Greatest Maple Leafs: No. 21 Lanny McDonald

He was fast, tough and had a hard shot, but McDonald never took his talent for granted. Photo: Steve Babineau/NHLI/Getty

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Lanny McDonald’s left wrist is broken and his nose hurts because it’s broken, too. Not that the pain’s registering. It’s overtime, game seven of the 1978 Stanley Cup quarterfinal between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders, a series nobody figured the Leafs had a shot in after a sixth-place regular-season finish. Little more than four minutes in, the right-winger with the casted arm silences the crowd in Long Island.

Defenceman Ian Turnbull intercepts a pass at the Leafs blueline and fires it high through the middle to McDonald. He knocks it down to his stick, beats Islanders captain Clark Gillies, and before a diving defender can get to him, wires it under the glove of goaltender Chico Resch. The Leafs are headed to the Stanley Cup semifinal for the first time in 11 years. “I skated around the net thinking, did that really go in? Have we really won?” McDonald says now. “I saw the guys coming over the bench and I thought, oh my God—we did it!”

The man needs no introduction beyond a mention of the trademark on his upper lip—he was that good (and so was his strawberry blond moustache). In Toronto, he’s known simply as Lanny. And for six and a half seasons with the Leafs, through 477 games, Lanny carved out the beginning of a Hall of Fame career. That OT winner in 1978 was the cherry on top of a career-best 47-goal season; only Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy and Steve Shutt scored more that season. It was McDonald’s second straight year among the NHL’s top 10 point-getters. He ranks 13th all-time in points for the franchise, but his time with the team was coming to an end.

For a kid who grew up in Hanna, Alta., listening to Hockey Night in Canada with his dad, it was a storybook start to McDonald’s NHL career when Toronto drafted him fourth overall in 1973. Listen to McDonald reflect on his years with the Leafs and you’ll hear the word “lucky” a lot. For four and a half years he got to play on a line with his best friend, Darryl Sittler. The two were inseparable. Even today they talk on the phone at least once a week.

McDonald came to the NHL highly touted after he lit up the Western Canadian Junior Hockey League and earned first-team all-star honours with the Medicine Hat Tigers. But Lanny wasn’t immediately beloved in Toronto. Expected to make an impact right away and score a ton of goals, McDonald struggled, scoring just 30 points his rookie season. Fans and the press called on the Leafs brass to dump him. In his second year, McDonald put up 44 points, but he’s the first to admit it still wasn’t good enough. GM Jim Gregory stuck with McDonald, though, in part because of the kid’s raw talent—he was tough, he had speed and a hard shot—but also because McDonald worked hard to improve. “He didn’t sulk. He said, ‘OK, I’m going to do what I need to do to be a pro,'” says former teammate Ron Ellis. It was Ellis, a fellow right-winger, who saw McDonald’s potential and mentored him in those early years, specifically on his role in the defensive end. “He became probably one of the best two-way players of all time,” Ellis says.

McDonald more than doubled his point production his third season in Toronto, with 37 goals and 93 points for his most productive campaign in Toronto. Many of his goals came off the right wing thanks to a blistering wrist shot. Paired with Sittler on the No. 1 line in 1976, McDonald led the Leafs in goals his last three full seasons in Toronto.

He always figured he’d finish his career as a Maple Leaf, but the moment McDonald was called into Punch Imlach’s office on Dec. 29, 1979, he knew it was over. The hard-nosed GM was dismantling the team but he couldn’t unload Sittler because of a no-trade clause. Imlach wouldn’t even tell McDonald what team he’d been traded to, only that he was done in Toronto. McDonald found out he was joining the Rockies from the media gathered outside the locker room. “That’s one of those days you never forget,” McDonald says. “I was devastated.”

The response to McDonald’s trade speaks more to his importance to the Maple Leafs organization than any of the stats he put up, his defensive abilities, or that heroic game-seven goal he scored in overtime with two broken bones. The day after he was shipped to Colorado, fans turned up at Maple Leaf Gardens with signs protesting the trade. It was too late, of course. Sittler played that night without a “C” on his jersey—he ripped it off before the game. McDonald saw it all on the sports highlights that night in a Colorado hotel room after his own game. “I never dreamt of playing anywhere else,” he says.

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