Frank Mahovlich's journey from mining town to the Hall of Fame

With the Montreal Canadiens playing both the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, on Friday and Saturday respectively, I thought I'd take a look at a Hall of Famer who played with all three teams in his career.

It also seems rather timely, considering the subject , "The Big M" - Frank Mahovlich, will be doing an autograph signing this Sunday in Toronto.

Mahovlich played three and a half seasons with the Habs. The two best regular season point totals in his career came with the club in 1972 (96 points) and 1973 (93), while playing on two Stanley Cup winners in Montreal.

Despite a fantastic career on the stat sheet, and in Stanley Cup success, Mahovlich found himself at odds with management and sometimes fans alike, before settling in Montreal.

Growing up in Timmins Ontario, one of Mahovlich's first childhood idols was Herb Carnegie, the first black superstar to lace up the skates. At the time. Mahovlich had no idea that the man he watched in the mining town leagues would later play alongside one of his future Canadiens teammates, while with the Quebec Aces, Jean Beliveau.

Mahovlich worked his way through the Northern Ontario Hockey League, where the Leafs eventually got word of his abilities. They were quick to sign the left winger and sent him to the OHA's St. Mike's majors. Three years of seasoning, under coach Joe Primeau, would win him the league's outstanding player and a three game stint with the Leafs, in the 1956-57 season.

A twenty-goal rookie season was enough to earn him the Calder Trophy in 1958, but the next two seasons his numbers averaged out the same.

Leafs coach and GM Punch Imlach put Mahovlich on a line with Red Kelly and Bob Nevin in the 1960-61 season, and it paid off in spades. Mahovlich, now 23, set a Leafs scoring record that stood for 21 years, 48 goals. Many thought the young winger would tie or eclipse the 50-goal mark, set by the legendary Maurice Richard.


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It would not be the case, as Richard's former teammate, Bernie Geoffrion, closed an eleven goal differential, in the last 15 games of the season, to tie The Rocket's record.

Mahovlich would then go on to play on three straight Stanley Cup winners, but his goal totals (33, 36, 26) earned the boos from the Gardens fans, and the fury of Imlach, despite leading the team in scoring.

One of the many rifts came at the start of the 1962-63 season. Mahovlich, unhappy with Imlach's new contract offer, refused to report to training camp. The Chicago Blackhawks expressed interest, and reportedly had a deal with the Leafs to attain his rights for $1 million dollars. Then Leafs majority owner Harold Ballard reneged on the deal the next day, after signing Mahovlich for what he wanted.

Despite the tension between player and coach, Mahovlich seldom spoke of it or reacted back at his coach. Keeping his emotions bottled up, and the pressure of playing before the Toronto crowds being on his shoulders, eventually led to Mahovlich being treated for depression on two occasions between 1964 and his final season (1967-68) with the Leafs. The second time, in November 1967, he was reported to have had a nervous breakdown.

Before his last season in Toronto was complete, Imlach traded Mahovlich to the Detroit Red Wings with Pete Stemkowski, Garry Unger and the rights to Carl Brewer for Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith and Doug Barrie.

It was a move that worked well for Mahovlich, as his point total regained form with 16 points in Detroit's last 13 games of the season. Now on a line with Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio, the first full season in Detroit saw him set a personal high for goals with 49.

A season and a half later, he found himself the victim of a team looking to rebuild with management politics taking the front seat to the play on the ice. On January 13, 1971 he Mahovlich was traded to the Montreal Canadiens, having scored 108 goals in 198 games for Detroit.

"I'm in charge now," Red Wings new GM Ned Harkness said in a phone call to Canadiens GM Sam Pollock. "Are you interested in Mahovlich?"

"Is the Pope Catholic?" Pollock responded.


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That trade, that saw him go to Montreal in exchange for Mickey Redmond, Guy Charron and Bill Collins, was ranked the sixth greatest in Habs' history by Red Fisher, and ranked as the Habs best mid-season pick up by our own Robert Lefebvre.

"It's a trade Pollock felt he had to make in a season during which the reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins had dominated during the first half. Furthermore, the Bruins continued to remain the runaway class of the NHL for the second half. Pollock, however, was looking beyond the season: the playoffs." -Red Fisher

"I know he's thirty-three," Pollock said to one reporter. "But he should give us three or four great years. We have draft choices and promising kids. Until they arrive, Mahovlich gives us a player of superstar status."

Pollock's vision was a spot-on move, but when weren't they? Mahovlich finished the season with 41 points in 38 games for Montreal as they returned to the playoffs after a one-year absence.

One of the happiest and surprised members of the Canadiens on that day in January, was Mahovlich's younger brother Peter.

"When you lose two teammates to get your brother, it's kind of a surprise," he said. "But I think Frank will be happy playing in Montreal. At least with this kind of management, he will know who the boss is."

While the lore of the Canadiens' stunning upset of the powerhouse Boston Bruins and eventual Cup win, in the spring of 1971, is highlighted by the goaltending heroics of Ken Dryden, Mahovlich was an offensive dynamo. He recorded 14 goals and 13 assists in the 20 playoff games that season, and had similar numbers (9G, 14A in 17 GP) two seasons later in his sixth, and final Cup triumph.

Sandwiched in between, Mahovlich played for Canada in the '72 Summit Series, scoring a goal and an assist in six games. He would match those numbers two years later with the WHA version.

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In his final NHL season in Montreal (1973-74), the 36-year-old Mahovlich scored 80 points (31G, 49A), and finished with 310 points in 263 games for the Canadiens.

The Toronto Toros of the WHA came knocking in the summer of 1974, offering him a five-year deal at $225,000 per season, a number and term that Pollock could not, or was unwilling to compete with.

After the WHA folded in 1979, an attempt to return to the NHL with the Red Wings was unsuccessful, and Frank Mahovlich retired with 533 goals and 570 assists, en route to a 1981 Hockey Hall of Fame induction.

 

 

 

Legends of Hockey: One on One and Bio

Life and Times - Frank Mahovlich

Player Profile on the Canadiens history site

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