Every man reacts a little bit differently to the grim routine of a Toronto Maple Leaf hockey practice. The older ones skate evenly, lips pressed tightly together and eyes fixed on the ice. The younger ones may yell at one another or curse quietly at no one in particular as they gather the energy for another rush across the rink. George (Punch) Imlach, the bald, 48-year-old coach, stands near the blue line, in the middle of the action, with one hand in his pocket and the other holding a whistle. His crisp voice echoes through the empty Maple Leaf Gardens, goading his players to work longer and harder than any others in the National Hockey League. "That's it," he yells when a few men battle unusually hard for a loose puck. "I want you guys to get mad."
And many of the Maple Leafs do get mad—at each other, at the teams they are preparing to face and, often, at their coach. Few Toronto players will tell you that they like Punch Imlach. They say they "respect him" or "understand him" or "get used to him." Some have even said that they disliked him and thought he was hurting the club—but the ones who said those things in public are no longer playing hockey in Toronto. Those who remain have learned to keep quiet and concentrate on hockey. And in the seven years since the energetic, intense Imlach took over a last-place team in midseason and drove it into the Stanley Cup finals, his players have done well enough to make him one of the most successful men in the game.
That is all Imlach demands. "I don't give a damn if each player likes me personally, as long as he's loyal to the club and does his best," he says. "In fact, I try to avoid getting too close to the players. After all, I'm the general manager, so I've got to talk salary with them, too."
Imlach's history of tough and intransigent salary negotiations has made it very clear that he is not worried about being liked. Bobby Baun played on a broken leg to help the Leafs win the final game of the playoffs two years ago; a year later Imlach refused to grant his salary demands and Baun was a bitter holdout. Eddie Shack, an eight-year major-leaguer, scored 26 goals last season while earning a modest $13,500. This past summer he wheedled a $5,000 increase out of Punch—and Imlach took the first opportunity he found to order Shack to the Leafs' Rochester farm club for the training season.
December 12, 1966
Each year Imlach stares across his desk at the men whose ability he must depend on for his own livelihood, and calmly denies most of their requests. He guards the club's money as if it were his own. Part of it is, for Punch insists on owning a share in every club he operates, to help preserve his fierce independence from all outside interests, including owners. "But my share is so small that it's unimportant in any negotiations," he says. What is important is Imlach's almost religious concept of the one correct way to run a hockey team. "I decide what's right for each man," he says, "and I stick to it. Sure, I could be on the spot if we lose while a guy like Mahovlich is holding out. But once I start giving in to players, I run all kinds of risks."
The advantages of being a Maple Leaf include playing in a city that supports its local heroes devotedly and cutting up a payroll that is, after all the arguments subside, one of the highest in the National Hockey League. But the main compensation is winning, and Punch Imlach has shown that he is very good at that.
His feats in the 1958-59 season are legendary in Toronto. He came to the floundering club as general manager, and fired its coach within a month. Taking over himself, he immediately began claiming that his last-place team would make the playoffs. With a furious drive in the last two weeks of the season, the Leafs did—and then went on to upset the Boston Bruins in the semifinal round and fight the mighty Montreal Canadiens through five games before losing the finals.
The Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1962 and repeated for two more years, making Imlach the only combined general manager-coach ever to win three straight cups. The team that finished fifth and sixth in the last two pre-Imlach years hasn't missed the playoffs during his eight-year tenure and certainly doesn't appear likely to miss them this season. When he first made himself coach, Imlach was almost unknown—he had never played or coached in the NHL—and even a little reluctant. "I took over while I was looking for someone else for the job," he says, "but things went so well that I stayed. The players said they wanted me—and I never let them forget that now, by the way." He has survived repeated suggestions that player discontent would force him out of his job, and he now runs his taut regime with the added power that a four-year contract brings.
Imlach spells out what he calls his "formula" as if he were reading from Norman Vincent Peale, whose positive-thinking creed has sometimes been distributed as a textbook to Toronto players. Hard work. Complete control of the club. Positive thinking. Loyalty. "Technical ability," adds Punch, "is only about the fifth most important thing. Good physical and mental shape can make up for a lot of technical deficiencies." It all sounds very simple, but the formula is more complex than it appears—and so is the man who preaches it.
The cold, tough martinet who sometimes alienates his players can also be friendly, entertaining and surprisingly sensitive. He can cajole his men as well as intimidate them. He praises players as often as he criticizes them. "I never knock a man and then leave him down," he says. "I may tell a guy he's a bum during salary talks or when he plays badly. But then I've got to come back and convince him that he's the best bum in all of hockey."
"Every coach may try to use psychology on his players," says George Armstrong, the Toronto captain. "But what Punch does is really amazing. It's almost impossible to sustain a mood or spirit over a 70-game season, but somehow he did it in the 1958-59 season—and he's come pretty close to doing it ever since. Anybody can get a bunch of kids excited for a few games. Look at what Ralph Houk did to the Yankees this year. But they faded back. Punch has never given us a chance to settle back. He knows how to keep us keyed up—and he's always varying his approach."
While Imlach's psychological approach varies, his commitment to hard work remains immutable. Most teams go through four weeks of training camp, practicing once a day, before the NHL season; the Maple Leafs practice twice a day for five weeks. On most clubs an occasional day off during the season is taken for granted; on the Leafs it is a rare gift. "I know some guys find it awfully hard," Imlach says. "Especially ones who come from other teams like Detroit, where Sid Abel doesn't believe in working them too much. I know that some are going to complain, but there's nothing I can do for them. This is the way I believe in doing things."
Goalie Terry Sawchuk, who did come from Detroit, says, "It was very hard at first. But you just have to get used to it. Then you realize that Punch is doing a lot for you."
Center Red Kelly's approval is slightly more qualified. "I agree with him that hard work is important," says Red. "But I also believe that a man can drive himself. And if you drive yourself, you knew just what's good for you and when to stop." If Imlach has sometimes pushed Kelly beyond the point where Red thought he should have stopped, it has apparently brought results. Kelly came to Toronto in 1960 as a once-great defenseman who appeared to be fading. Imlach switched him to center, a position that requires more speed, and Kelly suddenly and incredibly found new life.
The Kelly trade helped to build Imlach's reputation as hockey's shrewdest trader. For Kelly he gave up a defense-man named Marc Reaume, who played 47 games in two years at Detroit, never scored a goal and now labors in the Central Professional Hockey League. He got Allen Stanley for James Morrison, now a minor-leaguer, and added Gerry Ehman and Larry Regan during that same 1958-59 season, to form a trio that led the Leafs in their closing drive into the playoffs.
Imlach permits himself to gloat a little about his best deals, but he always points out that his trades are all dependent on another part of his formula. "Nobody second-guesses me around here," he says. "I make the decisions myself, and I take full responsibility. The owners of this club know that as soon as they want to make the decisions, all they have to do is fire me. I always remember what Conn Smythe once told me: be sure to make your own mistakes."
Actually, Smythe's fatherly advice was given only after Imlach had revised the owner's entire way of thinking about the Toronto team. When Imlach arrived, Smythe was still employing a quaint system of instructing his coach during a game by a special phone to the bench. He told Imlach that he would be happy to offer advice between periods. "Let's do it my way," replied Punch. "I run the whole show, you watch it. As soon as you don't like it, just tell me to get the hell out."
Imlach is still running the whole show, and running it effectively. He gives orders and his team obeys; he tells them they can win and they do. But the element of loyalty, which Imlach claims is essential to his success, is not always apparent. The coach is cold and distant, his players are professionals doing a job. There is no love between them, but Imlach insists that there is another kind of bond. "They have to want to help the team, they have to be willing to give things up. Every winning team needs that feeling."
In order to encourage that feeling, Imlach himself adheres to a rigid code of loyalty. Last year, when the NHL expansion teams began looking for general managers, he received several lucrative offers. The Leafs were not going well and there were widespread rumors that Imlach would be wise to get out while he had a chance at a good job. "Sure, the deals were attractive," he recalls. "The Leaf owners came to me and asked me if I was going to leave. I told them they didn't have to worry about me as long as my contract had a year left on it. I wouldn't break a contract for any amount of money. Once a coach starts doing something like that, what can he expect his players to do?"
Some critics claim that his fervent concept of loyalty has hurt Imlach during the last two years. The aging players who played a dominant role in the Leafs' Stanley Cup triumphs have slowed down considerably, and the Leafs have settled for relatively disappointing seasons. "Maybe I did hurt myself by sticking with the veterans," Punch admits. "But these are the guys who held the club together to win three cups. I feel I've got to show them I appreciate what they've done for me."
When he speaks of Armstrong, Kelly or the ageless Bower ("the most remarkable athlete in the world—he'd practice nine hours a day without complaining if you asked him to"), Imlach abandons the icy attitude he likes to maintain toward his men. But it always returns very quickly. "A player should want to keep training," he claims. "He should feel he owes it to his teammates. There should never be a need for curfew checks." Then he pauses and grins at the sentimental notions he is expressing. "Of course, I check up on them anyway. I believe in discipline as well as loyalty."
If Imlach can't force a man to become an effective part of his club, he simply gets rid of him—even if he is a star. Andy Bathgate, the ninth leading scorer in hockey history, helped Toronto to its most recent Stanley Cup in 1964 with several crucial goals. After one more year with the club, Bathgate told a reporter that Imlach was too hard on the team, that the brutal practice sessions hurt them. "Bathgate is a lazy hockey player," Imlach pronounced. "He doesn't fit in on my club." He traded him to Detroit for the scarred veteran Pronovost, who may be less spectacular but who also says, "The only way I ever stayed in this game was by hard work."
The other major cause cél√®bre of the Imlach regime, Carl Brewer, was far more important to the team than Bathgate. Brewer was one of the best defense-men in hockey when the 1964-65 season ended and, at 27, he was still at the peak of his career. But this tough, sometimes vicious player also happened to be an extremely sensitive, introspective individual—so sensitive that even the astute psychologist Imlach may have made some serious mistakes with him.
Brewer was confused and sullen when he reported to practice for the 1965-66 campaign. His friend Baun was a holdout, and he himself was unhappy that Imlach wasn't treating him like the star he had become. During exhibition games he made a series of terrible passes onto opponents' sticks; several times opposing forwards took advantage of them to aim hard shots at Goalie Bower. Finally Bower reacted; he and Brewer had a loud argument in the locker room.
"I blew my top," Imlach says. "When I saw what was happening because of Brewer's sulking, I knew I had to do something." There was never much doubt about what he would do. Faced with a choice between the steadfast, reliable Bower and the quiet, unpredictable younger man whom he never really understood, Imlach backed up Bower. He assaulted Brewer with one of the colorful, oath-filled tirades for which he is famous—and Brewer broke down. He left the Toronto training camp and announced his retirement.
George Imlach began his own career as a promising center on a junior hockey team, but five years in the army—as a drill sergeant, naturally—took away his chance to make the major leagues. When he was discharged in 1945, the 27-year-old Imlach got a trial with the Red Wings. He arrived at camp at the same time as a 17-year-old prospect named Gordie Howe. "Both of us were assigned to their Omaha farm team," he recalls. "But Howe had his whole career ahead of him. I had just been married and I was broke. I also knew I was no Howe, and I had to be realistic about my chances. I went back to Quebec City and took an accountant's job."
In Quebec he became connected with a team called the Quebec Aces. Within 10 years he had been player, coach, general manager and even part owner of the consistently winning club. In 1956-57 he went to the Bruins' farm club in Springfield and the following year to Toronto.
As he began to remake the Leafs' entire farm system and lead his team to the playoffs, Imlach was alternately exuberant and unapproachable. He would gloat loudly when he won and fly into rages when things went badly. He can still show as much temper as anyone in hockey, but now he has also made an art of expressing his views and answering—or refusing to answer—questions.
Early this season the Leafs appeared to be off to another slow start. Mahovlich was unsigned, Bob Pulford and Baun were hurt and the remaining players had managed to lose and tie their first two games against the New York Rangers. Imlach sat in a small room next to the players' dressing room after a practice and stared menacingly at reporters. A brave soul asked about the three missing stars. "I don't know if they're good enough to make this team," Punch snapped. Someone else asked him why Johnny Bovver had been granted a day off. "Because I'm getting soft and sentimental," he said. Before the session was over, he had insulted and infuriated several of the men who must earn a living asking him questions. Mumbling and cursing, the reporters filed out. Imlach called after them, "Come on downstairs and I'll buy you all a drink."
Two days later Mahovlich signed his contract. The men who had kept the dull vigil over the negotiations were finally rewarded. "How much did he get?" they asked.
"How long is the contract for?"
"Are you satisfied with the compromise you reached?"
There were five more questions, five more quick "no comment" replies. Then Punch looked up from his desk, his eyes wide and his face breaking into an innocent smile. "Is there anything else that you fellows would like to know about it?" he asked.
It has all become a kind of pleasant game for the man who would like everyone to believe that he is grim and uncompromising in everything he does. "I've learned to enjoy life," he once admitted. "I've got a good organization and a solid job. It would be pretty stupid of me if I didn't get some fun out of the whole thing. Sure, things will be tough at times and I'll get mad. But don't worry about us—no matter what goes wrong, I'll be in the playoffs.
"You know," he added, "people tell me I shouldn't keep saying, 'I, I, I,' when I talk about the team. It sounds bad. They say I should say 'we' or 'the club.' But I must admit I can't help it. I get so damn involved with what I'm trying to do, it feels like it's all my own private problem."