TORONTO — Frank Mahovlich can’t pick a side. Who can blame him?
The Hall of Famer won four Stanley Cup championships with the Toronto Maple Leafs — including the franchise’s last title in 1967 — and two more as a member of the Montreal Canadiens in the early 1970s.
So when the Original Six rivals open their first playoff meeting in 42 years on Thursday night, Mahovlich will simply be an interested observer.
“I won’t be cheering for either one of them,” the 83-year-old said with a laugh during a phone interview with The Canadian Press. “I don’t want to make anybody upset. They’re both great teams and they treated me so well.”
The Leafs and Canadiens used to meet regularly in the playoffs, tussling eight times between 1951 and 1967 before the NHL started to expand.
“It was electric,” Mahovlich recalled of the atmosphere inside the Montreal Forum or Maple Leaf Gardens. “You stepped on the ice and people were cheering like crazy … and nothing’s happened yet.”
The rivalry between Canada’s two biggest cities, of course, goes far beyond sports, with long, complicated threads woven through history, language, culture and economics.
“There has always been a competitive nature between Toronto and Montreal,” said Brian Conacher, a member of the ’67 Leafs. “There’s always been this competitive spirit both on and off the ice. It was a lot of things. It was a very big deal.”
The final in 1967 — Toronto’s last playoff victory over Montreal came that year — was important for a number of reasons beyond the game.
“It was the last playoff series of the Original Six, it was Toronto against Montreal, and it was Canada’s centennial,” Conacher said. “It was also Expo 67 in Montreal, where the expectation was that the Canadiens would be showing off the Stanley Cup in the Quebec pavilion.”
There would be just two more postseason matchups since then, with Montreal sweeping Toronto in both 1978 and 1979 on the way to winning the Canadiens’ fifth and sixth championships of the decade.
“It’s historic,” said Scotty Bowman, who won five titles as Montreal’s head coach. “We had a good rivalry.”
“Everyone sees that we won four straight games and we had nine Hall of Famers,” said former Canadiens defenseman Larry Robinson. “But as anyone who’s played knows, no game is easy. The games were a lot closer.”
The fourth and final encounter at the Gardens in 1979 ended controversially when Leafs forward Tiger Williams took a penalty for high-sticking on Robinson in overtime. The blue-liner blasted home the winner on the ensuing power play, but along with some of Toronto’s players, had to restrain an irate Williams from going after the referee.
Part of the reason the Leafs and Canadiens haven’t met in the postseason for more than four decades is because they resided in different conferences for much of the 1980s and 1990s.
The teams got close to a dream matchup in the 1993 final, but Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings eliminated Toronto in Game 7 of the conference final before falling to Montreal — Canada’s last Cup win.
The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Cup since trading Mahovlich to the Detroit Red Wings in 1968. A family legend goes that his older sister, Anne, put a curse on Toronto that seems to have stuck.
“She hasn’t taken it off,” joked Mahovlich, who was subsequently dealt to Montreal in 1971. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Fans, while not allowed in either arena because of COVID-19 restrictions, are bubbling with excitement now that the matchup is here. The same goes for some of the game’s greats.
“This is long overdue,” former Toronto winger Lanny McDonald said. “I’ll be glued to the television set. Can’t wait.”