George “Punch” Imlach
Toronto Maple Leafs, 1958-1969, 1979-1981
Buffalo Sabres, 1970-1978
Prince of Wales Trophy, 1962-1963
Adams Division Title, 1974-1975
Playoff Appearances: 1959-1967, 1969, 1975-1978, 1980-1981
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1959-1960, 1962-1964, 1967, 1975
Stanley Cup Victories: 1962-1964, 1967
Driven, indefatigable, coarse, compelling, wily, impulsive, infuriating; penurious when he wanted to be yet willing to open up the team’s wallet to get the players he wanted; Punch Imlach was all these things and more.
No one did more to restore Toronto to its championship glory than he did and no one did more to make sure that Toronto never returned to that championship glory more than he did.
Interestingly if you apply my rating method to his coaching career he actually did better as a GM than he did as a coach. His coaching value is a +86 as opposed to the +105 he scored as a manager.
Despite all the controversy Punch inspired (and still inspires today) he was the greatest general manager of the 1960s according to my rating system—by a razor thin margin but still number one. He was the sixth best general manager of the 1970s (between Milt Schmidt and Emile Francis) which isn’t bad considering he was managing (and developing) an expansion franchise during the first half of the decade. Furthermore he was the fourth greatest general manager during the Original Six era (1942-1967) and the seventh greatest GM of the First Expansion era (1967-1979).
By the time Imlach was named Leafs GM in 1958 he had already spent over a decade in hockey coaching and managing in the minors. He had served as coach, GM, and part owner of the Quebec Aces (where Jean Beliveau and Doug Harvey played for him). He later served as GM and head coach of the Springfield Indians (owned by the legendary Eddie Shore) when they were affiliated with the Boston Bruins. (Don Cherry was one of his players).
Imlach was doing trouble-shooting work for Lynn Patrick at the Boston Bruins when he was offered a job working for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
When Punch was hired by the Maple Leafs the team had been in the doldrums for most of the decade. Their last Cup win was in 1951 and their last playoff appearance was in 1956. They had finished in last place during the 57/58 season under new coach Billy Reay. The team’s management was in disarray too. Conn Smythe had stepped aside in order for his son Stafford to take control of the team. A committee of seven dictated the policies of the team but in truth there was a massive power vacuum—which Punch Imlach filled ruthlessly but effectively.
After a terribly 20 game start with the Leafs again in the basement Punch fired Billy Reay and took over the coaching reins himself; wielding both portfolios for the remainder of his stay in Toronto.
In a way it wasn’t surprising. Given Imlach’s driven nature and insatiable desire to control every aspect of his professional environment, the idea of having someone looking over his shoulder or having to remain upstairs while someone coached the team must have been anathema to him.
It was only logical that he wear both hats—which he did with remarkable results.
The Leafs already had established players in Tim Horton, George Armstrong, Frank Mahovlich, Bob Pulford, Bob Baun, and Dick Duff. Rookies Carl Brewer and Bob Nevin spiced up the roster as well.
Punch added the venerable Johnny Bower; and traded for Allan Stanley and Bert Olmstead in 1958. The following season he stole Red Kelly from Detroit in one of the greatest trading coups in NHL history.
In his memoirs Imlach related how Jack Adams had tried to trade Kelly before the start of the 1959/60 season but couldn’t agree with Imlach as to which players he wanted in exchange. Later in the season, Adams traded Kelly to New York but Kelly scotched the deal by refusing to report to New York thus negating the trade. Punch, smelling the opportunity, got in touch with Adams, got his permission to negotiate with Kelly, and was able to convince Red not to call it quits. In the end Red Kelly became a Maple Leaf and played a vital role in the Leafs four Stanley Cup victories in the 1960s.
Imlach never was one to stand pat with his roster. Each season brought a major addition or subtraction to the roster.
One area where Punch was innovative was in the brilliant way he exploited the NHL’s intra-league draft. No other NHL GM before or since pulled off as many brilliant steals during the intra-league draft like Punch did.
In 1961 Imlach drafted Al Arbour from the Blackhawks (Arbour augmented the Leafs blue-corps splendidly during their dynasty years).
But the greatest prize of all came in 1964 when Punch stole the immortal Terry Sawchuk from the Detroit Red Wings. Imlach had gone into the draft vaguely hoping to obtain Gump Worsley but when the Rangers passed in the second round that left Punch without the funds to acquire the Gumper. Momentarily stymied, Imlach waited for the second round to pass without making any claims. It was in the third round that his patience paid off in spades. Detroit’s Sid Abel claimed a minor-league goalie thus exposing Sawchuk. Imlach reaped his reward by claiming Terry thus giving him one of the greatest goalie rotations in NHL history: Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk.
Sawchuk regained his goal-tending groove and back-stopped the Leafs to the 1967 Stanley Cup.
In 1971 Imlach used the Intra-League draft to steal Rene Robert from Toronto).
(Punch wasn’t always lucky in the Intra-League draft. In 1965 the Leafs lost Gerry Cheevers in the Intra-League draft to Boston).
The 1960s were the glory years for Punch but there was a price to be paid. Too many times he sent promising youngsters to other teams for quick fix veterans. Too many times he was penurious with the wrong players thus creating disenchantment and division. After 1967 Punch’s luck ran out. The expansion draft in 1967 gutted the Leafs of their reserve strength and some of their most stalwart players. Furthermore Punch unloaded many of the players who made victory possible (Frank Mahovlich, Pete Stemkowski, Jim Pappin, and Garry Unger) and got precious little in return.
Toronto never won the Cup again and by 1969 Punch was fired.
Determined not to go gentle in the dark hockey nights, Punch was present at the creation of the Buffalo Sabres and proved himself once more as a master builder. During his years as Sabres GM he drafted future Sabres luminaries: Gilbert Perreault, Craig Ramsay, Rick Martin, Peter Macnab, Jim Schoenfeld, and Danny Gare.
It took five years for these young men to make Buffalo Stanley Cup contenders. After 1975 Punch went into decline. He was fired from Buffalo in 1978 and tried to go home again back to Toronto but the magic was gone. The damage done by Punch and Harold Ballard was too much to overcome. The game had passed Punch by and by 1981 he was fired from Toronto never to return to hockey.
He died in 1987 and still inspires debate and controversy today.
(My next column will feature former Flyers GM Keith Allen.)