Tony Leswick has come down in Detroit Red Wings lore as “the mouse that roared.” Once a 27-goal scorer for the New York Rangers, back in the day when a 20-goal season really meant something, Leswick changed his game when he left Broadway for Detroit in 1951. The sawed-off left winger teamed with Marty Pavelich and Glen Skov to form the Wings’ top checking line. However, in the decisive game of the 1954 Stanley Cup Finals, it was Leswick’s scoring touch, not his zealous checking ability, that gave the Wings the championship in one of the weirdest Game Seven endings ever in professional sports.
Leswick, a native of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, had learned the game from his older brother Jack, a forward on the Chicago team that beat the Wings in the 1934 Cup finals. Jack drowned that summer, but another brother, Pete, later a member of the New York Americans, took over the youngster’s tutelage. “Tough Tony” broke into the professional ranks with the Cleveland Barons in 1942, spent three years in the Canadian navy during World War II, then was signed by the Rangers after his discharge. Although older Detroit fans remember him as a spotty scorer, Leswick was quite a marksman with New York. He was named a second-team All-Star behind the Wings’ Ted Lindsay in 1950 and had a fine series against the Wings in that year’s Cup finals.
Leswick stood five-and-half feet tall and weighed 160 pounds, earning him the nickname “Mighty Mouse,” after the popular cartoon character of the same time. When he was acquired by Wings coach and general manager Jack Adams in 1951, it was made clear that his future with the club rested primarily on his defensive abilities. Leswick concentrated on being a pest to the league’s top forwards. He especially enraged Montreal coach Dick Irvin by hooking, grabbing, and harassing Maurice “Rocket” Richard whenever the Wings and Canadiens engaged in one of their grudge matches. If Leswick was a mugger and a hoodlum, as Irvin maintained, he also was one of the top money players in the league, as the world would soon learn.
In the 1954 semi-finals the Wings breezed past Toronto in five games. In the finals, Montreal seemed ready to fall just as easily, dropping three of the first four games as Terry Sawchuk performed brilliantly in the Wings’ net. But then Irvin, looking to shake up his team, benched Jacques Plante and installed Gerry McNeil between the pipes. The Canadiens stormed back to take Game Five, 1-0, on an overtime goal by Ken Mosdell, and then easily captured the sixth game, 4-1.
The seventh and decisive game was played April 16, 1954, in front of the usual packed house at Olympia. Many expected a classic, and they weren’t disappointed. After the Wings fell behind, 1-0, Red Kelly tied the contest with a second period goal. The score remained tied at a goal apiece as regulation time expired. It was now sudden death for the Stanley Cup.
The climactic rush to the championship began a little more than four minutes into overtime. Detroit’s Metro Prystai passed deep out of his own zone to Glen Skov, who sailed down the left side, across the Montreal blueline. He banged the puck off the boards behind the net and it bounced out to Leswick, who lifted a lazy shot towards the Montreal goal.
Doug Harvey, one of the NHL’s premier defenders and an accomplished semipro baseball player, swiped at it. He planned to knock the puck to the ice so that he could play it. Instead, to his horror and the crowd’s delight, it unaccountably deflected off his glove and shot over McNeil’s shoulder and into the net.
Montreal was stunned. Ted Lindsay was ecstatic. “You little toad!” he shouted at Leswick moments after his Cup-winning goal.
Leswick later gave his version of events: “I had the puck around center ice or so and I just wanted to do the smart thing and throw it in. If I get caught with the puck and the Canadiens steal it, we may get caught and they may get an odd-man break. Just like that, the game could be over. So, I’m just thinking of lifting the puck down deep in their end, just making the safe play. So I flipped it in nice and high and turned to get off the ice. The next thing I know, everyone’s celebrating. It had gone in. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. It went in? Get out of here!’”
Irvin and the Canadiens, sore losers, stormed off the ice instead of congratulating the winners. “If I had shaken hands,” Irvin said, “I wouldn’t have meant it. I refuse to be a hypocrite.”
The Wings came back the following spring to win their fourth and final Stanley Cup of the 1950s. Once again it came down to a seventh game against Montreal, only this time Alex Delvecchio and Gordie Howe accounted for the Wings’ scoring in a 3-1 victory at Olympia. Leswick was traded to Chicago a few weeks later, part of a multi-player transaction that contributed to the collapse of the Wings’ dynasty. He returned to Detroit for a brief stint in 1957 before moving on to the Western and Central hockey leagues as a player and coach. The three-time Stanley Cup champion and six-time NHL All-Star died in British Columbia in 2001, his name and fluky overtime goal indelibly etched in hockey lore.