Dick Duff is a walking, talking piece of hockey history.
He won two Stanley Cups and lost in two Stanley Cup finals while playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He then won four Stanley Cups and lost once while playing for the Montreal Canadiens.
In an 11-year run in a 17-year career, Duff won the Cup or played for it nine different times, almost all of it coming in the 1960s.
None of this, of course, seems in any way imaginable, not with a Toronto team that hasn’t won a championship in 54 years or a Montreal club that hasn’t won a Cup in the eternity that been the past 28 years. And here is Duff, still aware, still strong, as the second-most decorated player to have worn both the uniforms of the Leafs and the Habs. His close friend, Frank Mahovlich, is first on that list.
“Everybody,” said Duff, “comes after The Big M.”
Duff did play 1,001 games for the Leafs and Canadiens. That seems especially noteworthy now that Toronto and Montreal will meet in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in 42 years.
“I’m lucky,” said the 85-year-old Duff. “I got to play with Mahovlich and Chief (George Armstrong) and (Dave) Keon in Toronto. And it was a treat to play with (Jean) Beliveau and Henri (Richard) and (Ralph) Backstrom and (John) Ferguson in Montreal. For a kid from Northern Ontario, that was a dream come true.
“You have to understand, there were only two teams that mattered in the NHL in those days. It was Toronto or Montreal, Montreal or Toronto. That was the league. If you went in to New York to play, it was, ‘The Leafs are coming to town.’ Or ‘The Canadiens coming to town.’ That was the story. If you’re a teenaged kid from Kirkland Lake, like I was, that’s all you knew. That’s all you heard on your radio. Two teams.
“And I got to play on both of them.”
Duff didn’t just play. He wasn’t only a participant on the teams he played on. He was a difference-maker.
From 1960-69 — the 10 seasons in which he couldn’t stop winning — he couldn’t stop starring either. For that decade, the playoff leading scorers were, in order, Beliveau, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Gordie Howe. Four of the greatest players ever.
Fifth on that scoring list: Duff.
When the Leafs won their four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, the first one came against the defending champions with Hull, Mikita, and Glenn Hall in their lineup. The winning goal in Game 6 at old Chicago Stadium was scored by Duff.
“It was meant to be,” said the winger. “I call it the ‘Keon Goal.’ I scored at 14:14 of the third period. That’s Keon’s number twice. And then, the last five minutes of the game seemed to take forever. They had that old clock at the Chicago Stadium — remember that? — it was impossible to read. We were waiting and waiting. And, finally, it was ours.”
He cherishes them all, but of the six Stanley Cups Duff won, his first was his favourite. Not just because he scored the winning goal. Not just because he left home at age 15 to go to St. Mike’s and train to become an NHL player. But because, in a six-team league, the Leafs hadn’t won in more than a decade — and he knew what that meant in Toronto.
“That started the run,” said Duff.
The Leafs won three years in a row, but Duff was traded to New York before the third of four Punch Imlach Toronto Cups. A year later, he was sent to Montreal, where he spent just over five crazy great seasons with the Habs.
He won the Cup in 1965 and ’66, lost to the Leafs in ’67 (“we were too busy having fun with Expo”), then won in ’68 and ’69.
“I was there when Beliveau won the first Conn Smythe Trophy ever given out and in ’69, when (Serge) Savard won the Conn Smythe, I finished second in the voting.
“There was something about the playoffs. I always wanted to be one of those guys who played his best in the biggest moments. I remember watching Rocket Richard and Ted Lindsay when I was younger. They had this way of making a difference. Some guys could bring the crowd up, just by climbing over the boards. They had that. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be like them. Detroit did all that winning when Lindsay was there and, when they traded him, they stopped winning.”
To this day, Duff has never stopped being that proud kid from Kirkland Lake, Ont., who couldn’t believe there was a career to be made playing hockey. Over the years, he would track his friends from Northern Ontario and take stock of them. The early Leafs championship years had Duff and Larry Hillman from Kirkland Lake; Tim Horton from Cochrane; Armstrong from Skead; Bob Nevin from South Porcupine; Mahovlich and Allan Stanley from Timmins; Eddie Shack and Al Arbour from Sudbury.
“And you can put Keon in there, too, even though he’s from Quebec. We played against those guys up north when we were kids.
“And I won Cups in Montreal with Backstrom and Hillman and Mickey Redmond. Can you imagine that, four Kirkland Lake guys winning together with the Montreal Canadiens?”
Duff had remarkable team success, but also enough personal success to find his way to the Hockey Hall of Fame. In the opening game of the 1963 final against the Detroit Red Wings, Duff scored two goals in 11 seconds against the legendary Terry Sawchuk. They were the fastest two goals to start a game in Stanley Cup history. It’s a rare record that Wayne Gretzky ranks second to.
He ended the ’62 Cup with the winning goal and started the ’63 final by scoring twice in the first 68 seconds of Game 1.
Now, all these years later, here are the Leafs and the Habs meeting in the playoffs, and Duff, living in the Toronto area, won’t say — or can’t say — which team he favours most.
“I was very fortunate that I had a chance to play with both of them, and I like both teams,” he said. “This is Toronto-Montreal. That’s part of Canada’s history and hockey history. That used to be all we had. That was the selling point of the NHL.
“Hockey on Saturday night has been the theatre of our country, the opera, the show, and it was a treat to be a part of that. Sports means so much to the people in this city, especially now when we want to take the tension out of our lives.
“Do I wish I could play again? We all do. But I’m closer to 100 than I am to 25. A lot of my friends are gone. A lot of teammates. A lot of good guys. A lot are up there, waiting for me. I’m not ready to join them yet.”
DICK DUFF’S STANLEY CUP TRAIL
1958-59: Lost final with Leafs
1959-60: Lost final with Leafs
1961-62: Won Cup with Leafs
1962-63: Won Cup with Leafs
1964-65: Won Cup with Habs
1965-66: Won Cup with Habs
1966-67: Lost Cup with Habs
1967-68: Won Cup with Habs
1968-69: Won Cup with Habs