After a recent tumultuous two-game visit to New York, the Toronto Maple Leafs landed just where they always are at this time of year—ahead of the Rangers and seemingly sure of a playoff spot. And the irony is that the trick was turned with the help of a punchy Punchinello named Eddie Shack, an ex-Ranger who was laughed out of Madison Square Garden a few years ago. "Looney Tunes" they call Shack around the Garden these days, but he was just looney enough last week to score the goal that gave the Leafs the tie that put them in third place. And that's the way it's likely to be with Eddie.
During the early weeks of the current season, when the Maple Leafs were hanging around the lower depths of the National Hockey League, Shack was lingering in the minors and the fans in Toronto were missing him badly. Then one day about two weeks after the season opened, workmen began scurrying around both ends of the Toronto arena, buttressing the concrete walls with heavy timbers. To perplexed observers, the Leafs' Executive Vice President Hal Ballard had a perfectly reasonable explanation: "Eddie is back." Anyone who has ever seen Shack skate pell-mell into immovable objects knew that the Maple Leaf Gardens needed all the reinforcement it could get. And so, for that matter, did the Maple Leafs.
Over the years the Toronto team has built a reputation for latent competence. For 70 games they skate around, working up just enough sweat to be socially offensive, and they win just enough games to assure themselves a playoff berth. Once the cup play begins, their latent talent comes alive. Comes alive? Erupts is more like it. Players who have done little more than go through the motions for weeks suddenly begin to zip right by startled defenders or, if necessary, over them. The league front-runners, weary from trying to win more games than anyone else during a meaningless regular season, haven't got a prayer against those crafty old well-rested Leafs and, when it is all over, there sits the Stanley Cup in Maple Leaf Gardens.
For four out of five recent years Toronto imposed these conditions on its NHL neighbors, and it seemed reasonable to assume they would do it again last spring when the Maple Leafs chugged into Montreal for the opening round of the playoffs. But good grief! They got whomped. Significant? End of an era? Goodby to all that? If these were merely rhetorical questions at the end of last season, they seemed more like statements of fact at the beginning of this one. The 1965-66 Maple Leafs had apparently hit on the perfect blend of tired old men and inept rookies. Losing a few regular-season games is one thing, but when the Boston Bruins begin to maltreat you with outrageous consistency, you've had it as a hockey team. And that's what was happening to the former cup champs.
The night after the Leafs lost to the Rangers on their home ice. Coach Punch Imlach scanned his Rochester farm team's roster, took a deep breath and put in a call to Mr. Edward Shack in Rochester. "Hustle on up here," Imlach told Eddie, "and do something."
Imlach called just the right person, for Shack's talent is unique. Nobody has ever confused him with any of the world's great hockey players. No sir. But take a perfectly orderly and predictable turn of events, point Eddie in its direction, and duck. Suddenly what was orderly becomes a wilderness of confusion, excitement and unpredictability. Shack does have a fair turn of speed, but his splendid rushes up the ice are often completed with a futile circle of the opponent's net. At times he makes abandoned assaults on the unoffending sideboards just because they are there. Opponents, teammates, referees—all have been clobbered by Shack and all at the most unforeseeable times. A few years ago one of Toronto's more experienced forwards, Bert Olmstead, had cannily avoided a vicious check by an opposing defenseman in white only to be flattened in mid-ice by his teammate Shack. Olmstead got up, regathered his gloves and stick, pulled a fistful of Eddie's shirt out in front of him and yelled: "What color is it, Eddie, what color is it?"
"Blue," said Shack.
"That's right," said Olmstead, "it's blue. Stay clear of it, Eddie, for Pete's sake, stay clear of blue!"
Obviously, then, if a hockey team is running smoothly and winning its games, Eddie Shack can be a most disconcerting fellow to have around and a menace to the organization. At the start of this season, however, Punch Imlach's team was anything but smooth-running. It seemed in imminent danger of coming to a dead stop. What the Maple Leafs needed was a jolt, a detonator, a kick in the rear. Welcome home, Eddie Shack! Eddie returned from the sticks with a bang, fans screamed with joy, and the Leafs began a steady climb back to respectability.
Whatever the advantages proffered to little boys growing up in a small backwoods Canadian town, Shack missed most of them. At 14 he had one of the largest noses in Sudbury, Ont., and though he was a sturdy young fellow the target was irresistible to his playmates. Shack spent most of his waking hours fighting off tormentors. In that part of Canada teachers used to put the good athletes in a corner and then ignore them. Because of this, Eddie, who could skate like an autumn leaf in the wind, managed to get by six grades of grammar school without learning to read or write.
A few years ago Shack did learn to write some, a skill that comes in handy for signing autographs. But he left school for good when he was 14 to become a butcher's apprentice. The job paid him the sum of $60 a week. Shack's talent for skating soon brought him an offer from the Guelph (Ont.) junior team, at a cut in pay. The pay may have been less ($20 a week), but Eddie had long since decided that playing hockey was a fine way to make a life, so he signed on. His debut was sensational. He was one of the top scorers and the penalty leader, earned a number of uncomplimentary nicknames having to do with his nose and gained a reputation as a very colorful fellow.
The New York Rangers, who sponsored the Guelph team and hence had first crack at Eddie's services, were delighted with his progress. In 1958 Shack was brought to New York with all the unrealistic fanfare a team starving for wins can muster. "If Shack doesn't get the Rangers into the playoffs," said one club official, "no one can," and the press was quick to hop on the euphoria wagon. "The next superstar," was the way one headline writer labeled the newcomer.
Understandably, the New York fans were fully braced to witness incredible feats of scoring, skating and all-round derring-do in the tradition of Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard and Admiral Bull Halsey. When Shack fell somewhat short of such expectations, the response was right out of The Bronx. But if Shack was not especially helpful at winning games, he at least kept the customers interested. "I never take my eye off him," said New York's then General Manager Muzz Patrick. "I never know what Eddie is going to do next, and I don't think he does either."
When Ranger Coach Phil Watson left the team under a cloud of defeat at the end of the season, he took with him an ulcer which he ever after called "his bleeding Shack." Eddie kept right on as always. When not racing off on completely irrelevant tangents, he was hellbent on demolishing some unsuspecting opponent for the most obscure reasons. Alf Pike, the coach who replaced Watson, particularly recalls a game in Detroit. "Shack belts somebody," Pike explains, "and off he goes—two minutes. I swear it seemed like two seconds, then he comes out of the penalty box and-goes clear across the ice to belt somebody else. Damn near put him through the boards. Back he goes to the penalty box." Such antics were undeniably exhilarating for the paying fans, but did nothing for a coach's nerves or the Rangers' won-lost record. Desperately eager to see the last of this problem child, Ranger Manager Patrick finally convinced Toronto that there was gold in Eddie's skates—if only someone could make him hold still long enough to get at it.
Punch Imlach knows hockey talent as well as any man in the business, and he knew that Shack was no superstar. He knew also that the newcomer was unlikely to mend his ways just because he had changed uniforms. But if the Toronto coach knew what Shack could not do, he knew also what this curious clown could do.
"Sometimes we can get pretty lifeless out there," Punch said of his crowd of skilled and precise stickhandlers. "Eddie may be just the guy who can stir things up." Eddie was eager to do just that, and in his own bizarre way he became an exciting and effective member of the Toronto team. In any game it would take him just one turn around the ice to infuriate whatever member of the opposition he had not just dumbfounded, and a number of opponents renamed the game "Get Shack." As team after team devoted its entire effort to the annihilation of one right wing, the Maple Leafs found themselves with unique opportunities to score goals. As soon as Eddie showed signs of discombobulating his own teammates beyond recall, Imlach would yank him.
Toronto's conservative air makes a London tearoom appear like a Ringling Bros, production, but the fans there loved Eddie. "I spill my beer every time he comes on the ice," said one regular customer dressed in spats and bowler and carrying an umbrella. And Shack's teammates felt much the same. But when the Leafs blew the first round in the playoffs last year, Coach Imlach decided that Eddie had to go. "We can't afford a clown anymore," was the way he put it, and Shack was shipped to Rochester.
Eddie was so unhappy he decided to quit hockey forever and concentrate on building up his growing portfolio of stocks (he has been shrewdly advised by a Toronto mining magnate). Besides, he said, "I have these hands," meaning that he had learned the butchering trade well and could live on it, but the Rochester manager convinced Shack to stick around for a couple of weeks when the new season began, on the chance he might get traded to another big league team. Eddie agreed to stay two more weeks. Two weeks later to the day Punch Imlach gave Eddie his call.
The Toronto coach was not really overjoyed to see Shack again, but with the Leafs in such a sorry state he was ready to try anything. "But damn it all, Eddie," he pleaded, "no more clowning around. You play the game my way or out you go. Understand?"
For a while Eddie seemed to understand perfectly and, surprisingly, he even managed to be in the places a right wing is expected to be. But despite this superficial reformation, Shack is still Shack. For instance, a week or so ago he set up rookie Brit Selby, who had been suffering from a bad ankle, for a goal against the Black Hawks. It was a pretty piece of work, and the score sent Eddie racing exuberantly across the ice to salute his teammate. Trouble was, Shack as usual was too exuberant. He crashed headlong into Selby, knocking him down and re-injuring his ankle. Selby was out for the next three games. "Hardest check of the night," noted one reporter next morning. But all Coach Imlach could say was: "Eddie, Eddie, Eddie."