By Maurice Switzer
I have a confession to make – I am a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.
That admission may not be as tough to blurt out as self-declarations at AA meetings or whispered confessions to attentive priests, but it gets harder to disclose in polite company with every passing year.
Memories come flooding back of scissored clippings from the Star Weekly, glossy page-length coloured photos of Bob Pulford, Billy Harris, Rudy Migay, Ron Stewart, the Cullen brothers – Brian and Barry, Harry Lumley. The most determined among us were willing to risk parental wrath by taping these images right onto bedroom wallpaper in hopes that our collective invocations would be heard by the hockey gods and bring the Stanley Cup back to Maple Leaf Gardens..
But nothing we did seemed to help – not creating wall-to-wall shrines of our blue-and-white sweatered idols, not drowning out Foster Hewitt’s play-by-play with urgent cheers, not hoping that our pond-hockey exploits while pretending to be Maple Leaf skaters would somehow magically be transferred to the players we impersonated.
No child should have to endure the perennial disappointments endured by those of us who worshipped the ground that Tod Sloan walked on. There have been times when I regarded Leaf owners like Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard with the same loathing that might be considered normal for historic villains like Stalin or Mussolini. Like many Canadians, I could not understand how a hockey team could be so good at making money and so bad at winning games.
How could such a legendary franchise sink so low, I wondered.
This was the team of the fabled Kid Line – Charlie Conacher, Harvey Jackson, and Joe Primeau – who were a mere combined 65 years of age in 1932 when they scored eight goals to lead the Leafs to the Stanley Cup in a three-game series.
This was the team of Charles Joseph Sylvanus “Syl” Apps, a Leaf captain who scored 201 goals in a ten-season NHL career interrupted by two years of wartime military service; an all-star, three-time Stanley Cup winner who had been an Olympic pole-vaulter before he skated for the Leafs, and a member of provincial parliament after he retired. In the 1941-42 season, Apps won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy as the league’s most gentlemanly player without serving a single penalty minute!
That year’s Leafs were also the ones who overcame a 3-0 deficit to Detroit Red Wings and won four straight games and the Stanley Cup, the only time in the league’s 100-year-history that such a comeback would take place in the final.
But despite their auspicious pedigree, not to mention a perennially sold-out arena, by the time I became an ardent supporter the Maple Leafs were showing signs of beginning a major slump.
A few months ago a youngster asked me “How old are you anyway?” after a presentation in his school about 200-year-old treaties; I think he wondered if I had actually been present when the wampum belts were exchanged!
“Well, I’ll tell you how old I am,” I answered. “I’m old enough to remember watching the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup!”
That’s 50 years ago. During that drought the league title has been won by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Anaheim Ducks. Yes, the Anaheim Ducks, for God’s sake, who started life as a property of the Disney corporation. Are they a hockey team or a cartoon?
I was fortunate enough to witness a Leafs resurgence in the Sixties. While anti-war picketers were protesting in front of the U.S. Embassy on University Ave., a few blocks east in their Carleton St. quarters the Maple Leafs were mounting their own challenge to the status quo, winning a remarkable four Stanley Cups in six seasons.
When Leafs’ captain George Armstrong scored a third-period empty-net goal to defeat Montreal 3-1 on the evening of May 2nd, 1967, it would mark the last goal scored in the”Original Six”team NHL, and the last time the Mayor of Toronto would have to make plans for a Stanley Cup parade for at least the next half-century.
Then 36 years old, Armstrong hailed from the hamlet of Skead, about 25 kilometres northeast of downtown Sudbury, and situated on the south shore of Lake Wanapitei. His features reflected his mother’s Ojibway heritage, and earned him the nickname “Chief”. He would go on to play more NHL games (1187) than any of the 914 players who have so far worn a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform.
The 1962 Stanley Cup win by the Chief’s Leafs had ended a shorter but equally memorable championship drought. The team had not won a Cup since rugged Timmins defenceman Bill Barilko disappeared on a fly-in fishing trip after scoring the winning goal – again against Montreal – on April 21, 1951, a feat immortalized in the Tragically Hip’s 1993 song “Fifty Mission Cup”. It was said that the Leafs were cursed, that they would not win another championship until Barilko’s body was discovered. Their 1962 victory came seven weeks before his remains were recovered from plane wreckage in dense bush near Cochrane.
These days George Armstrong leads the more sedate life of a Hall-of-Fame athlete, attending some public functions designed to tease fans with the prospect that today’s Leafs are on the verge of returning to the glory days the Chief captained a group of future hall-of-famers named Horton, Mahovlich, Kelly, Keon, Sawchuck, Bower, and Stanley. He spends a lot of time at the Toronto bedside of his dear wife of 63 years, Betty, who is battling Alzheimer’s.
When the Leafs last were the league’s best team, a year that marked Canada’s Centennial , the average league salary was $19,000. Superstar Auston Matthews received a $95,000 bonus just to sign for the Leafs, and when his current entry-level contract expires, will earn more for playing a single period of hockey than George Armstrong made the entire season the last time Toronto won a Stanley Cup.
But, if the last 50 years have proven anything, it will take more than mere money for Toronto’s Maple Leafs to once again drink champagne from the Stanley Cup.
What if the current Leaf “curse” can only be lifted when another Anishinaabe player wears the team’s “C”?
I’d love it to happen, but I can’t wait that long!
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville. He lives in North Bay where he operates Nimkii Communications, a public education practice with a focus on the treaty relationship and Reconciliation.