the British military and volunteered for service in Canada at the outbreak of the First World War. He was wounded fighting at Festubert on 20 May 1915, when shrapnel smashed a bone in his left arm. His arm never fully recovered, and he was sent home to Toronto, where he was discharged from the army in October 1916. A former soccer player, he later managed Ulster United, a top Canadian soccer team based in Toronto.
Early Playing Career
Like his father, George Imlach played soccer, as well as hockey, lacrosse and baseball while growing up. He attended high school at Riverdale Collegiate. In February 1935, shortly before his 17th birthday, Imlach was offered a tryout at Maple Leaf Gardens with a Toronto junior hockey team called the Young Rangers. He practiced with them that winter while also playing midget hockey and joined the Young Rangers in 1935–36. Around this time, Imlach gave up soccer to concentrate on hockey. During the 1937–38 season, he starred for the Young Rangers in a losing effort against the powerhouse Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey Association playoffs. By this time, he had finished high school and was working for the Dominion Bank at their Queen and Broadview branch. He also played for the Dominion Bank team in the Toronto Hockey League Bank Series.
During the winter of 1938–39, Imlach played the first of two seasons of senior hockey with the Toronto Goodyears. While playing for the Goodyears in a game at Windsor that first season, Imlach was knocked out. When he regained consciousness, he began punching at his teammates or the team trainer (the details of this story vary, as even Imlach himself told different versions). He became known as “Punchy.” The nickname was soon shortened to “Punch.”
During the summer of 1939, Imlach was approached by a man from Glasgow who was looking for players for a hockey league in Scotland. Imlach agreed to go, but the plan fell through after the outbreak of the Second World War. He returned to the Goodyears in 1939–40, but when the team was absorbed by the Toronto Marlboros for the 1940–41 season, Imlach planned to join the Senior A Ottawa Senators. He arranged to have his bank job transferred to Ottawa, but the transfer was blocked. Imlach believed it was because the president of the bank was also the president of the Goodyears. He wound up quitting his job with the bank but agreed to play for the Marlboros in 1940–41. The following season, 1941–42, Lex Cook brought Imlach to Cornwall, Ontario, to play for the Cornwall Flyers of the Quebec Senior Hockey League. When Cook was asked to run a Cornwall Army hockey team for the 1942–43 season, Imlach enlisted in April of 1942. He was commissioned as a lieutenant and spent the rest of the war as an instructor but was never sent overseas. In January of 1943, Imlach married a Toronto girl named Dorothy “Dodo” Simons.
According to Imlach in Hockey Is a Battle, he missed a year of playing after breaking his wrist and spent the season coaching instead. As a result, he wasn’t in peak playing condition when the Detroit Red Wings invited him to attend their training camp at the end of the war. Army buddy Tommy Ivan wanted him for Detroit’s Omaha Knights farm club, but Imlach joined Lex Cook once again, this time in Quebec City with the Quebec Aces. His bank training resulted in his getting a position in the accounting department of Anglo-Canadian Pulp and Paper Company, which sponsored the Aces.
Early Coaching Career: Quebec and Springfield
Imlach played two seasons with the Quebec Aces (1945–46, 1946–47) before becoming the team’s playing-coach in 1947–48. After the 1948–49 season, he gave up playing to concentrate on coaching. Imlach remained in Quebec through the 1956–57 season, also becoming general manager and part owner of the successful Aces, which starredJean Béliveau for two full seasons from 1951 to 1953.
After guiding Quebec to the Edinburgh Trophy as minor professional champions of Canada in 1957, Imlach was hired by the Boston Bruins and served as the coach and general manager of their Springfield Indians farm team in the American Hockey League in 1957–58. Springfield finished fourth in the six-team standings and went on to reach the Calder Cup final, but Imlach did not get along with owner Eddie Shore, who took back control of the team at the end of the season..
Toronto Maple Leafs
On 10 July 1958, Punch Imlach agreed to a two-year contract as an assistant manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Imlach began with the team in August, working under a seven-man management committee headed by Stafford Smythe, the son of Leafs founder Conn Smythe. Among Imlach’s first jobs for the Maple Leafs was getting Johnny Bower to sign a contract after Toronto had drafted him from the Cleveland Barons of the AHL.
Toronto had missed the playoffs for two straight seasons and finished last in the six-team NHL in 1957–58. When the new season started badly, Imlach was promoted to general manager on 21 November 1958. A week later, he fired coach Billy Reay and took over behind the bench as well. The Leafs seemed destined to miss the playoffs again in 1958–59, but Imlach predicted the team would make it, and a five-game winning streak to finish the schedule saw them slip by the New York Rangers and into fourth place. Toronto then upset Boston in the semifinals before falling to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Leafs continued to improve under Imlach, and in the spring of 1962 Toronto won the Stanley Cup for the first time after what was then a franchise-record 11-year championship drought. During the 1962–63 season, Toronto finished first overall in the NHL regular-season standings for the first time since 1947–48. The Maple Leafs went on to win the Stanley Cup for the second straight season and then made it three in a row in the spring of 1964.
Imlach was seen as the mastermind behind Toronto’s success, and Maple Leafs fans loved him for it. Not all of his players felt the same way. Imlach drove his players hard. He held long practices and gave the team very few days off. He was also a master manipulator, threatening banishment to the minors and refusing to negotiate contracts until the start of training camp because he felt the players worked harder when they were less secure about their jobs. Some players thrived under the harsh conditions, but others didn’t. Imlach’s mind games with Frank Mahovlich caused the star scorer to leave the team twice due to mental exhaustion. Imlach’s battles with Carl Brewer resulted in the defenseman quitting the team in 1965. The stress also got to Imlach, who was hospitalized due to exhaustion midway through the 1966–67 season. The Leafs played much better for a 10-game stretch under Imlach’s assistant, King Clancy, and when Imlach returned, he led the team to a fourth Stanley Cup.
Although the Leafs added young stars such as Dave Keon and Ron Ellis during his tenure, Imlach preferred older players. Veterans such as George Armstrong, Tim Horton, Johnny Bower, Red Kelly and Bob Pulford (with whom he also fought), as well as Mahovlich, all played a huge part in Toronto’s success in the 1960s. But it was difficult for Imlach to keep his veteran team together when the NHL expanded from six teams to 12 in 1967–68. The Leafs lost a number of strong players in the expansion draft, including goaltender Terry Sawchuk and defencemen Bob Baun and Kent Douglas. Red Kelly retired to become coach of the Los Angeles Kings, and Eddie Shack was traded to Boston. Toronto missed the playoffs that season, and a year later, on 6 April 1969, Imlach was fired just minutes after the Maple Leafs were eliminated in the quarterfinals.
Imlach owned shares of the Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League, but when Vancouver’s new NHL franchise for 1970–71 was awarded to a different ownership group, he accepted a job as coach and general manager of the expansion Buffalo Sabres.
Selecting Gilbert Perreault as Buffalo’s first pick in the 1970 NHL Draft, Imlach quickly built the Sabres into a contender. He was forced to give up his coaching duties after suffering a heart attack during the 1971–72 season, but as general manager he led the team to the Stanley Cup Final by its fifth season of 1974–75. Over the next few years, the Sabres continued to play well during the regular season but never again enjoyed much playoff success. When the team got off to a slow start to the 1978–79 season, Imlach was fired on 4 December 1978.
Return to Toronto
As early as 1975, Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard had mused about bringing Imlach back to Toronto. Rumors of a return began to spread in March of 1979. Ballard and Imlach had known each other since at least 1940, when Ballard was running the Toronto Marlboros, and on 4 July 1979, Ballard officially announced the return of the Imlach era. But there would be no repeat of the success of the 1960s.
Imlach immediately began to assert his control over the team and was soon at odds with Leafs captain Darryl Sittler. Sittler had a no-trade contract, and with Imlach unable to move him, he began to swap other players who were close to Sittler — most notably Lanny McDonald, who was dealt on 28 December 1979. An angry Sittler removed the ‘C’ from his sweater prior to the Leafs game the next day, but despite all the acrimony in the dressing room, Toronto managed to make the playoffs in 1979–80.
Despite suffering a second heart attack in August of 1980, Imlach returned to run the Leafs in 1980–81. He suffered another heart attack in September of 1981, and although he was never officially fired, when he returned to Maple Leaf Gardens in November, he found that his parking spot had been reassigned and Gerry McNamara had been named general manager. Imlach never resumed his job. After being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984, Punch Imlach suffered a suspected heart attack in November of 1985. He died on 1 December 1987, two days after a final heart attack.