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 c�l�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.