The Punch line

GEORGE GROSS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:07 AM ET

The Toronto Sun, this week, is celebrating the 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs, the last Leafs team to win the Stanley Cup. That team will be honoured before the Leafs game on Saturday night.

Our coverage will include a special full-colour souvenir pullout in Friday's Sun.

Today, Sun corporate sports editor George Gross, who covered the '67 Leafs for the Toronto Telegram, remembers coach and general manager George (Punch) Imlach.

Punch Imlach was a superstitious, fascinating enigma.

I knew Punch for three decades and saw him guide the Maple Leafs as coach and general manager to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s. I was also there when he got fired by the late Stafford Smythe and I was asked by the family to eulogize him when the famous shinny tutor passed away.

When I said that Punch was superstitious, it should be taken as an understatement. I have never met anyone as superstitious as he was. One couldn't place a hat on the bed without him screaming at the culprit. When the Leafs played in Montreal, he used to ask me to walk with him from the hotel to Tony the Tailor so he could order a new suit. If the Leafs won that day -- which wasn't too often -- we repeated the procedure on the next trip to the Quebec metropolis. However, if they lost on that first trip, I was spared the walk through downtown Montreal the next time in.

As a coach, he was brilliant. As general manager, he was astute. His biggest triumph was trading journeyman defenceman Marc Reaume for superstar Detroit defenceman Leonard (Red) Kelly. It was trading a rowboat for a battleship. At their first meeting Imlach shocked Kelly when he told him he would be playing centre, a position he never played. But Kelly quickly adjusted and with Frank Mahovlich, now Senator Mahovlich, formed an instrumental part in the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967.

On another occasion, when the forward lines hadn't played up to his expectations, Imlach started the game with five defencemen -- two on defence and three up front. The startled opposition took some time to recover and by then the Leafs jumped ahead by a couple of goals.

And he enjoyed startling his sidekick, the late King Clancy. In one game against the Montreal Canadiens, Imlach inserted his son, Brent, into the lineup, ordering him to check the great Jean Beliveau. Le Gros Jean was so surprised that he forgot to score in that game.

As general manager he won most of his ploys, but lost one to former NHL president Clarence S. Campbell when he tried to protect a forward in the draft by naming goalie Terry Sawchuk as a forward. Campbell, an experienced Nuremberg Trial lawyer, didn't go for it. So, Imlach shrugged his shoulders, mumbling "you win some and you lose some."

El Puncho, as he was often called, won most battles with his players, but also lost some. Space doesn't permit to go into details of his battles, but he had misunderstandings -- and that again is an understatement -- with Mahovlich for 10 years, who wound up in hospital at one point, and Darryl Sittler, who took off his "C" when Imlach traded away his buddy, Lanny McDonald.

I also recall his arguments with Eddie Shack, particularly one night in Boston. The team arrived in Beantown around 2 a.m. after a Saturday night game in Toronto and Imlach gave the players 20 minutes to go across from the Copley Plaza to a restaurant called Ken's. Shack, Bobby Baun and a couple of others arrived 40 minutes late. Imlach, who was waiting in the hotel lobby, fined all of them. Clear The Track, Here Comes Shack threatened to tell Imlach's wife everything he knew about his leader. He never did and I don't know what he would have told Dodo, anyway. Moreover, he would have lost a customer because Imlach used to buy his fedoras from Shack. And Shack was always a good businessman.

Once, after a particularly poor outing the night before, Imlach marched his players in full gear on to the ice for practice. He carried out a chair which he gently placed at centre ice before sitting down. His first instruction to the players was to start skating fast circles around the rink. He then proceeded to read that day's paper cover to cover. His only other instruction that practice, uttered an hour after the first instruction, was for the players to shower and go home.

Punch Imlach was strict and fined players $5 for each puck given away during a game and between $100 to $500 for more serious offences. At the end of the season, all the money was given back to the players to enjoy a party.

FAVOURITE PLAYERS

But Punch also had his favourite players, including Johnny Bower, Kelly, Tim Horton and Ron Ellis. Speaking of Ellis, one day at practice in Peterborough with Leafs and Rochester on the ice, Imlach was sitting in the stands and Clancy conducted the workout. Suddenly Imlach stormed down to the boards and yelled at Clancy: "Get that five-cent defenceman off the ice before he kills my million-dollar winger." He was referring to Don Cherry, then the Rochester blue-liner.

Imlach did indeed have a sentimental side. I found out the night he got fired. He told me at Maple Leaf Gardens -- the famous hockey shrine that will now become a grocery store -- to drive to his house in Scarborough. I wasn't the only one there. Clancy and lawyer Windy O'Neill were also there. Punch brought up four bottles of champagne, one from each of the four Stanley Cup victory celebrations. Then he asked Dodo to show us her special bracelet, which she did -- it sparkled with four miniature gold Stanley Cups.

I enjoyed my 11 years as day-to-day hockey writer for the Toronto Telegram. And Punch Imach had a lot to do with it. I'll never forget those years.


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