Frank Mahovlich’s journey from Canadian mining town to the Hockey Hall of Fame
Frank Mahovlich was known as “The Big M” throughout his impressive 22-year career in the NHL, but he is now more recently recognized as the Honorable Frank W, Mahovlich, Canadian Senator. Frank is one of the few Canadian hockey players who would be able play for both of Canada’s most cherished sports franchises, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens. He also starred with the Detroit Red Wings.
The left winger grew up in Timmins Ont., and was first impressed by the hockey skills of Herb Carnegie, who was one of the first African Americans to lace up skates. Later, Mahovlich would learn that the man he idolized from his town’s small mining league would play alongside one of his future Montreal Canadiens teammates, Jean Beliveau while with the Quebec Aces.
At an early age, Frank was scouted by a number of NHL teams while playing for the Schumacher Lions of the Northern Ontario Hockey Association. When the Leafs eventually got wind of his on ice abilities, they were quick to sign the young player and sent him directly to the OHA’s St. Michael’s College School from 1954-57. Mahovlich was coached by Joe Primeau, who Frank would later call the best coach he ever had. Primeau was known for his clean but still hard-nosed play that earned him the nickname “Gentleman Joe”. From Joe’s patient guidance and instruction, Frank won the league’s outstanding player for the 1956-57 season, in which he scored 52 goals in 49 games.
Frank joined the Leafs in ‘57 and banged out a 20-goal season. He won the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year, beating out another rookie left winger named Bobby Hull, in what was otherwise a rough season with the last-place Leafs.
At only 19, Mahovlich was not only on the brink of greatness, he was headed for a sterling career.
His grace and electrifying skating style is what set Mahovlich apart from the other players and claimed him as one of professional hockey’s greatest superstars.
In his day, Frank was a large winger, standing at 6-1, and he had the stride of a thoroughbred that powered him through the opposing team’s defense. Paired with his uncanny stick-handling and overpowering shot, Mahovlich starred with the Leafs, helping them win four Stanley Cup championships throughout the ‘60s.
In 1960-61, Frank had his best season as a Leaf. He broke out as a player scoring 48 goals, threatening to become the first player to break the magic 50-goal barrier set by hockey legend Maurice Richard. Frank was also referred to as the “Sleeping Giant” – you didn’t want to wake him up because then he would turn his game way up.
However, despite leading his team to countless victories Mahovlich wasn’t always a Leaf fan favorite, as they expected him to always electrify. Even when he was scoring goals and notching points, boos were often the only noises to be heard within the Garden walls.
One individual who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Mahovlich was coach and GM George “Punch” Imlach. Imlach was known for his old school coaching methods and short temper. He constantly criticized and pushed Frank to work harder, which created a rift between player and coach.
Tension between Mahovlich and Imlach was at an all time high in ’62 when Frank’s contract was up for renewal and the team wasn’t willing to meet his salary demands.
Prior to the 1962 All-Star Game, at a team executive reception in Toronto, the-then Black Hawks owner James D. Norris, offered the Leafs $1 million for Frank, an amount that was obscene and unheard of for any professional athlete at the time (how things have changed…) Norris believed he had an agreement with the Leafs co-owner Harold Ballard and paid a deposit of $1,000, with the balance to be paid the next morning by cheque. The following morning, Conn Smythe, who was a minority shareholder with the Leafs, rejected the deal, refusing to accept a deal that was made over drinks and the Leafs gave Mahovlich the rightful money he deserved.
In the ensuring years, Frank broke from all the pressure from management and the fans and was hospitalized twice for fatigue and anxiety.
In the spring of ‘68, Mahovlich was traded to the Detroit Red Wings, in what was considered one of hockey’s “biggest blockbuster deals”. Power players Garry Unger and Pete Stemkowski went with Mahovlich to the Motor City in exchange for Paul Henderson, Norm Ullman and Floyd Smith. In Detroit, Frank was teamed up with hockey legends Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio on a line that opposing goalies and defensemen would fear. In his first season as a Red Wing, his strong fluid style shone through and he scored 49 goals, clearly freed from the pressures of Toronto. However, Frank’s run with the Wings was short-lived, as he was traded to Montreal in 1971.
The Big M was no stranger to the Montreal Forum when he pulled the famous Habs sweater over his head for the first time. He proceeded to thrive as a member of the Habs, enjoying some of his most productive seasons with the Canadiens. Playing alongside his younger brother Peter, Frank helped the Canadiens to two Stanley Cups in his three seasons with the club. In ‘71, he scored 27 points in 20 playoff games, which at the time was an NHL record.
Frank left Montreal after the 1973-1974 season to join the Toronto Toros in the WHA. He would end his hockey career in ’78 while playing for the Birmingham Bulls, although he did attempt a comeback with the Red Wings in the fall of ’78.
Frank’s hard work and success would be forever immortalized in 1981 when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, where his astounding 533 career goals and 1,103 points would be forever enshrined.
In 1998, the Honorable Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, appointed Frank to the Canadian Senate in recognition of his contributions to Canada, on and off the ice. Frank was a member of the Ontario committee for Fisheries and Oceans, and National Finance. Frank spent 14 distinguished years in the Canadian Senate and he left his seat in the Red Chamber on January 10, 2013.
A flourishing career that began as a small boy on a homemade skating rink, wearing over-sized skates had run a full course. The Big M in retirement is one of the most respected and iconic hockey players to come our way.