Greatest Maple Leafs: No. 6 Frank Mahovlich

Each day from now until the Winter Classic, Sportsnet will count down the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time.

He may have been the most talented man to ever don a blue and white sweater. But every time he leapt over the boards, they booed. Whenever he touched the puck, they booed. Even when he scored a goal, they booed.

It was Nov. 1, 1967. Fans had packed into the Gardens to cheer on all but one of their Maple Leafs. The third period was over, the Leafs were victorious and Frank Mahovlich, the star of the game, stood alone on the ice, physically exhausted and emotionally drained. He’d accumulated three points in a 5–0 trouncing of the Montreal Canadiens, but beneath his pads the man who always made it look easy was faltering as he took his bow while an unrelenting crowd pelted him once more with insults and jeers.

Reviled by fans and scolded by his coach, Mahovlich was a gentle superstar in a town that wanted him to be better than great. It didn’t matter whether he was leading the team in scoring, stealing pucks from Gordie Howe, undressing Jacques Plante or challenging Rocket Richard’s records — Mahovlich was the most misunderstood player Leafs fans had ever loved to hate. And so they did what they thought best. They booed until he cracked.

The next day the Leafs boarded a train for Detroit. One moment Mahovlich was there, sitting among his teammates waiting to depart. Then suddenly he was gone.

The Friday papers hinted at the real problem but only told part of the story.

“Frank Mahovlich, the big man in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ attack, has been grounded again by a mysterious illness,” the Canadian Press reported. “Mahovlich became ill Wednesday night after a three-point performance. The 29-year-old Toronto left-winger was off to the best start of his 11-year NHL career, with four goals and seven assists in nine games.”

One of the greatest Leafs ever had suffered a nervous breakdown and checked into Toronto General Hospital for psychiatric treatment. The cause of his ailments: years of torment from disapproving fans and a toxic relationship with Leafs coach Punch Imlach. Never had the Big M’s future looked so bleak.

The son of Croatian immigrants, Mahovlich had been recruited into the Leafs organization 13 years earlier as a teenaged scoring prodigy. Departing his native Timmins and moving to Toronto, he quickly excited fans of the St. Mike’s Majors and got the nickname that would stick with him throughout his career. A large winger with scoring finesse, he earned his spot in the Toronto sports pages before he’d even set foot in an NHL rink.

When he joined the Leafs at age 19, sports writers began touting him as one of the greatest players the city had ever seen. A rookie in the same year as Bobby Hull, he bested the “Golden Jet” for the Calder Trophy. He averaged 20 goals a year his first three seasons, cementing his place among the Leafs’ most potent scorers. Then, in 1960–61, he did what everyone had been waiting for. He posted 48 goals in 56 games and, with 14 games left, looked poised to become the second man in NHL history to score 50 goals in a season.

Fans cheered as he cruised the left wing with his long stride, flicking shots past hapless goalies and bumping names like Howe, Béliveau and Richard beneath him on the scoring list. Then February turned to March and the Big M seemed to shut down. The Leafs would score 43 times in their final 14 games, but Mahovlich wouldn’t muster a single goal. Suddenly, the man with the long stride looked lazy and undetermined.

Unsure how to motivate his star, Imlach took to ridicule, purposely mangling his name, referring to him as “Maholovich” to the press, and reminding reporters every time he missed the net or messed up a play.

Fifty years later, teammates still recall the troubles between coach and star that led to the ire of fans.

“No question [Mahovlich] was a superstar,” says Ron Ellis, who played with him through four seasons with the Leafs. “But Punch never said good job or good game. He never gave him that kind of reinforcement. And I think Frank’s personality required that. He poured his heart out for the Leafs and it just didn’t seem to be appreciated. Toronto, even today, is a very difficult place to play. But back then, even more so.”

Despite ridicule from behind the bench, Mahovlich led the offensively-charged Leafs in scoring for four of the next six seasons and remained an integral member of four Stanley Cup–winning teams. But none of that mattered to fans who seemed to appreciate him less and less with every passing year. Then, one November day, when the Big M was supposed to be 10 games into his best season, fans learned that the man they’d booed had been hospitalized.

Suddenly letters poured into the Gardens as people tried to reconcile with the apparent victim of an unforgiving coach and a city’s unreasonable expectations. By the time he returned to the lineup the boos had stopped. But the sympathy was short-lived and five months later Mahovlich was sent to the Red Wings in one of the biggest trades in hockey history.

Fans lashed out at those who’d dealt him, fearing the trade might precipitate an irreversible decline in the team’s fortunes. But Mahovlich was happy to be gone. Success came early in Detroit, where he posted a career-best 49 goals before moving to Montreal, where he won two more Stanley Cups. The next time he wore a maple leaf it was in red and white as a member of Team Canada during the Summit Series.

Mahovlich was one of the most refined men to ever succeed in the game, even Imlach would later concede that he was a gentleman in a cruel sport.

For his part, the 74-year-old former Leaf who is now a Liberal Senator acknowledges that the years he spent playing in Toronto weren’t the most pleasant of his hockey career. But he says there’s one memory from those days that remains dear to his heart.

“The day I came back to the Gardens for the first time after being traded,” he says.

The boos were gone as he strode down centre ice, cut to the left in front of the Leafs net, then shifted right, backhanded the puck over a diving Bruce Gamble and looked up into the crowd as they rose to their feet and saluted the superstar they’d lost.

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