Leafs–Marlies Bond A Throwback

TORONTO (May 16) — Back in time, it was major–junior hockey. Today, it is minor–professional.

Only the name has been constant — the Toronto Marlies.

Young fans near and far may not realize the American Hockey League’s best team this season “borrowed” its moniker when re–locating from St. John’s, Nfld. in 2005. The Marlies — or Toronto Marlboros — was a Junior–A club between 1904 and 1989 in what is today the Ontario Hockey League; once upon a time, the Ontario Hockey Association. When grumpy, old Harold Ballard, nearing the final year of his life, chose to no longer foot the minuscule Junior–A bill at Maple Leaf Gardens, the team moved to Hamilton as the “Dukes” (nickname of the Marlboros). Today, the legendary Junior franchise — owner of seven Memorial Cup titles — plays out of the Sleeman Centre in Guelph, Ont. (80 kilometers/50 miles west of Toronto) and is known as the “Storm.” Among its graduates to the National Hockey League: Jeff O’Neill (former Toronto and Carolina winger, today known as the “O–Dog” on TSN and TSN–Radio); Dustin Brown (captain of the two–time Stanley Cup–champion Los Angeles Kings); Craig Anderson (Ottawa Senators goalie); Ryan Callahan (Tampa Bay Lightning); Drew Doughty (Los Angeles Kings) and Robby Fabbri (St. Louis Blues).

The American Hockey League Marlies are owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. The club serves as the top minor–league affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs and is currently fighting for its playoff life in Round 2 of the Calder Cup tournament. A decisive Game 7 in the North Division final will be played tonight at the Marlies’ home arena — Ricoh Coliseum (once known as the CNE Coliseum), on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. The Marlies and Albany Devils (New Jersey’s AHL affiliate) are deadlocked after six games; the visitors staying alive with a 4–1 victory here in town on Saturday. With the Leafs idle since the conclusion of the NHL regular season, the Marlies are providing Toronto hockey fans their “fix.” The 7,851–seat Ricoh building has been jammed–full during the AHL playoffs — offering nostalgia to those, such as myself, who remember the long, wonderful alliance between the Junior Marlies and the Maple Leafs.

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In fact, my first–ever visit to Maple Leaf Gardens — Mar. 6, 1966 — was for a Junior game between the Marlboros and first–place Peterborough Petes. I had turned seven the previous month and my mom, Sandee, dressed me in a shirt, tie and sweater. All these years later, I can recall feeling slightly nauseous with excitement in the minutes before my dad, Irv, drove us down to the Gardens. I remember having watched the Leafs game against Chicago the night before on TV. Bobby Hull was stuck on 50 goals — tied for most–ever in one NHL season with Maurice Richard and Bernie Geoffrion. Leaf goalies Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk were injured, so minor–league call–up Bruce Gamble played for Toronto and stoned Hull with a variety of difficult stops in a 5–0 victory (Hull would break the goal–scoring record one week later — Mar. 12, 1966 — against Cesare Maniago of the New York Rangers at Chicago Stadium).

The mezzanine–balcony seats at the Gardens hadn’t yet been constructed in March 1966; they would be installed that summer. As such, I remember how the afternoon light shone into the arena through the vertical, cathedral–like windows at the south end (those which still overlook the main entrance on Carlton St., as per the photos, below, that I recently snapped). The mezzanine Blues were built above the existing seats at each end of the rink — the south balcony in front of, and therefore blocking light from, the cathedral–windows. Without looking at the rosters of each team, I remember that Al Smith played goal for the Marlies and Fern Rivard for Peterborough in my first Gardens visit. I also recall the thorough dominance of lanky Toronto forward Wayne Carleton — then among the Maple Leafs’ brightest prospects.

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Checking the Toronto and Peterborough rosters of 1965–66 on–line, I would have seen the Marlboros’ top–two scoers — future NHL forwards Mike Corrigan (Los Angeles, Vancouver, Pittsburgh) and Gerry Meehan (Toronto, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Atlanta, Washington). Brent Imlach, the son of then–Leafs coach Punch Imlach, also played for the Marlies, as did future Leafs Mike Byers, Jim McKenny, Brian Glennie and Mike Pelyk. Toronto’s best defenseman that season was Brad Park — destined for a Hall–of–Fame NHL career with the New York Rangers, Boston and Detroit. The big shooters for Peterborough were future pros Andre Lacroix, Danny Grant and Mickey Redmond. Bill Plager, he of the famed brothers, was a Petes’ defenseman.

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MAR. 12, 1966 EDITION OF THE HOCKEY NEWS WITH THE ONTARIO HOCKEY ASSOCIATION JUNIOR–A STANDINGS AS OF SUNDAY, MAR. 6 — THE DAY I MADE MY FIRST–EVER VISIT TO MAPLE LEAF GARDENS.

As you can see in the image of the standings, all nine OHA teams had NHL affiliation. In the years prior to the universal draft, which began in 1970, this was a major attraction for fans attending Junior–A games. Here in Toronto, where NHL tickets were even more scarce than they are today, the Marlboros offered a glimpse of Leafs–to–come… and an opportunity, of course, to visit Maple Leaf Gardens. Crowds of 12,000 weren’t uncommon. The Marlies played a majority of their home games on Sunday afternoon, starting at 2 o’clock. The games were televised, locally, by CFTO–Channel 9 — first with Tim Ryan, and then Johnny Esaw, handling play–by–play. Ryan left in 1967 to become media relations director of the expansion California Seals. He then embarked on a long and successful TV career in the United States — calling Sunday–afternoon NHL games on NBC in the early and mid–70’s alongside Hall–of–Famer Ted Lindsay.

As mentioned earlier, I would excitedly watch the Saturday Leafs game on Hockey Night In Canada, knowing I’d be in the famous arena 18 hours later. During the 60’s, Junior hockey fans in our city could see such–future Leafs as Ron Ellis, Peter Stemkowski, Mike Walton, Rod Seiling, Garry Smith, Brit Selby, Brian Glennie, McKenny and Pelyk. That bond between clubs — absent for nearly half–a–century — has been re–kindled with the number of future Maple Leafs currently skating for the AHL Marlies.

Though elevating such prospects as William Nylander, Josh Leivo, Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman to the NHL in March nearly cost the Leafs the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, it provided Toronto hockey zealots an enticing glance at the future. And, it’s paying off right now with jam–packed audiences at Ricoh Coliseum. So, perhaps there was some method to the madness. It also allows me to wonder, hypothetically, how big crowds would be if the Air Canada Centre were available. The Hangar is basketball–crazed, with the NBA Raptors heading into the Eastern Conference final for the first time in franchise history. But, it sure isn’t difficult to imagine all 19,000–plus seats being occupied for tonight’s Marlies decider against Albany.

This last occurred in the spring of 1973, when the Junior–A Marlboros squared off against Peterborough in the OHA final — a potential eight–game affair without overtime periods; the winner being the first team to accrue eight points. After six games, the Marlies held a 7–5 points advantage and needed just a tie in order to win the league championship. Game 7 took place at Maple Leaf Gardens before a sold–out crowd of 16,485 — the largest, to that juncture, in Junior hockey history. The Marlies were coached by George Armstrong, captain of the four Maple Leaf Stanley Cup teams in the 1960’s under Punch Imlach. On the ice, the club featured soon–to–be NHL (or WHA) players Wayne Dillon, Mark Howe, Glenn Goldup, Bruce Boudreau, Bob Dailey, Dennis Owchar and goalie Mike Palmateer. The Petes were coached by Roger Neilson and led by such players as Bob Gainey, Doug Jarvis, Stan Jonathan, Jimmy Jones and Bob Neely. Five years later, Neilson, Jones and Neely would be together, for a short time, with the Maple Leafs.

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HISTORIC EMBLEM OF THE MARLBORO ATHLETIC CLUB BEING SEWN INSIDE A MARLIES AHL LOGO.

With just 1:09 remaining in Game 7, and Peterborough clinging to a 5–4 advantage, referee Jim Lever awarded Toronto a penalty shot when Petes’ defenseman Jim Turkiewicz closed his hand on the puck in the crease. Center Paulin Bordeleau, a 54–goal shooter in the regular season, was chosen by Armstrong to take the shot. As the capacity audience rose to its feet, Bordeleau skated toward the north end of the Gardens; deked goalie Mike Kasmetis, and scored the goal that provided the Marlies their eighth point of the series. The 5–5 draw sent Toronto to the 1973 Memorial Cup tournament at the Montreal Forum. The Marlies hammered the Quebec Remparts, 9–1, in the championship match. Bordeleau went on to play 183 NHL games with the Vancouver Canucks — scoring a career–best 17 goals in 1974–75.

The Leafs–Marlies alliance was particularly evident after the Junior team won the Memorial Cup. The EXPORT–Maple Leaf Gardens calendars that hung in smoke and barber–shops throughout Toronto in the 60’s and 70’s featured a color team–photo of the Marlboros. I have three–such items in my collection:

1964–65 CALENDAR

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Both the Maple Leafs and Marlies won titles in 1963–64. The Marlies squared off against the Western–champion Edmonton Oil Kings in the 1964 Memorial Cup best–of–seven final, May 3–9 — all games played at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Leafs had won the Stanley Cup over Detroit at the Gardens on Apr. 25, capping a wild, seven game series in which Toronto twice avoided elimination (legendarily prevailing in Game 6, at the Detroit Olympia, when defenseman Bob Baun scored in overtime on a fractured foot). As such, there was tepid interest for the Memorial Cup — attended by crowds of just 3,573; 2,704; 2,204 and 2,811. The lop–sided nature of the Junior final added to the indifference. Among the most powerful squads in Canadian Junior–A history, the Marlies swept Edmonton in four games by a 20–8 aggregate score.

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SEVERAL FUTURE LEAFS WERE IN THE 1963–64 MARLBOROS TEAM–PHOTO. PRESIDENT HAROLD BALLARD WAS FRONT–ROW–CENTER. TO HIS IMMEDIATE LEFT WERE PETER STEMKOWSKI; COACH JIM GREGORY (TO BE THE LEAFS’ GM FROM 1969–79) AND ROD SEILING. IN THE SECOND ROW, PLAYERS MIKE WALTON, WAYNE CARLETON AND GARRY SMITH, WITH RON ELLIS AT FAR–RIGHT.  JIM McKENNY IS THIRD–FROM–RIGHT IN THE THIRD ROW. AND, BRIT SELBY IS THE PLAYER AT FAR–RIGHT IN THE TOP ROW. SELBY WOULD WIN THE CALDER TROPHY WITH THE LEAFS AS NHL ROOKIE–OF–THE–YEAR IN 1965–66.

1967–68 CALENDAR

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Again, both Toronto teams won championships in 1966–67 — the Maple Leafs upsetting heavily–favored Chicago and Montreal for the club’s most–recent Stanley Cup. The Eastern Canada–champion Marlboros met the West–champion Port Arthur Mars of the Thunder Bay Junior Hockey League in a best–of–seven Memorial Cup final at the Fort William Gardens in what is now Thunder Bay (Fort William and Port Arthur amalgamated in 1970). Toronto prevailed rather easily in five games, outscoring the Mars, 30–16

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CLAD IN SUIT–AND–TIE IN THE FRONT ROW WERE (LEFT–TO–RIGHT): GM JIM GREGORY, MANAGING DIRECTOR STAFFORD SMYTHE, PRESIDENT HAROLD BALLARD AND COACH GUS BODNAR. FUTURE LEAFS DEFENSEMAN BRIAN GLENNIE WAS TEAM CAPTAIN OF THE 1967 MEMORIAL CUP CHAMPS. SECOND–FROM–LEFT IN THE SECOND ROW WAS FUTURE HALL–OF–FAME DEFENSEMAN BRAD PARK. FOURTH–FROM–RIGHT IN THAT ROW WAS ANOTHER FUTURE LEAF REARGUARD, MIKE PELYK.

1973–74 CALENDAR

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There was no symmetry between NHL and Junior when the Marlies next won the Memorial Cup — in 1972–73. Having been raided by the upstart World Hockey Association, the Leafs endured their worst season to that point in modern NHL history. As previously chronicled, the Marlies knocked off Peterborough for the OHA title and then won a three–team Memorial Cup round–robin at the Montreal Forum that also included the Quebec Remparts and Medicine Hat Tigers (for which future Leaf Lanny McDonald starred). Toronto routed Quebec, 9–1, in the final for its sixth Junior hockey crown.

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BEGINNING FOURTH–FROM–LEFT IN THE FRONT ROW: GM FRANK BONELLO, CAPTAIN BOB DAILEY, PRESIDENT HAROLD BALLARD, ALTERNATE–CAPTAIN PAULIN BORDELEAU, COACH GEORGE ARMSTRONG AND GOALIE MIKE PALMATEER. FIRST PLAYER AT LEFT IN THE SECOND ROW: BRUCE BOUDREAU. THIRD–FROM–RIGHT IN SECOND ROW: MARK HOWE.

NOW, BACK TO THE PRESENT…

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AFTER A 4–1 LOSS TO ALBANY SATURDAY AFTERNOON, THE MARLIES AND DEVILS PLAY FOR THE NORTH DIVISION TITLE IN GAME 7 TONIGHT AT RICOH COLISEUM (7:30 p.m., Rogers Cable). THE WINNER WILL MEET THE ATLANTIC DIVISION–CHAMPION HERSHEY BEARS IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL.

QUICK THOUGHTS: It was interesting to hear Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe call out William Nylander for his lack of oomph in the Game 6 loss on Saturday. Mike Babcock had a similar observation about Nylander during his month in the NHL. Which is why the Leafs coach repeatedly cautioned against drawing conclusions with the Marlie call–ups. Babcock emphasized the lack of team pressure surrounding the Leafs, who were miles out of playoff contention when Nylander, Hyman, Soshnikov and Co. arrived for a look–see in March. These promising youngsters would be graded, said the coach, once the Leafs were in a battle of significance down the line — for a playoff spot; a Division or Conference title in the regular season; and, particularly, in the Stanley Cup tournament. Though Nylander flashed his soft hands and quick release in the NHL, he wasn’t particularly involved from a physical perspective. Keefe has noticed the same in the Calder Cup playoffs. Nylander is very young. But, he’ll never be an impact player when it matters in the NHL if he stays on the periphery. Let’s see what sort of effect — if any — Keefe’s admonishment has on Nylander tonight. Game 7 against Albany is his first real test… Todd Crocker and ex–Leafs defenseman Bob McGill have done a nice job calling the Marlies playoff action on Rogers–TV. By viewing the game with increasing objectivity, McGill has rounded into a formidable analyst… By the way, Cleveland will defeat the Raptors in the NBA Eastern Conference final. But, not prior to Game 6.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM 

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