Maple Leafs Time Machine: Bob Baun's Prairie roots

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While reflecting on one year since the passing of Borje Salming — still so hard to believe he’s gone – let’s not forget the recent loss of another larger-than-life Leafs defenceman who wore No. 21.

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Not only was Bob Baun’s braun valued, hence the ‘Boomer’ nickname for folding on-rushing forwards like lawn chairs with his open ice hip and body checks, he won four Stanley Cups and scored what’s considered the gutsiest goal in Toronto playoff history.

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News of his death at 86 after many health issues wasn’t just mourned in Toronto, but all the way back to Lanigan, Sask. Twenty-five minutes south of Humboldt, the town of 1,600 has a welcome sign on Highway 16 as the hometown of many NHL sons, topped by Baun with a Leaf logo, as well as Brian Propp, Todd Strueby and the Brookbank brothers, Wade and Sheldon.

There’s also a street named in Baun’s honour, quite a legacy considering he left the agricultural/potash mining town at a young age when his father took more lucrative work in the East with General Motors in Oshawa.

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Bobby took his hard-nosed hockey to the Toronto Marlborough juniors, one of the Leafs feeder teams and back-to-back Memorial Cup winners in 1955-56.

But part of him will always be considered Prairie-tough.

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The Highway 16 sign welcoming people to Lanigan, Sask., home of Bobby Baun. CREDIT: Daniel Bushman

“We have die-hard Leaf fans here who remember him,” said Lanigan Mayor Tony Mycock. “That includes my 88-year-old neighbour, Ozzie Lutz. I’m a Habs fan, but there are three Leaf fans on my street alone and the ribbing gets pretty good between us.

“Ozzie told me Baun scored the big goal (on a broken ankle in overtime in a pivotal game against Detroit during the 1964 Cup final).

“When Sheldon won the Cup with Chicago, that created a lot of Blackhawk fans here, too.”

His Worship asked around town on our behalf, but no other Baun relatives appear to have remained in the area, compared to his many children and grandkids in Toronto.

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“I think he definitely had an impact here,” said Daniel Bushman, publisher of the weekly Lanigan Advisor and Watrous Manitou, two local papers, who ran huge Baun obituaries in the summer. “The street named for him (many years ago) is so cool to see, that a one-time Leaf star hailed from here.”

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Baun St. In Lanigan named for the four-time Cup champion. CREDIT: Daniel Bushman

Mycock coached his own daughter from 11 to 15 and minor hockey teams in town, one group from novice all the way to midget, before the Mayor’s chair and managing the Sinnett Pork Farm in Leroy took up most of his time. Bushman coaches an U-11 team in Watrous with son Carter in net, with many games in Lanigan, named for a pioneer businessman.

Both men say the area provides the perfect  postcard Canadian backdrop to hockey, as well as Foam Lake, Muenster and other surrounding communities.

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“Rinks like the one in Lanigan are a hive in winter, a real gathering place,” Bushman said. “Our senior hockey team, the Pirates, have won many championships and some of our players through the years went on to play for the Humboldt Broncos including Sheldon.”

The Broncos bus crash in 2018 claimed 16 lives, including Logan Schatz from Allan, just west of Lanigan, and severely injured Layne Matechuk from Colonsay.

“You see a lot of Brookbank jerseys at Pirates’ games,” Bushman added. “Once you hit December and you’re driving your kid to practice, you load everything in the car and it’s pretty much darkness when you start and darkness when you finish.

“But it’s fun. And then you think that Baun came from here and won a Cup, and the parade through town we had for the Brookbanks when they brought the Cup.”

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NHL hockey and the Leafs in particular once helped connect the West at hibernal time when radio was the only outside connection to the world and just one Canadian team was west of Ontario. Families looked forward to Foster Hewitt’s Saturday night radio broadcasts, creating vivid game action at the Gardens, featuring many of their Western-bred stars.

Baun wasn’t exactly known for his scoring touch before that OT goal. After being stretchered off the Detroit Olympia ice when he blocked a Gordie Howe shot, he clomped back to the Leaf bench taped up and on painkillers, countermanded coach Punch Imlach’s order to stay off the ice and unloaded what he colourfully described as a triple flutterball with a blooper. The puck glanced off Detroit defenceman Bill Gadsby’s stick and beat Terry Sawchuk.

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The severity of his ankle injury wasn’t known until later, but he recovered in time to play Game 7 and win the Cup on home ice.

“I went to my first Leaf camp at age 16,” Baun told the Hockey Time Machine Show in 2021. “And a year earlier, I went with Danny and Mike Nykoluk to the Toronto Argonauts (CFL) camp. They wanted me to stay; Danny did and became an Argo Hall of Famer. I thought football would be my calling.”

But a year after the second Memorial Cup, Baun made the Leafs and went on to more than 1,000 games for them, Detroit and one year on the expansion Oakland Seals.

Baun made the Leaf end of the rink a no-go zone.

“Everything was pre-meditated,” Baun said of ‘lowering the boom’, also the title of his book. “I always left an opening to the outside. If (opposing forwards) took it, that was their problem.

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“All Johnny Bower and our goalies wanted was the chance to see the puck. I gave the other guy an opening but then I shut it down.”

LOOSE LEAFS

This week, Waddington’s Auction House in Toronto posted a stick signed by members of the 1951 champion Leafs, including Bill Barilko, whose overtime goal against Montreal won the Cup shortly before his death … Mike Palmateer is one of 12 NHL goaltending greats profiled in Toronto-based writer Randi Druzin’s latest book, Behind The Mask.

THE WEEK IN LEAF HISTORY

It was 37 years ago Sunday in Detroit that Gerard Gallant of the Wings accidentally stepped on Salming’s face in a crease pile up that required close to 200 stitches. I was at Joe Louis and recall the long trail of blood to the Leaf bench, and the frightening photo of a sewn-up Salming next day in the Toronto Sun … This week marked 65 years since Imlach became GM of the Leafs. Always enjoyed historian Paul Patskou’s story that Imlach was such an unknown when he first arrived that Gardens staff refused the future four-time Cup champion admission to the building.

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