March 9, 2008 - 1978-79 - Mike Palmateer
(Note: Mondays, we'll have players from the 1978-79 team, 30 years ago this year. They'll appear in alphabetical order.)
Mike Palmateer's time in Toronto was surprisingly short, when you look at it. Given the position he holds in Leaf folklore, you'd really think he'd been around a lot longer.
It's not particularly unusual. One thing I find striking when looking through Leaf history is the sheer amount of turnover in the roster, and that's apparent in goal as much as anywhere. The reason a Bower or a Broda or even a Potvin stands out so much is not just their play - it's that they managed to stay in town for a reasonable length of time. Even periods of relative stability in net tend to be rather short - Joseph's time as a starter was four years, the same as Harry Lumley. Belfour's stint was three. Sawchuk was here just three years. Bernie Parent, who should have solidified the Leafs up for years, had just had a year and a half.
When Parent left for the WHA in 1972, Leaf goaltending was in real trouble. They tried a bunch of players, none of whom could get through their second season with their reputations intact. Palmateer, on his call-up from the minors, famously told GM Jim Gregory "Your goaltending problems are over." For the next three-plus seasons, he was right.
Mike was the antithesis of the kinds of goalies we see now. A little guy, he was very, very aggressive in goal. He'd challenge everyone, diving here and there, making everything acrobatic. He was the difference-maker in 1978 as the Leafs dumped an Islander team that on paper, should have beaten them easily. He outduelled Hall-of-Famer Billy Smith and Chico Resch.
As happened with so many other Leafs, Mike left as the result of a contract dispute. After 1979-80, he wanted a three-year deal while the Leafs would only give two. Mike was dealt to Washington instead. Now, while I'd normally dump on the Leafs here, I can't help but wonder whether they knew something. Palmateer missed a chunk of 1979-80 with an ankle injury. In '80-81 he'd take surgery on that ankle and by '81-82 he was missing serious time with knee problems. Mike was only 26 in 1980, but he might have been starting to break down. Hard to say and I have no real evidence.
Broken down or not, Mike was back in Leafland in 1982-83. He was close to .500 as a starter, though given the Leaf defense, the GAA was pretty high. In '83-84 his knees were in real trouble and he missed the end of the season with surgery. During training camp in '84-85, even though he'd passed his physical, Mike was trying to limit the wear and tear on his knees by doing as little skating as possible. Management thought little of this and he was basically finished at that point. The Leafs went with a pair of 20-year-olds instead (Bester and Wregget) and finished dead last.
Mike had 20 knee operations overall, 14 as a player. Too bad, because it cut short a really promising and interesting career.
Here's a bit from the old Showdown thing they used to do. Watch how mad he gets when beat in a meaningless little skills competition:
|1974-75||Oklahoma City Blazers||CHL||16||7||5||2||1||2.78||5||2||3||0||0||3.88|
|1975-76||Oklahoma City Blazers||CHL||42||15||21||4||1||3.61||3||0||2||0||0||3.04|
|1976-77||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||50||23||18||8||4||3.21||6||3||3||0||2.67|
|1976-77||Dallas Black Hawks||CHL||3||0||2||1||0||1.75|
|1977-78||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||63||34||19||9||5||2.74||13||6||7||2||2.42|
|1978-79||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||58||26||21||10||4||2.95||5||2||3||0||3.42|
|1979-80||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||38||16||14||3||2||3.68||1||0||1||0||7.00|
|1982-83||St. Catharines Saints||AHL||2||1||0||1||1||1.92|
|1982-83||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||53||21||23||7||0||3.99||4||1||3||0||4.05|
|1983-84||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||34||9||17||4||0||4.88|
- Traded to Washington by Toronto with Toronto's 3rd round choice (Torrie Robertson) in 1980 Entry Draft for Robert Picard, Tim Coulis and Washington's 2nd round choice (Bob McGill) in 1980 Entry Draft, June 11, 1980.
- Missed majority of 1981-82 season recovering from knee surgery, September, 1981.
- Traded to Toronto by Washington for cash, September 9, 1982.
From early on in his career, Mike Palmateer tended goal from the pee-wees to the Toronto Marlboros, right under the noses of Maple Leaf management. Yet, as an NHL prospect, he hardly created a stir in the minds of the club's brass as they reflected on how to spend their hoard of draft picks.
The Leafs did finally bring Palmateer into the chain in 1974. He was promptly dispatched to the minors where he tended goal for the Saginaw Gears of the IHL and the Oklahoma City Blazers of the CHL. It wasn't until early in the 1976-77 campaign that he was brought to Maple Leaf Gardens for an extended stay. Suddenly, fans, analysts, and the club's management were all struck by the little fireball between the Leafs' pipes.
Some described him as a leprechaun in goal pads while others claimed he was brash and overrated and carried a chip on his shoulder. But whether people liked him or not, they couldn't help but be entertained by his dynamic exploits in the crease. He could make saves like a vaudeville dancer falling to the ice and then in an instant, be right back on his feet, ready for the next attack. He was colourful, cantankerous, and cocky while playing his daring game close to the edge.
From 1977 to 1979, with Palmateer in goal, the Leafs fortunes began to rise up from the depths of ineptitude. During the playoffs of 1978, he was a standout as the Leafs ousted the up-and-coming Islanders from the playoffs. But in 1980, Palmateer engaged in a contract dispute with the Leafs. He wanted a three-year deal while the club would offer only two. As a result, he was traded to the Washington Capitals.
In his first season as a Cap, Palmateer was slowed by a series of nagging injuries that included a pulled hamstring, ankle ligament damage, and bone chips in his wrist. Year two got even worse as his action-worn knees began to give way.
He was put on the shelf to have arthroscopic surgery at a local hospital. He was already dressed in hospital linen, on his way into the operating room when an urgent call came through from the Caps. Their other goalie, Wayne Stephenson, had just gone down with an injury. They needed Palmateer, bad knee and all, for the evening's game. So, he was packed back into the ambulance and delivered the stadium in time for the match. His surgery was then completed several days later.
In 1982, with his legs in decline, Palmateer was sold back to the Leafs where he gave his career one last try. But a plethora of operations on his knee failed to give the backstopper the mobility he needed to be effective. He got to the point where he couldn't even cover the right side of the net. As a result, he was forced to hang up his pads at age 30 in 1984.