Oh no, The Leafs Are “Satisfied”

A battle with the Tampa Bay Lightning (eight wins in nine games) and Detroit Red Wings for third in the Atlantic [Division] is probably what we can expect for the Leafs in the final months of the regular season.
— Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun

TORONTO (Jan. 30) — It should be enough to send chills down the spine of any fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs: a headline on the team–owned website, Sportsnet.ca, that suggested the club feels “satisfied” going into the National Hockey League All Star break. It can be argued that no team in the modern history of professional sport rests on its laurels — however fleeting — more prolifically than the hockey heroes of Toronto. Satisfaction, right now, is derived from a pair of ugly victories over the Winnipeg Jets. The first period of the return match at Bell MTS Place on Saturday had Kelly Hrudey of Hockey Night In Canada sounding incredulous as he highlighted a half–dozen amateurish giveaways by Toronto players, including Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly. “I can’t show every turnover but, believe me, there’s a million of ’em,” offered Hrudey; the TV flashing images of a club that seemed to have given up on its coach. Or, one that would kill any coach, regardless of caliber and record.

So, here’s a query for the occupants of Leafs Nation: Let’s go back to the eve of the season opener, Oct. 11, against Montreal. Had someone asked whether you’d be “satisfied” if the Leafs were fourth in the Atlantic Division and a playoff wild card team at the break, how would you have responded? It’s a silly question. Any Blue and White die hard would have expressed disappointment over such a scenario. Yet, here we are — the Leafs, as always, positioning themselves as a Stanley Cup threat only to appear, on most nights, the worst team of the Core–4 era. Under no circumstance can this club, as currently constituted, pose a challenge to the longest–ever championship drought in the NHL. The blue line is soft and prone to error, and there is no way to predict the caliber of goaltending from one game to the next. Neither can we foretell how interested the big–money boys might be on a given night… until the playoffs, when Nylander, Marner, Matthews, Tavares and Co. become entirely predictable.

In this hockey region, however, any amount of success guarantees satisfaction. Which is okay for followers of the team, yet poisonous when it infiltrates the dressing room. Over the span of two decades, Toronto players — coddled, protected and pampered beyond comprehension — have breathed easily after the most–trivial of successes.

“We’re a great team,” exclaims Marner when the Leafs plummet into disarray. Can you imagine, then, how ecstatic Mitch must feel after a mid–season shootout victory over Columbus or Arizona? And, he’s far from alone. Most of the competent Leaf editions in the post–Harold Ballard era (after 1990) have been appeased by merely (and temporarily) quieting the pervasive white noise. So little is expected of this hockey club, particularly when the stakes increase, that contentment becomes a self–fulfilling prophecy. Another club strives to win the Cup by making a tough, honest appraisal of its roster; then executing amendments required to move forward. The Leafs, under Brendan Shanahan, continue to force–feed this market a club built for the comparative ease of the regular schedule. As such, a pair of unremarkable triumphs over an elite rival (Winnipeg) causes the players to feel “satisfied”.

Which usually results in complacency the next time around.

As of play on Tuesday night, the “Cup contending” Leafs stood 12th in the overall NHL standings, four points removed from 16th and the dreaded “mushy middle” of the pack. Any fan of the club that is allayed by such underachievement needs a wake–up call. Vancouver and Edmonton are Canadian rivals that have rocketed past the Maple Leafs this season while such–previously inept clubs as Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Nashville are within four points and nipping at their heels. Absolutely nothing about the 2023–24 season, to this juncture, should result in satisfaction. Yet, “comfort” embraces pro athletes that make too much money and are allowed to govern their destiny with full, no–movement clauses. Once management cedes control of an asylum to the inmates, only misfortune can result. Even amid the “pleasure” of dropping into wild card playoff territory at mid season.


Call them the new “Group of Seven.” Not the Canadian landscape painters whose legendary work is on display at the McMichael Art Collection in Kleinburg, north of Toronto. But, rather, the remaining players from the last team to win the Stanley Cup with the Maple Leafs. That’s right, only one–third of those gathered for the triumphant team photo (below) in 1966–67 are still alive nearly 57 years later. Call it the relentless passage of time.

In descending order of age, the living players are:

BOB PULFORD, born Mar. 31, 1936. Today — 87 years old.
FRANK MAHOVLICH, born Jan. 10, 1938. Today — 86 years old.
DAVE KEON, born Mar. 22, 1940. Today — 83 years old.
BRIAN CONACHER, born Aug. 31, 1941. Today — 82 years old.
PETER STEMKOWSKI, born Aug. 25, 1943. Today — 80 years old.
MIKE WALTON, born Jan. 3, 1945. Today — 79 years old.
RON ELLIS, born Jan. 8, 1945. Today — 79 years old.

The other 14 players are deceased; most recently, defenseman Bob Baun, who died Aug. 14. With Baun in the Great Beyond are George Armstrong (d. Jan. 24, 2021); Johnny Bower (d. Dec. 26, 2016); Larry Hillman (d. June 3, 2022); Red Kelly (d. May 2, 2019); Tim Horton (d. Feb. 21, 1974); Terry Sawchuk (d. May 31, 1970); Marcel Pronovost (d. Apr. 26, 2015); Allan Stanley (d. Oct. 18, 2013); Eddie Shack (d. June 25, 2020); Larry Jeffrey (d. July 18, 2022); Milan Marcetta (d. Sep. 18, 2014); Jim Pappin (d. June 29, 2022) and Aut Erickson (d. Aug. 21, 2010). Of course, all of the Leaf executives in the 1967 Stanley Cup photo are long gone: Punch Imlach, John Bassett, Stafford Smythe, Harold Ballard and King Clancy, along with trainers Bobby Haggert and Tommy Naylor.

Among those coming into town for the NHL All Star festivities this week is Stemkowski, the youthful center–man who teamed with Pulford and Pappin to power the underdog Maple Leafs past Chicago and Montreal in the 1967 playoffs. Pappin led all post–season participants with 15 points. Stemkowski was second with 12, while Pulford tied Montreal’s Jean Beliveau for third place with 11 points. “It’s an old story, but we lost ten games in a row around February and Imlach got sick… which was fine because we were sick of him at that point,” recalled Stemkowski from his home in Long Beach, N.Y. “The next day, at Maple Leaf Gardens, we were expecting that Rochester (AHL) coach Joe Crozier would lead our practice. Instead, out skated the legendary King Clancy, whom we all loved. In his gruff voice, he started calling out line combinations. ‘Hey, Pulford, skate on the left side with… um… Stemkowski at center and… let’s see… Pappin on right wing,’ said King. To which Pully, who was a grump most of the time, asked ‘why am I on the wing? I play the middle.’ Clancy waved him off. ‘Just go.'” And, they went.

Of the deaths that have taken two–thirds of the 1967 roster, Stemkowski called Larry Hillman’s the most difficult.

“I loved Morley [Hillman’s middle name]; he was my roommate on the road and his passing [at 85] shook me up. The Chief [George Armstrong] was our captain and leader. A truly wonderful guy. But, it bothered me that he rarely showed up at our reunions. It was the same with Davey Keon. I’m really glad he ended his estrangement with the team. I used to say ‘c’mon, Dave, everyone you were angry at is dead. Think of the loyal fans that want to see you.’ Brendan Shanahan deserves the credit for Davey coming back. I’m happy that his banner is finally hanging in the arena. I remember talking with Jim Pappin just before he died. He told me his shoulder was so bad, he couldn’t wipe his ass. Pulford is still around. If he showed up at a bar for Happy Hour, they’d close the joint. He was never in a good mood. I was looking for a job in hockey when he ran Los Angeles and Chicago. I remember setting up his double–overtime goal in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final against Montreal. He beat Rogie Vachon at the Gardens. But, Pully wouldn’t hire me. Pappin worked for him as a scout for years. Ahh, what can you do?”


Apart from winning the ’67 Cup, Stemkowski’s most–vivid Leaf memories include time spent with the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, N.Y. And, particularly, a teammate on the Americans named Donald S. Cherry. “We had a lot of veteran players in Rochester — guys in their mid–30’s like Cherry, Ed Litzenberger, Al Arbour, Gerry Ehman, Bronco Horvath and Dick Gamble, who I remember as a real grouch. As for Grapes… hmmmm… should I tell this story? Oh, what the heck. I was a rookie with the Americans. Don came up one day to give me what I thought would be some pointers about playing the game. Instead, he poked me and said ‘hey, you’re a single guy, right? Boy, do I have a woman for you.’ And, he set me up with ‘Rochester Rikki’, who worked mostly nights back then. I had a great time with her on three or four occasions. Thanks, Don.”

Stemkowski was part of arguably the biggest trade in Leafs history, going to Detroit on Mar. 3, 1968 with Frank Mahovlich, Garry Unger and the NHL rights to defenseman Carl Brewer for veteran forwards Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith. “That was culture shock, leaving Imlach’s boot camp for a country club in Detroit,” Stemkowski remembered. “We couldn’t wipe the smile off the Big M’s face for a month. Nor did we win anything when I was there but the environment was much more relaxing. Alex Delvecchio was our captain and just a wonderful, layback guy. We would follow him onto the ice for each period. I remember one time when the buzzer sounded in our dressing room. We got up to leave for the start of the game. But, Alex wasn’t ready. He was watching the end of a golf tournament. ‘Just a sec, guys,’ he said, ‘I’ve got to see if [Jack] Nicklaus can make this putt.’

“So, we waited for a few minutes then followed Alex onto the Olympia ice.”

A second trade (on Oct. 31, 1970) sent Peter from Detroit to New York and spawned the happiest years of his NHL career, which lasted from 1965 to 1978. “I loved my time with the Rangers and the biggest regret I have in hockey is not winning the Stanley Cup for [GM/coach] Emile Francis,” Stemkowski lamented. “The Cat was such a great man. I played on a line with Bruce McGregor and Ted Irvine, whose son is the famous wrestler, Chris Jericho. Ted would bring young Chris to the arena for practice and I would hack around with him. Once his wrestling career began to take off, the name Chris Irvine wasn’t catchy enough. There’s a road outside of New York called the Jericho Parkway. And, that’s how Chris got his stage name in the ring. My closest pal with the Rangers was Steve Vickers, another former Toronto Marlboro grad, who won the Calder Trophy as rookie–of–the–year [in 1972–73]. We stay in touch. He comes down to Long Beach from Toronto in the summer to spend time.

“Darn, we should have won it all with the Rangers. But, a guy named Orr kept getting in the way.”

Stemkowski hasn’t found it difficult to be an octogenarian (as of Aug. 25). He remains among the “youngsters” of the ’67 Leafs. “Yeah, I can still walk from the living–room to my car,” he said, with typical hilarity. “Like everyone who played in the NHL back then, and later, I have my aches and pains. But, otherwise, no complaints.” Stemmer isn’t phased by growing old. “When we’re born, God stamps the expiration date on our foreheads. It’s all pre–determined. So, there’s no use worrying about that stuff. I’m looking forward to seeing the boys up in Toronto.”


3 comments on “Oh no, The Leafs Are “Satisfied”

  1. MLSE is satisfied because the $ keeps rolling in the tickets/suites are sold… only real fans care of the quality of what is on the ice…. share holders/business executives only care of being seen and business expenses.

  2. Nice interview with Pete Stemkowski, Howard. I just hope the Leafs don’t trade away their first round draft pick this year. I don t see what the big deal about Chris Tanev is. There are a few cheap right hand and young dmen they could go for. Also, might as well sell off the likes of Domi and Bertuzzi. This year’s squad is hopeless. Time to go back to building the team the old fashioned way. Through the draft. They have some prospects. Let’s see them. And keep the picks.

  3. Wonderful analysis of the leafs, you are bang on.

    Extremely disappointing for another year of “ non compete “

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