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A punch line gets the last laugh

Punch, that's it. It's all over. You're fired."

"Stafford, someday I'll stick those words right down your throat."

That's how it was on a certain April night in 1969 when Stafford Smythe, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, overlooked the four Stanley Cups Punch Imlach had won for his team and abruptly dismissed the man who for 11 years had served as the Leafs' highly successful coach and general manager. During the year and a half since then, Punch Imlach—a person not given to suffering in silence—has dwelt often and vociferously on the day he would get back to Toronto and make Smythe swallow hard.

"I-have-returned" day came last week when Imlach, now coach and general manager of a brand-new NHL hockey team, brought his Buffalo Sabres to Toronto for their first game ever against Smythe's Maple Leafs.

Under other circumstances, the game would have offered minimal interest. Hockey fans do not get worked up over the private differences of coaches and general managers, and the only thing the two teams in question were vying for in this game was the cellar of the East Division of the league. But Punch Imlach is not the average manager-coach. During all his days at Toronto and ever since, the irascible old street fighter has made his presence—and his absence—felt.

Buffalo is less than a two-hour drive from Toronto, and as part of his preseason sniping at Smythe, Punch placed large advertisements, complete with his picture, in The Toronto Telegram in an attempt to lure Leaf fans to the Sabres' home games. "Remember Me? I am in Buffalo now. Come over and see me!" one of the ads read. One of the first to respond by purchasing season tickets in Buffalo was Stafford Smythe. "I bought four tickets," Smythe said, "because I never want anyone in the Leafs' organization to be in a position where he would have to ask Imlach for tickets."

On the eve of last week's game, Imlach escalated the battle by taking some verbal swipes at Smythe and a few of the Leaf players in the newspaper column that he syndicates throughout Canada. "I noticed that Stafford is now going on the road and will lend support to the coach," Punch wrote. "Stafford gave as one of the reasons for firing me that I was too old to coach his team. I would just like to remind him that he is the same age I am." Privately, Imlach told a reporter: "One reason why I insisted on being both coach and general manager in Toronto was so Stafford never could get between the coach and general manager the way he does now."

Meanwhile, in his office at the arena, Smythe was taking a slightly more urbane stance. "Punch has to have a feud going with someone or else he's lost," he said. "Actually, I think we got along very well. He won four cups for us, and no one can dispute that. The hardware is on the wall." Smythe finds it hard to forget those cups when he is talking about Imlach, and he often stops himself in mid-tirade to mention them.

What was the real reason for Imlach's dismissal?

"I discovered," said Smythe, "that he had a financial interest in the Vancouver minor league team that served as one of our farm clubs. When I asked him about it he assured me that he had no interest in the club. Well, everybody now knows that he did have." Indeed he seems to have. Imlach was paid some $225,000 for his part of the Vancouver Canucks when they came into the NHL.

"Anyway," continued Smythe, "it's a matter of league record that Punch was selling some of our players to his Vancouver club when all the time I thought—and our Board of Directors thought—the players were still under control of the Toronto hockey club.

"When he left Toronto," Smythe concluded, "he left us with almost nothing because of his trades." The Leafs' president paused for a moment. "Then again, he did win those four cups," he said.

At game time Wednesday night Smythe took his usual seat at the end of the second row behind the penalty box. Imlach, ham that he is, waited as always until the end of the Canadian national anthem before he left the Buffalo dressing room. When he appeared at last, the standing-room-only crowd in the Maple Leaf Gardens gave him a long, rousing ovation. Referee John Ashley even delayed the start to let the fans salute their former idol. Imlach tipped his white Canadian beaver hat, and the game was on.

For Imlach, revenge was swift and sweet. The teams were tied 1-1 after the first period, but Buffalo powered its way to a 4-2 lead after two periods. That was too much for Smythe, who left his seat and did not return for the third period when Buffalo scored three more goals on its way to a 7-2 rout.

During the late minutes of the game, the Toronto crowd kept chanting, "We want Punch, we want Punch," and Reggie Fleming, one of the Sabres' players, removed Imlach's hat and waved it to the crowd. In the stands, Imlach's wife Dodo was making more noise than the other 16,353 people. "She told me she would cause a commotion if we won," Punch said.

After the game, even Punch could afford to be mellow. "If all the good wishes I received meant anything," he said in the Sabres' dressing room, "the Leafs didn't have a chance."