With nearly every sports organization on the planet still on pause as the world deals with COVID-19, we feel it’s an opportune time to reminisce about some special moments in sports history.
On this day in 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final to win the franchise’s 13th and, to date, its last championship.
The 1966-67 season was the final year in which the NHL operated as a six-team league. The Maple Leafs finished third place in the regular season with a record of 32-27-11, had a negative goal differential and were pitted against the intimidating Chicago Black Hawks in the first round of the playoffs.
Chicago was far and away the top team in the regular season, finishing with 17 more points than the second-place Canadiens thanks to an imposing forward group that starred Hart Trophy winner Stan Mikita, goals leader Bobby Hull and a young Phil Esposito.
The Maple Leafs were the clear underdogs, yet after dropping the first game of the series 5-2 at Chicago Stadium, Toronto won four out of five to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since three-peating from 1962-1964.
Montreal swept the New York Rangers in the other semifinal series to set up an all-Canadian Stanley Cup for the first time since 1960.
This Maple Leafs team was a veteran group with an average age of nearly 31. There were 10 future Hall of Fame players on the roster: Dave Keon, Tim Horton, Red Kelly, Frank Mahovlich, Bob Pulford, Marcel Pronovost, Allan Stanley, captain George Armstrong and the iconic goaltending duo of Terry Sawchuk and Johnny Bower – plus they had Hall of Fame coaches Punch Imlach and Frank “King” Clancy behind the bench.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about this Maple Leafs team for much of the season, but as Keon, who was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, said in a 2016 interview, he and his teammates peaked at the right time.
“We were really good for one month. And we had a little bit of luck,” Keon said. “Everybody on a team has to perform, do their part that’s set for them. Some people are asked to do a little bit more and they have to do that, too. But everybody has to sacrifice and discipline themselves. Sometimes you don’t win, even if you sacrifice and are disciplined, but it’s important that you do.
“We had good goaltending with John and Terry and people played really well. You have to understand the difference between winning and losing is tiny. Maybe it’s making the right line change, not going back, coming off so a fresh guy can come on. It could be something stupid, but if you don’t get back, a guy scores.”
The Canadiens boasted the likes of Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer, Gump Worsley and a rookie Rogie Vachon, and for the second straight series the Maple Leafs lost Game 1 and had to display character to battle back from behind.
Bower earned a shutout in Game 2 and Pulford scored in double overtime of Game 3 to put the Leafs ahead in the series. Toronto was lit up 6-2 in Game 4 and Bower was injured, but Toronto took a pivotal Game 5 at the Montreal Forum to set up an opportunity to become champs in front of the home crowd at Maple Leaf Gardens.
Sawchuk got the start in net for Toronto in Game 6 and ended up stopping 40 of the 41 shots he faced. Ron Ellis batted in a rebound to open the scoring for the Leafs in the second period and Jim Pappin, who led his team with 15 playoff points that year, netted an ugly one late in the frame to pad the lead.
Dick Duff scored an absolute beauty early in the third to pull the Habs to within one, blowing by Tim Horton wide before turning Allan Stanley inside out and beating Sawchuk. Toronto was able to hold strong and George Armstrong buried an empty-netter with 47 seconds remaining in regulation to seal the victory and the countdown was on.
The following season saw the NHL expand and double in size with the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota North Stars and Oakland Seals joining the league.
It instantly became that much more difficult to win the Stanley Cup. In fact, the Maple Leafs didn’t even qualify for the playoffs in 1968.
Despite being one of the most affluent North American sports franchises, located in the so-called centre of the hockey universe, the Maple Leafs have had a dearth of success since that 1967 playoff run.
“I was fortunate enough to be on the last Stanley Cup team here 50 years ago, and it’s so hard to believe the Leafs haven’t won since then,” Ellis told Dave Stubbs when reflecting on his career. “But as we know with expansion and so many teams now, it’s not an easy thing. Back when we won it, there were six teams and we only had to play two playoff series. Now, even if you have the best team in the league, you have to win four series to win the Cup. Many years, the top-place team doesn’t get past the second round. It’s crazy. It’s so difficult to win.”
According to NHL.com, the Maple Leafs have played 4,116 games since the start of the 1967-68 campaign (including the 70 games they’ve played in 2019-20) with a sub-.500 record of 1,764-1,802-383-167, scoring 13,055 goals while allowing 13,750 goals against.
The most troubling thing for the fan base, however, is the lack of deep playoff runs. In the 51 completed seasons since they last won the Cup, the Leafs have made the playoffs 30 times, gone through 24 head coaches, captured just one division title (1999-00) and haven’t made it out of the first round in the salary cap era.
They famously fell one win shy of reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 1993 and advanced to the conference finals three additional times since then but have only won 18 total playoff series since 1967, going 116-151 overall in the post-season.
Even individual success is has been relatively scarce for Leafs players.
Doug Gilmour and Darryl Sittler are the only Leafs players to reach the 100-point plateau, doing it twice each. Rick Vaive, Dave Andreychuk and Gary Leeman are the team’s only 50-goal scorers, although Auston Matthews was well on his way to becoming the fourth before this season was halted.
Not to mention Gilmour (Selke), Pat Burns (Jack Adams), Alexander Mogilny (Lady Byng), Jason Blake (Masterton) and Matthews (Calder) are the only Leafs to win individual awards in more than half a century.
With the Blues winning their first Cup in 2019, it left the Maple Leafs in sole possession of the longest active Stanley Cup drought.
The New York Rangers went 54 years in between Art Coulter hoisting the trophy in 1940 and Mark Messier’s historic celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1994.
The Maple Leafs are approaching that all-time record.
In 2019, the Toronto Raptors completed their memorable NBA championship run and the sports world got a taste of how the city can react if it wins a major sports title.
One can only imagine what the celebration might look like if the Maple Leafs can ever end their decades-long slump.