Gather ’round the Maple Leafs campfire, kids, for some of our favourite training time tales.
While the scouts say don’t believe everything you see on ice in September, what you hear from the old days, when pre-season wasn’t so structured, is also a hoot.
Take the mid-1980s Leafs, who ambled into the Gardens in rather laissez-faire fashion to stations such as medical testing, height and weight and getting their NHL media guide head shots. Wrangling up to 80 players was quite a task for team photographer Graig Abel, who was also a frequent smoker before codes forbade lighting up inside.
“There was a break in the action and Al Iafrate arrived for his photo,” he said. “Al’s a real beaut and asked me for a cigarette. Just then, Chris Kotsopoulos came in and made the same request. After I took his shot, the three of us are sitting around, smoking, chatting, having a great time.
“I should have brought a couple of packs that day because all the smokers on the team were grabbing one off me.
“Al and Chris finished their butts and went downstairs to their next test. Remember, this was supposed to be an NHL camp. A couple of minutes later, Al walked back up and asked me, ‘Uh, did I leave my urine sample here?’”
It would be easy to pinpoint such slovenly behaviour as a symptom of the Leafs’ on-ice malaise at that time, but consider what went on in 1962 at the dawn of four Toronto Stanley Cups in six years.
“Golf will be a must in the training camp schedule,” manager Punch Imlach wrote to all players, inviting them to camp in Peterborough. “Be sure to bring along your equipment. Arrangements have been made for the use of the Kawartha Golf Club.”
In a story relayed by the late George Armstrong to broadcaster Joe Bowen, Peterborough was also where the team’s practical jokers had it in for Johnny Bower. The goalie mentioned he needed to have his wife’s car repainted and the other Leafs assured the frugal Bower that a guy in Peterborough would do it on the cheap.
“Johnny went to pick it up and, yeah, it was painted all right — a coat of many bright colours,” Bowen said with a laugh. “He had no choice but to drive it all over town looking like that. The players made it worse by yelling in public, ‘Hey folks, there’s Johnny Bower of the Leafs!’ George said Johnny rode all the way back to Toronto with his head almost under the dashboard in embarrassment.”
In the Conn Smythe era, the Leafs patriarch reached into his military background to give his team a conditioning edge. In 1935, he enlisted the help of a Canadian Army drillmaster, Sgt.-Maj. Austin Hadfield, the great-grandfather of astronaut Chris Hadfield
Having already advanced the idea of a minor-league system, Smythe gathered veterans and prospects for camp in the Ontario towns of Preston and Galt, which are now part of Cambridge. Hadfield was stationed nearby with the Highland Light Infantry Regiment, known to Smythe for driving recruits hard and winning many regimental fitness competitions.
Smythe told goalie George Hainsworth and the players, “You’d better come in shape, you’re in for a surprise.”
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Austin Hadfield ordered more than 30 players to rise at 7 a.m. for breakfast and “a stiff hour of physical torture,” according to a newspaper report. The youngest Leafs included rookie Syl Apps.
Hadfield, who was about 40 years old at the time, was described as “a huge-chested martinet with army regulations written all over his frame.”
A sniper in the First World War who later served in the Second World War, he not only trained the players, but gleefully joined their exercises. So much so, he lost 15 pounds, while Smythe (who was about Hadfield’s age) would partake, too.
“They were the first to carry other players on their backs, never mind the Russians doing it,” Leafs historian Mike Wilson said in researching the story. “If you were at the end of the group or did heavy panting, Hadfield made you do double time on the ice in the afternoon. If it rained, they went inside the Galt Armoury to run starts and stops. Then you’d play nine holes of golf, have lunch, a short rest and do three hours on the ice.”
The Leafs called Hadfield “Joe Palooka” behind his back, the fictional tough-guy boxer of the era.
It wouldn’t be camp for players — and player agents — unless there was a holdout somewhere. For the Leafs, that included September 1967, four months after they won their last Cup. Defenceman Larry Hillman, seeking a raise from $15,000 to $20,000, was denied by Imlach and stayed home, incurring a $100 per day fine.
When he settled three weeks later, the $2,400 in lost wages were not restored, as is often the case today. When he signed with Montreal the next year, Hillman famously put a Cup “curse” on Imlach and the Leafs, but thought the 50th anniversary of the spat in 2017 was a good time to lift it.
There were some difficult negotiations with Wendel Clark in the late ’80s with owner Harold Ballard before general manager Gord Stellick could convince the boss that good players had to be rewarded. The papers had been initialed and sent to the league, when Stellick realized he hadn’t officially told Ballard, who loved the media theatre of such events. So Stellick brought Ballard and Clark into a small room at the rink and re-staged the signing, careful to hide from Ballard what was actually a random page of stationary.
Coach Pat Burns ran some interesting camps, right from the get-go in 1992 and didn’t mind stirring the pot on his first day. After Burns delivered some routine plaudits following the initial morning workout, the electronic media mob left, leaving just yours truly and a Toronto Star writer to watch the second group in the afternoon.
Burns had a scowl when he came off the ice, muttering, “Grant Fuhr … he’s too fat.”
Just picture Sheldon Keefe saying that to a full tent in this internet age. The goalie wasn’t amused, but assured us he’d looked a bit pudgy at every camp with Edmonton.
Before Burns, ultramotivated John Brophy was at camp weeks before its official opening, grabbing any unfortunate Leaf who happened to stop by the Gardens and marching him into the gym or in front of the punching bag.
When practices started, one youngster from junior, who was in awe of the legendary minor-league rogue, asked Brophy for some of his tips on fighting.
“Sure,” said Brophy. “Drop your stick first and I’ll show you.”
The kid did so, only to be conked hard in the head when Brophy swung his own lumber.
“Lesson one: Never drop your stick first.”
European players are always fun to watch at camp as they try to adjust to every nuance, from language to smaller rinks to Toronto traffic.
Czech forward Patrik Augusta was doing fine until he was named one of the three stars in a ’92 exhibition game. Unfamiliar with the ritual, he stood in the aisle between the team benches at the Gardens and waved to the crowd until Clark pushed him out onto the ice.
The Leafs travel to other parts of the province for camps, such as London, Niagara Falls and Kitchener, where an unfortunate bird flew into a power line outside the arena and forced the cancellation of a 1990s exhibition game against the Quebec Nordiques.
Speaking of La Belle Province, it was 60 years ago this month that the Leafs visited the provincial capital for an exhibition game against Imlach’s former senior team, the Quebec Aces. In his biography, the late, great Red Kelly spoke of a mischievous stroll by a group of Leafs near a downtown construction site, walled off by circular cement barrels. Ox-strong defenceman Tim Horton was dared by Bob Pulford to try to push over one of the concrete cylinders, but he did so too close to a hill, where it rolled and crashed, thankfully away from where cars could be damaged or pedestrians could be hurt.
Nonetheless, someone called the police. They tried to arrest Horton, who put two meaty paws on their squad car door, refusing to get in. One cop finally whacked his hand with a billy club before Horton was finally booked for a night in jail. Imlach sprung him the next day in time for a game in Montreal.
There have been more ambitious September trips for the benefit of fans in Newfoundland (the Leafs were due to fly the day after 9/11 and ended up assisting St. John’s in feeding and entertaining stranded airline passengers) as well as Nova Scotia and London in 1993 and Stockholm and Helsinki in 2003.
In a lively exchange with Finnish media upon arrival at the latter, coach Pat Quinn and captain Mats Sundin were caught off-guard when peppered with questions about how the Leafs could consider themselves such an iconic franchise when they’d not won a Cup in what was then 36 years.
We conclude with Abel for more head-shot snapshots.
The league at the time forbade players from wearing T-shirts under their sweaters for official photos unless it matched team colours. But in 1987, a young Ed Olczyk’s “lucky” tee was a bright yellow and he refused to remove it. Stellick had to intervene on Abel’s behalf.
And Abel won’t forget the young camper whom he was trying to match a name to his training camp number, both knowing the higher the digits, the less chance of making the team.
“He took one look at the numerical roster and laughed,” Abel recounted. “He said, ‘Wow, the Leafs have real plans for me. Last year I was 74, this year I’m 72.’”
ONCE A LEAF
Featuring one of the more than 1,100 players, coaches and general managers who have played or worked in Toronto since 1917.
Name: Mike Pelyk, defenceman.
Born: Feb. 15, 1947.
Stats: 441 GP (1968-74 and 1976-78), 26 goals, 88 assists, 114 points, 566 PIMs.
THEN: The Etobicoke-born Pelyk was a junior B draft pick of the Leafs in 1964, along with future teammate Jim Dorey. Promoted to the Marlboros, he was on their 1967 powerhouse squad, the last time one arena (the Gardens) housed both a Stanley Cup and a Memorial Cup winner.
Aggressive and often paired with another tough blue-liner in Quinn, Pelyk found steady work with the late 1960s-early ’70s Leafs to be a challenge at times, but just as he put up career offensive numbers in 1973-74, he joined an exodus of underpaid Leafs to the World Hockey Association. After two years in the new league with Vancouver and Cincinnati, he returned for parts of two more seasons.
He played old-timers hockey with the Leafs, accompanied NHLers to Afghanistan in the early 2000s to visit troops, coached kids hockey and baseball and is a member of the Etobicoke Sports Hall of Fame.
NOW: The retired Pelyk was in the commercial real estate/shopping centre business, building stores across Canada for Loblaws, Wendy’s, Burger King and others, as well as consulting for various pension funds.
“But like everyone else, when you turn 76 like me, you find yourself a little less relevant,” he joked. “A kid will ask me to sign a hockey card and I’ll say, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
FAVOURITE LEAF MEMORY: “I always remind myself how good Dave Keon was. I have grudging admiration for him. He was team captain, but a silent captain. One of those guys you knew was there to play every night.
“(Early in Pelyk’s career), we were in Montreal and I saw Davey go over to Punch Imlach and say, ‘I want to go against Jean Beliveau tonight.’ I thought ‘wow’ and then I started noticing against New York, Davey wanted Jean Ratelle and so on through the league. He wanted to go up against the best, not a third-line guy, not ever.
“Later on, with John McLellan as our coach, we had Norm Ullman, Davey and Jim Harrison as our (first- to third-line) centres. John always started the game with Normie, our leading scorer, but who’d stay out there forever. Dave’s wingers would go on, but he might get only 30 seconds.
“It wasn’t up to me, but I said to John, ‘Davey’s getting screwed out of ice time. He’s killing penalties, but not getting any power-play time because Normie hogs it. So why not start Normie, Jimmy and then put Davey out there so he has a full shift?’
“Eventually, John did. But Dave had never complained.
“One time, he tore his groin, black and blue all down the side. But he never missed a game, he manufactured a way to be effective. He’s my all-time idol.”
The Leafs were guests at the Joe Thornton Community Centre in St. Thomas this week for the Kraft Hockeyville game against Buffalo. Jumbo Joe, if he’s indeed retired, would be the last active NHLer to have scored at the Gardens on Jan. 9, 1999, for Boston in its 6-3 loss. Earlier that day, the Leafs obtained Bryan Berard from the New York Islanders for Felix Potvin … Former Toronto D-man Mikko Lehtonen, the “Finnish Bobby Orr” (to be fair, he played down that nickname while here), has six points in as many games so far for the Zurich Lions in Switzerland, the same totals as a more recent Leaf, forward Denis Malgin.
THIS WEEK IN LEAFS HISTORY
It was 51 years ago that Ballard was ordering switchboard operators at the Gardens to answer calls with a cheery “home of Paul Henderson” after his third winning goal to clinch the Summit Series for Canada … Defenceman Mark Giordano turns 40 on Tuesday. Thornton, at 41 years, 296 days, holds the record for oldest Leaf to score a goal … Wednesday would have been centre Bruce Draper’s 83rd birthday. A Toronto-born St. Michael’s College star and uncle of former Red Wing Kris Draper, he got in one game for a very competitive Leafs lineup in 1963. He spent the rest of his career in the minors before being diagnosed with leukemia and passing in 1968. Reading Draper’s story a few years later, movie producer and sports mogul Johnny F. Bassett thought it had great potential as a picture, but wanted a romantic angle. The project later morphed into the Canadian classic Face-Off, a Leaf-themed flick starring Art Hindle and Trudy Young.
Have a question, comment or want to see a former Leaf profiled? Drop a line to [email protected].