52 years ago tonight, March 11, 1959, the Leafs had a home game they really needed to win if they wanted to keep their playoff hopes alive. Facing first-place Montreal, they got pounded 6-2. This loss put them 10 games under .500 at 22-32-11 and left them pretty much buried in fifth place, seven points back of the New York Rangers with only five to play.
Those Leafs were kind of a funny team. They were inconsistent. They’d look like world beaters one minute and then get smoked by a weak team the next.
There had been a ton of roster turnover. They were dependent on a lot of young players at key spots – both on the blue line and up front. Severely lacking in depth at centre, the GM had plugged holes with minor leaguers he’d known from other organizations and other teams’ castoffs. A goalie brought in for depth purposes ended up the season as the clear starter.
The Leaf season would end on April 18 with another loss to Montreal. This time, it was 5-3 at the Forum. That was game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Between those two losses came a pretty wild ride. The Leafs would run the table, winning their last five. This included a pair against the Rangers, who lost six of their last seven. The Leafs would come back from two goals down on the very last game of the season to clinch a playoff spot, something Punch Imlach called the most exciting moment of his career – moreso even than the four Cup wins he’d later have.
The Leafs, as the four seed, drew second-place Boston in the first round (I have no explanation at all for the 1-3/2-4 playoff system the NHL used at that time). They beat the favoured Bruins in seven after dropping the first two on the road, then winning both home games in OT. The hero was Gerry Ehman, with six goals in the series. More on him in a minute.
Now, I’ve overstated the parallels above and there are as many significant differences between the Leafs of 1958-59 and today as there are similarities. If there’s one thing I want to capture, though, it’s that it’s never over until that little ‘e’ shows up next to your team’s name in the standings. In the last game of the season, when the Leafs were down 2-0 after one, Stafford Smythe came down to congratulate Punch on a great run. Punch told him to stuff it, as they weren’t dead.
The Leafs got beat by the Habs in the Final. Montreal was too strong and the Leafs weren’t ready yet. The Leafs’ best chance in the series came when a George Armstrong shot went through the net without anyone noticing. Instead of tying game 4 and potentially the series, the Habs won, went up 3-1 and finished the Leafs off at home in game 5. Still, this run established the Leafs as contenders. They grew as a team, battle tested many of their players and came back stronger. They’d be back in the Final in 1959-60, and would win it all four times between 1961-62 and 1966-67.
Gerry Ehman never got a real chance to play until he was 26. He’d had a single game with Boston in ’57-58 and six with Detroit in ’58-59, but otherwise had been fated to the minor leagues. Punch Imlach, however, had had Gerry with the Quebec Aces and knew his abilities. With the Leafs needing scoring and some size up front, Gerry was picked up in December.
Right away, he clicked on a line with Billy Harris and Frank Mahovlich (the HEM line). In his 38 games, he had 12 goals and 13 assists. He then led the Leafs in playoff scoring with 6 goals and 13 points in 12 games.
That was really the highlight with Gerry. His fate was to be one of those guys who help a team along the way, but then get shoved down the depth chart as a team gets better until he’s just a memory by the time the team is fully developed. In a full season in 1959-60, Gerry scored just three more points than he had done in 38 games the year before. He’d play 14 more games in 1960-61, then be sent down to Rochester. He’d make one last appearance in 1963-64, playing four regular-season games, but then he dressed for 9 in the post-season, a role-player on his only Stanley Cup-winning team.
Gerry always put up good numbers in Rochester, and when expansion came, he joined the Oakland Seals. Oakland was never very good, but Gerry was always one of their better forwards. (Given his age, though, the fact that he was one of their better forwards tells you a lot about Oakland.) He finished with the Seals at age 38 in 1971.
I’ve had Gerry Ehman scanned for years, along with some other 1959 players (and one entire team set I won’t mention by name), waiting for the moment when the Leafs would actually be playing relevant hockey in March. It has been a long time.
Visit the Gerry Ehman Gallery at the HHOF.
I’ll cross-post this with Gerry’s stats and a couple videos at PPP. Can’t make it work here for some reason.