Born this day in 1930, George Armstrong turns 87 today. He remains, of course, the most recent captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs to have hoisted the Stanley Cup in victory.
That was in May of 1967. Armstrong was 36, with four Cups to show for his 16 NHL seasons. In June, he announced a decision he’d made. “I’m retiring,” he said. “That’s it. It’s taken all my guts to quit. I wasn’t too happy with my year. Sure I played well at the end, but does one month make up for seven bad months?”
There was some question whether would be protecting in the summer’s expansion draft: that was another factor. Still, Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach was said to be shaken by the news. “I don’t accept his resignation,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I don’t even know about it.”
Four days later, after Los Angeles and California, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh had plucked Terry Sawchuck, Bob Baun, Kent Douglas, Brit Selby, Al Arbour, and others from the champions’ roster, Imlach did end up shielding Armstrong, and by September, when the Leafs headed to Peterborough, Ontario, for training camp, the captain was back in the fold.
He admitted to being a little embarrassed. “To say you’re going to quit is easy,” he told Louis Cauz. “It’s harder to do it, especially when hockey has been your whole life.”
He’d been thinking on it all summer. “I can’t pin it down to one day when I suddenly made up my mind. About a month ago, I started watching my weight. Maybe I made up my mind then and I didn’t know it. Subconsciously my mind was made up, though. You’d have to be a psychiatrist to figure it out.”
He played the season and, points-wise, improved on his 1966-67 numbers. He was back at camp in September of ’68, preparing for the new season when he called it quits again. He just didn’t think he could help the team.
The Leafs told him to take some time. “I guess they hope I’ll change my mind,” Armstrong said. “I could. The easiest thing in the world is to change your mind. But right now my mind is more or less made up — I’m through.”
He wasn’t. He ended up rejoining the Leafs in early December.
“When I said I was retiring, I meant it,” he insisted after he’d made his comeback. “I said I was going into the hotel business, but I didn’t try that hard to get into it. I missed hockey and Punch kept asking me to come back.”
Summer of ’69, he decided again that he was finished — no, really.
It didn’t take, though. “I got bored,” he said, back in Peterborough again, come September. “When you’re a hockey player, you don’t lose interest until you die.”
“My mind was more made up to stay retired last year,” he said, “than it was this year.”
He didn’t mind that the Leafs’ named a new captain that fall, Dave Keon. “The C is on the guy who should be wearing it,” he said. After all, Armstrong was only going to play that one last year.
The Globe had lost count of Armstrong’s unsuccessful retirements by the time the 1970 rolled around, announcing that he was ending his third retirement to rejoin the Leafs that fall when in fact it was his fourth.
Never mind. He signed a one-year contract in November, played out the year.
Do I even need to say that he was back getting ready for a new campaign in the fall of ’71? “I feel good,” he said, “and am enjoying camp.”
Coach John McLellan wasn’t making any promises, though. “The Chief is a tremendous guy to have around,” he said, “great with the younger players.”
“But he has to beat out a young guy and right now that looks like a rough job.”
He was still in the picture as the new season approached. “He is skating every day in Toronto,” the coach said, “and would be ready if we called him.”
It didn’t work out, in the end. It was mid-October when the Leafs announced that George Armstrong would be packing his skates away for a fifth and final time, and joining Leafs’ management as a scout.
(Image, from 1963: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505690)
Anybody recognize this rink? With Leafs lined up versus Leafs, I’ll surmise that it’s a pre-season match-up. Hard to make out most of the players, but the goaltenders upfront are unmistakable. On the right that’s Turk Broda, while to the left is Phil Stein. Could be the fall of 1939, and if so, maybe is it the McIntyre Community Building in Schumacher, Ontario, now a part of Timmins? The Leafs played a Whites vs. Blues game there at the end of the October that year, with Broda’s Whites beating Stein and the Blues by a score of 7-4.
Broda, of course, was the mainstay of the Toronto net for 14 years, starting in 1936. He won a pair of Vézina trophies and five Stanley Cups. Stein had staying power, too, though mainly as a minor-league backstop, notably with the IHL’s Syracuse Star, a farm-team for the Leafs.
Stein played just a single regular-season NHL game, in January 1940, when he was called up from the Omaha Knights of the AHA when Broda went down with an injured left knee. On Stein’s watch, the Leafs tied the Detroit Red Wings 2-2 at home. He was suited to play the Leafs’ next game, too, against the New York Americans, only to suffer an injury in the warm-up. Second before the game was due to start, a shot from Toronto centre Billy Taylor caught Stein in the chin, cutting him for five stitches. Broda was called down from his seat in the stands at Maple Leaf Gardens to suit up in place of his understudy, and the Leafs ended up winning the game 5-1.
The Globe and Mail’s Vern De Geer was on hand as Stein undressed in the Leafs’ dressing room. “What a jinx, what a jinx,” he said. “Only ten seconds before the start of my second major hockey game and this has to happen. It’s enough to drive a guy crazy. Here I’ve waited more than five years for a chance to make this grade in the National Hockey League and I have to get my chin in the way of another puck.”
Stein played another four seasons after that, but the next time he suited up for a Toronto team, they were the Research Colonels of the OHA’s senior loop rather than the Maple Leafs.
This week in 1967, Toronto’s aged Leafs beat the Chicago Black Hawks to advance to the Stanley Cup finals for a showdown with the Montreal Canadiens. Chicago coach Billy Reay wasn’t happy in defeat, but he summoned up some grudging grace. “I’m a little one-sided,” he said, “so I think the best team lost. But Sawchuk stoned us and they outplayed us up the centre. I thought Davey Keon played terrific — on his regular shifts, killing penalties, and on the power play.”
Terry Sawchuk, pictured here in January of that last Leafly championship year, was 37. “He was,” the estimable Trent Frayne would recall, “the most acrobatic goaltender of his time. He didn’t move so much as he exploded into a desperate release of energy — down the glove, up the arm, over the stick, up the leg pad. He sometimes seemed a human pinwheel. He played the whole game in pent-up tension, shouting at his teammates, crouching, straightening, diving, scrambling, his pale face drawn and tense.”
(Image: Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)
Nerve Centre: This morning’s edition of The Washington Post’s Express supplement reflects a nervous CapitalNation heading into tonight’s Game against the feisty young Toronto Maple Leafs. Inside columnist Thomas Boswell considered the possibility of the President’s-Trophy-winning Washingtonian making an early playoff exit yet again. “This,” he wrote, “would be the biggest failure in, maybe, NHL history.”