Dick Duff was a winner.
Plain and simple.
He wasn’t big and he was never considered to be a prolific goal scorer, but the native of Kirkland Lake, Ontario always found a way to get it done, especially in important games.
And the gutsy left winger would do whatever it took to win.
“He would drop his gloves with anybody,” Toronto Maple Leafs teammate Bob Baun recently told Sportsnet. “I had a fight with him every practice!”
That last part was a bit of a reach, but the point was clear that Duff, though just five-foot-nine, 165 pounds, was fearless and played bigger than he stood.
Not surprisingly, his idol was Detroit Red Wings legend Ted Lindsay, who played his minor hockey in the summer in Kirkland Lake.
“He was the toughest, meanest bugger in the NHL,” Duff told Sportsnet.
Beyond being a feisty player, Duff could also produce and in key moments.
He started in the NHL with the Maple Leafs in 1955 at the age of 19, a graduate of St. Michael’s College where he won the Memorial Cup. It was quite apparent from the beginning that the Leafs held Duff in high regard, too, when owner Conn Smythe gave him sweater number nine, which had been worn by the legendary Ted Kennedy.
“When Mr. Smythe gave me Kennedy’s number, I knew they considered me a special player,” he said.
His first full season was 1955-56, when he played alongside George Armstrong and Tod Sloan. That first season he scored 18 goals, then had seasons of 26, 26 and 29, then a huge number.
He won the Stanley Cup with the Leafs in 1962 and 1963, scoring the Cup-winning goal in 1962, ending an 11-year championship drought for the Leafs. In that 1963 final, in the opening game, Duff set an NHL scoring record, with two goals in the first 1:08 of the game, the fastest pair ever from the start of a playoff game and they came against the Detroit Red Wings star goaltender Terry Sawchuk.
In his ninth full season with the Leafs, Duff was traded to the New York Rangers in a 1964 blockbuster seven-player deal that saw Andy Bathgate come to Toronto. The following season he was again traded, this time to the Montreal Canadiens to replace the retired Dickie Moore. He proceeded to be a key player in four Stanley Cup victories in five seasons. And he had a couple more 20-plus goal years, including 25 in 1967-68, eight of those a team-best game winners.
Duff ended his 18-year career with six championships and had stints with the expansion Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres, where he was reunited with his former Leafs coach Punch Imlach. Duff retired in 1972 and later returned to the Leafs for many years in the scouting department.
Duff scored 283 goals and 572 points in his career and had an additional 79 points in 114 playoff games.
He also played in seven NHL all-star games and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2006.
“I appreciate my teammates in the NHL, who taught me how to win at the highest level of the game,” Duff said on the day of his induction.
You could safely argue that Duff taught them a thing or two, as well.