Won Stanley Cup four times with Maple Leafs, twice with Canadiens, played on ‘Production Line II’ in Detroit
There was only one “Big M” — Frank Mahovlich. The nickname fit; at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, he was among the larger NHL players of his day. In addition to his size, he also had a big shot, big talent, wore a big number on his sweater and came to Toronto with big expectations — so big that Maple Leafs fans also took to calling him “Moses.” They hoped he’d lead Toronto to the promised land of Stanley Cup glory.
And when Mahovlich roared down left wing carrying the puck, the crowd inevitably let out a roar of its own. Most often it was a roar of anticipation, of hope that No. 27’s rush would result in a goal. But at times impatient fans in Toronto booed, wanting even more from a man who would score 584 goals (regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs combined) and assist on 637 between 1957 and 1974 for the Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens.
“Mahovlich moved like a thoroughbred, with a strong, fluid style that made it look as if he was galloping through the opposition,” Mike Leonetti wrote in his book “Maple Leaf Legends.” “In full flight, he was an imposing figure. An explosive skater, Mahovlich could spot the right moment to turn it on and burst in on goal. He had a great move where he would take the puck off the wing, cut into the middle of the ice and try to bust through two defensemen for a chance on goal. He didn’t always get through but when he did he scored some memorable goals.”
He was the son of a miner — a Croatian immigrant — from Timmins, Ontario, and blessed with elite talent. He’d pile up points, play on six Stanley Cup championship teams, appear in 15 NHL All-Star Games and be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1981.
He was also shy and sensitive as a young man, ill-suited for abuse from an irascible Toronto coach and fickle spectators. That Mahovlich managed to become a superstar while combating emotional pain and even depression is a testament to his oft-questioned character and will to succeed.
He had been so dominant in juniors as a teenager for St. Michael’s, the Leafs promoted him to the NHL with a year of junior eligibility remaining. And when he scored 20 goals as a rookie and beat out Bobby Hull of the Chicago Black Hawks for the Calder Trophy in 1958, it seemed the fans’ expectations would be fulfilled.
Over the next two years, Mahovlich’s production remained about the same, and the criticism commenced. Billy Reay, who coached Mahovlich in his first full NHL season, called him “the greatest player in the world – when he wants to be,” and variations on that theme would follow him for as long as he was with the Maple Leafs.
His chief tormentor was his next coach, Punch Imlach, the fedora-wearing, defense-first disciplinarian who drove his teams hard – and often to success. Imlach forever wanted Mahovlich to play with more aggression and his goading eventually wore thin. While most of the Maple Leafs could handle Imlach’s berating, it unnerved Mahovlich, whom some teammates considered withdrawn, moody and aloof.
In 1960 Toronto traded for Detroit star defenseman Red Kelly and Imlach got the idea to play him at center, eventually teaming him with Mahovlich and right wing Bob Nevin. The three clicked, with the Kelly-Mahovlich chemistry especially potent, yielding a breakthrough, 48-goal season for the “Big M” in 1960-61. For much of that season, he was on pace to score well over 50 goals. His potential seemingly realized, the criticism faded.
But when he “slumped” the next season to 33 goals, the faultfinding resumed – until the playoffs, when Mahovlich had six goals and six assists in the Maple Leafs’ 12 games and they won the Cup for the first time in 11 years. “Moses” had delivered.
Then the 1963 training camp rolled around and Mahovlich and Imlach differed sharply on salary. Mahovlich refused to report and it became the talk of hockey. On the eve of the season, during the NHL’s pre-All-Star Game cocktail party at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel, Chicago Black Hawks owner Jim Norris mentioned to new Maple Leafs ownership partner Harold Ballard that he’d gladly take their problem off their hands, offering Ballard $1 million for Mahovlich’s rights – an unheard of sum at the time.
Ballard quickly accepted, Norris forked over 10 hundred-dollar bills right there as down payment and an agreement was written out and signed, legend has it, on a cocktail napkin.
Media reports the next morning hollered that Mahovlich had been sold in the biggest deal in sports history as Black Hawks general manager Tommy Ivan hustled to Maple Leaf Gardens to deliver Norris’ $1 million check. Embarrassed, Toronto brass backed off and the deal with Norris collapsed. The Maple Leafs immediately gave Mahovlich the raise he had sought, making Imlach more demanding than ever.
Two more championships with the Maple Leafs followed and Mahovlich by this point was considered one of the NHL’s two top left wings (Hull being the other). He was in the midst of six consecutive selections to either the NHL First All-Star Team or Second All-Star Team but it was not good enough for some Maple Leafs fans — nor Imlach, whose methods for motivating Mahovlich included never praising him.
Imlach’s constant jibes included regularly mispronouncing his name as “Ma-hal-o-vich” to the press. Maple Leafs fans not only began booing his rushes, they even booed during his curtain calls when he was named one of the game’s three stars. Many in the media, too, saw those rushes less as gallops and more like canters. One hockey magazine headlined a feature on Mahovlich, “Superstar or Super Lazy?”
“Hockey is a streetcar named desire,” Imlach once said, “and too many days Ma-hal-o-vich doesn’t catch the train.”
It was all too much. In November 1964, Mahalovich had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized with acute depression. He missed a month of the season, and treatments eventually allowed him to cope with Imlach and find some emotional balance. With 51 points (23 goals) in 59 games that season, he was still Toronto’s top scorer and was selected to the Second All-Star Team at season’s end.
In 1967 the aging Maple Leafs, by now tired of their coach, wheezed their way to one more Cup championship, the most celebrated of the four and the final hurrah of a great era. Early the following season, the 30-year-old Mahovlich, who had been contemplating retirement, had a second episode of crippling depression and was again hospitalized. A few months later, on March 3, 1968, he was traded, exchanging Toronto blue and white for Detroit red and white.
Feeling as if he had been freed from prison, Mahovlich thrived as a Red Wing, both on the ice and emotionally. “Gordie Howe wouldn’t let me be a loner,” he told a radio interviewer. He was installed on the left side with Howe and center Alex Delvecchio, and the threesome was dubbed the “Production Line II,” after the original Howe-Sid Abel-Ted Lindsay trio that had dominated the NHL in the early 1950s.
“We had a great chemistry,” Mahovlich told Maclean’s magazine shortly after Howe died in June 2016. “It seemed like we were on the same wavelength. We never spoke, but we understood each other just by thinking. Spots would open up, I’d go in there, and Howe would put the puck on my stick. It was an amazing year for me.”
The new environment gave rise to a new Mahovlich. Bob Baun, a teammate in both Toronto and Detroit, said, “In 11 years in Toronto, I don’t think I ever said more than 22 words to Mahovlich. I’ve spent the last year finding out what a great guy he is.”
He set a career high with 49 goals in 1968-69. He’d score 196 points in 198 games for Detroit over two full seasons and parts of two others. But by late 1970, the Red Wings were in turmoil and on Jan. 13, 1971, the 33-year-old Mahovlich was on the move again, traded to the Canadiens.
He initially was hesitant about reporting; he’d finally found happiness in Detroit. But Mahovlich flew to Minneapolis to join the Canadiens and when coach Al MacNeil and assistant GM Ron Caron met him at the airport, he felt wanted. Then they told him he’d be roommates with his younger brother Pete. “Right then and there I knew I was going to like it,” Mahovlich said.
MacNeil showed faith in him from the start. The “Big M” had never been considered a strong defensive player, but MacNeil sent him out to kill penalties. Mahovlich responded by playing the best hockey of his career wearing le bleu, blanc et rouge.
In the ’71 playoffs, he helped lead the way as Montreal shocked the hockey world by upsetting the defending champion Boston Bruins in the first round and the Black Hawks in the Final to win the Stanley Cup. Goalie Ken Dryden was the Montreal hero and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, but as broadcaster Dick Irvin recalled in the “Legends of Hockey” TV series, “The main reason, in my memory, they won that Cup was Frank Mahovlich, who I believe that year set a scoring record for points, which is long since gone, of course. But at that time, he had more points in one playoff year than anybody ever had.” Mahovlich scored 14 goals and 27 points in 20 games.
Both he and Pete were selected to play for Canada in 1972 in the historic, eight-game Summit Series against the Soviet Union. That victory preceded another Cup championship for the Canadiens in 1973, under coach Scotty Bowman.
“It’s hard to think of anybody playing any better two-way hockey in two sets of playoffs – ’71 and ’73 – than Frank did in those Cup wins,” veteran hockey writer Frank Orr said on “Legends of Hockey.” “He killed penalties with Jacques Lemaire, was on the power play, scored big goals, and was just a wonderful player.”
Mahovlich scored his 500th NHL goal on March 22, 1973, against the Vancouver Canucks. He was honored for the achievement on Nov. 28, 1973, when the Canadiens held “Frank Mahovlich Night” at the Montreal Forum, and he delighted the fans by addressing them in both English and French (Pete scored two goals that night in a 5-3 victory against the Los Angeles Kings). Although he had great affection for Canadiens management, which had treated him well, the chance to double his income with Toronto of the WHA led him to end his illustrious NHL career after the 1973-74 season at age 36. He’d play another four seasons in the WHA, the last two with Birmingham.
A successful business career followed, as did his appointment to the Senate in Canada. But Mahovlich never aspired to be anything more than a hockey player, and his impact has lingered for decades. “If you close your eyes and think about Frank Mahovlich, there is an image – it’s there,” Dryden said. “That image for me, and I think for a lot of people, is Frank Mahovlich in full flight. That was a sight.”