"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."