By Steve Cichon
His colorful way and hockey know-how helped solidify the young Buffalo Sabres as an institution in Western New York. But even among non-hockey fans, Punch Imlach’s legacy has crept into the morning routines of tens of thousands of Buffalonians.
When Stafford Smythe fired George “Punch” Imlach as the head coach and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1969, Imlach said that someday he’d “shove those words down (Smythe’s) throat.”
It came to pass when Imlach was hired to manage and coach the Sabres two years later, he took out full page ads in the Toronto Telegram with the words, “Remember Me? I am in Buffalo now. Come over and see me!” next to a photo of the unmistakable hockey legend with his trademark white Canadian beaver hat.
Imlach was the first coach of the Sabres, pictured here behind the bench with a young Richard Martin looking on. Punch was also the Sabres’ first general manager, and when health concerns forced him to give up coaching, he and his hat moved up to the Aud’s prime seats in the golds next to his wife Dodo.
It was Imlach’s tenacity and temerity that brought Gilbert Perreault to the Sabres. After it was announced that Vancouver had won the first pick of the 1970 NHL Draft, Punch stopped NHL Commissioner Clarence Campbell dead in his tracks as asked him to check the giant roulette wheel again — the Sabres had actually won.
He was a tough, old-school coach, which many of his tough, old-school players loved. When the Leafs fired Imlach, one of his star players — a 20-year veteran defenseman — vowed he’d follow Punch.
It took a few years, but Tim Horton — who was still known for his solid play on the blue line more than his solid cup of coffee — came to play for his beloved Imlach in Buffalo in 1972. Horton died in a one-car crash, speeding back to Buffalo after playing in Toronto in 1974. Horton’s time playing in Buffalo was brief — but likely wouldn’t have happened at all without Imlach.
At the time of his death, Horton co-owned 40 doughnut shops across Canada. There’s little doubt that Horton’s popularity as a player here led to the first U.S. Tim Horton’s store to be built at the corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Ridge Lea Road just south of I-290, a decade after his death in 1984.
It was Punch who brought Horton, and Buffalo’s love of the defenseman — which was the kindling in the raging inferno of love Buffalo has for double-doubles, ice caps and crullers.