50 Years Ago in Hockey: The Coaches – Punch Imlach

There is probably no more controversial figure among NHL coaches than Punch Imlach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It seems, that when it comes to the bombastic Toronto coach and general manager, you either love him or you hate him. One thing is indisputable: the man knows how to build a winning hockey club.

Never Played Pro

George (Punch) Imlach is the only present NHL coach who never played a National Hockey League game. In fact, Imlach never played professionally.

Punch was born in Toronto and played parts of three seasons of Junior A hockey for the Toronto Young Rangers. He moved up to the Toronto Goodyears of the OHA Senior A league in 1938-39 before moving to the Quebec Senior League with Cornwall in 1941-42.

Imlach enlisted into the Canadian Army in 1942 and this is where he had his first coaching experience, piloting a Cornwall military club.

Punch Imlach as a player with Quebec Aces.
Punch Imlach as a player with Quebec Aces.

At the end of the war, Imlach was discharged from the army and was invited to the Detroit Red Wings training camp. He declined the offer, feeling he had put on too much weight. Instead, he obtained work in Quebec City and began to play for the Senior A Quebec Aces. Hooking up with that team would change his life.

Coaching Quebec Gave Him His Start

Punch played four seasons with the Aces as a decent scoring forward. He retired as an active player when he became coach of the Aces for the 1949-50 season. He eventually took on the role of general manager as well.

In the 1951-52 season, Imlach brought in a tall, rangy 20-year-old centre by the name of Jean Beliveau. Beliveau’s scoring feats in Quebec became the stuff of legends and it was no surprise when he eventually signed with the Montreal Canadiens. Imlach called Beliveau the greatest player he ever coached.

Punch Imlach with Jean Beliveau "The greatest player I ever coached."
Punch Imlach with Jean Beliveau “The greatest player I ever coached.”

Imlach stayed with the Aces until he received an offer from the legendary Eddie Shore to coach the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League in 1956-57.

In his second season with Springfield, he took a fourth-place team to the playoff final. Despite losing in that final series, the Toronto Maple Leafs took notice and that summer he was offered the position of Assistant General Manager, which he accepted.

Hired By Leafs as A/GM

Imlach’s NHL career began in under strange circumstances. He had been named assistant GM, but there was no official general manager. The team was run, and not very well, by a committee. Imlach, who never lacked confidence, began to run the team as if he were the sole person in charge. No one seemed to question his authority, and he took full advantage.

Twenty games into the 1958-59 season, Imlach dismissed coach Billy Reay and took over behind the bench himself. In pronouncing himself as coach, Punch boldly predicted that the last-place Toronto club would be in the playoffs by the end of the season. Most observers, many of whom had never heard of Imlach, branded him as a braggart who had no idea what he was doing.

The Leafs fortunes turned around almost immediately. They began the long climb to respectability, and under Imlach engineered one of the greatest finishes to an NHL season.

With three games to play, the Leafs trailed the New York Rangers by five points. Incredibly, the Leafs won all three of their final games, while the Rangers lost three in succession, giving Toronto, and Imlach, the coveted and now much-ballyhooed playoff spot. Now, Imlach was hailed as some sort of hockey genius, a reputation that would only grow as time wore on.

Imlach continue to add to his young team, bringing along veterans such as Allan Stanley, Red Kelly and Bert Olmstead to steady a quickly maturing group. In 1962, the Leafs won their first of three consecutive Stanley Cups under Imlach.

Punch Imlach enjoys a quiet moment after the Leafs 1963 Stanley Cup victory
Punch Imlach enjoys a quiet moment after the Leafs 1963 Stanley Cup victory

Although they faltered in last season’s playoffs, Toronto still has a solid core of veterans that rivals any NHL team for skill and determination. With his reputation as a shrewd horse trader growing each season, there is no doubt that Punch will work his magic and bring in players  that will push the Leafs once again into the thick of the race for the Stanley Cup.

WHL Backs NHL Expansion

In a somewhat surprising development, the clubs of the Western Hockey League have decided to fully support bids by any of their clubs for an NHL expansion franchise. The caveat is that the interests of the present WHL owners must be protected.

Max McNab, general manager of the Vancouver Canucks of the WHL says that as a result of a meetings this week in Seattle, it was decided that any WHL team that wished to apply for an NHL expansion franchise was free to do so.

Buddy Boone, Max McNab, GM, and Fred Hume, President of the Vancouver Canucks
Buddy Boone, Max McNab, GM, and Fred Hume, President of the Vancouver Canucks

The WHL owners gave themselves a bit of an escape clause, however. If the owners of the teams were not happy with the NHL expansion arrangements, the league may revert to its original plan. That plan calls for the WHL to declare itself a major league and enter into direct competition with the NHL.

McNab told a Vancouver luncheon meeting that the feeling in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vancouver is that fans would be more accepting of actual NHL franchises and not teams from the WHL elevating themselves to self-determined major league status.

Bids for NHL franchises must be received by October 1. McNab said that Fred Hume, the Canucks’ owner, will have his application delivered by that time.

On of the reasons the WHL considered declaring itself a major league was because of the problem of indemnification by the NHL for invading the WHL’s territory. McNab says that issue has been dealt with, but he declined to provide any details.

Crozier Good To Go

Detroit Red Wings goalkeeper Roger Crozier, who spent two weeks this summer in a Bracebridge hospital, has been given the green light to begin workouts at the Wings’ training camp in Detroit.

Roger Crozier
Roger Crozier

The NHL’s rookie of the year last season had been diagnosed with pancreatitis, an inflammation that poisons the blood. He lost 15 pounds while in hospital, but has been steadily been regaining the weight.

Wings trainer Lefty Wilson said that he talked to Crozier and that the netminder is in great shape. Wilson said, “He’s been playing 18 holes of golf every day so there can’t be too much wrong with him.”

Crozier’s illness set off alarm bells in the Red Wing management offices at the Olympia. The organization doesn’t have an NHL-quality goaltender who could step in if Crozier is sidelined, a situation that general manager Sid Abel must work to correct.

Going into training camp, veteran journeyman Hank Bassen, who does have some NHL experience with both Chicago and Detroit, is the best bet to hold the number two spot with the Wings.

Gordie Howe with former Leafs Don McKenney, Billy Harris and Andy Bathgate.
Gordie Howe with former Leafs Don McKenney, Billy Harris and Andy Bathgate.

At yesterday’s opening workouts, Abel was happy to see three former Toronto Maple Leafs enthusiastically working out for the first time in the red and white. Veterans Andy Bathgate, Billy Harris and Don McKenney all feel they have something to prove and Abel feels that motivation will result in big years for the threesome.

OHA Exhibitions

The Hamilton Red Wings edged the St. Catharines Black Hawks 4-3 in one of two OHA Junior A exhibition games played last night. The Peterborough Petes downed the Toronto Marlboros 5-3 in the other match.

Sandy Snow scored the game-winning goal with less than six minutes to play to give the Red Wings their win at Hamilton. Brian Watts, Jim Niekamp and Don Giesebrecht scored the other Wings goals. Jan Popiel, Ken Laidlaw and Glen Sherwood replied for St. Kitts.

At Peterborough, Mickey Redmond paced the Petes past the Marlies with a pair of goals. Garry Monahan, Danny Grant and Joey Johnston added singles. Toronto scorers were Jim Keon, Jim Davidson and Ken Crosby.

Mickey Redmond
Mickey Redmond

The 16-year-old Crosby has been the hit of the Marlies’ camp so far, according to coach Gus Bodnar. Bodnar has been impressed with Crosby’s speed and scoring touch. In last night’s game, he had Crosby at centre with defensemen Jim McKenney and Brian Glennie on the wings.