April 24, 2006

Gord Drillon

Gord Drillon, the pride of Moncton, New Brunswick, was a great player who had to battle a few different knocks against him. Because of these knocks he isn't remembered perhaps as he should be.

Drillon had a lot in common with Frank Mahovlich and even Mats Sundin. Those three were big men and scoring sensations, yet both had their fair share of critics. Traditionally hockey's talented but mostly placid big men have been often unfairly criticized for a seeming lack of effort. Big guys, even the biggest of legends like Jean Beliveau and Mario Lemieux, don't always seem to be playing full out even though they more than often are. Their natural size advantage made the game easier for them - a long stride looked slow compared to the short-step speedsters, and muscle and weight allowed them to easily gain room rather than having to fight through to gain territory. Despite his big size (at 6'0" and 185 pounds, Drillon was almost a giant in his era), Drillon was not a physical player like his predecessor Charlie Conacher. It seemed nothing Drillon could do was enough as he was always compared to Conacher.

Drillon was a spectacular offensive player who arrived in Toronto just in time to replace the extremely popular Conacher. He was known as a deadly accurate shooter, able to exploit even the smallest opening.

Turk Broda, the great Leafs goalie, called him the greatest sniper he had ever seen - and he saw a lot of him in practice and had fits trying to stop this puck master.

"I don't think there's a player in hockey who can shoot the puck more accurately," Broda once said. "Even if you leave him an opening the size of the puck, he'll hit it every time."

Forming a prolific scoring combination with the great Syl Apps, Drillon's style of hockey was to park himself in front of the net and tip shots and pounce on rebounds. He did it with great success -In 5 of his 7 NHL seasons he scored 20 goals back in a 50 or less game schedule. He scored 155 goals in his 311 game career, and added 139 assists for 294 points.

Drillon is of course the answer to a popular Toronto trivia question. He is the last Leaf player to lead the entire National Hockey League in scoring. That happened in his second NHL season - 1937-38. He teamed up with the great Syl Apps to score 26 goals and 52 points in 48 games. He would win First Team All Star honors on right wing and was honored with the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship - he was the league's highest scorer picked up only 2 minor penalties all season long.

But for all his offensive greatness, he was a poor defensive player which of course did not endear himself to the fans or especially his coaches. He also was known as an eccentric off the ice. He liked to have a good time off the ice, which again led to his legend as the black sheep of the old Leafs teams.

What should have been Drillon's greatest moment as a Leaf turned out to be bittersweet. In 1941-42 the Leafs completed one of the greatest comeback in Stanley Cup playoff history. Down 3 games to none against the Detroit Red Wings, the Leafs somehow roared back to win 4 straight games and capture the championship. However Drillon did not have a positive impact on the playoff heroics that year. In fact he was the player benched after game 3. His benching sent a firm message to his teammates and fired them up and on to victory. Although it was widely reported that Drillon was unhappy about the benching, but he would later dispute that.

"(Coach) Hap Day just told me that my style of hockey was not the same as the rest of the team, and we needed this to beat Detroit. And he was right. I was going bad at the time, no doubt about it," he said.

Drillon left Toronto on that bad note. He was shipped to Montreal in the off season. He would play only one season with Montreal, scoring a career high 28 goals plus 50 points.

His NHL career would be cut short due to World War II. He spent three years in the Canadian military, often based back in the friendly confines of Atlantic Canada. Upon the end of his military service he decided to stay in Atlantic Canada rather than returning to the NHL. He would continue to play hockey though, putting on scoring clinics across the entire Maritimes on the senior hockey circuit.

Drillon would later coach and serve as the Maple Leafs' Maritime scout for a period of time.

Despite his public benching and exile from Toronto, Gord Drillon deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest Leafs ever. The Hockey Hall of Fame remembered that when they inducted him into their exclusive club in 1975. The move was a great way to help younger fans keep alive the goal scoring prowess of New Brunswick's favorite hockey player.

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