By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Oct. 7) – I had one of those moments today that I never take for granted and absolutely never grow old – a chance to sit down and talk with a player and a gentleman I have idolized since my earliest hockey memory.
His name is synonymous with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Stanley Cup: words that have been mutually exclusive for nearly half-a-century. So exclusive, in fact, that he is now – somewhat remarkably – 77 years old. But, mention Bobby Baun to any rabid Leafs fan of virtually any age and it will ring a loud bell. Specifically, in reference to one of four stalwart defensemen during the club’s most recent championship dynasty; a Stanley Cup winner in 1962-63-64 and ’67.
Of course, that doesn’t sound “recent”… or even in the distant past. Ancient might be a better word and legendary fits rather well. Baun has commanded such eminence by staying healthy and never far from the sport he helped to dominate when I was a kid. A really young kid.
Having materialized in 1959, I do not recall much of Baun’s initial tenure with the Blue and White – the Stanley Cup years under Punch Imlach during which he formed, with the late Carl Brewer, one of two indomitable defense pairings. Tim Horton (he of the doughnut chain) and Allan Stanley comprised the other. My memory of Baun comes from late in his career, and a second term with the Leafs, from 1970 to 1972.
THE BOOMER: TORONTO MAPLE LEAF ALUMNUS BOB BAUN, NOW 77.
Chatting earlier today at a monthly gathering of hockey oldsters, Baun enlightened me on the overriding topic in the first week of the NHL season: hired guns fighting and occasionally hurting one another for reasons that mostly defy logic. Such an engagement ended frightfully last week in Montreal when George Parros of the Canadiens lost his balance in a spat with Leafs’ enforcer, Colton Orr, and tumbled to the ice – chin first. The sight of Parros being carted away on a stretcher re-kindled the argument over gratuitous violence in the NHL.
“In my opinion, it’s a side-show resulting from a lack of respect among players that began 40 years ago,” Baun explained. “Hockey was more primitive back then because there weren’t as many rules. So, you had bench-emptying brawls; third and fourth men coming into a fight; things that aren’t allowed today. But, there wasn’t as much fighting and when it happened, any person watching could understand why. It was a reaction to something done by an opponent. And, unlike today, it could involve any player, not just a part-timer designated for the role.”
Which essentially constitutes the fighting debate. Even the most ardent hockey fan cannot comprehend why bench-warming behemoths step onto the ice every 20 or 25 minutes… simply to fight one another. “This trend took root when the NHL expanded [from six to 12 teams] in 1967 and no one has bothered to stop it,” Baun said. “A lot of inferior players came into the league and did whatever they could to stay. As such, the respect we had among opponents in the six-team NHL began to erode.
“It then really became a problem with the arrival of Europeans. They didn’t know anything about fighting and people here thought they played the game cleanly and skillfully. That held true… until an opponent turned his back. I’ll never forget my first-hand experience when we took the Toronto Toros [of the World Hockey Association] to Sweden in the mid-70’s. It was beyond belief. Europeans didn’t confront one another, they operated from behind – jabbing the point of their stick-blade in back of an opponent’s leg; stuff like that. Things the Russians did that drove Canadian players crazy in the 1972 series.
“It necessitated ‘protection’ for the skilled players in the NHL,” Baun continued. “If they were fouled, a third party became involved. Wayne Gretzky never had to anything with a guy like [Dave] Semenko around. Today, every team has at least one of those [third parties] and all they do is fight each other. It’s something the NHL seems to need as a form of entertainment. But, it does nothing at all for the game.”
BOB BAUN AS A MEMBER OF THE STANLEY CUP-WINNING MAPLE LEAFS IN 1964 (TOP-LEFT) AND THE DISMAL CALIFORNIA SEALS AFTER NHL EXPANSION IN 1967.
Baun is too introspective to be passed off as someone that typically believes everything was better in his time. Learned, well-spoken and inherently curious, he has prospered with age. In June 2007, Baun accepted an honorary doctorate of law from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. And, he still regularly watches hockey. “I’m not much of a critic, even if there are aspects of [the game] I don’t agree with,” Bob said. And, then, with a grin: “We weren’t angels either.”
Further to that, Baun offered an uproarious tale of fighting Wayne Cashman late in his career with Detroit Red Wings – his Boston opponent younger, taller, more rangy, and intrinsically ruthless. Recognizing he had little chance to prevail, the veteran blue-liner went into survival mode. “I grabbed his nuts,” Baun chuckled. “Literally reached under his pants; maneuvered his ‘cup’, and squeezed for my life. It may not have been honorable but the fight ended rather quickly.”
THE BOOMER AND HIS LIFE-LONG IDOL.
Such is often the tenor of these monthly gatherings – held at a Shopsy’s restaurant on Woodbine Ave., north of Steeles. Gallows humor, it seems, has an enduring quality. The resident comedian is Ron Hurst, a right-winger who played 64 games with the Maple Leafs from 1955 to 1957.
Hurst, on Monday:
“A old man said to his friend, ‘I can’t wait to get home and take the wife’s pants off.'”
“‘Why?'” asked the friend.
“‘Because the elastics are killing me.'”
Then, there was this (and I’m paraphrasing):
“An elderly fellow goes to his doctor, complaining about a common issue. The doctor says to him, ‘Alright, look, go home and take one suppository a day, then call me next week.’ The man does what he’s told, but he phones the doctor all angry a few days later. ‘Doc,’ he says. ‘I’m not happy about this. You told me to take one suppository a day and I’ve done just that. These damned things are $18.95 a dozen and for all the good they’ve done me, I could have shoved them up my arse.'”
Perhaps now you understand why these luncheons are so enjoyable.
HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA LEGEND BRIAN McFARLANE SPINS A YARN ON MONDAY.
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