david ayres for the win: whereas north carolina’s motto is esse quam videri, which means to be rather than to seem

David Ayres will never forget it. The Toronto Maple Leafs will never escape it.

It a year ago today that the Carolina Hurricanes overwhelmed the Leafs by a score of 6-3 at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena with Ayres, a 42-year-old emergency goaltender (and sometime Zamboni-driver), stepping in to make eight saves and earn the win and secure the win after the Hurricanes lost regular netminders James Reimer and Petr Mrazek to injury.

Born in Whitby, Ontario, Ayres, who underwent a kidney transplant in 2004, was a great story at the time, and still is: Luke Fox has a worthwhile catch-up q-and-a with him here at Sportsnet.

Last year, in the heady days following his one-and-only NHL win (to date), Ayres took a well-deserved victory lap, back when those were still possible, stopping in to visit Stephen Colbert’s Late Show in New York before continuing on to Raleigh, where he was fêted on David Ayres Day and declared an honorary North Carolinian by Governor Roy Cooper.

leafs + canadiens, 1938: laying on a licking, avoiding a sand trap

Net Work: Canadiens threaten the Leaf net on the Sunday night of March 6, 1938, with Leaf goaltender Turk Broda down at left with teammate Gordie Drillon (#12) at hand. That’s Montreal’s Toe Blake with his back to the goal, while Toronto’s Red Horner reaches in with his stick. Canadiens Johnny Gagnon (deep centre0 and Paul Haynes are following up, along with an unidentified Leaf. (Image: Conrad Poirier, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Quebec)

The Maple Leafs meet the Canadiens in Montreal tonight, which is as good a prompt as any to cast back to a Sunday night in 1938, March 6, to revisit another meeting of the two old rivals.

The NHL was an eight-team affair then. That year, like this one, there was a Canadian division, though for balance it included the New York Americans as well as the Leafs, Canadiens, and Montreal Maroons. Toronto was top of the section at that late-season juncture, with Montreal in second. Saturday night the Leafs beat the Maroons 2-0 at the Forum, with Turk Broda getting the shutout. The goals came from rookie winger George Parsons and centre Syl Apps.

Sunday night the Leafs and Canadiens played to the biggest crowd to gather that season at the Forum: “11,000 fans banked solidly up the Forum’s sloping sides,” the Gazette’s Marc McNeil reported, and as seen in the photographs here.

McNeil wasn’t so impressed by the Canadiens. To his eye, they came up with “one of their shoddiest and most impotent displays of the campaign.” The Leafs licked them 6-3, in the end; “to make matters worse they didn’t even score a goal until the game had been hopelessly lost, 6-0.”

The Leafs were led by winger Gordie Drillon, who scored a pair of goals, and would end up as the NHL’s top scorer by season’s end. App, who finished second in league scoring, had a goal on the night, along with Bob Davidson, Busher Jackson, and Buzz Boll. Scoring for Montreal were Toe Blake, Pit Lepine, and Don Wilson. Wilf Cude was in the Canadiens’ net.

Other highlights of the night:

• Toronto scored four goals in the second period to pad their lead, but the game was also delayed four times while (as Marc McNeil told it) “sand, thrown on the ice in small bags which burst, was scraped from the surface.”
• A Montreal fan tried to make his way to the ice. Identified as “head of the Millionaires,” the devoted followers who occupied the rush seats in the Forum’s north end, this would-be interloper was apparently intent on making a case to referees John Mitchell and Mickey Ion. He was stopped before he got to the ice — by none other than Frank Calder, who was aided by several ushers in apprehending him as he passed near the NHL president’s rinkside seat.
• Late in the third period, Montreal’s Georges Mantha lost his helmet in the Toronto end. “He finished the contest without it,” McNeil noted, “because Turk Broda picked it up and wore it for the rest of the game. Afterwards, the Toronto goalie returned it to the speedy left-winger.”

Banked Solidly Up The Forum’s Sloping Sides: A look at Wilf Cude in the Montreal goal on March 6, 1938, with Toe Blake (#6) chasing Toronto’s Gordie Drillon (#12) into the far corner. A good view here of the Forum’s seating here. Notice, too, the goal judge caged behind Cude. (Image: Conrad Poirier, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Quebec)

 

 

 

legends woe

Bench Strength: The Leafs laid flowers this afternoon in honour of their departed captain. The legendary Leafs represented here are, from the left, Darryl Sittler, Ted Kennedy, Syl Apps, Wendel Clark, Dave Keon, Armstrong, Johnny Bower, and Turk Broda.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are paying tribute today to former captain George Armstrong, following the announcement of his death early on Sunday at the age of 90. With the modern-day edition of the team in action in Calgary, Armstrong’s likeness is fronting Scotiabank Arena in Toronto this afternoon, and the team laid flowers in front of his likeness on Legends Row. Nobody has played more games for the Leafs than Armstrong, who captained the team for 12 years and led them to four Stanley Cups.

george armstrong, 1930—2021

Friendly Giant: A triumphant George Armstrong towers over grateful fans on the cover of the 1962-63 Leafs media guide.

Twenty-one NHL seasons George Armstrong played, all of them in the blue and the white of Toronto’s Maple Leafs. The sombre news from the team today is of Armstong’s death at the age of 90. Born in Skead, Ontario, northeast of Sudbury, he would grow up to captain the Leafs for 12 seasons, the longest tenure of any leader in team history. He played 1,298 games for Toronto, regular season and playoffs, collecting 322 goals and 773 points. Winner of an Allan Cup in 1950 with the Toronto Marlboros, he led the Leafs to four Stanley Cups, in 1962, 1963, 1964, as well as that long-ago last one in1967. As a coach, he steered the Marlboros to two Memorial Cups, in 1973 and 1975. He coached the Leafs, too, in 1988 and into ’89, when he held the fort between the John Brophy and Doug Carpenter eras. George Armstrong was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975.

busher the kid

Action Jackson: Born in Toronto on a Tuesday of this date in 1911, Harvey Busher Jackson made his NHL debut with the hometown Maple Leafs at the age of 18 in 1929. He played left wing on the Leafs’ legendary Kid Line, skating with Joe Primeau and Charlie Conacher, and together they won a Stanley Cup in 1932. In 1934, in a game against the St. Louis Eagles, he became the first NHLer to score four goals in a period. After a decade in Toronto, he played a couple of seasons with the New York Americans and three more with the Bruins in Boston. In later life, he suffered from alcoholism and a host of health challenges; Jackson died in 1966 at the age of 55. Despite Conn Smythe’s best efforts to keep him out, Jackson was finally elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1971 — whereupon Smythe quit the Hall’s Selection Committee in dissent.

hockey players in hospital beds: the goalie wore (different) pyjamas

Wingman: A pinched nerve put Red Wing goaltender Terry Sawchuk in Detroit Osteopathic Hospital in March of 1964.

Terry Sawchuk played 53 of Detroit’s 70 regular-season games over the course of the 1963-64 season, and the 34-year-old goaltender was voted the Red Wings’ MVP when it was all over. He tended the team’s net for another 13 playoff game, a career-high for him, as he steered the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games.

Still, Sawchuk, who was born in Winnipeg on a Saturday of this date in 1929, needed help along the way that year. He got it from a succession of back-ups and fill-ins: the Red Wings called on five other goaltenders that year to supplement their #1-wearing number one.

A 22-year-old Roger Crozier stepped in for 15 games during the regular-season, but he also had the starting gig for the AHL Pittsburgh Hornets. So in November of ’63, when Sawchuk wrenched a shoulder at the Olympia one night trying to foil a shot from Montreal’s Jean-Guy Talbot, 22-year-old standby by the name of Harrison Gray came in to play the only 40 minutes of his NHL career and take the loss.

Crozier took over the net while Sawchuk recovered, but not for long: in Detroit’s next game, a shot from Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich broke Crozier’s cheekbone. The veteran Hank Bassen, 30, was the next man to step into the breach, for one game.

Sawchuk was fine for a while after that. In March, as the playoffs approached, Detroit coach and GM Sid Abel elected rest him, putting in 21-year-old U.S. Olympic goalie Pat Rupp for what turned out to be the only game of his NHL career, a loss to Toronto.

Sawchuk was due back in net when Detroit started its playoff campaign against the Chicago Black Hawks. But the day before the opening game of the series, Sawchuk’s wife, Patricia, was rushed to Pontiac Osteopathic Hospital where she underwent an emergency appendectomy.

The surgery went well, the Detroit sports pages reported, and Sawchuk joined his teammates on the train heading west. Coach Abel was a bit worried, though: with this hospital detour of his, Sawchuk hadn’t been on skates in five days.

Detroit lost that opening game on the Thursday, but they came back to win the second game in Chicago the following Sunday — mostly without Sawchuk, as it transpired. Just five minutes into the game, he as forced to leave the game with a pinched nerve in his left shoulder. Drafted in to replace him this time was 21-year-old Bob Champoux, who got credit the 5-4 win in his NHL debut. It would be nine years before Champoux made it back to NHL ice: in 1973-74, he went 2-11-3 for the California Golden Seals.

Back home the next day, Sawchuk checked into Detroit Osteopathic Hospital, which is where the photograph here, above, was taken. It’s one of several, it might be noted, in which Sawchuk was seen over the course of his caeer in hospital in pyjamas; he was also, occasionally, photographed on gurneys and in surgery.

But back to 1964. While Sawchuk rested in hospital, Sid Abel had a new worry: in the wake of Sunday’s game, NHL president Clarence Campbell declared that Detroit wouldn’t be permitted to call up Roger Crozier; Champoux, he felt, would do fine.

Abel eventually convinced Campbell to change his mind, arguing that Champoux had been playing Junior B just a year before. But with Crozier standing by, Sawchuk, who’d been in traction for two days. He was released from hospital just three hours before puck-drop. He started the game and finished it, posting a 3-0 shutout.

“I thought I played well,” he said afterwards, “but then I started to get tired in the last period. I guess that’s what comes from being laid up.”

He was back in hospital getting treatment until just before the fourth game two nights later. “I sure hope he comes up with a repeat of Tuesday night’s performance,” Abel said.

Sawchuk tried, but late in the first period, he aggravated his shoulder yet again, and Crozier took over. He was on the hook for Detroit’s 3-2 overtime loss.

While Sawchuk and his nervy shoulder were released from hospital on the Saturday, Crozier started the next game, too, which the Black Hawks ended up winning, also by a score of 3-2. Crozier was busy that week: as well as doing his duty for the Red Wings, he was goaling for Pittsburgh in their AHL playoff with the Quebec Aces.

With Detroit down 3-2 in the series, Sawchuk returned to the ice for the final two games of the series, winning both, and sending his team to the Final. He played all seven games against Toronto that April as Detroit fell short.

It was Sawchuk’s last hurrah as a Red Wing: that June, when the team left him unprotected in the NHL draft, he was claimed by the Maple Leafs.

a man called moose: toronto’s triple threat

Wall of Fame: Head up to Section 302 at Scotiabank Arena, follow the ventilation pipes past the Men’s washroom, and you’ll find the portrait gallery honouring the men who’ve captained Toronto’s NHL teams. Well, some of them … 22 out of the 25 men who’ve led the team. When this photo was taken in 2019, the newest captain, John Tavares, hadn’t been added, and Moose Heffernan and Jack Adams were missing.

It’s been a while since I wandered the halls of Scotiabank Arena, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, more than a year, so I don’t know whether they’ve updated the portrait gallery by the men’s washrooms adjacent to Section 302. The last time I was there and roaming free it was a jostling, pre-pandemic time, October of 2019, and the then-presiding-Stanley-Cup-champions St. Louis Blues were in town, four games into John Tavares’ tenure as the latest of Leaf captains.

Tavares’ C was new enough, then, that the team still hadn’t gotten around to adding his handsome face to the photographic assemblage that constitutes its Section 302 Captains Wall. A photo may have gone up in the meantime; I don’t have good information on that.

But Tavares, as I was reminded back in 2019, wasn’t the only absentee. As then constituted, the Wall honouring those who’ve lead the franchise through its 103-year-history on NHL ice only depicted 22 of the 25 men to have been so privileged.

Also missing from the line-up? Two of the first four men to captain Toronto teams in the NHL.

I don’t know why. I’m assuming that the modern-day Leafs haven’t retrospectively revoked or renounced the captaincies of Jack Adams and Frank Heffernan. My guess is that it’s a case of nothing more nefarious than ordinary oversight. It’s sloppy and unbecoming of a team with a heritage that’s as rich as its corporate resources, if not exactly surprising. The Leafs don’t tend their history with the care it deserves.

A 1919 New York notice of Heffernan’s new job in Toronto.

Jack Adams, of course, is mostly remembered as a coach and manager, the man who built the Detroit Red Wings into an NHL powerhouse. As a player, he was a skilled centre who turned pro in 1918 with Toronto’s original NHL team, the plain old Torontos, helping them win a Stanley Cup that spring. Ken Randall was the captain that year, but Adams got the job when he returned to the team in 1922, by which time they’d rebranded as the St. Patricks. It was during that second stint in Toronto that Adams also served briefly as the team’s playing coach — even if (speaking of oversights) the Leafs don’t acknowledge him in their ledger of coaches.

But let’s leave Adams for another day and focus here on Frank Heffernan, who happens to have died on a Wednesday of yesterday’s date in 1938, when he was 46.

Moose, they called him, when he played. His career stats as an NHLer are scanty: he played just 19 games all told, scoring no goals and compiling one single assist to go along with his ten minutes of penalty time.

But Heffernan can claim a distinction so rare that it’s never been matched in Toronto or (I’m going to dare to venture) NHL history. Like Adams and another doughty early star, Reg Noble, Heffernan played for Toronto’s NHL entry while both coaching and captaining the team. He remains the only man to have coached, captained, and co-owned the team.

He was born in 1892 in Peterborough, Ontario: that’s worth saying, if only for those of us who also hail, proudly, from Peterborough.

Heffernan started his hockey career in his hometown as an OHA junior before going on to play university hockey in Ottawa. Look him up in newspapers from those years and you’ll find him described as huskyand sturdyand a sensational coverpoint, which is to say he was stout and effective, played defence.

By 1913 he was starring for the Toronto Rugby and Athletic Association team in the OHA’s senior loop. Pro teams came calling: the Montreal Wanderers of the National Hockey Association wanted to sign him, and so did the Ottawa Senators. “Big, a good stick-handler, and a speedy skater,” an Ottawa newspaper rated him at that time. “He is proficient in using the body, almost a lost art to the Ottawa team.”

He didn’t, in the end, turn pro, opting instead to stick to the amateur game, at least in name. In 1915, he took his talents to New York, where he seems to have worked in book publishing while playing for the local Crescents and, subsequently, the Wanderers. Back in Toronto in 1918, he suited up again an OHA senior, anchoring the defence for the Toronto St. Patricks.

The NHA had given way to the NHL by this time. In the new league’s second season, the team representing Toronto was called the Arenas, though not for much longer. In the fall of 1919, a syndicate headed by Fred Hambly, chairman of Toronto’s Board of Education, bought the team. Briefly rebranded as the Toronto Tecumsehs, the team ended up going Irish, seizing on another true and tried moniker, and, lo, the NHL’s green-shirted Irish-themed edition of the St. Patricks.

Charlie Querrie was a partner in the new ownership group as well as serving as what would today be called the team’s GM. The word was that the man he was after to steer the team was Art Duncan, the former Royal Flying Corps fighter ace who’d come home from the war to star for the PCHA’s Vancouver Millionaires. While Duncan did eventually end up, years later, as Toronto’s coach, this wasn’t his time.

Enter Heffernan, who was turning 27 that winter. Querrie brought him on as coach and captain 101 years ago this month, succeeding Dick Carroll in the former role and Randall in the latter. I don’t know the details of the stake Heffernan took in the team’s ownership, but that was part of the deal, too: he became a playing partner of the team he was leading on the ice.

The reviews as he took up his new NHL posting were nothing but glowing. “He has had his fling at amateur hockey,” the Globe declared, “where he always conducted himself as a gentleman and made a name for himself as one of the best defense men ever developed in the OHA.”

“The most flashy and spectacular defense man in the business,” Ottawa’s Journal affirmed. “Heff is a big chap with a [Jack] Laviolette turn of speed. Unlike most fast men, he is a superb stickhandler and has the knack of nursing the puck close to his skates.”

The NHL was a four-team league that year, with a schedule divided into two 12-game tranches. Toronto had some talent in the line-up, including Noble and Babe Dye, Harry Cameron, and Corb Denneny, but they couldn’t keep up to the mighty Ottawa Senators, who ended dominating both halves of the schedule and going on to beat the Seattle Metropolitans for the Stanley Cup.

It’s not entirely clear how Heffernan’s tenure played out. We know that Harvey Sproule, another partner in the team, took over as coach for the second part of the schedule that year, if not why — was it Heffernan’s own decision to concentrate on playing or maybe Querrie’s? The Globe reports that as 1919 was turning to ’20, he actually took on another job, as coach of the OHA’s Parkdale Canoe Club.

Heffernan’s first season in the NHL was his last. In the fall of 1920, he was reported to have lined up — and maybe even signed — with the Canadian Hockey Association, Eddie Livingstone’s effort to launch a new league to rival (and/or overthrow) the NHL. Heffernan quickly denied it, though. The archival record that I’ve seen is murky on just how it all went down, but before the new NHL season got going, Heffernan and Harvey Sproule both sold their shares in the St. Patricks to their partners, who included the Hambly brothers, Fred and Percy, Charlie Querrie, and Paul Ciceri.

There was a report in the winter of 1921 that he might be joining the Montreal Canadiens, but it didn’t pan out. Almost a year to the day that it began, Moose Heffernan’s NHL career was over.

Toronto’s St. Patricks pose outside the Mutual Street Arena in January of 1920.

a brace of shakes

“He is a man of serious mien. He doesn’t smoke and he doesn’t drink. He dresses conservatively, favoring brown suits and white shirts with French cuffs — except on the golf course, where his raiment looks as though it had been dragged through a maze of molten rainbows. He never hurls a harsh word into the sensitive ears of a referee.”

“Kennedy, who carries 180 pounds on a frame that is just an inch under six feet, is a dogged player, full of stamina and courage,” Lunny continued. “He combines the brainy play of a Bentley with the robust aggressiveness of, say, Boston’s Milt Schmidt.”

That’s Vince Lunny profiling legendary Leaf centreman Ted Kennedy in 1951. Born in Humberstone, Ontario, on this date in 1925 (also a Saturday), Kennedy played 14 seasons with Toronto, half of them as captain. The Hart Trophy he won in 1955 was the last to have been claimed by a Leaf.

Kennedy  was aboard for five Stanley Cup championships, including one in 1949, happening here, above. It was April and the Leafs had swept past the Detroit Red Wings in four straight games to become the first team in NHL history to win  the Cup three seasons in a row. That’s Wing captain Sid Abel sharing a moment with Kennedy. Both men, of course, would be elevated, eventually, into the Hall of Fame, Kennedy in 1966, Abel in ’69. Ted Kennedy died in 2009 at the age of 83.

 (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 132804)

bill fitsell, 1923—2020

Cold Comfort: Bill Fitsell, left,  in the blues of his beloved Maple Leaf, hands on knees à la Charlie Conacher, out on the ice in Lindsay, Ontario, in the early 1930s.

So very saddened, still, by the news that came on Thursday of my friend Bill Fitsell’s death in Kingston, Ontario, at the age of 97. His career was in newspapers, as a reporter, editor, and columnist, and it spanned 55 years. His passion was hockey history: that he pursued in his books and in dozens of other projects that were dear to his heart. One of the latter was the community of fellow travellers that he dreamed up and made real, the Society of International Hockey Research. Last month, writing about the first NHL hockey game that Bill ever attended — that piece is here — I tried to translate his contribution in all that endeavoured into hockey terms. “His calibre,” I ventured, “might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.”

Up today at the SIHR website — here — is a retrospective I wrote of Bill’s life and times.

Working on that, I found a page in my notebook from the fall of 2018 that I’d filled on the train from Kingston back to Toronto after sharing a coffee with Bill.

He’d told me about his dad and the rink he made for his boys in the 1930s in the lot beside the family’s home in Lindsay. As I write in the SIHR piece, there was no minor hockey program there, then, other than what Bill and his friends concocted. “You organized your own teams in those days,” he told. “And of course my team was called the Maple Leafs. I went down and registered us, and we’d play Saturday mornings.”

“We all had different Leaf sweaters,” he remembered. His own version is the one that’s pictured here above, with an authentic Maple Leaf stitched on the front. The stripes, though, at the waist? They weren’t correct, he said, and the collar was a roll-neck, not at all what the genuine Leafs wore — though altogether warmer, Bill told me with a smile, out on the cold January ice.

Incoming: A drawing of Bill’s, Leafs and Rangers, that decorated the cover of one of his childhood scrapbooks.

black friday, 1931: the leafs fire a flying ace

Conn and Coach: Managing director and all-round Leaf overlord  Smythe at Boston Garden at some point in the 1930s with Leafs’ coach Dick Irvin. Irvin steered Toronto to a Stanley Cup in his first year with the team, and took them to six more Finals thereafter. In his nine seasons with the Leafs, his teams never missed the playoffs . (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

“Personal relations between Art Duncan and myself are of the best,” Toronto Maple Leafs managing director Conn Smythe was saying 89 years ago today, on another Friday of this same date, stepping up to announce his utmost and ongoing confidence in his coach. “I cannot speak too highly in praise of Mr. Duncan’s attitude since he has had the team.”

Actually, no, sorry, my mistake: fond as that speech sounds, Smythe was in fact firingthe man who’d been guiding his hockey team for just over a year. Five games into the new season, with the Leafs mired at the foot of the NHL’s four-team Canadian Section on a record of three losses and two overtime ties, Smythe had decided that Dick Irvin was the change that the Leafs needed.

Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Art Duncan had turned 40 in the summer of 1931. He was already a veteran defenceman when he came to the Leafs in 1927. A trade brought him in from the Detroit Cougars, with whom he’d served as playing coach before ceding the bench to Jack Adams.

Having headed up the syndicate that bought the Toronto franchise earlier in ’27, Conn Smythe would soon take over as manager and coach of the team, too. In 1930, after three years of guiding the team, Smythe decided that the time had come for him to fix his attention on getting a new arena built. Smythe had hoped that Frank Nighbor would succeed him, but when he couldn’t come to an agreement with the Pembroke Peach, he handed the job to Duncan.

This wasn’t Duncan’s first stint playing big-league hockey in Toronto: a decade earlier, during the First World War, he’d enlisted in the infantry with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and played for the 228th Battalion team during its brief tenure in the pre-NHL NHA.

After the 228th cut short its season in 1917 to deploy to France, Duncan transferred to Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. In 1918, as a lieutenant flying an S.E.5a fighter over Belgium and northern France, he was credited with shooting down 11 enemy aircraft. For “continuous gallantry and initiative,” Duncan was awarded the Military Cross and bar.

By the fall of ’31, Conn Smythe had done what he’d set out to: on November 12 that year, Maple Leaf Gardens opened in a blaze of pomp and ceremony. The Leafs couldn’t contribute a win to the festivities. Two weeks later, they still didn’t have one to their name.

Duncan’s last game in charge saw Toronto fall in Montreal, 3-2 to the Canadiens, on the night of Thursday, November 26. When he was fired next day, he had coached the Leafs in 47 regular-season games — the same number, as it happens, that the present coach, Sheldon Keefe, has overseen to date. (Keefe’s winning percentage stands at .400 to Duncan’s .250.)

Several reports of Duncan’s dismissal noted that he would remain on the Toronto payroll, though that doesn’t seem to have worked out over the longer term. In February of 1932, news reached the popular press that Duncan was suing the Leafs for several thousand dollars in pay, claiming wrongful dismissal and breach of contract. (I haven’t been able to determine how that was resolved, or wasn’t.)

Dick Irvin, who was 39, had also served with the CEF, with the Fort Garry Horse. He was already a veteran star of the Western Canadian Hockey League when he joined the expansion Chicago Black Hawks in 1926, becoming the team’s first captain.

After a fractured skull put an end to his playing career in 1929, he took over as coach the team. He didn’t last, but then not many coaches did, for long, in those torrid years when Major Frederic McLaughlin was the owner in Chicago.

After just a year-and-a-half on the job — and having beaten the Leafs on the way to the 1931 Stanley Cup final, where Chicago lost to Montreal — Irvin resigned his post with the Black Hawks in September of ’31.

He was back home in Regina in mid-November as the rumours circulated that he might be convinced to return to the Black Hawks. Smythe, though, was persuasive enough over the telephone from Toronto that Irvin decided his future lay in Toronto.

He wasn’t on hand to get it started right away, as it turned out. With the new coach en route from Saskatchewan, and not due to arrive on in Toronto until the following Monday, Conn Smythe stepped in to take command of the Leafs that Saturday, 89 years ago tomorrow.

He did fine, steering Toronto to a 6-5 decision over the Boston Bruins — the Leafs’ very first victory in their new building. Andy Blair scored the overtime winner.

Dick Irvin’s first game in charge was at the Gardens on Tuesday, December 1, when another overtime failed to unlock a 2-2 tie between Toronto and the New York Americans. It was another two games before the new coach got his first Leafly victory, a 4-0 home win over the Montreal Maroons.

Things got better and better from there, to the extent that in April of 1932, Irvin’s Leafs beat the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup.

Fly Guy: Art Duncan depicted by Jimmy Thompson in 1930, his first year as Leaf coach.

rookie move

Gaye Stewart was a stripling left winger of 18 when the Toronto Maple Leafs called him up to aid in their effort, in the spring of 1942, to supersede the Detroit Red Wings and win the Stanley Cup. Together they duly did that, which is how Stewart became the first NHLer to win a Cup before he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, a distinction he would come to share, subsequently, with Ken Dryden, Tony Esposito, and Danny Grant.

Stewart, a son of Fort William, Ontario, died at the age of 87 on a Thursday of this date in 2010. In his first full season as a Leaf, 1942-43, the 24 goals and 47 points he scored were enough to secure him the votes to take the Calder. Second on the ballot was Montreal defenceman Glen Harmon, followed by Boston centre Don Gallinger; Detroit blueliner Cully Simon; and another Bruin, 17-year-old left winger Bep Guidolin. (That season was, notably, Maurice Richard’s first in the league, too; he didn’t rate in the top five.)

Following his breakout year, Stewart put a pause on his NHL career to serve two years in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War, before returning to the Leafs in 1945. In 1947, he helped the team win another Stanley Cup. What else? He was a First Team All-Star in 1946, the same year he scored 37 goals to lead the league — the last Maple Leaf to do so. In his latter NHL years, Stewart played for Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Montreal.

to the nth degree

New Again: The new Leaf alternate sweater rolled out today echoes the logo the team wore in 1969-70.

So the Toronto Maple Leafs joined the rest of the NHL in releasing a new alternate sweater today. There’s a whole detailed rationale for this Reverse Retro line that’s rooted in — actually, no, there’s nothing like that, it’s just a retail operation the league is launching with adidas, all major credits accepted once the new swag goes on sale December 1.

“Each jersey was inspired by one worn by the team during a season that has some historical significance and the whole design process took about two years,” is what the league is saying beyond its sales pitch.

By jersey, of course, they mean sweater, and by historical significance they’re referring to … well, in the case of the Leafly design, it’s hard to say, since the season being commemorated here is 1969-70, a campaign that saw Toronto finish out of the playoffs, dead last in the NHL’s East … three years after they’d won their last Stanley Cup.

Not that haphazard history is what has been stirring Leaf fans today — as Lance Hornby is noting for The Toronto Sun, it’s the ugliness of the thing that’s getting to people. I’m not going to pronounce on that, other than to confirm that the sweater is indeed ugly.

What I think is worth focussing on is that the new/sort-of-old design does, touchingly, honour the Toronto franchise’s tradition of wonky Ns. That seems important.

Why did the 1969-70 logo now being replicated go with the lowercase n in TOROnTO? I guess we’ll never know. Here, for the record, is fresh-faced centreman Norm Ullman showing it off the following year …

… and then the year after that, when the Leafs decided to go back to an all-uppercase look:

Unless by fooling around with the N the team was, back in the ’70s, making  a conscious effort to pay tribute to the 1921-22 Toronto St. Patricks who, after all, won a Stanley Cup that long-ago season, six years before the franchise flipped its name and colour scheme? The St. Pats, after all, did feature backwards Ns on their sweaters — well, some of them did. Goaltender John Ross Roach, for one:

At least two of his teammates were similarly afflicted, according to the grouping shown below:

The 1921-22 St. Pats: Back row, from left, Mike Mitchell, Ted Stackhouse, unknown, Corb Denneny, possibly coach George O’Donoghue?, unknown, Rod Smylie, Red Stuart, Roach. Front row, from left, Harry Cameron, Stan Jackson, Reg Noble, manager Charlie Querrie, Babe Dye, Ken Randall.

It may have been a trainer’s, a tailor’s, a seamstress’s mistake. Did nobody notice that the sweaters that Ted Stackhouse, Stan Jackson, and goaltender John Ross Roach were wearing were different from those styled by their teammates? Maybe it meant something — were Stackhouse, Jackson, and Roach being punished, for missing practice, or breaking curfew? It’s possible, too, that these were practice sweaters that were never worn for an actual NHL game. We do have confirmation, it’s worth noting, that this early retro reversal was at some point corrected — here’s John Ross Roach at his typographical best.