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Video: 1959 Team | Harry Lumley | George Armstrong | Johnny Bower

After the heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the 1950 semifinals to their archrival Detroit Red Wings, the Leafs turned around in 1950-51 to have one of their most successful seasons ever.

A trade with the Bruins that sent Vic Lynn and Bill Ezinicki to Boston for tough defenceman Fern Flaman added strength to the the blue line, replacing the hole left by the retirement to his farm of defence stalwart Garth Boesch. Up front, the Leafs employed perennial star Ted Kennedy between youngster Sid Smith and former St. Mike’s standout Tod Sloan to create a high-scoring number one line.

Sid Smith led the Leafs in the early 1950's
The Red Wings were still the team to beat as they finished atop the league with 101 points, a mere six points ahead of the second-place Leafs. But the Wings, despite having extraordinary scoring power from Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay and the recovered Gordie Howe, were upset in the semis by the third place Montreal Canadiens who rode the play and clutch overtime goals from Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard.

The Leafs had less trouble with the fourth-place Bruins, winning the semis in six games including one game in Toronto that was called because of curfew regulations of the time. ‘Toronto the Good’ had a city bylaw prohibiting sporting events from occurring after 12 a.m. on Sundays. The Leafs next met the ‘Flying Frenchmen’ from Montreal in an all-Canadian final

Remarkably, every game in these finals went into overtime and the clinching Game 5 was particularly memorable as Timmins native Bill Barilko scored his legendary winning goal in overtime. ‘Bashin’ Bill’ had left his defence position (despite orders not to from coach Joe Primeau), to pick up an errant pass and score on goalie Gerry McNeil to give the Leafs their fourth Stanley Cup victory in five years.

Bill Barilko scored one of the most famous goals in NHL history with the Maple Leafs

But what started out as a promising decade turned into what is referred to as the ‘lost years’ with the Leafs dynasty of the 1940’s turning into mediocrity for most of the 1950’s.

The joy of winning the Stanley Cup was short-lived when it was learned that the 23 year-old hero Bill Barilko went on a fishing trip later that summer and never returned. The plane he was in, flown by dentist pal Henry Hudson, mysteriously disappeared into the northern Ontario wilderness.

After finishing in third place in the 1951-52 season, the Leafs were swept by the Red Wings in the semi-finals. Then, Toronto finished out of the playoffs at the end of the 1952-53 season - the first time since 1945-46 that they missed post-season play.

Leafs' owner and general manager Conn Smythe then decided to overhaul the team that had been so successful with some perhaps ill-advised trades. Number one goalie Al Rollins, defenceman Gus Mortson, centre Cal Gardner and prospect Ray Hannigan were all traded to Chicago for goaltender Harry Lumley.  Fernie Flaman, and Fleming Mackell, who were also members of that 1951 championship team, were dealt to Boston in separate deals with minimal return. In answering criticism for the seemingly one-sided trades, Smythe expressed that the Leafs were trying to help out the weaker teams in the league and he believed that, just like in the 40’s, that the Leaf farm teams would readily replace the traded players.

During the 1940’s when the Leafs needed young replacement players they had dipped into the sponsored system of juniors from St. Mike’s and Marlboros that Frank Selke had managed. But in the mid 40’s, Selke departed to Montreal to start up his own dynasty.

In the early 1950’s, the players that were brought up to fill holes on the Leafs were found wanting. It wasn’t until the mid to late 50’s that the Leaf feeder clubs turned out enough impressive Juniors to enable the team to be competitive again. Although the Leafs promoted players like Tim Horton, George Armstrong and Ron Stewart early in the decade, it wasn’t until youngsters like Dick Duff, Bob Pulford, Carl Brewer, Frank Mahovlich and others graduated to the Leafs later on that there was legitimate hope that the Leafs could be real winners again.

Tim Horton was an anchor on the blueline

When coach Joe Primeau stepped down after missing the playoffs after the 1952-53 season, King Clancy became the new Leaf coach. But Clancy had little playoff success during his time behind the bench. In 1956-57, the Howie Meeker coached Leafs finished at the bottom of the NHL. The next season, Billy Reay was hired to bring in some of his winning spirit from his Montreal days. But the Leafs, while improving, finished in fifth place in the 1957-58 campaign.

By November of the following year, with the Leafs firmly in last place, the new Toronto general manager, the relatively unknown Punch Imlach, fired Billy Reay and took over the coaching duties himself. Immediately, he boldly proclaimed that this young but floundering team would still make the playoffs. Even Conn Smythe asked if the Leafs had hired a ‘madman instead of a coach’. But this was a different Leaf team because along with the best of their junior teams St. Mike’s and Marlboros, the Leafs had acquired some established veterans like Johnny Bower, Allan Stanley and Bert Olmstead to play and become mentors.

The brash Leaf coach had inspired his players to believe in themselves when no one else would - that the long climb towards a playoff berth was indeed possible.  Imlach had encouraged his players to read Vincent Peales’s ‘ The Power of Positive Thinking’ and amazingly, the Leafs made the playoffs on the very last night of the season.

The Leafs had gone on a fantastic run in the last few weeks of the 1958-59 season while the New York Rangers faltered at the same time. The Leafs had finally made the playoffs for the first time since 1955-56 and the team and fans became believers of Punch Imlach. But Imlach wasn’t satisfied with just making the playoffs and predicted a victory over the highly skilled Boston Bruins who had finished second in the league that year and had made it to the Stanley Cup finals the two previous years against the Montreal Canadiens. 

This Leaf ‘Cinderella’ team opened the semifinals with two losses in the Boston Garden and were losing 3-2 late in the third game in Toronto before sharp shooting right winger Gerry Ehman scored the tying goal. Then remarkably, Ehman scoring the winning goal in overtime to give the Leafs their first playoff victory since March 27, 1956.

Riding the emotion of the comeback win in Game 3, the Leafs with outstanding goaltending by Johnny Bower, won Game 4 on Frank Mahovlich’s overtime goal. The Leafs went on to win the series in the seventh game in Boston on Gerry Ehman’s winning goal with minutes left in regulation time.

Although the Leafs lost to the three-time Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens in the finals in five games, it was apparent that this Toronto team had the nucleus of a new Toronto Maple Leaf dynasty.