NHL’s Integrity At Stake

TORONTO (Mar. 18) — As I see it from this part of the world, there are two primary issues in the midst of the COVID–19 pandemic: a) everything — sports included — pales in comparison to the global crisis. And, b) the National Hockey League absolutely must maintain integrity as it considers when to return from its forced hiatus. In that realm, the idea apparently floated by the Players’ Association to complete the suspended season in August and September is ridiculous. I recognize the NHL is a business; that the owners and players share equally in revenue. But, there’s an enormous contrast between greed and practicality.

Understand, however, that the concept has arisen amid logic. Dr. Brian Goldman handles emergency care at a downtown–Toronto hospital. “The percentage–chance of the Stanley Cup being awarded in a reasonable time–frame — by early–to–mid–July, at the latest — is close to zero,” he opined on the telephone. “I’m in full agreement with the general outlook of COVID–19: that it will not begin to subside in North America until the early part of summer. The NHL Players’ Association must also concur if it’s proposing an August–September completion of the playoffs. At some point, [NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman will need to make a similar declaration. We haven’t heard much from him, as it pertains to the pandemic, since he suspended play. He has only commented on the game. But, much has transpired in the interim. And will continue to evolve.”


Bettman, of course, is neither a doctor nor a public health official. He made the radio rounds this week and talked about his obvious desire for a credible conclusion to the season. If at all conceivable. Pausing for five months before resuming play isn’t marginally credible. It smacks of temerity and financial desperation. Not even after the 2004–05 season, canceled by a labor dispute, did the league or the P.A. consider some half–baked idea for a Stanley Cup tournament when the dispute ended (in July). Nor, in my research, did those entrusted with running the game once the Spanish Flu pandemic subsided in 1919. On each occasion, there was no winner. Neither should there be this time around… unless the NHL, shockingly, can resume activity within the next five to six weeks. Even then, a full playoff tournament will stretch into the final week of June, as it did after the lockout–abbreviated schedules of January–to–May in 1995 and 2013. A delay until mid–August would be more than a month longer than the usual NHL off–season, which spans from mid–June to early–October. There would exist no correlation at all to the games that ended Mar. 11 when the league followed the National Basketball Association and shut down. To cram in a cockamamie Stanley Cup tournament; pause again for an artificial off–season, then conduct a complete 2020–21 schedule and playoffs running through next July is nothing short of absurd. Throw in reckless and outrageous as well.


Dr. Goldman feels that Bettman, in short order, will speak out with perspective.

“He’s a smart man and he knows, as all of us, that professional sport is so minuscule in the grand scheme right now. I suspect as a leader — and very soon — he will offer thoughts and prayers for those that have been impacted by the virus and, of course, for those who’ve succumbed. Bettman is too bright to not place things in context. I anticipate he will strongly suggest that whether or not the NHL season can resume is irrelevant; that our priorities should focus on the real–life circumstance we’ve encountered in all parts of the globe. If he pulls a Donald Trump and tries to minimize or underestimate the situation, he’ll be saying something completely different in two or three weeks. It’s far–better for him to prepare the hockey public for the most–plausible scenario — that the game is finished for the current season. End of story.”

Though it’s likely Canadian sports fans would watch a Stanley Cup tournament after a five–month hiatus, it is far–too gimmicky. There is nothing intrinsic to the concept; it would be strictly a money grab. If the NHL is seeking integrity, it will conclude the 2019–20 season with no Stanley Cup winner, as did baseball with respect to the 1994 playoffs and World Series amid a players’ strike that suspended activity in mid–August. There was no attempt to cram in a championship event, nor did the dispute end in time to salvage the full 1995 Major League schedule. Who knows how long the coronavirus will endure? No one will rightly complain if the NHL allows for COVID–19 to run its course before returning with a conventional approach — training camps in September, followed by exhibition games and an early–October start to the 2020–21 schedule.


As part of my collection, I have original programs dating to the third season of hockey at Maple Leaf Gardens. In the late–1980’s, these magazines were bound into books to preserve their condition. The bound items date from 1933 to 1968. With the sports world quiet at this uncertain moment, I’d like to share with you the changing design of program–lineups at the Gardens. These eight editions span from Dec. 14, 1939 to Dec. 30, 1967. Some you may remember. Some you’ll likely have not seen until now. Please enjoy:

DEC. 14, 1939: Boston 1, Toronto 1 — The Bruins and Leafs were both playing well early in a season during which Boston would finish atop the six–team NHL, 11 points ahead of third–place Toronto. The Leafs, however, would advance to the Stanley Cup final against second–place New York and lose in six games to the Rangers. The Blueshirts would not win another NHL title until 1994. In this game, Woody Dumart gave the Bruins a 1–0 lead at 10:16 of the first period. Syl Apps scored the tying goal at 4:00 of the third. Frank Brimsek (Boston) and Turk Broda (Toronto) were the goalies. The referee was Norm Lamport.

JAN. 26, 1946: Toronto 6, Chicago 5 — The 1945–46 season remains quite an anomaly for the Maple Leafs. The club did not qualify for the playoffs in the midst of, arguably, its greatest dynasty. Toronto had won the Stanley Cup the previous year and would reel off three consecutive championships under Conn Smythe and Hap Day after this season. On this Saturday night, however, the Leafs were in their hottest stretch of the 50–game schedule: a 5–1–0 record from Jan. 10–26.

MAR. 17, 1954: Toronto 3, Montreal 1 — By the last week of 1953–54, the Leafs, though still very competitive, had lagged behind Detroit and Montreal, the clubs that would dominate the decade by winning nine of 10 Stanley Cups. On this St. Patrick’s Day eve at the Gardens, however, Toronto upended Montreal, 3–1. Bernie Geoffrion put the Canadiens on top at 7:36 of the first period, but Harry Lumley shut the door afterward for the home side. Eric Nesterenko, Todd Sloan and Rudy Migay beat Montreal goalie Jacques Plante. The referee was Bill Chadwick. George Hayes and Bill Morrison were the linesmen. A 4–7–3 slump in their final 14 games prevented the Leafs (78 points) from catching the Habs (81 points) for second place.  

MAR. 23, 1960: Detroit 2, Toronto 1 — The Leafs finished 1959–60, their first full season under Punch Imlach, solidly in second place with 79 points, 13 behind Montreal and 10 ahead of Chicago. Detroit (67 points) placed fourth and matched up against the Leafs in the Stanley Cup semifinals. On this night, in Game 1, the Red Wings pulled off an upset. Gordie Howe beat Johnny Bower just 2:38 into the match and Len Haley gave Detroit a 2–0 lead at 14:24. Carl Brewer scored the Leafs goal with 3:56 left in regulation time. Terry Sawchuk faced only 19 shots in net for the Red Wings. Bower made 28 saves. Referee Frank Udvari whistled 20 minutes in penalties. George Hayes and Bruce Sims were the linesmen. Toronto went on to eliminate Detroit in six games. The Leafs were then swept in four by Montreal in the Stanley Cup final (outscored, 15–5) — the Canadiens winning their fifth consecutive NHL championship, which is still a record.

DEC. 9, 1964: Montreal 3, Toronto 2 — In early–December 1964, the Leafs were the three–time defending Stanley Cup champion. But, they would not run the streak to four. A 3–7–4 mark between Nov. 28, 1964 and Jan. 1, 1965 spoiled a hot start and Toronto finished in fourth place, though comfortably, by 22 points over New York. On this night, in the midst of that three–wins–in–14–games slump, Montreal prevailed, 3–2, at the Gardens. Claude Provost and Dave Balon put the visitors ahead, 2–0, in the first period. Ron Stewart scored for Toronto, but Gilles Tremblay restored the Habs’ two–goal margin in the middle frame. Don McKenney closed out the scoring with 6:15 left in the game. The Leafs out–shot Montreal, 27–25, and Charlie Hodge was the winning goalie. Terry Sawchuk, in his first of three seasons with the Maple Leafs, took the loss. John Ashley officiated the game. Matt Pavelich and John D’Amico were the linesmen.

MAR. 9, 1966: Toronto 1, Detroit 0 — A 9–2–4 hot streak between Feb. 9 and Mar. 12, 1966 nearly enabled the Leafs to catch Chicago for second place. But, the Black Hawks finished with 82 points, three ahead of Toronto. On this night, the Leafs won their fourth consecutive game. Frank Mahovlich (from Larry Hillman and Dave Keon) scored the only goal of the match at 17:24 of the first period. With Terry Sawchuk injured, Punch Imlach recalled Bruce Gamble, who registered four shut–outs in five starts (this, his third). Four nights earlier, Gamble had repeatedly stoned Bobby Hull of Chicago in a 5–0 win at the Gardens, thereby preventing Hull from being the first player to break the 50–goal barrier (the Golden Jet would achieve the milestone on Mar. 12, at home, against New York). Roger Crozier of Detroit stopped 25 shots to register the narrow defeat. The referee was John Ashley. The linesmen, Neil Armstrong and Matt Pavelich.

APR. 11, 1967: Toronto 3, Chicago 1 — It was Game 3 of the Stanley Cup semifinals and the Leafs were on their way to a startling upset of Chicago. The Black Hawks had breezed to first place in the final season of the six–team NHL, 17 points ahead of Montreal and 19 up on Toronto. But, the Leafs split the first two games of the series at Chicago Stadium and grabbed a 2–1 lead on this night at the Gardens. Frank Mahovlich scored in the first period; Ron Ellis and Jim Pappin in the second. Bobby Hull ruined Terry Sawchuk’s shut–out bid with 3:30 left in regulation. Sawchuk and Glenn Hall each faced 36 shots. Art Skov officiated the match with linesmen Brent Casselman and Matt Pavelich. The Leafs, now legendarily, took out the Hawks in six… then beat Montreal in six for their most–recent Stanley Cup, in Canada’s Centennial year.

DEC. 30, 1967: Toronto 8, St. Louis 1 — The first year of expansion (the NHL doubling in size by adding six teams) ranks among the most–disappointing in Maple Leafs history. As the defending champion, Toronto posted a sub–.500 record against the new clubs (California, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis) and missed the playoffs, finishing ahead of only Detroit in the East Division. On this night, however, the Leafs recorded their most–lopsided win of the season. The well–rested home team, having not played since Wednesday, pounded the Blues, who had beaten Pittsburgh at St. Louis Arena the previous night and didn’t arrive in town until the wee hours. Frank Mahovlich scored three goals for Toronto; Mike Walton counted twice with Jim Pappin, George Armstrong and Ron Ellis adding singles. Red Berenson ruined Johnny Bower’s shut–out attempt with the Blues only goal at 15:39 of the third period. With Glenn Hall injured, Don Caley and former Canadian national team goalie Seth Martin split time in the St. Louis net.

As was custom in that era, a cascade of balloons fluttered down from the Gardens’ ceiling after the final game of the calendar year. Armstrong, skating out as one of the three stars, wiped out on a balloon. Wally Harris was the referee; Neil Armstrong and Bob Frampton the linesmen. St. Louis, coached by Scotty Bowman, would represent the West Division in the 1968 Stanley Cup final and get swept in four by Montreal.


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