The victory of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1967 Stanley Cup was a singular event. It was unexpected then, and who would have predicted that it would not happen again? (As of 2016, it has been 49 years and counting.)
The members of the Leafs that season knew they were flawed. They were mostly old by hockey standards (two were over 40, and six others were 36 or older) and included some erratic personalities. The team lacked scoring punch and had endured a season in which they had lost 10-straight games. It was essentially the same team that the previous year had been swept in the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens.
Many of the players were also dissatisfied with general manager Punch Imlach. Imlach had a few loyalists on the team, and his reputation in the press (which he controlled) bordered on portraying him as a genius, since he had won three Stanley Cups in the early 1960s. But in reality, he was despised by most of the team and made one bad decision after another. He had completely alienated the team's one certain superstar, Frank Mahovlich, and most of the promising younger players such as Jim Pappin and Pete Stemkowski.
Captain George Armstrong tried to unite the failing team in a classic team meeting on 30 January, telling them that they had to ignore their animosity toward Imlach and solve their problems themselves. Unfortunately, the team went on to lose another three games.
On 18 February, lightning struck when the imperious Imlach suffered a health problem, and the team asked the legendary King Clancy to step in. Suddenly, everything changed. Clancy gave players out of favour a chance, putting together a line of Bob Pulford, Pete Stemkowski and Jim Pappin. The team won seven, lost one and tied two under Clancy. The first game after Imlach returned, the Leafs lost 5–0 to the Black Hawks (12 March); they won six and lost four over the remainder of the regular season.
One of the many conflicts between Imlach and his players had to do with a sea change that was occurring in the relationship between management and players. By 1967, players had more leverage in their dealings with team owners and management, and decided to form a union. In June, the National Hockey League Players’ Association was formally recognized by the league. The new players' union would eventually help to destroy a team like the Leafs, whose management simply could not accept any challenge to its authority.
1967 Stanley Cup Semifinal
The Leafs finished the season in third place and under the strange rules of the six-team National Hockey League, this meant that they would play the first-place Chicago Black Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. (The fourth-place team played the second-place team.) In one of his controlling antics, Imlach flew the team to Peterborough, Ontario, and put them through a boot camp that made the players resent him even more.
The Black Hawks were heavily favoured. With goalie Glenn Hall, winger Bobby Hull and centre Stan Mikita, they seemed a team for the ages. The exhausted Leafs suffered a 5–2 thrashing in the opener and flew back to Peterborough. This time Imlach eased up and the Leafs shocked the Hawks 3–1 in game two.
Back in Toronto on 11 April, the Leafs won 3–1 again, but on 13 April, Chicago got back on track, winning 4–3. In the most dramatic moment of the series, Leafs goalie Terry Sawchuk was felled by a blast from Bobby Hull during the critical game five in Chicago. He lay inert on the ice for a minute but stayed in the game and the Leafs prevailed 4–2. Another pattern had established itself now, as the line of Stemkowski, Pappin and Pulford (which Clancy had assembled) became the scoring leaders, and journeyman Larry Hillman and ex-Red Wing Marcel Pronovost became the standout defensive pair. The Leafs won game six against Chicago, defeating them 3–1 to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
1967 Stanley Cup Final
The Leafs' opponent in the final was the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens had swept them the year before in the playoffs and had just gone 15-straight games without losing (12 wins and 3 ties), including a sweep of the Rangers in the other semifinal. The Canadiens were particularly strong at centre with the brilliant Jean Béliveau, Henri Richard and Ralph Backstrom. The only potential weakness appeared to be in the rookie goaltender Rogie Vachon, and Imlach famously focused his attention on the young player, calling him a "Junior B” goaltender. The psychology had no effect in the first game, however, which Montreal won 6–2.
Just as against Chicago, the Leafs looked to be overmatched, only to bounce back in game two in Montréal. Bower was back in net and played brilliantly. The determined Dave Keon controlled Jean Béliveau, and the Leafs put three goals past Vachon for a 3–0 win. In Toronto for game three, the Leafs' fate hung in the balance through two overtime periods before Bob Pulford scored what he always considered the most important goal of his career. Following the Chicago pattern, however, the Leafs lost another Thursday game on 27 April, losing 6–2.
Game five was the critical game. If Montreal won, they could lose in Toronto and still come home for game seven. However, it was the Leafs who won 4–1 with goals by Pappin (the playoffs’ leading scorer), Pronovost, Keon and Brian Conacher. Sawchuk played his best game of the playoffs in game six on 2 May back in Toronto. The Leafs led 2–0 until former Leaf Dick Duff scored with a few minutes to go. In a fitting end, George Armstrong iced the game with an empty-net goal, the Leafs winning 3–1. In those days, the on-ice Cup celebration was short, perhaps five minutes in all. The city celebrated a few days later with a parade that ended with thousands cheering at city hall.
The Aftermath of the 1967 Stanley Cup Victory
The 1967 Stanley Cup Finals were the last of the “Original Six” era. The league doubled in size for the 1967–68 season, adding another six teams and ending the Leafs’ dominance as a powerhouse team. Their struggles were not helped by Imlach’s decisions as general manager. In one of the worst trades in NHL history, Imlach traded away Frank Mahovlich, Pete Stemkowski and young Garry Unger (who went on to become the league iron man in 1979 by playing 914 consecutive games, a record broken in 1986 by Doug Jarvis). He dumped Jim Pappin, who would become one of Chicago’s top scorers. Imlach botched the expansion draft, losing key players like Bob Baun. By 1969, there were only nine players left of that championship team. He treated Larry Hillman, without whom arguably the Leafs could not have won, so badly in contract negotiations that the player put the "Hillman Hex” on the Leafs — one that seems to endure. He alienated the great Dave Keon so badly that for many years Keon would have nothing to do with the organization he immortalized. Keon was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for that 1967 playoffs, as the most valuable player.
The Leafs failed to make the playoffs in 1967–68, and were defeated in the 1968–69 quarter-finals by Bobby Orr’s Boston Bruins. Shortly after their loss, Imlach was fired by team president Stafford Smythe. Meanwhile, the great organization that his father, Conn Smythe, had built was crumbling. When Stafford Smythe and co-owner Harold Ballard rode in the lead parade car with team captain George Armstrong and the 1967 Stanley Cup, they both knew that they were stealing money from the team. It wouldn’t be long before both men were charged with fraud, although Smythe died in 1971 before going to trial. Not long after his death, Ballard took control of the team. Although Ballard was convicted of fraud and spent a year in jail, he ran the team from 1972 to 1990, almost destroying the Leafs through his aberrant and arrogant behavior.
The Leafs — one of the most storied franchises in Canadian sports — have not returned to the Stanley Cup finals since 1967.