Posts Tagged ‘norm ullman’

Norm Ullman - 1964-65 Topps Tall BoysNorm Ullman was about to have the best season of his career.

He’d finish second overall in both goals (42) and points (83), place second in voting for the Hart Trophy (MVP) and be named to the First All-Star team at centre.  For a guy whose card notes him as “long regarded as one of the most underrated players in the NHL, ” it was quite the coming-out party.

I think that centre might be the hardest position at which to gain recognition.  There are always so many strong ones in the league that very, very good players can spend their entire careers in the shadows.  I see Ullman as somewhat akin to a Dale Hawerchuk, who would have been a perennial All-Star had he not been playing at the same time as guys like Gretzky and Lemieux.  The centres of the sixties included the likes of Jean Beliveau, Stan Mikita, Henri Richard, Alex Delvecchio, Dave Keon.  Phil Esposito would appear in 1964-65 and own the latter part of the decade.  It’s rather hard to get noticed amongst that crowd, particularly when your game is about steady excellence rather than explosive play.  When I see Ullman playing in an old game, he’s smooth, polished, subtle.  He doesn’t always jump out unless you’re paying attention.

Norm broke in with the Wings in 1955.  In his second season, following an injury to Alex Delvecchio, he found himself centering a line with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay.  He responded with 52 points and was eighth overall in assists.  When Lindsay was sent to Chicago in 1957 for daring to start a player’s association, Norm, then just 21, was promoted to a full-time job as number-one centre as Delvecchio shifted to the left wing.  It was heady times for a young kid and he played well.

Norm would become a mainstay on the Wings.  He was durable and a lock for 20-30 goals every season.  (He only missed 20 once between 1957-58 and 1973-74.) He could be moved around from line to line and it didn’t seem to impact his performance.  He was top-ten in scoring eight different times.

Late in 1967-68, the Wings were playing badly and in need of a shake-up and the Leafs, who had been in first place in January, were in free-fall.  A major shake-up was in order as Toronto tried to save its season and Detroit tried to retool.  Norm, Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith and Doug Barrie went to Toronto in exchange for Frank Mahovlich, Carl Brewer, Pete Stemkowski and a young kid named Garry Unger.   Ullman had 17 points in 13 games and the Leafs won most of them, but it was too little, too late.

As a Leaf, Norm carried on just as always.  Head coach Punch Imlach called him the most talented centre he’d ever had.  He maintained about a point-per-game clip until the middle of 1973-74, when a young Darryl Sittler rose to prominence and took the lion’s share of the ice time.  After a disappointing 1974-75, he moved to the WHA and the Edmonton Oilers.  It was a natural fit for Norm, a native Albertan who had played both junior and minor pro in Edmonton.  He put in two more solid years before calling it a day at age 41.

By the time he left the NHL, Norm was the fourth-highest scorer in NHL history, trailing only Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio and Stan Mikita.  Part of this comes from the fact that he broke in just after the extension of the schedule to 70 games and the dead-puck era of the early 1950s, but even it is just fourth amongst his peers, it was still an accomplishment of note. ( Of the top ten all-time scorers in 1974-75, only Howe broke in before 1950. The growth of the schedule from 48 games in the 1930s and 40s to 70 games basically eliminated all the early players from the record books.)

In the last number of years, a more advanced form of statistical analysis has come to hockey, aided by an explosion in the amount and variety of data available for analysis.  I’d love to have that sort of data available for this era.  The performance of the greats shows up in the awards they won (for the most part), but there are a whole host of players just a tiny step behind that are basically lost.  There’s no real way to measure the difference between an Ullman and a Beliveau or any ot the other great centres in history, and that’s a shame.

Norm Ullman - 1964-65 Topps Tall Boys back