By: Dan Grant
In 2017-18, the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise née The St. Pats née The Arenas, will turn 100 years old. In preparation for this anniversary, MLSE management has announced the installation of a 30 foot long granite bench outside the Air Canada Centre. Before each season until the anniversary, they will announce the names of past Leaf greats that will be honoured with commemorative statues on ‘Legends Row’, destined to forever do their best Forrest Gump, waiting on the bench outside the arena.
Several caveats were made public before any selections were announced. Three statues would be announced this first year, and while this is unconfirmed, it seems that three per year is the plan, for a total of twelve statues on the final bench. It’s also possible that other statues could be added behind or around the bench, and there is speculation that former owner/coach Conn Smythe and broadcaster Foster Hewitt are the prime candidates for these ancillary statues. One would think former coach/GM Punch Imlach and coaches Pat Burns and Hap Day might be candidates to be similarly honoured. A statue of Roger Neilson holding a paper bag would be righteous. For today, let’s stick with the players.
It was also made known that the players would come from four specific eras – the first days of the Gardens, the Cup Dynasty of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the dynasty of the 1960’s and finally, the modern era, covering the 1970’s to present day.
Thursday, the Leafs announced the first selection: former captain Ted ‘Teeder’ Kennedy, from the 40’s/50’s dynasty. This selection has been (mostly) universally hailed. Kennedy, a career Leaf, was the first NHL player to win five Stanley Cups, the youngest to score a Stanley Cup winning goal, and he won the Hart trophy as the league’s MVP in 1955, the last Maple Leaf to do so. He was also a team captain for eight seasons and his #9 jersey already hangs in the rafters of the ACC.
The ‘honoured’ jerseys are a good place to start when considering candidates for the bench. The Leafs only have two retired numbers: Bill Barilko’s #5 and Ace Bailey’s #6. Beyond that, they have 15 players ‘honoured’; 12 of these players share six numbers (1, 4, 7, 9, 10 and 27), two per number. There are also three unique numbers (17, 21 and 93). This leaves us with 16 (plus one surprise!) candidates for the final 11 spots. With one notable exception, each player is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. So lets try and figure it out! All stats listed are the player’s stats as a Maple Leaf.
The No Brainers
These are listed in order of their no-brainerness. (What? It is SO a word! Get your own column!)
Johnny ‘The China Wall’ Bower, G, #1. 1958-59 – 1969-70
12 seasons, 475 games, 219-160-79, 32 shutouts and a 2.49 GAA.
Won four Stanley Cups, two Vezina trophies, finished 2nd in Hart voting in 1960-61.
The owner of one of the more unique careers in NHL history, Bower played most of his 20’s in the AHL. He broke through as the Leafs starting goaltender at age 34 and played for them until age 45, hence his nickname. Bower was later an assistant coach for the team and is still a fixture in the Leaf organization, often appearing at special functions and events. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was announced as one of the other two statues to be installed this September, the first from the 60’s dynasty era.
Syl Apps, C, #10. 1936-37 – 1947-48
10 seasons, 423 games, 201 goals, 231 assists and (only!) 56 penalty minutes for his career.
Won four Stanley Cups, the 1936-37 Calder Trophy and the 1941-42 Lady Byng Trophy. Team Captain for eight seasons, from 1940-43 and 1945-48.
The first ‘great’ Leaf, Apps was a dominant player that bridged the early days of the Gardens to the 1940’s dynasty. He would have had an even greater career, had it not been interrupted by his service in World War II. I think he’ll be grouped with the former era in terms of where he’ll land on the bench (there is speculation the statues themselves will be grouped by era) but there’s no question he’ll be included somewhere.
George Armstrong, C, #10. 1949-50 – 1970-71
21 seasons, 1188 games, 296 goals, 417 assists. 110 playoff games, 60 points. Seven time All-Star. Fifth in all time team scoring.
Won four Stanley Cups. Team Captain for 12 seasons from 1958-69.
The Chief, Armstrong was a fixture of the Leafs for two decades. He owns franchise records for games played and seasons as captain. His mixture of toughness and skill was the Leafs answer for players like the Red Wings Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe and the Canadiens Maurice Richard. The 50’s and 60’s Leafs drew their identity from Armstrong; he’ll be on the bench, the second from the 60’s dynasty era.
Mats Sundin, C, #13. 1994-95- 2007-08
13 seasons, 981 games, 420 goals, 567 assists. 70 points in 77 playoff games. Nine time All-Star. First all time in team goals and points. Second in assists. Second all-time in NHL history with 15 sudden death overtime goals (first when he retired).
Made two Conference Finals. Team captain for 11 seasons from 1997-2008.
Of the ‘modern era’ selections, Sundin is the easiest for me. Many will criticize him because he never ‘won’ anything, but accolades for modern Maple Leafs are few and far between. He was the face of the franchise for nearly his entire tenure, quickly taking the reigns after being acquired from Quebec. The first European player ever selected first overall in the NHL draft, Sundin played with a physical toughness and tenacity that endeared him to Leafs fans. He wasn’t a big hitter by any means, but his sheer combination of size, speed and skill made him a nightmare for opposing defences. Surrounded by also-rans and past-their-prime veterans for much of his career, Sundin often turned chicken shit into chicken salad. He deserves to be remembered as what he was; one of the all-time great Leafs.
Darryl Sittler, C, # 27. 1970-71 – 1981-82
12 seasons, 844 games, 389 goals, 527 assists. 65 points in 64 playoff games. Second in all time goals and points. Third in assists.
Made one Conference Finals. Team captain from 1975-79, 1980-82.
Sittler was basically Sundin before Sundin, except that he was drafted by the team. He was the most talented Leafs player until Mats came along, held the same records Mats held, etc. He had the same incredible size/speed/skill combination. He should have been a career Leaf, except that he clashed with former Maple Leafs owner (and notorious bastard) Harold Ballard and was shipped to Philadelphia. He then spent the last four years of his career in Philly and Detroit. He is beloved in the city of Toronto. I saw him at the airport recently and he looks like he could still play. He also holds the NHL record with ten points in one game. TEN! I just had to mention that. That gets us to two players from the ‘modern’ era, though I think Sittler is a lock to be honoured first.
Turk Broda, G, #1 1937-1952
14 seasons, 629 games. 302-224-101 career record. 62 shutouts and a 2.53 goals against average.
Won six Stanley Cups. Played his entire career with the Maple Leafs.
Broda’s resume speaks for itself. Along with Bower, he’s the greatest goalie in Leafs history. He’ll be the second player from the 40’s dynasty to be honoured, joining Kennedy.
Whoa! Now we’re already past the halfway point; we have 7 players on the bench. This is where things start to get dicey. With only 5 more spots to go, how do we decide? Arbitrarily of course!
The Pretty Likelys
Dave Keon. C, # 14. 1960-61- 1974-75
15 seasons, 1062 games, 365 goals, 493 assists. 92 playoff games, 68 points. Third in goals, assists and points.
Won four Stanley Cups. Won the 1960-61 Calder Trophy, the 1962-63 Lady Byng trophies and the 1967 Conn Smythe trophy. Team captain from 1967-1975.
Here’s the surprise, mainly because Keon’s post-hockey relationship with the Maple Leafs has been rocky at best. Like Sittler, he feuded with Harold Ballard before his exit from the team to the WHA in the mid 70’s. Unlike Sittler, he really never made up with the team. He refused a jersey honouring ceremony and declined to participate in any team functions for many years. However, in 2007, he appeared at a dual ceremony honouring the 80th anniversary of the ‘Maple Leafs’ team name and the 40th anniverary of the 1967 Stanley Cup. He appeared again in 2013 to honour the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Stanley Cup team. One hopes that the hatchet is sufficiently buried and Keon will accept the honour and appear in Maple Leafs Square for all time. The feud is the only reason he’s not included in the ‘No Brainer’s’ section, joining Bower and Armstrong as the third player from the 60’s dynasty.
Charlie ‘The Big Bomber’ Conacher. RW, #9. 1930-38
Nine seasons, 326 games, 200 goals, 124 assists. 49 playoff games, 35 points.
Won 1932 Stanley Cup. Won NHL scoring title (later called Art Ross trophy) in 1933-34 and 1934-35. Led NHL in goals five times in six seasons.
Conacher had a truncated NHL career, retiring at age 30 due to chronic injuries, particularly a bad shoulder. But when he was good, he was among the best in the NHL. The All-Star game didn’t exist during his career, but he was named to two first All-NHL teams and three second teams. By all accounts the first ‘power forward’ to play the game, Conacher was the star of the team that won the 1932 Cup in the teams first season at Maple Leaf Gardens. He’s likely to join Apps as a representative of the early years.
On The Bubble
The ‘On the Bubble’ section is where the fun discussion comes in. Three spots left. The above names might be debated by some people but honestly, I think they’re going to wind up on the bench regardless. They’re icons. This section is where the heated discussions come up. Lets take a look at some of the names.
– Wendel Clark, LW, #17
– Doug Gilmour, C, #93
– Frank Mahovlich, C, #27
– Ace Bailey, C, # 6
– Bill Barilko, D, # 5
– Borje Salming, D, #21
– Tim Horton, D, #7
– Red Kelly, C/D, #4
– King Clancy, F/D, #7
Yikes! That’s nine guys. However, I can make some cuts pretty quickly. First up: Bailey and Barilko. You have to have love for both of them – Bailey was the Leafs’ best player in the late 20’s and early 30’s and Barilko scored the overtime winning goal in the 1951 Cup Finals. However, each player had their jersey retired because their careers ended early. Bailey suffered an on ice skull fracture and Barilko tragically passed away in a plane crash. The fact that they’re the only two Leafs with retired jersey’s is a special honour, one that is fitting for them alone. Of the two, I could see Bailey getting a statue but he wouldn’t be my personal choice.
Things are getting tougher. I’m personally a huge fan of Red Kelly, but he played the first two thirds of his career with the Detroit Red Wings. He was a member of the 60’s dynasty but that era is already well represented, so I don’t think he makes it. Unfortunately, the same goes for Frank Mahovlich, who is in the conversation for most talented Leaf ever. He played a huge portion of his career with the Red Wings and the hated Canadiens, and again, comes from that celebrated 60’s era, so he’s probably out of luck.
Ok, we’re down to five players for three spots!
I think Tim Horton makes it. In fact:
Tim Horton, D. #7, 1949-50 – 1968-69
20 seasons, 1185 games, 458 points. 1389 penalty minutes. 97 playoff games, 50 points.
Won four Stanley Cups. 6 time All-Star.
Horton was a punishingly physical defenceman and the backbone of the team during that 60’s dynasty. Playing almost 1200 games and 20 seasons for the team gets him on the bench in my opinion. And isn’t what this is all about? My opinion? I thought so.
Two more spots to go.
King Clancy almost has to make the cut, if they’re insisting on including players from the ‘early days of the Gardens era’. However, I think he’ll be included with an ancillary statue, like Hewitt and Smythe. Clancy played several seasons for the Leafs and was a part of the 1932 Cup team but he played the majority of his career for the original Ottawa Senators. After an 11 year post-playing career as a referee, he spent the next 40 years as a coach, assistant general manager and vice president with the Maple Leafs, giving him a special place in Leafs history.
That leaves us with Clark, Salming and Gilmour for the final two spots. The first choice is easy.
Borje Salming, #21, D. 1973-74- 1988-89
16 seasons, 1099 games, 148 goals, 620 assists. 81 playoff games, 49 points. Fourth in all time team scoring. First in assists. First in goals by a defenceman. Plus 155 for his career, first in Maple Leafs history (Sundin second at plus 99).
Salming paved the way for the Swedish invasion of the NHL, along with future Leafs scout Anders Hedberg. Salming, unlike other more timid European players, was bullish and brash on the ice, a smooth skating power play general who comparatively quickly adjusted to the rougher NHL game, racking up 1292 penalty minutes for his career, a total that trails only Tie Domi, Tiger Williams, Wendel Clark and Tim Horton in Leafs history. Not bad company. However, it was Salming’s ability with the puck that made him special, as his rankings among the team scoring leaders make evident. Borje will have a spot outside the ACC.
And now, to ruin my childhood. I have to choose between Wendel and Dougie.
It’s tough. Dougie is a Hall of Famer, the record holder for points and assists in a season, team Captain from 1994-97 and my first favourite player. Won the Frank J. Selke trophy as a member of the Leafs and was robbed of the Hart trophy by Sergei Fedorov in 1992-93. Victim of the Gretzky high stick. How can you not love Dougie?
But Wendel. Well… the only non-Hall of Famer on the list is here for a reason. He’s Wendel! First overall pick in 1985. One of the most explosive combinations of toughness and skill in NHL history. Sadly couldn’t stay healthy. Three tours of duty with the Leafs. Captain from 1988-1994.
OK fine. In for a penny…
Wendel Clark, LW…
You know what? I can’t do it. It’s too hard. Wendel is more beloved but Dougie soared higher. They were both great captains. I can’t handle this.
It will probably be Wendel but I’m not going to be the one who takes that plunge! Put them both out there, riding a tandem bike! Don’t make me choose!
I guess the point is, there are an abundance of Leaf greats that deserve spots. Great players not even mentioned include Hap Day, Busher Jackson, Joe Primeau, Bobbie Baun, Bob Pulford, Rick Vaive, Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams, Ian Turnbull and Ron Ellis. Unfortunately, none of them have played for the team for 20 years, Sundin excepted.
‘Legends Row’ is an excellent addition to the new and improved Maple Leaf Square. It’s a fun thing to honour the team’s great history and to foster an environment that recalls it. I recently attended a baseball game at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, home of the Giants. The statues of Mays, Cepeda and McCovey weren’t just fantastic- they were awe inspiring.
Hopefully this season the Phil Kessel’s, JVR’s and Morgan Rielly’s of the world can start making their own history, inspiring their own awe. Here’s hoping that one day, they’ll have to build a second bench.