Book Review: “Diary of a Dynasty”

These are, without question, salad days for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sure, the organization is showing some signs of life under GM Brian Burke, and there’s plenty of hope in Toronto that the likes of Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Luke Schenn, Nazem Kadri and Jonas Gustavsson will lead the team back to glory.

However, Cup contention is still quite far away, and every positive step forward (acquiring Kessel) seems to carry with it a corresponding, frustrating step backwards if not three (the sacrifice of two first round picks, including the one the Bruins used to draft Tyler Seguin No. 2 overall in this year’s NHL Entry Draft, plus more in the trade for Kessel). While the hockey business has never been bigger in “Cabbagetown,” things on the ice remain fairly bleak.

But it wasn’t always that way.┬áBack in the early-to-mid 1960s, the Leafs were nothing short of a dynasty. They won four Cups during that time (1962, 1963, 1964, and 1967) and were every bit the equal — if not superior — of their hated rivals in Montreal, the Canadiens.

That glorious era is captured brilliantly in Toronto Maple Leafs: Diary of a Dynasty (1957-1967), a new book release by Kevin Shea (with Paul Patskou, Roly Harris and Paul Bruno). The foursome recount the Leafs’ dynasty — its construction, years of excellence, and post-expansion demise – in great detail, and reading the book is a true time machine of an experience. From the anecdotes about Conn Smythe’s sale of the team to an ownership group including Howard Ballard to the analysis of the terrific job done by head scout Bob Davidson, Shea and his collaborators seemingly leave no stone unturned.

The Leafs of that era included some of the greatest – and most charismatic – players in NHL history, including Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich, Bob Pulford, Tim Horton, Eddie Shack, Andy Bathgate, Carl Brewer, Johnny Bower and (for the final Cup win in 1967) Terry Sawchuk and Peter Stemkowski. And as I grew up on Long Island in the 1970s and 1980s, it was certainly neat to hear about Al Arbour’s early days. Long after his playing career with the Leafs, Arbour went on to coach the dynastic New York Islanders, whose 19 consecutive playoff series victories (including four straight Cup wins) might well be the greatest all-time performance by a team in any of North America’s four major sports.

Horton, of course, is today known best for his popular chain of doughnut shops. In Toronto Maple Leafs: Diary of a Dynasty (1957-1967), a neat sidebar takes us back to the beginnings of the now-ubiquitous doughnut chain, including a hilarious recounting of a Horton appearance on Hockey Night in Canada in which he solicited some free promotion for his then-nascent business interest.

The book also takes us back to the eradication of The Bill Barilko Curse. The final line of the summary of Barilko’s playing career on Wikipedia is, appropriately, a line from “Fifty-Mission Cap,” the Tragically Hip’s song about him: “The last goal he ever scored, won the Leafs the Cup.” That goal came in 1951, and Barilko disappeared in a plane crash four months later. It took 11 years before the wreckage was found, coincidentally (or not) in 1962, which also served as the end of an 11-year Cup-less drought for the Leafs and the beginning of their final dynasty.

About halfway through Toronto Maple Leafs: Diary of a Dynasty (1957-1967) appears a terrific collection of images from the era, and though the era was only captured in Kodachrome, the energy and clarify of the photos add tremendously to the experience of reading the book.

It’s been a long time since the Leafs’ last championship, 43 years and counting, and Toronto Maple Leafs: Diary of a Dynasty (1957-1967) does a stellar job of bridging that seemingly endless gap. It’s a great idea for a holiday gift, for it provides a terrific mechanism for older generations of Leafs fans to share the team’s glory years with fans who today can’t comprehend such levels of dynastic excellence.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Diary of a Dynasty (1957-1967) is now available at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Chapters, and FireflyBooks.com.

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