“Toronto and Montreal were the NHL,” Duff said as he reminisced before his long-overdue induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday. “Okay?” he posed, jumping from past to present. “And Canada is the NHL. Who’s kidding who?”
He’s biased, of course. Duff won the Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1962 and 1963, and with Montreal in 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969.
The sixth of 13 children of a Kirkland Lake, Ont., mining family waited 35 years after hanging up the pads for good to get the ultimate verification that he was one of the greatest money planners in hockey history.
He was only five-foot-nine and 165 pounds but he was a superstar when playoff time rolled around. He scored 30 goals and assisted on 49 in 114 post-season games. Leafs coach Punch Imlach once said that Duff was “probably the best playoff player I ever coached.”
Duff scored the Cup-clinching goal in a 2-1 victory over Chicago on April 22, 1962.
Bobby Hull opened the scoring when Duff coughed up the puck behind his own net. Frank Mahovlich passed to Bob Nevin for a tying goal. Tim Horton set up Duff for the winner.
“Tim passed the puck behind me,” Duff recalled. “You know, he was wearing those contact lenses.
“I turned around and, bingo, I let it go.”
What a sight it was to see the puck nestled in the back of the Blackhawks net.
Duff set a playoff record on April 9, 1963, for fastest two goals from the start of a game – one minute eight seconds – that still stands. Duff scored at the 49-second mark and again 19 seconds later. Toronto would beat the visiting Red Wings 4-2.
“I think I learned it from watching the Montreal guys,” he said of his rapid-fire scoring that night. “They would make sure we were out of a game by the time the thing was three minutes old.
“We could have gone home. Our team could have saved meal money a lot of nights by saying, ‘Hey, you guys get the hell out of here.’ Okay, so I scored the first and then another – bingo-bingo.”
Ah, but that Terry Sawchuk was a sieve, right?
Duff got a big laugh out of the suggestion.
The hard-nosed left-winger was 19 when he broke into the NHL in 1955 with the Leafs. Rocket Richard and the Canadiens beat them consistently until the early 1960s, when Toronto emerged as a powerhouse. Duff’s linemates for the most successful years were often Dave Keon and George Armstrong.
To skate alongside Henri Richard and with Jean Beliveau in Montreal was a thrill.
“When I went there, Toe Blake said, ‘Dick, I’m going to get you to play with Beliveau. Just watch near the blue-line. He’s got the big long reach so don’t be going offside.”‘
After the Rocket retired in 1960, Duff would talk to him as often as he could. The Rocket had been a money player, too, and Duff was proud to have a similar reputation.
“I learned plenty from watching him play,” said Duff. “I loved the guy.
“When we won the Cup in ’65 my two youngest brothers were at the game. They came into the dressing room and they said, ‘Dick, we saw the Rocket. People were touching him and they were crying when they were touching him.’ I felt like saying, ‘Hey, we just won the Cup here.”‘ After retiring in 1971, Duff returned to Toronto as an assistant coach and then as a scout into the mid-1990s. The Rocket died in May 2000. Long gone were the days of the Original Six, coaches wearing fedoras and players without helmets.
Duff never learned to speak French.
“It’s the only regret I have,” he said. “I was at Henri’s house a couple of times after we won the Cup and his little guys were there and I would have liked to have expressed to his kids what their father meant to me and to the team. Henri Richard was small but he had the heart of a lion.”
It is his Montreal years that are closest to his heart, although he won’t outright admit as much.
“I don’t want to be caught in a bind,” he explained. “I don’t want to lose the fans I have in Toronto. I live here. But the Montreal guys, boy oh boy.”
That Game 7 win over Chicago in the ’65 Cup final, winning the title again by beating the Red Wings in Detroit in ’66 . . .
Get him going and he’s hard to unwind. Dick Duff is never lost for words when the conversation is about hockey.