Like most coaches in the NHL, George "Punch" Imlach played hockey as a boy and dreamed one day of winning the Stanley Cup. Punch was never quite good enough or determined enough to make the grade as a player, but he did go on to become one of the most successful bench bosses of all time.
An only child, Imlach played for the Young Rangers as a teenager before moving up to the Marlboros and then the Goodyears, all Toronto-area teams in the 1930s. During the war, he enlisted in the army, where he continued to play and where he coached for the first time in Cornwall, Ontario. After being discharged, he was invited to the Detroit Red Wings training camp but declined the offer because he felt he'd put on too much weight during his military service. Instead, he went to work in the accounting department of Anglo-Canadian Pulp and Paper, a business operating in Quebec City. It was there that he started first to play and then coach the company-owned team known as the Quebec Aces.
Imlach remained with the Aces for 11 years, eventually becoming general manager and part owner of a successful team that for years featured Jean Beliveau, who Imlach always regarded as the greatest player he coached. Imlach moved on to coach the Springfield Americans of the American Hockey League in 1957-58. The very next year he was hired as an assistant general manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs, a nebulous position at best because there was no single general manager, but a committee. It was at this point that his life took a remarkable turn for the better. Just a month into the 1958-59 season, the last-place Leafs showed no signs of improvement under head coach Billy Reay. Imlach fired Reay and took over, promising one and all that this sixth-place team would be in the playoffs by the end of the regular season. Most people laughed at his prediction.
With three games to go in the regular season, the Leafs still trailed the Rangers by five points, but in one of the most incredible finishes of all time, Toronto won all its games and the Rangers lost all theirs. Imlach's prediction had come true, and he was credited with being a genius. The Leafs lost in the semifinals or finals the next three years in a row, but in 1962 the team won its first of three successive Stanley Cup championships under Imlach's direction. They won again in 1967, but after being hammered by Boston in four embarrassing games in the 1969 playoffs, Leaf GM Stafford Smythe fired Imlach and his reign was over after 11 prosperous years and four Stanley Cup triumphs.
Imlach was as notorious as he was famous. He refused to negotiate players' contracts until training camp, feeling that the strategy got the players to work harder because they felt less secure about their positions. He routinely scheduled 15 to 20 exhibition games for the team because players never got paid for them but the Leafs got remuneration. But perhaps most notable of all was his running feud with superstar Frank Mahovlich. The Big M, a quiet, reserved man, was for years harassed and bullied by Imlach to the point where twice he had to leave the team because he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Yet Imlach got the most out of Mahovlich and won the Stanley Cup four times, a record that was always difficult to argue with.
Imlach's relationship with the other Leafs players depended entirely upon how they adapted to his philosophy. He was an anti-union man through and through and vilified those Leafs who joined the NHL Players' Association when it was first formed in 1967. His ongoing belligerence also cost him the services of defenseman Carl Brewer, who quit the team after a dressing room fight with Imlach. Brewer didn't return to the league for four years, such was his obstinacy. Perhaps Imlach's greatest handling of a player was when he acquired Red Kelly from Detroit and then converted him from a defenseman to a center. Four Cup wins later, Imlach again looked like a genius.
Imlach himself was forced to leave the team during the 1966-67 season because of severe exhaustion, yet managed to return 10 games later to lead the team to the Stanley Cup in Canada's Centennial year. It was his greatest accomplishment because it was done with the Over-the-Hill Gang of Leafs, the core of the team being players in their late 30s and early 40s who every other team had given up on.
Most important of all to Imlach was loyalty, and he stayed close by those players who were loyal and equally felt no such compunction to those who were not. After the terrible loss in the 1969 playoffs, a number of players, led by Tim Horton and Johnny Bower, announced they would immediately retire from the game because Punch was no longer their coach.
But Imlach wasn't unemployed for very long. The Buffalo Sabres hired him to fill the dual roles of general manager and coach, a task he relished because it gave him the opportunity to beat the Leafs. His first selection at that year's Amateur Draft was Gil Perreault, and Imlach never looked back. He got the team into the finals in just five years, but along the way a greater toll was taken on his health. He suffered a heart attack during the 1971-72 season and had to give up coaching, and by 1979 he was fired by the Sabres after the team failed to maintain a high level of play after a 1975 run to the finals.
In 1979 Leafs owner Harold Ballard hired Imlach to try to resuscitate the dying team. Hailed as the Second Coming in Toronto, Imlach's brief two years was the most controversial time in the history of Maple Leaf Gardens. He got rid of a number of popular players, including Lanny McDonald, which caused an enormous rift in the Leafs dressing room and failed to improve the club's on-ice performance. He suffered another heart attack in 1981 and was forced to leave the Leafs entirely. In 1984 he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. A third heart attack in 1985 further weakened him, and he died two years later from a fourth.