Each day from now until the Winter Classic, Sportsnet will count down the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time.
An iconic colour image of a young Toronto Maple Leaf graced the February 1939 cover of Maclean’s magazine. It featured a strong-jawed Maritimer facing the camera, his six-foot-two, 178-lb. frame hunched over the hockey stick planted firmly on the ice. He was Gordie Drillon, a goal scorer, pure and simple—the last Maple Leaf to lead the NHL in scoring and the most famous hockey player to hail from New Brunswick.
Drillon earned $7,000 in 1937-38—including bonuses—when he was tops in the league with 52 points in 48 games. The broad-framed forward did it by pioneering in-the-slot play, becoming the first to park himself in front of the opposition’s net and stay put, deflecting pucks, banging in rebounds and generally causing havoc without taking penalties. Three times he produced at a point-per-game level in an era when scoring was kept to a relative minimum—leading the Leafs in goals four times—and his accuracy was praised by his peers. Leafs goaltender Turk Broda once said, “Even if you leave him an opening the size of the puck, he’d hit it every time.”
Despite playing just seven years in the NHL before enlisting with the RCAF during the Second World War, the Moncton native had a lasting impact on a generation of fans. Upon Drillon’s death in 1986, the Toronto Star‘s John Robertson remembered pretending to be Drillon as a child, “drifting down right wing like a big blue submarine.”
The popular winger once said he “had no trouble getting up for a game,” because Conn Smythe—always Mr. Smythe to Drillon—would walk into the dressing room waving two railroad tickets and shouting, “Two going down, two coming up.” Drillon made sure he was never handed one of those one-way tickets to the minors by staying after practice with Syl Apps for hours on end. The centre would park just inside the blueline, firing pucks to Drillon who’d be looking for the tip-in. Smythe even roomed the two linemates together on the road because Apps, a noted teetotaler, kept the affable, beer-loving Drillon in check. Later in life, Apps called Drillon the best he ever played with.
Drillon’s legendary scoring punch was paired with a defensive disinterest during a Leafs era that preached defence first. On opening night at Maple Leaf Gardens one season, Drillon skated past Broda and tapped him on the pads during warm-ups. “See ya in the spring,” Broda called after him. Drillon was famously benched during the 1942 Stanley Cup Final by Smythe. Stationed at a military base in Petawawa as an acting major during the war, the owner was listening to the Final on the radio and called coach Hap Day, instructing him to sit Drillon because his backchecking was so lacklustre. To his credit, Drillon never begrudged the decision, instead cheering the Leafs on to four wins and the only series victory in Stanley Cup Final history from three games down.
Drillon was then traded to Montreal for $30,000 and played one more season. Rarely one to boast about his scoring prowess, he still wasn’t shy. When asked by Frank Selke—former assistant GM in Toronto and future architect of Montreal’s 1950s dynasty—how he thought he’d make out with the Canadiens, teammates say Drillon replied that he could score 20 goals “with a broom.” He scored 28 that year, a career-high.