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.