Classic Puck Written Review: Baun-Burner

Source: Lynn Bell

When they found out exactly how bad the injury was, Bob Baun cemented himself as a Maple Leafs legend.

It was in the sixth game of the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals against the Detroit Red Wings at the historic Detroit Olympia. The same two teams had met in the finals the year prior, with the Leafs emerging victorious in five games. However, a Red Wings victory tonight would give them the Cup and dethrone the two-time defending champion Leafs, as they led the series three games to two.

The 1963-64 NHL season was the twenty-second campaign of the ‘Original 6’ era, and would last only three more seasons before the league would double in size. Labelled as the “golden era” by many hockey historians, the style of play, most notably during the early-to-mid 60s, made it a tough league to crack. Only twenty spots were available per team, thus only approximately one-hundred and twenty players could boast that they were in the top ice hockey league in the world.

The speed, finesse, agility, and of course, toughness made it extremely competitive to secure a consistent spot on a team’s roster. Sure, you could argue that the speed and equipment severely pale in comparison to today’s game, but the stoicism (for better or for worse) made all these hardy Canadian players heroes to our parents and grandparents.

Each team had a few future Hall of Famers pad their roster, and the seventy games during the regular season guaranteed that each team would play one another an astonishing fourteen times to contribute to the ever-evolving rivalries.

The Maple Leafs had won the Cup in both 1962 and 1963, a nice way to compensate for having been Cup-less since Bill Barilko’s famous overtime goal in 1951 (which celebrated its seventieth anniversary on April 21st). They had gone through quite a significant rebuilding phase in the mid 1950s, as Ontario junior players joined the big club and would sport the Blue and White for several seasons, such as George Armstrong, Bob Pulford, Frank Mahovlich, Ron Stewart, Bob Baun, Dave Keon, and Tim Horton.

Other notable players of the era that were acquired via trades during those Cup-winning years included Larry Hillman, Allan Stanley, Eddie Shack, Red Kelly and beloved goaltender Johnny Bower. Of the names mentioned, eight of them are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

And even still, they wanted to maintain that silver chalice. Under coach/general manager Punch Imlach, the ensemble trudged through the first several months of the season in fair shape, but nothing indicated that they could once again dethrone the likes of the Red Wings, Canadiens, or Blackhawks, who were also very competitive.

Sure, the team was involved in some unique milestones along the way, such as Maple Leaf Gardens being the first arena to use separate penalty boxes (that’s right, players who would be sent to the sin bin would be required to sit directly beside opponents), but then they would also stink it up with horrendous play, once losing 11-0 to the last place Boston Bruins.

The inconsistency with all the ups and downs forced Imlach to play his hand and make a blockbuster trade in late February. The team was in a tight battle for 3rd place with Detroit, and miles ahead of both the Rangers and the Bruins (as the top 4 out of 6 teams make the playoffs), but Imlach wasn’t too content with how far ahead the Canadiens and Blackhawks were, as either of those two would likely be the Leafs’ first round opponents.

He made his colossal trade with the Rangers, obtaining star winger Andy Bathgate and skilled playmaker Don McKenney in exchange for Dick Duff, Bob Nevin, Arnie Brown, Bill Collins, and Rod Seiling. A relatively close correlation would be if the Leafs of today acquired players such as Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom for William Nylander, Ilya Mikheyev, Kristians Rubins, some irrelevant centre for the Marlies, and a prospect defenceman that would be good enough to play for their national team in eight years. Would you do it?

Well, Imlach made it happen and with McKenney and Bathgate in the lineup, the Leafs went 9-4-2 to close out the regular season. McKenney had exactly a point-per-game, actually tied for ninth in team goal scoring by season’s end, and Bathgate averaged an assist per game; both players doing what was expected of the other, in fact. Imlach was satisfied.

Still, the Leafs couldn’t make up enough ground to catch Montreal or Chicago, finishing the season with a record of 33-25-12, good enough for 3rd place. The playoff format inexplicably placed the 1st seed against the 3rd and the 2nd against the 4th, so Toronto would have to deal with the top seeded Canadiens, who finished seven points above them.

Toronto’s core, who were all seemingly right in the peak of their prime, managed to click solidly, and despite facing elimination down 3-2, they managed to shutout the Habs at the Gardens 3-0 to even the series. They then shocked the Habs again at the Montreal Forum, winning 3-1 thanks to Dave Keon’s hattrick. They would now move on to the finals and have the chance to three-peat as champions.

The same night that the Leafs beat the Canadiens in Game 7, the other semi-final series between Chicago and Detroit had a Game 7 of their own. The Red Wings’ current trajectory was not comparable to Toronto’s, but still had cogs in the lineup to make a run at the Cup any season.

Hall of Fame player Sid Abel was in the middle of his thirteen-year term as coach, and the roster consisted of future Hall of Famers Alex Delvecchio, Bill Gadsby, Marcel Pronovost, Norm Ullman, Terry Sawchuk, and the great Gordie Howe. Howe was in his eighteenth season, and at age 36, showed signs that his career was capable of lasting as long as it did. He led the team with 73 points, twenty more than runner-up Delvecchio.

That season, he broke Rocket Richard’s career goals record by notching his 545th tally in the thirteenth game of the season, fittingly against the Canadiens. That same night, Terry Sawchuk, who was in the final year of his second stint in Detroit, earned his 94th career clean sheet to tie George Hainsworth atop the all-time shutout list. He would get his record-breaking 95th shutout on January 18th, once again against the Canadiens.

With the aforementioned veterans and the young, promising talent of players like Pit Martin, Paul Henderson, and Larry Jeffrey, one would think the Wings would be staunch competitors atop the league, but much like the Leafs, they found themselves stagnant for a large portion of the campaign. They got on a bit of a roll during March to close out the season and finished seventeen points ahead of the Rangers to clinch the final playoff spot, but were only one game above .500.

Pitted against the 2nd seeded Blackhawks in the semi-final, the Wings, like the Leafs, were on the brink of elimination, trailing 3-2 heading back to the Olympia for Game 6. Abel must have given one hell of a pep talk, because the Wings pulverized the likes of Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Pierre Pilote and Glenn Hall by smashing them 7-2.

Source: Lee Balterman/Getty Images

While Keon was putting the Leafs on his back in the other Game 7, Howe and company were turning the clock back nearly a decade to when the Wings were the toast of the league. Howe’s goal and two assists helped the Wings win on the road 4-2, setting up a 3rd vs 4th seed final with Toronto.

Either the Maple Leafs would win a third straight Stanley Cup, or the trophy would return to Motown for the first time since 1955. The series was hardly a cakewalk like the previous year’s finals had been. The first two games at the Gardens were split between the two teams by one-goal margins. Detroit squeaked out a tough Game 3 victory, but the Leafs embraced the pressure and evened up the series 2-2.

Back in Toronto for Game 5, Bower and Sawchuk put on a goaltending clinic, facing a barrage of shots from the hungry forwards. Howe opened the scoring in the 1st period, and there wouldn’t be a change in score until Eddie Joyal doubled Detroit’s lead. Leafs captain George Armstrong pulled one back with five minutes to play, but Sawchuk thwarted the Leafs attack to inch Detroit one game away from winning the Cup, and on home ice to boot.

So here we were, Game 6 at the Olympia. Detroit could close it out here, or the Leafs could force a seventh game back at Maple Leaf Gardens. Four of the previous five games had been decided by one-goal, and the atmosphere, along with the humid weather in the late April spring made it a nerve-wracking sauna.

Sawchuk opened the game with a massive double-save on Gerry Ehman and Allan Stanley like only an elite netminder could. The game was up and down the ice at a frenetic pace, the crowd with their head on a swivel. This was the twentieth game between the two clubs this season, so it was no time to be awestruck, it was strictly business.

Between the two teams, the personnel behind the bench, and the officials, there were eighteen Hall of Famers directly involved (twenty if you were lenient enough to include Dick Duff’s contributions to Toronto before his trade, and Al Arbour, who was scratched).

Bill Hewitt was keeping viewers at home alert with vivid descriptions of the play by play, and remarked that much like Game 5, it could be a goaltender’s duel. The average age of the Maple Leafs that were dressed for the game equaled out to exactly 30 (Johnny Bower bringing that average up at 39 years old), and Detroit’s was 27.9. It was a grown man’s game.

The frivolous pace continued, and it wasn’t until the seventeenth minute of the contest that a goal was scored. Stanley halted Norm Ullman’s progress at the blueline, counter attacking two on two. He sprung Bob Pulford who had cut into the middle behind Andre Pronovost and tucked a low forehand shot behind a sprawling Sawchuk to give the Leafs the lead. I’m not certain on how the acoustics were in the Detroit Olympia, but from Hewitt’s booth, it went dead silent with the faintest of groans.

The 1st period was not indicative whatsoever of how the 2nd would go. The tenaciousness was still there, aggressive forechecking in the corners produced audible bumps along the boards, and the humidity in the building seemed to be continuously wafting down towards ice level. It didn’t help that the fancily-clad spectators were likely smoking heavy bogeys.

Future Summit Series hero Paul Henderson had recently turned 21, and he exhibited his spry quickness with an abrupt burst of speed when he was sent in all alone by fellow youngster Pit Martin on a well-timed outlet pass. He kept his composure and beat Bower on his glove side to tie the game. While the crowd went somber for Pulford’s goal, they erupted rowdily at the equalizer.

The ovation carried on for several seconds as the belief that Lord Stanley’s trophy would be lifted was stronger than it had been during the intermission.

Martin gave the Red Wings faithful plenty to look forward to. Only 20 years-old, he was only in his 2nd full season with the team, scoring 17 points in 50 regular season games. With just under ten minutes to go in the 2nd period, he scored his first goal of the playoffs on a powerplay off a centering pass from Johnny MacMillan that evaded both Bower and Horton.

Now it was the Leafs who were forced to amp it up to stay alive. Them trailing was definitely not for lack of opportunities; Sawchuk was simply seeing everything clearly tonight. Nonetheless, four minutes after the Wings took the lead, Pulford once again found the back of the net by redirecting a lazy shot/saucer pass from Ron Stewart which Marcel Pronovost was totally bamboozled on how to defend. All tied up once again.

Who better to take control of the game than Mr. Hockey? Howe had been credited with an assist on Martin’s goal earlier in the period, and just one-minute and twenty-seconds after the Leafs had tied the game, he treated the crowd to a vintage Gordie goal. Bill Gadsby had to get rid of the puck from his own blueline, facing pressure from Leaf forecheckers. Howe received the puck with ample space at centre ice, and with a quick burst of speed over the blue line (or thanks in part to the tiniest of obstructions from Delvecchio), he had Horton tripping all over himself, now only needing to get the angle on Stanley.

Stanley was known to be a slow skater, and at 38 years-old he had no business even trying to cut the angle on Howe (who was no spring chicken himself at 36 years-old). Howe’s ambidextrous abilities allowed him to discharge a blisteringly fast backhand which flew low past Bower. Just clinical.

Including playoffs, that was his 623rd career goal, though very few exhibited Gordie as precisely. The way he handled the puck, his burst of speed, his savviness of spatial optimization, everything about his shot form, and his imposing presence made this a special goal. All of that, and Detroit had the lead once again in a Cup-clinching game.

Of course, we know it wasn’t even close to being over. Bob Baun had something to say about that, and up until this point in the game, he had been a force on the blueline, dishing out at least four or five solid open-ice hits that sent the Wings forwards to their rear-ends. He sent Jeffrey to the ice as the latter tried to poke a puck out of the Wings’ zone, and after Billy Harris scooped up possession on the left wing, he cut in over the middle of the ice and made a dart to the right corner. Dave Keon sauntered into the slot, lurking in the eye-line of Gadsby.

The puck was cleared, but when it was dumped back in by the Leafs, the attention focused on Armstrong who positioned himself in the bulls-eye of the slot where Keon had just threatened, and the Wings defence forgot all about Harris. Baun kicked a pass towards Armstrong who managed to redirect it towards the net, and Harris edged out Gadsby to claim it first and handcuff Sawchuk. Five goals had been scored in the 2nd period; Hewitt corrected his claim about the goaltenders being razor sharp, as we now had a 3-3 game with a full period to play.

The humidity continued to dampen the spectators during the 3rd period, and dark splotches began to appear on the Red Wings jerseys. Tempers got hot as well, as Pit Martin’s brash immaturity caused him to pick up a misconduct for something he said to referee Vern Buffey. The Olympia had not adapted to the Gardens’s separate penalty boxes, so Martin plopped a squat beside Leaf Ed Litzenberger, who was also serving a misconduct from the previous stanza.

Amidst the haze, Detroit’s Floyd Smith almost scored a sensational goal on an impressive rush, but Carl Brewer hooked him in desperation, quite possibly saving a glorious goal. Marcel Pronovost begged for a penalty shot to be awarded, but it stood as just a hooking minor. While on the powerplay, Bruce MacGregor hit the post.

Now, to the moment that makes this game so famous: Numerous books I’ve read lazily claim that a Gordie Howe shot is what caused Bob Baun to injure his ankle, but if that’s the case, it’s not obvious at all, nor does it cause an immediate discernable reaction. What is obvious is that nearly four minutes before the injury visibly agonizes Baun, he blocks a shot from Larry Jeffrey and covers the puck with his legs to get a whistle.

He seems to be slow in getting to his skates, instead pugiling with Jeffrey as the Wings forward tried to poke the puck free before the whistle. Baun managed to stand, and everyone was none the wiser. The crowd also littered the ice with various debris, allowing Baun a longer chance to shake it off.

But then, nearly ten minutes of real time after that incident, Baun was on the ice about to take a faceoff against Howe (I’m not sure why Baun as a defenceman was taking the draw, but oh well). He loomed over the circle a little bow-legged, but nothing obvious to indicate that he was in serious pain. Howe won the majority of the draw but Armstrong gathered the puck before nearly losing it to Delvecchio.

The camera then pans away to the point where Doug Barkley was about to take a shot on goal, but if you focus your attention to the opposite end of the screen, it is clear that after taking the draw, Baun staggered on his right leg forcing him to put all his weight on to his left skate. He then spun around on his knees, collapsing in pain.

When the camera pans back over after Barkley’s shot deflects off of Billy Harris and out of play, Baun tries to get to his feet and stagger towards the front of the net to support Bower, but then collapses in agony once again. The whistle was blown and all the attention was now on Baun, who was visibly shaken and in extreme discomfort.

The crowd then gave a collective groan of ridicule, and Bower gave Baun a slap on the ass with this stick to see what was the problem. The trainers came to his aid rather speedily, and it was clear very soon after that it was a serious injury, and a stretcher was summoned to help carry Baun off the ice. The crowd then gave a polite ovation as they had come to understand the severity of the situation, and Baun was lifted over the bench and down the tunnel by three trainers and Red Kelly.

There was then a delay for several minutes to clean off the ice where the stretcher had left a trail of indentations. The game carried on, and each team continued to get the occasional brief chance, but to no avail. Pulford nearly got his hattrick, and Sawchuk made arguably his most crucial save of the game, nearly losing track of where the puck was underneath him.

A faceoff was taken to the right of Sawchuk with three minutes remaining in regulation, and all of a sudden, Hewitt remarked that Bob Baun was back on the point! Only twelve minutes of real time had elapsed since he was carried off, and only five minutes of game time. He looked no more uncomfortable than he had looked throughout the entire course of the game, so he must have had the endorphins kick in, coupled with his tenacious will to see the game through.

Source: Lee Balterman/Getty Images

The only notable event that occurred in the final two minutes was a vicious bodycheck that Gadsby put on Red Kelly, causing the Ontario MP to barrel-roll awkwardly over centre ice. The ruckus and hodgepodge of noise from the fans caused Kelly to not hear the whistle blown by Buffey, and he woozily tried to get back to his bench even though the play was dead. The horn sounded and Game 6 would be going to overtime.

It wouldn’t be a long one.

Detroit just needed to tickle the twine behind Bower and the Stanley Cup would be theirs. They tried to go on the attack but the Leafs defence buckled down and were able to deflect key passes. Baun looked completely fine, moving well on his bad ankle that apparently had been frozen; he felt nothing. A faceoff just inside the Wings blueline was won by Keon. Brewer backhanded the puck to the corner where Al Langlois of Detroit tried to shovel it back out of the Wings zone.

The puck slowly came towards the line and Baun pinched in, unloading a rocket on goal that the broadcast camera failed to keep up with. It sailed through everyone, over Sawchuk and into the corner, giving the Leafs the victory and force a seventh game!

The reaction of the Leaf players was one of the most jubilant I have ever seen during the Original 6 era. There was heavy admiration for their teammate who half and hour ago looked as if he was done for the rest of the series, but he had willed himself to return, and scored the winning goal on the brink of forfeiting their reign as champions. Baun even inelegantly jumped in celebration to prove that the injury had not shaken him. The Cup would not grace the Wings tonight.

Nor would it in Game 7. Despite five of the six games having been decided by one goal, Game 7 was allllll Toronto. The momentum Baun’s goal gave the team transcended into the next game, and they dominated at all ends of the ice, winning 4-0. Andy Bathgate scored the first goal (which turned out to be the Cup-winner), and Keon, Kelly, and Armstrong added the insurance as the Leafs retained the Cup for the third straight season. What a gritty display of resilience throughout the final two games!

It was the only season in league history that every playoff series went to a seventh game. It was also the final time the Stanley Cup was won in the month of April. Three and a half weeks after hoisting the Cup, Tim Horton opened his first coffee and doughnut shop in his name, and the most famous Canadian enterprise was born.

As we all know, the Leafs would win their most recent Stanley Cup in 1967, and twelve of the eighteen players who played in the 1964 Finals were still in the Blue and White. Many thought that they were too old to challenge for the Cup that season, as their dominance between 1962 through 1964 came right when the vast majority of their players were right at the summit of their careers, if not on the verge of decline. Still, the ‘Over the Hill Gang’ shocked Montreal in six games to win their fourth Cup of the decade.

For the Wings, Terry Sawchuk would join the Maple Leafs in 1964-65, forming a solid goaltending combo with Bower for the ensuing three seasons. Howe played in Detroit until 1971, retiring for the first time at age 43 before he would join the WHA eighteen months later to play with his sons. Alex Delvecchio remained captain for the team until his retirement in 1974, and as of today, he is the second oldest living Hall of Fame player.

Marcel Pronovost and Norm Ullman would also have stints with the Maple Leafs to end their careers, Pronovost being part of the 1967 Cup team. And we all know what Paul Henderson goes on to accomplish eight-and-a-half years later……

Bob Baun dressed for Game 7 of the 1964 final, and shortly after celebrating the championship with his teammates, the formal diagnosis of his injury was disclaimed: He had fractured his right ankle, the bone cracked in his lower leg. It easily goes down as one of the defining examples of athletes playing through extreme pain. His refusal of x-rays during the intermission before overtime was honoured by the doctors, and had he not pinched in to take that shot that sealed the victory, perhaps the Wings would have scored and won the Cup that same evening.

His heroic performance in Game 6 celebrates its 57th anniversary today. An excellent game with enormous stakes that worked out in Toronto’s favour. Though time continues to tick and the legends that graced the ice that evening pass away (nineteen of the thirty-six players involved in the game are deceased as of April 23rd, 2021), the legend of Baun will continue to spur the Maple Leafs on as they try to finally rid themselves of their championship drought. A historic moment for one of the most historic franchises in all of sports.


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