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Saturday, 7 March 2009

TBC: '67

Back in December, I was very impressed with a book all about the history of the Montreal Canadiens written by D'Arcy Jenish. I'm big on hockey history of all sorts because it really shows us where we've been. To understand the present, you have to know the past. With that in mind, I picked up '67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire written by Damien Cox and Gord Stellick, and published by Wiley. I have to admit that I'm not a Leafs fan by any means, but it's tough to understand how a franchise who won Stanley Cups in 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1967 hasn't been back to the Stanley Cup Finals since. The basis for a glorious run of success was there, yet the Leafs haven't been anywhere close to their past glory for the last 42 years. This book delves deep into that last Stanley Cup-winning Leafs team, and how the entire franchise came unraveled after that win.

Damien Cox is an award-winning sports columnist for the Toronto Star. He has covered hockey for the better part of two decades, going to the Olympics three times and being an accredited media member with the NHL. He contributes to The Hockey News and to regularly, works on the PrimeTime Sports radio show with Bob McCown, contributes to Molson's That's Hockey on TSN, and appears regularly on TSN's The Reporters. He also co-authored Brodeur: Beyond The Crease, which was featured on this blog previously.

Gord Stellick was a long-time Maple Leafs employee. He began working with the Leafs in 1975, ascending up the ladder of employment all the way to the general manager's chair in 1988, marking him as the youngest GM in NHL history. He resigned in the summer of 1989 and became the assistant GM of the New York Rangers. He currently works on Rogers Sportsnet's NHL telecasts, co-hosts the FAN590's morning radio show, and co-hosts Inside The AHL on Rogers Sportsnet.

I'll start off a little negative here. This book was a fairly dry read for the most part - there is a lot of detail that makes reading this book seem like work instead of encouraging you to get to the next page. Also, the book jumps around a lot. It's not a timeline of things that were happening, but an overview of everything that has led the Leafs away from their pinnacle. The start of each chapter begins with a description of one of the Leafs' playoff games from the 1967 season, and that also contributes to breaking up the flow of the book even more.

However, as the book progresses, there are good examinations of several key topics that contributed to the Leafs' downfall: the formation of the player union with player agent Alan Eagleson, the "old boys' club" of players that head coach "Punch" Imlach couldn't let go of, the questionable practices of ownership, and the ridiculous one-sided trades made by the Leafs to jettison players who didn't fit into Imlach's mold.

In speaking to the players for this book, it is clear that they still hold "Punch" Imlach in poor regard for his actions during the 1960s, and his poor treatment of players - particularly young players who had immense talent - is a common theme throughout the book. Previous owners take some major knocks from the writers for their complete disregard of how to run a hockey club, and how it led to the Leafs being dismantled after their four-Cups-in-seven-years run through the 1960s.

"Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Ballard and Smythe were starting to play games with money and taxes, games that would land each man in serious legal trouble and destroy the proud reputation of the franchise. Conn Smythe was out of the way and the Gardens was profitable, but Stafford Smythe was becoming increasingly erratic and both he and Ballard had begin the process of diverting Gardens monies for their own personal use."

In what may have been the most interesting chapter was "Owning The Empire" (where the above quotation comes from). In it, Cox and Stellick show exactly how the Leafs franchise was being decimated by its own people. From fraudulent owners to a seething sex scandal that would shake the organization to its foundation, the Leafs really were one of the most poorly-managed teams in sports history. And the blind eyes turned to some of these activities is mind-blowing.

"Hockey fans should want to read this book just as much as Leaf fans. It takes you inside the great history of the Leafs - right inside. From Johnny Bower's contract negotiations to everything that was happening behind the scenes, I enjoyed this book so much. It's fascinating stuff." - John Davidson, President of the St. Louis Blues

Overall, it took me a little effort to get into this book. Again, I'm not a Leafs fan, so I didn't identify with some of the early information, but once Cox and Stellick began peeling away the layers past the locker room, the story of the fall of the Toronto Maple Leafs really became an interesting read. '67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire doesn't back down from sensitive topics, and really does a good job in painting a vivid picture as to why the Maple Leafs are in the situation they find themselves in today. Because of this, this book deserves the Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval as it answers a lot of questions of "why" and "what happened to" in its writing.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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