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.

the nhl’s first noël: christmas day, 1920

Scored, Sat Upon: Toronto’s Babe Dye, c. 1920.

“Fair and cold” was the forecast for Toronto on December 25, 1920, with a half-inch of snow due to fall. Mayor Tommy Church proclaimed a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a happy new year — “one full of sunshine, prosperity, success, and every blessing.”

NHL teams last played a game on Christmas Day in 1971, when 12 of the league’s 14 teams took to the ice, but the very first time was on a Saturday 98 years ago when the Toronto St. Patricks hosted the Montreal Canadiens before a crowd of some 4,000 at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. The season was still young, and both teams were looking for their first win, both having lost on the road when the NHL’s fourth season launched three days earlier. Toronto prevailed that Yuletide night, coming from behind to notch a 5-4 win.

A few notes of the night? While each team had just two substitutes on the bench, the St. Patricks effectively had only one, with injured forward Rod Smylie getting into the game for no more than a minute. The word in the papers (including some in Montreal) was that the Canadiens line-up was in poor condition, having skated as a team just three times that winter — four, if you wanted to count the opening game they’d lost in Hamilton.

Toronto’s Daily Star teased that Montreal’s “rolly-polly Canadien veterans” had arrived in Toronto accompanied by the rumour that they only had ten minutes of hockey in them, after which they’d fade out of the rink. But: “Rumour was a lying jade.” In fact, Montreal took the lead and held it for 37 minutes before the home team pulled in front, and even then the visitors never showed signs of quitting.

Goals by Didier Pitre and Newsy Lalonde put Montreal ahead before Toronto defenceman Harry Cameron loosed a “wicked” shot from beyond the Montreal defence that beat Georges Vézina to put Toronto on the board. Coming just before the close of the period, this goal (quoting The Gazette here) “proved a saving grace, instilling added pep and enthusiasm into the St. Patricks’ squad.”

Pitre scored again in the second, but Toronto wasn’t to be denied. Goals by Cully Wilson and Ken Randall tied the score at three before Mickey Roach put Toronto ahead to stay.

Babe Dye scored what would stand as the winning goal in the third. Bert Corbeau got one back for Montreal, but while Canadiens pressed in the game’s latter minutes, they couldn’t score. Toronto goaltender Mike Mitchell “looked like a smart net guardian,” despite having stopped an early shot of Lalonde’s that “almost took an ear off.” His head “buzzed:” the Star reported that he would have been replaced, except that the St. Pats had no substitute goaltender to stand in his stead.

In the Gazette’s opinion, Toronto showed improvements on their opening-night performance, though “their shooting was at times erratic.” Right winger Babe Dye “played a heady game and proved a thorn in the side of the ambitious Canadiens. He peppered shot after shot on Vézina and was finally rewarded with the first goal of the final period.” He also broke up several of Lalonde’s rushes with “a deceptive check.”

Toronto’s Reg Noble didn’t score but gave a good account of himself, I see; the Star’s verdict was that he also played “a mighty heady game all the way.” Cameron “contributed a few nice rushes, of the old time brand;” along with his goal, he got “a rap in the mouth that shook up his dentistry.”

For Montreal, goaltender Georges Vézina was a standout. “He stopped the proverbial ‘million’ and it was not his fault that the team lost,” the Gazette opined. “Had a less capable goaler been in the nets, they certainly would have been beaten by a bigger score.”

Lalonde? “Lalonde was the Lalonde of old, but he showed signs of strain at times.”

The Globe reported 37-year-old Didier Pitre to be “heavier than ever” — “but occasionally he showed speed that was amazing.”

While Toronto nosed ahead at the end of the second period, the Star reported, “the Montrealers did not lie down enough though Pitre was hanging over the fence like a piece of old wash and every time Mummery rushed he had to use the end of the rink to stop himself. He was so weak in the knees he couldn’t pull up any other way.”

This was Harry Mummery, of course, the hefty defenceman who’d once played for Toronto. In the third period, one of Dye’s shot caught him on the knee and put him out of the game. Before that, said the Star, he “bumped around like a baby rhino.” At one point he “created a barrel of fun by sitting on Babe Dye.”

“All the fans could see of Dye was his yell for help.”

roach clip: the case for the port perry poultry king

jrr

The Years With Ross: John R. Roach early in his career as guard of Toronto’s NHL nets.

I understand now, but for a while there I assumed that

100great

would be followed up, and challenged, by subsequent lists from Heineken, Moosehead, Kokanee, and Sapporo, and thereby justice would be done for Dit Clapper, Aurèle Joliat, and Frank Nighbor.

Back in October, it was the Toronto Maple Leafs who revealed

one-hundred-leafs

How would Home Hardware have done it differently? Included Greg Terrion, maybe, and Pete Langelle at the expense of (maybe) Gus Bodnar and Ed Olczyk?

Impossible to say. These lists, as I’ve noted already, are monuments to exemplary players, no more than that: admirable, arbitrary jumbles of skill and achievement, with next to no science to them. I’m all for them, if only for the opportunities they open up to agitate about their content for many winter weeks to come.

The NHL list, which isn’t ranked, was compiled by a Blue Ribbon Panel (capitals theirs, or maybe Pabst’s), 58-members strong. This eminent assemblage included retired players (Ken Daneyko, Guy Carbonneau) and legendary coaches and managers (Scotty Bowman, Harry Sinden), many broadcasters and print journalists (Pierre McGuire, Stan Fischler), an owner (Jeremy Jacobs), and NHL brass (Gary Bettman, Bill Daly). Everybody voted for 100 players, with each vote counting for one point.

The Leafs’ conclave of 30 counted mostly journalists, broadcasters, and writers. No players took part, though long-time Leafs’ equipment manager Brian Papineau did, along with the Leafs’ veteran organist, Jimmy Holmstrom. The three names that appeared on both NHL and Leaf panels were author and broadcaster Brian McFarlane; Sportsnet reporter Christine Simpson; and former Toronto Star columnist Frank Orr.

The Leafs decided to rank their players, which called for a bit more rigor in the process. They thought they’d throw in some democracy, too. “The One Hundred list is the result of rankings submitted by a 31-member committee made up of prominent members of the hockey community, including a public fan vote that counted as the 31st member,” the team explained.

“Each committee member submitted a ranked list with a first-place rank garnering 100 points and a 100th place rank receiving one point. 191 of 949 eligible players received at least one vote. Ten different players received at least one first-place vote from the committee.”

The ballot fans online saw offered up the names of 154 Leafs, divided up by decades. Some 300,000 votes came in that way.

After it was all over, I talked to a couple of the panelists, informally. I wondered what guidelines they’d been given. Were there players, say, of short duration who, dominant as they might have been elsewhere in their careers, were too brief as Leafs to be considered? No, I was told, absolutely nyuh-uh.

I don’t know, though. Maybe there was no official directive, but no-one was really going to make a case for Phil Housley, who played just four games of his 1,580 NHL games for Toronto, right? I mean, judged purely as a defenceman, Housley was a true great, as verified by the Hall of Fame. I think we can all get behind an objective determination that in terms of greatness his exceeded that of, say, Todd Gill, who features on the Leaf list at number 84.

Nothing against Gill. I wish him well. Peace be upon him and his people. I salute his workmanlike service, and recall his yeoman years grimly persisting in defence of the Leaf blueline with … not joy, exactly. But I remember. He was a Leaf, by god, and for all his subsequent peregrinations — to San Jose and St. Louis, to Detroit and Phoenix, back to Detroit, down to Colorado, to Chicago, and Lausitzer Füchse — he remained a Leaf in the same way that Housley, for all his late-career wanderings, will always be a Sabre.

Everybody understands this, if only in their bones, at a deep level to which language doesn’t reach. Nowhere but in Toronto was Todd Gill great; the greatness that Gill achieved in Toronto wasn’t like regular greatness they have elsewhere. It’s specific to the service Gill did in blue-and-white, suffering through the Harold Ballard years, playing for John Brophy, wearing that funny helmet he wore with a certain kind of dignity.

So that’s why Phil Housley isn’t on the list. Same, I guess, for Frank Nighbor, whose greatness resided somewhere beyond the 22 games he played as a Leaf. Brian Leetch (28 Leaf games) too. The list of elsewhere-great Leafs goes on: Ron Francis (24 games), Eric Lindros (33), Joe Nieuwendyk (73). Nobody needs to justify their absences.

I would take an explanation, if anybody’s offering one, regarding goaltenders. Nine of them made the Leaf cut: Johnny Bower, Turk Broda, Curtis Joseph, Harry Lumley, Terry Sawchuk, Lorne Chabot, Mike Palmateer, Ed Belfour, and George Hainsworth.

It’s a sterling cadre, no question, anchored by five Hall-of-Famers. What a crew! Hail to you all! Not one of them could I easily argue to oust.

I just wonder — well, Palmateer? I know, I know, he played a long time, was cheerful and beloved, put up manfully with Ballard & etc. I grew up watching him; he has my respect. I can, if I squinch my eyes shut, work out for myself why he rates ahead of, say, a Hall-of-Famer and positional trailblazer like Jacques Plante, who (by the by) played more games as Leaf than Terry Sawchuk, though Sawchuk (of course) won a Stanley Cup with Toronto, in ’67, which Plante never did.

I might just sit down here for a second, collect my breath. Not worth getting an ulcer worrying over this sort of stuff.

Though — um — sorry — what about Frank McCool?

He only played two Leaf seasons, just 85 games, it’s true, but one of them was spectacular. In 1944-45, with Turk Broda away at war, McCool not only won a Calder Trophy as the league’s outstanding rookie, he helped the Leafs to win the Stanley Cup. How does he not make the Leaf list?

Or John Ross Roach? If I were going to make a stand, he’s the one I’d be making. Let the record show that if push came to proverbial shove, I would be stood all over J.R. Roach. If I were to litigate the Toronto One Hundred, his would be the case I’d prosecute.

Nobody remembers him now, but his Leaf greatness is unimpeachable. I challenge you to impeach it. Well, mostly he was a St. Patrick; he only wore the maple leaf for two of his seven Toronto seasons. Same thing, though, right? And yet as accomplished and admired as he was in the hey of his day, his reputation failed to endure. It didn’t last.

It just didn’t have the — well, whatever it is that keeps memories of hockey players alive and healthy, he was lacking in it. It’s a long time since he played, it’s true: there’s plenty of natural fading involved. In some cases, I guess, it’s just a bit more thorough. So entirely has John Ross Roach been effaced from the Leafscape that he didn’t even make the ballot for his decade when the for the One Hundred.

I will say, as you gather your outrage to join it with mine, that while Roach wasn’t the first goaltender to backstop a Toronto NHL team to Stanley Cup championship, he was the second, after Hap Holmes got the job done for the original NHL Torontos in 1918.

Roach was the first — not to mention the only — Toronto goaltender to captain the club.

Before he was forgotten, he had lasting power, too. Pre-Roach, Toronto went tried out seven goaltenders in four years. Once he made his (slightly delayed) debut in 1921, he kept the Toronto net for seven years, playing 222 out of 226 regular-season games, along with a further nine playoff and Stanley Cup games. All told, he won 102 of these, registering 14 shutouts.

If his size — 5’5”, 130 pounds — didn’t seem to interfere with his puckstopping, it was constantly reflected in reports from the games he played. “The robust little Port Perry guardian” an Ottawa paper called him in 1923; before that he was “an infant prodigy,” which would seem all the more demeaning if it was attached to the phrase “the most spectacular net minder in the game.”

He hailed from Port Perry, Ontario, 80-odd kilometres northeast of Toronto, on the Lake Scugog shore. “I’m the only boy from that little town to play pro hockey,” Roach was saying in 1929, and it’s still the case today, NHLwise.

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