Frank Mahovlich: Highs & Lows of a Hall of Fame Career

Few players had a life as remarkable as Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich. He played 1,418 professional games in 22 seasons between the National Hockey League and World Hockey Association (WHA). He was an All-Star in half of the NHL’s “Original 6” cities, played on both sides of the biggest rivalry in the game, won six Stanley Cups, and then served in the Canadian Senate when his playing days concluded.

The Big M’s Legacy Begins with Maple Leafs

Mahovlich was born on Jan. 10, 1938, in Timmins, a small town in northern Ontario. It became apparent at an early age that he was a natural at hockey. As a teenager, he began to turn heads playing for the Schumacher Lions in the Northern Ontario Hockey Association. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed the young winger and assigned him to their Ontario Hockey League affiliate, the St. Michael’s Majors. In the 1956-57 season, his third and final junior campaign, he scored 52 goals and 88 points in 49 games while racking up 122 penalty minutes.

Frank Mahovlich
Mahovlich was a key part of four championships in Toronto. (THW Archives)

After scoring a goal in three NHL games during the 1956-57 season, Mahovlich became a full-time player for the Maple Leafs in 1957. He scored 20 goals and 36 points in his first full season and beat out fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Hull for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. This was the first of 16 NHL seasons with at least 20 goals for the “Big M.”

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The 1960-61 season saw Mahovlich go from a good player to a superstar when he was put on a line with Red Kelly and Bob Nevin. He led the league in goals for much of the season and had scored 48 times through the first 56 games. This gave him 14 games to break the single-season goal record of 50 held by Maurice Richard. However, he failed to find the back of the net again, and Bernie Geoffrion of the Montreal Canadiens passed him up and tied Richard’s record. His 48 goals remained the Maple Leafs’ franchise record until Rick Vaive scored 54 in 1981-82.

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Following his historic run in 1960-61, Mahovlich led the Maple Leafs in goals in each of the following three seasons, all of which ended in Stanley Cup victories. He was part of a fourth championship in 1967, the last one celebrated in Toronto. In all, he played 720 games for the Maple Leafs, scoring 296 goals and 597 points.

A Rocky Road in Toronto Leads to Motor City

The relationship between the Maple Leafs and Mahovlich was a bumpy one, to say the least. When he was due for a new contract in 1962, he walked out on the team after receiving what he considered a low offer from head coach and general manager Punch Imlach. The Chicago Black Hawks believed they had a deal for Mahovlich, and owner James D. Norris had already sent a $1,000 deposit on the $1 million he offered to pay. However, the next day, Leafs’ minority owner Conn Smythe stepped in, told the Black Hawks there was a misunderstanding, returned the money, and gave Mahovlich the contract he sought.

The rabid fans in Toronto were hard on Mahovlich, often booing him at home games, even during the height of the team’s success. They even booed him after the Leafs won the 1963 Stanley Cup because he failed to score a goal during the playoffs. Imlach often mispronounced his name and was a harsh critic while meeting with the local media. All of this pressure led to Mahovlich checking himself into a Toronto hospital in November of 1964 for “constant fatigue,” where he was diagnosed with acute depression.

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Early in the 1967-68 season, Mahovlich removed himself from the team’s train to Detroit and checked himself back into the hospital after suffering what many described as a nervous breakdown. Milt Dunnell wrote a story in the Toronto Star calling the Leafs forward a “sensitive, easily-bruised individual.” He returned after missing 11 games, but his time in Toronto was nearing an end.

On Mar. 3, 1968, Mahovlich was traded with Carl Brewer, Pete Stemkowski, and Garry Unger to the Detroit Red Wings for Doug Barrie, Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith, and Norm Ullman. He had seven goals and 16 points in his first 13 games in Detroit to close out the season.

The following season he was put on a line with Hall of Famers Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio and scored a career-high 49 goals. He followed that up with 38 goals and 70 points in 74 games in 1969-70, his second and final full season in Detroit. He played 198 games in a Red Wings sweater over parts of four seasons, scoring 108 goals and 196 points.

Mahovlich Gets Another Shot at Glory in Montreal

Soon after Ned Harkness took over as general manager of the Red Wings, he made significant changes to his roster. On Jan. 13, 1971, Mahovlich was traded to the Canadiens for Mickey Redmond, Guy Charron, and Bill Collins. He was reunited with his young brother Peter, who he got to play with briefly in Detroit.

Related – Canadiens’ 4 Straight Cups in the 1970s

Even though he had over a dozen NHL seasons under his belt and was 33 when he arrived in Montreal, Mahovlich had some of his most productive seasons wearing a Habs sweater. The trade rejuvenated him as he scored 17 goals and 41 points in the 38 games to close out the 1970-71 season. He had the best postseason run of his career with 14 goals and 27 points in 20 playoff games as the Canadiens won the 1971 Stanley Cup.

Mahovlich scored 43 goals and a career-high 96 points during the 1971-72 season. In the fall of 1972, he was a member of Team Canada in the infamous Summit Series versus the Soviet Union. He had a goal and an assist in the six games he played in.

At 35, he scored 38 goals and 93 points during the 1972-73 season. He had another nine goals and 23 points in the playoffs, which ended in another Canadiens Stanley Cup Championship, the sixth and final of Mahovlich’s career.

Plenty of Post-NHL Success

After a 31-goal and 80-point season 1973-74, Mahovlich was due a new contract. Instead of staying in Montreal to close out his remarkable career, he decided to move on to the World Hockey Association (WHA). The Houston Aeros initially drafted him in 1972, but they traded his rights to the Toronto Toros. With a lucrative contract in hand, the Big M returned to the city where his pro career began.

Montreal Canadiens Jean Beliveau Ken Dryden Frank Mahovlich
Mahovlich (right) moved on to the WHA after a great run with the Canadiens. (Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

The 36-year-old signed a four-year contract with the Toros and scored 72 goals and 99 points in 148 games over two seasons. The franchise tried to compete with the Maple Leafs, but that was a losing battle. Following the 1975-76 season, the team relocated to Birmingham, AL, and became the Bulls. He played in 89 games over these final two seasons, scoring 17 goals and 44 points. While with the Bulls, he played on a line with Dave Hanson, one of the Hanson Brothers in the classic hockey movie Slap Shot. He tried to make an NHL comeback with the Red Wings but officially retired on Oct. 7, 1979.

Mahovlich was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1981. He was enshrined in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1997, The Hockey News ranked him 26th on their list of 100 Greatest Hockey Players. The Maple Leafs retired his No. 27 (shared with Darryl Sittler) in 2016. The NHL named him one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players in history in 2017.  

In 1998, Mahovlich was appointed to the Senate of Canada by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and served as a Liberal Senator until 2013. He served on the Fisheries and Oceans, and National Finance Committees during his time in the Senate. His areas of interest and specialization included sports, business, and the environment.

Mahovlich’s career saw him play in three decades for two different leagues. He performed at a high level for a trio of the most storied franchises in hockey history. He reached the ultimate heights in the game while coming out of some all-time lows even stronger. He was a player that had to deal with tremendous pressure and rather unfair treatment. Mahovlich should be commended for being one of the first to publicly reveal his mental health struggles long before it became a more common practice. He served his country on and off the ice with class and dignity, always preferring to take the high road, and his legacy will live on because of it.