Almost unbelievably, as professional hockey's big race approached its end last week, the Toronto Maple Leafs were leading the Montreal Canadiens. What's more, the Leafs gave every indication of getting in first at the finish.
Unlike Beat-'em-Bucs Pittsburgh or Gallic Montreal, which adores the Habs when they win and hates them when they lose, good gray Toronto has maintained a cool aplomb in the face of its team's triumphs. After all, the townspeople could argue, the Leafs' manager planned it that way. They are talking about George (Punch) Imlach, a man who has his city's own unearthly calm in his bones. Imlach runs the Leafs like a combination geriatric ward, rescue mission and finishing school.
"A hockey player isn't a machine," says Punch. "You can't press a button and make him grind along the same way every time. You have to develop him. If you give up on a man, he senses it and it hurts him."
One of Imlach's most useful forwards today is Eddie Shack, the unpredictable individualist traded off by the Rangers as uncoachable early this season.
As it happens, Shack somehow managed to get through his youth in 20th century Canada without learning how to read or write, and much of his intransigence was the result of sensitivity about this lack. When Imlach picked him up Eddie diffidently brought up the matter of his near illiteracy. In his casually profane way, Imlach replied that he didn't hire Shack to be his adjectival secretary, but if Shack wanted to play hockey, he'd be glad to give him a try.
By last week an ever more confident Shack had scored 13 goals for Toronto—four more than in his best full season in New York—and was taking a regular turn on a line with the veteran Bert Olmstead and everybody's rookie of the year, Dave Keon.
Winger Olmstead, a flaming competitor, is one of Imlach's prize old-timers. Another is Goalie Johnnie Bower, who says he's 36 but may be 40 (Imlach doesn't care which). Another is Center Red Kelly, once a superstar on defense for the great postwar Detroit Red Wings. Imlach plucked the aging Kelly from Detroit last season chiefly because he had no one to handle the Canadiens' awesome center Jean Beliveau. As a bonus, Kelly proved to be the key that unlocked the potential of the Leafs' top scorer, Frank Mahovlich (SI, Jan. 30).
The Big M himself, now just 23, is naturally the pick of Imlach's youth group, which is the largest and best in the league. Dave Keon, 20, with 19 goals already in his first big league year, has the makings of a major star, as does Carl Brewer, 22, a truculent, fast-skating defenseman. Center Bob Pulford is a superior hockey man at 24; Larry Hillman, a Boston castoff, a blossoming defenseman of the same age.
It is with this fragile merchandise that Imlach is at his best. "You can never expect a youngster to carry your team," he says. "At first he's fighting just to stay in the league. If you give him too big a load, he can't develop normally."
Punch Imlach, however, doesn't just sit around being patient and understanding during the development process. If it seems to be lagging, he has a tongue that can sting or inspire as the occasion demands. He has, besides this, a rare ability to keep track of all 12 men on a hockey rink at once, a filing cabinet memory and an implacable optimism.
"He preaches a strange religion," says the veteran Toronto Sportswriter Red Burnett, musing on Imlach's devotion to the shopworn dictum that a team unwilling to be beaten can't be beaten, "but it seems to work."
"I believe that nothing is impossible," growled supersalesman Imlach the other day, his blue eyes glinting. "I believe you can do anything you want to do. You can't just sit back and say you're losing because of circumstances. When I came here the team was down, and I said, "The hell with it. I don't like these circumstances. Let's make new ones."
Imlach has been altering circumstances for the better all his life. Born to industrious Scots immigrant parents, Imlach started his professional career, like a model Alger hero, as an $8-a-week bank clerk, rose to teller, left to join the army in World War II, worked his way up from the ranks to a commission.
In hockey he was first a player, then player-coach, then manager-coach and finally manager-coach-part owner of the Quebec Aces, then an amateur team, now a professional one in the city of Quebec. Next came a year as boss of the so-so minor league Springfield hockey team, which he coaxed into a playoff series on the 69th game of a 70-game season.
Three years ago Imlach joined last-place Toronto as assistant general manager. Director Staff Smythe had at first intended to hire Wren Blair, coach of a Canadian amateur team that had regained the world hockey title from Russia, but found Blair's terms unacceptable. He turned to Imlach as a second choice.
Up, up, up
Within a few months, however, the new assistant was promoted to general manager. Alarmed over the Leafs' slump under Coach Billy Reay, Manager Imlach took over the coaching himself and fight-talked the team into fourth place and the Stanley Cup playoffs on the very last night of the 70-game season. The following year he boosted the Leafs all the way up to second place.
Imlach still wears the hats of both coach and manager and thus has the peculiarly delicate task of asking the utmost of his players on the ice after sparring with them at contract time. So far this has seemed to work surprisingly well, although there were rumors of disaffection this season over Imlach's alleged Scotch thrift.
Imlach says the rumors are wrong. "I respect a man for fighting hard for his contract," he declares. "I hope he fights just as hard on the ice."
It is a matter of record that the Leafs have fought surpassingly well for him this season. Whether they like him or not is another matter and one probably immaterial to Imlach. Certainly they respect him.
Toronto kids, who are considerably more emotional about hockey than their good, gray elders, not only like but love him. One who got his autograph on a broken Leaf hockey stick not long ago looked up worshipfully and said, "Punch, you're a nice man."
"When I'm winning," said Punch evenly. "When I'm winning."