Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - One on One with Bob Pulford
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One on One with Bob Pulford

13 MARCH 2006
"He is one of the most complete hockey players the game has produced in recent years and one of the hardest-working," claimed Larry Regan, the general manager of the Los Angeles Kings in 1970. "He plays all facets of the game at both ends of the ice and he never lets up. He gives his best at all times. He is good and he is inspirational."

Robert Jesse Pulford was born in Newton Robinson, near Barrie, Ontario on March 31, 1936. He grew up in the Toronto suburb of Weston and from childhood, excelled in a wide variety of sports.

When Pulford was seventeen, he was recognized as one of the best athletes in Toronto. He had joined the Toronto Maple Leafs organization and was playing with the junior Toronto Marlboros, was playing football at Weston Collegiate and was also a superb lacrosse player.

At that same time, Bob was suffering from horrendous back pain that forced him to curtail his sports activities. A doctor told Pulford he was done with sports and advised the Toronto Maple Leafs not to expend any further time or money on the young prospect. But Leafs' executive Stafford Smythe brushed aside the doctor's prognosis and refused to give up on Bob Pulford. "He was such a good prospect, I couldn't see dropping him like that," Smythe told hockey writers at the time. "Something told me we should gamble on him, and it's one of the best gambles I ever took in my life."

Pulford was aware of the faith that Smythe placed in him, but also knew that his career was at stake. "I knew a bad back would wash me out for sure, especially since I already had a poor skating tag attached to me. So I exercised all summer. The ache disappeared and I haven't been bothered since."

Pulford starred with the Marlboros and helped the team win the Memorial Cup as Canadian junior champions in 1954-55. The Marlies, a Maple Leaf-sponsored junior squad, included future Leafs Billy Harris and Bob Baun. The Marlies won a second consecutive championship, earning the Memorial Cup again in 1955-56. Pulford's teammates included Harris, Baun, Bob Nevin, Carl Brewer and future 'Hockey Night in Canada' broadcaster, Harry Neale. In that year's playoff, Pulford led all post-season scorers in goals (16) and points (24), accomplishing the feat in just 11 games.

Bob made the leap directly from junior to the NHL, joining the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1956-57. "I didn't know if I was good enough to make the grade in the NHL," admits Pulford. "It was my Dad's advice which steered me on the right path. My Dad said, 'If you don't try hockey for a couple of years, you'll spend the rest of your life wondering if you could have been good enough for the NHL. At the end of those two years, you can always go back to university."

Conn Smythe, still managing director of the Maple Leafs when Pulford and a strong crop of juniors joined the team, grumbled that you couldn't serve two masters by both attending school and playing professional hockey. But a large number of players, including Carl Brewer, Dick Duff, Billy Harris, Bob Nevin and Pulford, did both, and did so admirably. "After I turned pro, I attended night school and went to McMaster in the summer until I got my degree," Pulford explains. "I don't buy the argument that hockey prevents a boy from continuing his education. More players are coming out of the American schools all the time." It took Bob seven years of off-time study, but in 1963, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in economics and history, from the Hamilton university.

Toronto was struggling during the 1950's. Their dynasty from the late-forties had abruptly ended with Bill Barilko's Stanley Cup-winning goal of 1951. But the ingredients that comprised the dynasty in the 1960's were just being compiled. In 1956-57, Pulford turned pro with the Leafs, who finished out of the playoffs that year. The next season, Toronto finished last. Pulford reached the 20-goal plateau in 1958-59 and helped the Maple Leafs reach the playoffs for the first time in three years. That spring, Bob and teammate George Armstrong were named co-winners of the J.P. Bickell Award as the Toronto Maple Leafs' most valuable players.

With a nucleus of youth that included Pulford, Baun, Brewer and Harris from the Marlboros, along with Dick Duff and Frank Mahovlich from Toronto's other junior squad, St. Mike's, the Maple Leafs finished second in 1959-60, 1960-61 and 1961-62. In the latter year, Toronto defeated the reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago Black Hawks to win hockey's greatest prize.

Toronto won three consecutive Stanley Cup championships, then added a fourth in 1966-67. Bob Pulford had played an integral role with the Maple Leafs as they grew from also-rans to victors. He was regarded as an outstanding two-way forward, responsible defensively yet able to score timely goals. "I plugged more and worked hard and got my share of goals," Bob says. "I think hard work can make up for a lot of things that a hockey player may lack."

He was focused -- a student as well as a student of the game, which afforded him well in later making the transition from player to coach and then into management once his playing days were through. "I'm sure I was more serious as a player. I was tense before a game and wanted to be left on my own after we lost a game."

Pulford spent fourteen years in the uniform of the Maple Leafs, and was regarded as not only a fierce competitor but one of the foundations of the Maple Leafs dynasty. "Aside from the endless excitement, there was tremendous companionship to be found in playing for a team like the Leafs," he says. But although they were winning championships, it was not all quiet on the home front. Coach and general manager Punch Imlach clashed with several of the players, and Pulford was not immune from heated exchanges with his coach. "We had some terrible battles," Bob admits. "I didn't agree with some of the things which Punch did and he probably didn't understand some of the things which I did. I couldn't count the fights we had over salary and yet, when they were over, we would shake hands. There would be no grudges. I don't think I ever missed a shift on the ice because of them."

One of the biggest battles between Imlach and Pulford resulted from Bob's involvement with Alan Eagleson, a lawyer and former schoolmate, who counted Pulford as one of his first clients when he began his career as a player-agent. Pulford had been an assistant captain with the Maple Leafs for a number of years, but had the 'A' stripped from him when he helped Eagleson his longtime friend, form the National Hockey League Players' Association in 1967. "Losing that 'A' might have been the worst thing that happened to me as a hockey player in Toronto," Bob says. Nevertheless, Pulford was named the first president of the NHLPA that year.

After winning the Stanley Cup in 1967, the aging Leafs missed the playoffs in 1967-68, were knocked out of the post-season in four straight quarter-final contests in 1968-68, then finished last in the East Division in 1969-70. Leafs' management knew that something drastic had to be done and among several transactions was a September 1970 trade that saw Bob Pulford sent by the Leafs to Los Angeles in exchange for youngsters Garry Monahan and Brian Murphy. "It (the trade) didn't come as any surprise to me," admits Pulford. "The possibility of being traded is part of any athlete's career. At the time, I seriously considered quitting hockey." Bob's investments had served him well, and post-hockey careers were burgeoning. "There were lots of good reasons for me to remain in Toronto and leave the game."

After pondering retirement for a brief period of time, Bob Pulford reported to the Los Angeles Kings, ready for his fifteenth NHL season. Former Leaf teammate Eddie Shack was a member of the Kings, and he and his wife Norma helped Bob and Roslyn Pulford and their three children make the transition from Toronto to Southern California. Early in the 1970-71 season, Larry Cahan, the Kings' incumbent captain, relinquished the 'C' to Bob. "Pulford's been with winners. He's what we need right now," he said.

After finishing in last-place overall with 38 points in 1969-70, the Kings elevated their play and earned 63 points in 1970-71, although they regressed the next season, which was to be the final campaign for Bob Pulford. After two years with the L.A. Kings, Bob retired and was named coach of the team. As a player, Pulford's career consisted of 1,079 regular season games, in which he scored 281 goals and assisted on 362 more for a total of 643 points.

Bob's coaching style was nurturing and supportive. "In the old days, motivation came from fear -- like Conn Smythe handing you a ticket to the minor leagues," he says, shaking his head. He learned things about coaching from Fred Shero, including training drills and philosophy, but it is surprising to discover that football coach George Allen, who was behind the bench for the Los Angeles Rams while Pulford was with the Kings, also assisted Bob. "Allen helped me a lot my first year in things like handling people, motivation and discipline. Those are things that are hard to get when players know their jobs are relatively safe. What I tried to do, and this is a thing Shero did, was always explain why I was asking something. Like, if I figured we needed a tough practice, I'd tell the players why I figured it. They're mature — they shouldn't just be told things without a reason."

He clearly learned his lessons well. In 1974-75, after leading the Kings to an astonishing 105-point season, Pulford was named the NHL's coach of the year. He was also honoured to be named head coach of Team USA during the 1976 Canada Cup tournament.

Bob coached the Kings for five seasons, then joined the Chicago Black Hawks as coach and general manager prior to the 1977-78 season. That year, he was awarded The Hockey News' coach of the year honour after leading the team to a first-place Smythe Division finish.

After relinquishing the coach's responsibility in order to concentrate on the general manager's portfolio, Bob twice was forced to return behind the bench to assist a struggling team. As a coach, Pulford's career record is 361 wins, 325 losses and 136 ties. Under his helm, Chicago has won eight division titles. In June 1990, he was appointed Senior Vice President of the Black Hawks.

"My story is this," Pulford summarizes. "A Canadian kid who can play the game well is the luckiest kid in the world. There is no limit." In 1991, Bob Pulford was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and On-line Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.