Four-time Leaf Cup winner Larry Hillman dies

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Larry Hillman’s life as a Maple Leaf could not have been better timed.

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From June of 1960 — when he was claimed off waivers from Boston — to June of ’68 — when he departed to Minnesota in the same fashion — the solid defenceman had his name on four Stanley Cups, and played a huge role in the club’s final championship in 1967.

Family and friends posted that the Kirkland Lake, Ont., native died late Friday at age 85, though no cause of death was listed. His years in Toronto were preceded by a Cup with Detroit in 1955 and another with Montreal in 1969.

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He once took credit for the “Hillman Hex” on the Leafs after a salary dispute with general manager/coach Punch Imlach, which took on a life of its own as Toronto’s title drought reached half a century. But Hillman insisted in recent years he’d lifted it in hopes his former team would win again.

Like many Leafs who were the backbone of the 1960s dynasty, Hillman came from a rugged upbringing in the Northern Ontario. He went by the locker-room monicker ‘Morley’ — one of his middle names.

“A very low-key man, a solid defender, very loyal, the ultimate pro,” Brian Conacher, Hillman’s teammate in ’67, said on Saturday. “Hockey was his life. He was shuffled around by the Leafs (to the farm) a few times and played for so many teams (eight in the NHL in 19 years), you might get the idea he couldn’t keep his job. But he was certainly a special player in our Cup year.”

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Leafs forward Ron Ellis called Hillman “a great stay-at-home defenceman” whose work was often overlooked.

“One thing that stands out to me was in the ’67 playoffs, he and (defence partner) Marcel Pronovost were not on the ice for an even-strength goal against,” Ellis said Saturday. “They were a good match — he let Marcel do all the rushing.”

With Imlach using four primary defencemen, that season was considered Hillman’s best as a Leaf as he went through all 12 playoff games against Chicago and Montreal without taking a penalty.

“That was a special time for everyone to be a Leaf,” Ellis said, “to win the last Cup of the Original Six in Canada’s centennial year.”

Hillman moved on to play with Minnesota, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Buffalo. He concluded his career with three years in the World Hockey Association with Cleveland and Winnipeg, later coaching the Jets to the 1978 Avco Cup.

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Developing his game in junior with Windsor and Hamilton, the six-foot Hillman broke in with the Red Wings and became the youngest player to get his name on the Cup at 18 years, two months and nine days, which can’t be bettered as current rules require a player to be at least 18 to start a season. Hillman went to Boston, but was demoted in 1959-60, winning the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenceman, leading new Leafs’ boss Imlach to acquire his rights.

Relying on more physicality than finesse, as did most blueliners of his day, Hillman could both hit and move the puck quickly. But the Leafs were still a hard team to make with strong rearguards such as Tim Horton, Carl Brewer, Bob Baun and Allan Stanley. In 1967, he played 55 regular season games in a Toronto lineup sprinkled with many players over 30 years old. He was ranked as the 88th best player in franchise history in the 2002 book ‘Maple Leafs Top 100’ by a media panel.

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But in the summer of 1967, Hillman requested a $5,000 raise from Imlach to top him up to $20,000 a year. The tight-fisted Imlach refused to go beyond $19,500 and fined Hillman $100 a day while he held out. Though claimed by the North Stars the following year, the loss of $2,400 for staying away three weeks irked Hillman for years and he famously vowed the Leafs would not win another Cup until it was repaid — with interest.

“Imlach was not an easy guy to play for,” Conacher said. “You didn’t respect him as much as fear him.”

Only Hillman, Frank Mahovlich and Mike Walton ever did win another Cup after ’67.

“It would have been a lot cheaper to pay that than signing all those million-dollar players,” Hillman joked of the hex in 2016.

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But for the Leafs’ 2017 centennial, club president Brendan Shanahan went to the board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and had a $2,400 cheque issued — with compound interest — to offer him, a gesture Hillman greatly appreciated.

“I was hoping 40 years was enough,” Hillman told the Sun of the Cup drought in 2008. “It’s harder now to win with 30 teams in the league instead of six. You’re gambling all the time when you often have no cards to start with.

“It was too bad that they broke us up after the last Cup, because a group of us, such as Johnny Bower and Dave Keon, had been there for a long time.”

As a coach, Hillman had a very gifted Jets team that included Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Kent Nilsson and Willy Lindstrom, which won 50 regular season games and the 1978 league title, though he was let go before the Jets joined the NHL the next year.

Hillman, who is on a very small list of players to win Cups with three different Original Six teams, ran various outdoors-themed businesses in the north country after his retirement.

Larry’s younger brother Wayne, also a defenceman who played in the NHL and WHA and on teams with Larry, died of cancer in 1990.

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