The Boomer Is 80

TORONTO (Sep. 9) — In the realm of longevity, those Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup teams from the 1960’s will not go away. And, we thank the good Lord for that.

The latest in the group to join Club Octogenarian is the Boomer — defenseman Bob Baun — who celebrates his 80th birthday today. Baun played for the Leafs from 1956 to 1967; then again from 1970 to 1972… 739 regular–season games in total. He was a member of all four Stanley Cup winners under Punch Imlach (1962–63–64–67) and will remain immortalized for his overtime goal at the Detroit Olympia in Game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup final. It enabled the Leafs to avoid elimination and set up a decisive Game 7 at Maple Leaf Gardens. Baun scored the goal on a fractured foot numbed by a hypodermic needle full of Novocain. Toronto won its third consecutive championship, two nights hence, with a 4–0 victory over the Red Wings.

More than half–a–century later, the vast majority of players from that Stanley Cup dynasty are still alive. Johnny Bower leads the way at 91 years of age. Red Kelly is 89. George Armstrong is 86. Baun, Dick Duff and Bob Pulford are 80. Larry Hillman and Eddie Shack are 79. Frank Mahovlich and Bob Nevin are 78. Jim Pappin turns 77 tomorrow. Dave Keon is 76. Then, we have the “youngsters”. Brian Conacher is 75. Peter Stemkowski is 73. Mike Walton and Ron Ellis are 71. Terry Sawchuk (40) and Tim Horton (44) died young — both as a result of accidents. Carl Brewer was only 62 when he succumbed to a heart ailment in 2001. Andy Bathgate, Allan Stanley and Marcel Pronovost lived full lives before passing away more recently.

“They didn’t call us the ‘Milkshake Club’ for nothing,” Baun chuckled over the phone today from his home in Ajax, Ont. “Most of the fellows on those Stanley Cup teams didn’t drink. Or, they drank sparingly. I had my first beer when I was 25. Compared to other teams in the NHL back then, we looked after ourselves. Most of us worked out in the summer. Timmy Horton and I would come to training camp under our playing weight. We were also more educated. Many of us went to university, which wasn’t the norm for hockey players in that era. We had interests beyond the game, itself. I believe all of that has contributed to our longevity.”

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BOB BAUN ON THE COVER OF A LEAFS GAME PROGRAM FROM JAN. 7, 1967.

Baun is coming off one of the biggest emotional challenges of his life. In late–March, just prior to a planned vacation to Florida, Bob’s wife of more than 60 years — Sallie — took a fall in the kitchen. “It was a dreadful accident,” Bob said. “She busted up her knee and wrist and spent three months recuperating in the hospital here in Ajax. But, she’s quite a trooper and has come along very well. Seeing her healthy again is the best birthday present ever.” As per usual, the Baun’s made the best of a difficult situation. “Every two nights, I would indulge in one of my favorite hobbies — cooking — and bring dinner to Sallie in the hospital,” Bob recalled. “We would wait until the dining room cleared out and have a quiet supper… just the two of us. The workers were absolutely wonderful. They would hang around and clean up when we were finished.

“It helped us both through the long days of Sallie’s recovery.”

Though a key figure on legendary Stanley Cup teams in a mega hockey market, Baun is still taken aback by the number of people that remember him in a Maple Leafs uniform, or have researched his career. He also played for the expansion California Seals in 1967–68; then with Gordie Howe, Frank Mahovlich and the Detroit Red Wings in 1968–69 and 1969–70; returning to the Leafs in a trade (via St. Louis) in November 1970. His career ended during a game against Detroit at Maple Leaf Gardens on Oct. 21, 1972. A collision along the boards with Red Wings’ forward Mickey Redmond resulted in a serious neck injury that compelled him to retire. Yet, all of these years later, they still remember the Boomer… ol’ No. 21 of the Leafs.

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THE OLD LEAFS GANG DURING THE 1967 STANLEY CUP SEMIFINALS AGAINST CHICAGO.

“I don’t know too many people my age who get 3,000 pieces of mail each year,” Baun said. “It never ceases to amaze me how hockey fans — many whom never saw me play — are still interested in what I’m doing today. I reply to as many letters and autograph requests as possible, but I have a good eye for those looking to make a fast buck. If they come across as insincere, I won’t bother replying. But, most are quite pleasant.”

Bob and Sallie were in Torquay, in the southwest of Great Britain, late in his playing career. “I won the best defenseman award with Detroit in 1968–69 and received a pair of First Class air tickets anywhere in the world,” Bob remembered. “Sallie and I were at a wonderful place — the Imperial Hotel — and having a quiet dinner on the patio when a man approached me and asked for my autograph. Turns out he was a Toronto boy that lived on Bayview Avenue. That was probably the most out–of–the–way place I’ve ever been recognized. Another time, I went to Bangkok to do a motivational speech for MacKenzie Financial. I checked into the hotel and the general manager was from Regina, Saskatchewan. He had a whole bunch of my hockey photos pinned up in his office. You just never know when you’ll come across a Maple Leafs fan.”

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BOB BAUN HOCKEY CARD (TOP–LEFT) FROM THE TOPPS 1966–67 SET — HIS LAST AS A LEAF. THEN, WEARING UNIFORM OF THE CALIFORNIA SEALS IN 1968–69, AFTER BEING TRADED TO DETROIT.

Baun is particularly health–conscious today after a scare in 2011. “My mom died of colon cancer and doctors found a growth while performing a colonoscopy on me,” he said. “I was 75 at the time and I had surgery to remove that part of my colon. Thankfully, I’ve been clean now for more than five years. Ever since I was 45, I’ve been getting a colonoscopy every year. As we all know, early detection is the key in bowel cancer. I recommend it for everyone over 50… and especially for those with cancer history in the immediate family. I also undergo a full physical once a year. My blood–work, for an old guy, came back just perfectly after my last medical. My weight has been something of an issue. I got as high as 230 pounds, which is too much for me. I’m closer to the 200 mark right now and my goal is to get back to my hockey playing weight of 182.”

Do not, however, show the Boomer a dentist’s chair.

The defenseman that played on a cracked foot in the Stanley Cup final cowers when having his teeth worked on. “That’s the only pain that bothers me; I shake in my boots before undergoing dental work,” he laughed. “But, I found a perfect guy that knows what to do with a needle. Once the Novocain is massaged into my gums, I’m ready to go. But, it always scares the heck out of me.”

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BOB BAUN (RIGHT) WITH YOURS TRULY AND MY OLD LEAFS TRAVELING COMPANION FROM THE TORONTO STAR: PAUL HUNTER. PAUL AND I BOTH LOVE THE BOOMER.

ARGOS, SADLY, HAVE BLOWN IT

The Toronto Argonauts either have the worst luck in the Canadian Football League or have thoroughly botched up the most important position on the field. Perhaps a combination of both.

Some years from now, Ricky Ray will be elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot. At the moment, Ray is little more than a sitting target for defensive missiles. A report on TSN Thursday night indicated Ray was finished for the season after sustaining a punctured lung against Hamilton on Labor Day. It was updated earlier today to a fractured rib and partially–deflated lung that will keep Ray out of action for another 4–6 weeks. The soon–to–be 37–year–old quarterback came to Toronto in a trade from Edmonton and led Argonauts to the 2012 Grey Cup at Rogers Centre. Since then, he’s been a convalescent; Ray’s immobility landing him on Injured Reserve for long stretches in 2013, last season and this season.

Compounding the issue, beyond measure, is that Argo decision–makers have given away two of the CFL’s most dynamic pivots… each within their own division. Zach Collaros filled in superbly for Ray in 2013 and was allowed to sign with rival Hamilton as a free agent. Trevor Harris followed suit a year ago when Ray missed the first 14 games while recovering from shoulder surgery. Harris then escaped freely to Ottawa in February.

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AN ALL–TOO–FAMILIAR SIGHT FOR THE ARGOS AND THEIR FANS. TORONTO STAR PHOTO

Comparing the CFL to the National Football League is rarely plausible, but can you imagine the Dallas Cowboys donating legitimate No. 1 quarterbacks to the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles? Or, in hockey, the Montreal Canadiens allowing No. 1 goalies to join the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs in consecutive years? That’s the equivalent of what the Argos have done by keeping Ray over Collaros and Harris. Yes, Ray is a big–name quarterback and the Argonauts — forever hoping to attract ticket–buyers — were undoubtedly apprehensive about replacing him with the lesser–known’s. As well, general manager Jim Barker and head coach Scott Milanovich had visions of a healthy Ray returning to previous form. As such, Collaros and Harris were jettisoned, and Ray signed to a contract extension last Dec. 3. But, a sprained Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) sustained at the end of July against Montreal kept Ray out for five weeks (three games). And, without question, it robbed him of whatever mobility was left in his aging legs.

A sitting duck in the pocket, from which he is no longer able to scramble, Ray took a merciless beating at Tim Horton’s Field on Monday night. The Argos coughed up a 20–7 first–half lead and were decimated, 49–36, by the Tiger–Cats for their fourth consecutive loss. Somehow, Ray finished the game but was subsequently diagnosed with the rib and lung ailments. Rubbing salt in the Labor Day wound was another commanding performance by Collaros, who shook off a rusty opening half and shredded the newbies in Toronto’s banged–up secondary. He passed for 359 yards and four touchdowns as Hamilton out–gunned the Argos 32–6 in the second half. Ray threw for even bigger numbers — 386 yards — but got creamed near the goal–line in the third quarter and threw an interception in the end zone. Another of his passes was later picked off and returned for a Hamilton TD. He was a physical wreck after the game.

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RICKY RAY EMBRACES FORMER TEAMMATE ZACH COLLAROS AFTER LABOR DAY GAME IN HAMILTON.

In Ottawa, meanwhile, Trevor Harris has completed an otherworldly 78.4% of his passes in seven games, throwing for 11 touchdowns and one interception. Harris is 30; Collaros, 28. Strategically, the Argos made a couple of very poor choices. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20, but Barker and Milanovich were plenty savvy enough to recognize the ability of both younger quarterbacks, having impressively recruited them. Even if Ray had somehow escaped injury this season — and Toronto’s offensive line isn’t nearly good enough to protect an immobile passer — he was in the twilight of his career. Good decisions in pro sport are made with foresight; looking beyond what is momentarily appealing. Ray may have been that. Nothing, however, is more appealing to football fans than a competitive, winning team. Which the Argonauts no longer have.

Barker and Milanovich chose the present over the future. Sadly, they’ve gotten burned.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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