A friend of mine insists the Maple Leafs are cursed after trading Frank Mahovlich. I'm not superstitious but it is a fact that the season after the Maple Leafs' last Stanley Cup win, the enigmatic left winger was traded to Detroit.
Frank Mahovlich was a talented and classy winger, a large man with the skills and hands of a pure scorer. Known as "the Big M," Mahovlich was touted as a superstar while still a teenager. Mahovlich also struggled through most of his hockey life with the stress that comes from great expectations.
In his first full season in the NHL, 1957-58, he was solid and at times spectacular and his 20 goals and 36 points were enough to earn him the Calder Trophy as top rookie beating out Bobby Hull.
His next two seasons were erratic on the ice but consistent on the score sheet. He hovered around 20 goals, good totals for a young player, but many Toronto fans wanted a superstar performance each night, on every shift, and 20 goals wasn't good enough. In 1960-61, he began to play the way everyone had always expected. Still only 23 years old, he had an exceptional start to the season and led the league for much of the year in goals. With 14 games remaining, he had 48 goals, two less than Maurice Richard's record of 50. He seemed destined to seize the position of the game's top scorer. Those final two goals never came.
Although the Leafs won the Stanley Cup for three consecutive seasons beginning in 1962, and even though Mahovlich averaged over 30 goals a year, he was the focus of much criticism and constant boos when he played in front of the home crowd. When he failed to score a goal in the 1963 playoffs, he was booed during and after the game in which the Leafs clinched the title. Even the next day the heckling continued at a reception in downtown Toronto for the Cup winners.
Mahovlich responded to coach Punch Imlach's berating by not reacting to it. He admitted later that the two men didn't speak for five years. Though the team and the doctors didn't admit it for several years, Mahovlich was hospitalized in 1964, suffering from acute tension and depression. He returned to the team but struggled on the ice, his goal production dropping to 18 in 1966-67, the year of his final Cup victory with Toronto.
The Leafs played the Montreal Canadiens on November 1, 1967 - an important game between long-time foes. Mahovlich played a wonderful game, scoring a goal and adding two assists in Toronto's 5-0 win. He was named one of the three stars of the game. The next day, with the Leafs leaving on a trip to Detroit, Mahovlich got up from his seat on the train, told a teammate he was going home and left. He was soon under the care of the Toronto General Hospital psychiatric staff. He was in a deep depression and, according to many reports, had suffered a nervous breakdown. Mahovlich stayed away from the rink to deal with his condition for more than a month, during which he missed 11 games.
Near the end of the season, the Leafs decided to part ways with their big winger. In the biggest trade of the decade, he was sent to the Detroit Red Wings with Pete Stemkowski, Garry Unger and the rights to another Leaf enigma, Carl Brewer, for Paul Henderson, Norm Ullman and Floyd Smith.So maybe the team and fans are cursed for the shabby treatment given to the shy Maple Leaf star of the 1960s.