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Opinion: Maurice Switzer, Can Leafs win Cup without a Chief?

Toronto's Maple Leafs are enjoying a resurgence in their fortunes, trying to break a 50-year Stanley Cup drought. The last time the team was the class of the National Hockey League, their captain was an Anishinaabe from the Sudbury area.
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20180103 Red Kelly, George Armstrong, dave keon
Red Kelly, George Armstrong, Dave Keon

Perhaps I was prompted by the Boxing Day passing of hall-of-fame goalie Johnny Bower, but 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. After all, it's been half a century since any Leaf names – including Bower's -- were engraved on the Stanley Cup.

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 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 filling seats 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 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 National Hockey League 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 -- no softie by anybody's standards --won the Lady Byng 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 championship, 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 mired in a major slump.

I was fortunate enough to witness their great 1960s resurgence. While anti-Vietnam 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.

Their 1962 win 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 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 title until Barilko's body was discovered. Their 1962 victory came seven weeks before his remains were recovered from the plane wreckage in dense bush near Cochrane.

When team 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.

At the time Armstrong was 36 years old, and had been described by legendary Leafs owner Conn Smythe as perhaps the greatest-ever team captain. He 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”, and he would go on to play the most regular-season games (1187) in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform of any of the 914 players who have so far worn one.

These days George Armstrong leads the more sedate life of a Hall-of-Fame athlete, attending some public relations functions designed to tantalize fans with the prospect that today's Leafs are on the verge of returning to the glory days when he captained a group of future hall-of-famers named Horton, Mahovlich, Kelly, Keon, Sawchuck, Bower, and Stanley. But he generally keeps a low profile, spending a lot of time at the Toronto bedside of his dear wife of 63 years, Betty, who is battling Alzheimer's.

When the Leafs were last the league's best team, Canada was celebrating its centennial, and NHL players were collecting an average salary of $19,000. Current superstar Auston Matthews received a $95,000 bonus just to sign for the Leafs, and when his entry-level contract expires, will be paid more for playing a single period of hockey than George Armstrong earned the entire 1967 season when he led the team to their last Stanley Cup.

But, if the last 50 years have proven anything, it will take more than mere money for the Leafs to once again drink champagne from hockey's version of the Holy Grail. During that dry spell league champions have included 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 an animated cartoon?

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!” His eyes bugged out in disbelief.

As much as I'd love to see another Anishinaabe player wear the Leaf “C”, let's hope that the current Cup “curse” doesn't last until that happens.

Nor especially as long as it takes for Canada to keep the treaty promises embedded in those wampum belts.