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.
“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)
After a month of summertime hockey, we’ve learned what NHL playoffs look like when you play them in a pandemic: on the ice, they more or less resemble the game as it’s usually played, back in the pre-COVID past, with all the ensuing clustering, close-fought commotion, and bodily byproducts that players shed, the sweat, spit, blood, and teeth. If all goes according to script in a year in which so much hasn’t, in another month from now the Stanley Cup will be in the hands of hockey’s latest champions, riding high, and full of champagne. In today’s print edition of The New York Times — and online, here — I survey hockey’s daily tutorial — its crash course? — on how not to social distance.
Born in Sutherland, Saskatchewan, on a Wednesday of this very date in 1920, Charlie Rayner played a couple of seasons with the New York/Brooklyn Americans before he made his mark with the New York Rangers through the late 1940s and into the ’50s. For all his heroics in those years, they were mostly strugglesome for the Rangers, though the team did make it to the Stanley Cup final in 1950, the year Rayner won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s MVP, outpolling Ted Kennedy and Maurice Richard. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973.
To play goal in the early decades of the NHL was to be cut, contused, and concussed, by even by the painful standards of the profession, Rayner stands out for his suffering. In a feature published midway through the 1950-51 NHL campaign, The New York Post noted that Rayner had already been carried from the ice eight times to date.
“So far this season, he’s lost five front teeth and required a total of 20 stitches.” Several of the latter were applied in an October game at the Montreal Forum, when Rayner was cut once (on the nose) and then a second time (on the back of his head) by skates belonging to Canadiens forward Frank King.
All in all, the Post calculated, Rayner’s 12 years of hockey goaling had cost him four broken noses and “innumerable stitches” along with fractures of the jaw and cheekbone. It was a knee injury that put an end to his NHL career, in the winter of 1953, when he was 32. A 23-year-old Gump Worsley was his successor in the New York net.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs launching 18-year-old Nick Robertson into the NHL tonight — he’ll be in the line-up for the Leafs’ Stanley Cup Qualifier, making his big-league debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets — would we turn back for a moment to another youthful premiere in club history? Of course we would, and it would be a March night in 1944, when the great Ted Kennedy made his first playoff start for the Leafs.
The future Leaf captain and Hart-Trophy winner who’d go on to win five Stanley Cups with Toronto was, like Robertson, 18 when he played that first playoff game of his, though Kennedy was in fact younger on his debut than his modern-day counterpart by seven months or so.
Worth noting: Kennedy wasn’t the only 18-year-old in the Leafs’ line-up that night in the ’40s. Nor was he the youngest Leaf in the game.
This was wartime, of course, and with many NHL players having departed the league for military service, all six teams found themselves hard-pressed for manpower.
Desperate for skaters, the Leafs had signed a couple of 17-year-olds that season, including winger Eric Prentice, who (it so happens) grew up to be the father of the late federal cabinet minister and Alberta premier Jim Prentice. Prentice Sr. is still the youngest player to have played for the Leafs.
A bevy of 19-year-olds had seen Leaf service during the regular season in 1943-44, too, including a goaltender, Jean Marois, and winger Bud Poile, the future GM of the Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks whose son, David, is president and GM of the Nashville Predators.
To open playoffs that night in ’44, the Leafs faced the Montreal Canadiens, who’d finished the regular season atop the NHL standings, a full 33 points ahead of third-place Toronto.
Though he was making his first playoff start, 18-year-old Ted Kennedy had played almost the entire regular season for the Leafs, contributing 25 goals and finishing fourth in team scoring. Joining him at centre in blue-and-white was another veteran, 18-year-old Jack Hamilton, who’d played his first playoff game for the team a year earlier, when he was 17. Also at centre for the Leafs that night was 20-year-old Gus Bodnar; left winger Don Webster was 19.
The youngest Leaf on the ice that night was the other 17-year-old in the Leafs’ stable, defenceman Ross Johnstone. A year earlier he’d been playing for the OHA’s Oshawa Generals, coached by former Leaf titan Charlie Conacher, as they vied for (but lost) the Memorial Cup against the Winnipeg Rangers of the MJHL.
The oldest Leaf player that night in Montreal in 1944? Right winger Lorne Carr was 33 while left winger and team captain Bob Davidson had just turned 32.
The Leafs did get off to a good series start, all those 76 years ago, surprising Montreal in their own building and beating them 3-1.
“Spirit,” Leaf coach Hap Day explained afterwards, “is the quality that we have the most of, and that’s what paid off dividends.”
Not to jinx anything, but it was all downhill from there for Toronto. Montreal swept back to win the next four games and the series, before continuing on to beat the Chicago Black Hawks and win the Stanley Cup. In the game that decided the series against the fledgling Leafs, Montreal swamped them by a score of 11-0.
Born in Humberstone, Ontario, not far from Port Colborne, on a Saturday of this date in 1925, Ted Kennedy (you can call him Teeder) was never not a Toronto Maple Leaf — that is, he played all 14 of his NHL seasons in Toronto, eight of which he served as Leaf captain. He died in 2009 at the age of 83. He and Leaf goaltender Turk Broda were the first NHLers to win five Stanley Cups, which gets us to the photograph on display here. It dates to 1951, the year of Kennedy’s last Cup, the one that Toronto’s Bill Barilko decided when he scored in overtime to vanquish Montreal in the fifth game of the finals. Kennedy’s face was battered before that, in the first round of the playoffs, wherein Toronto dismissed Boston’s surly Bruins in a series that lasted six games — though only five of them counted.
Boston had opened the series with a Wednesday-night 2-0 win at Maple Leaf Gardens. The teams skated out again in Toronto on the Saturday, March 31. Tied 1-1 at the end of regulation time, the teams played a scoreless period of overtime before witching hour struck at 11.45 p.m. Just before midnight, with the teams still deadlocked at ones, they ran smack into prim Toronto’s Sunday curfew, meaning no more hockey — game over.
The plan at that early point in the series was to play an eighth game, if needed. It wasn’t: Toronto would win four straight after that to advance.
Interestingly, while the game was wiped from the record books, its statistics weren’t. Among other things, that means that the third-last goal that Barilko scored before his death later in the year was duly counted, along with the 21 minutes in penalties he accrued on the night.
Overall, it was, as the Globe and Mail reported, “a bruising night in big-time hockey.” Boston winger Johnny Peirson suffered a fractured cheekbone before it was through, with five other players taking on a total of 34 stitches to close their respective cuts. Not that anyone was counting, but Barilko did inflict the majority of the damage, wounding a couple of Bruins’ wingers, Dunc Fisher (12 stitches) and Pete Horeck (ten). It was Boston captain Milt Schmidt who sliced Kennedy for a further seven stitches, under the eye.
“I lost my head,” Schmidt owned afterwards, admitting that he deserved the major that he was assessed. “It was my stick that cut him. But we were both high-sticking, and it might have been I who was cut.”
Canada’s Governor-General watched it all from a flag-draped seat in back of the penalty benches, Viscount Alexander of Tunis.
And Kennedy’s chin? That was a souvenir of the next game, the following night, April 1, at Boston Garden. The Leafs won that one 3-0 on the strength of Turk Broda’s shutout. “Ted Kennedy added five stitches to his facial collection,” the Globe’s Jim Vipond noted. “He was cut under the chin but couldn’t recall how it happened.”
When you’re the queen, your schedule is hockey’s schedule. Actually, you don’t even have to be queen. You can be not-quite-but-almost-queen and the NHL will, not a problem, don’t mind a bit, bend its calendar to accommodate yours.
Well, maybe not now. Years ago, though, once upon a time, in October of 1951, when Canada’s own Queen Elizabeth was still a 25-year-old princess on a five-week tour of the Dominion with her husband, Philip, the NHL twice twisted its schedule on her behalf.
The royal couple saw the defending Stanley Cup champions first, Toronto’s own Maple Leafs — though not exactly fully and completely.
Next, 68 years ago last night, the royals stopped in at the Montreal Forum to watch the Canadiens. That was the last Canadian hockey Princess Elizabeth would witness before the death of her father, George VI, in February of 1952 and her succession to the throne.
It wasn’t all hockey during that 1951 tour: the royal couple did take in half of a football game, in all fairness to the gridiron, arriving at halftime to see a Western Football Union semi-final in November wherein the Edmonton Eskimos upended the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers by the meek margin of 4-1.
Icewise, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who was 30, were in Toronto on Saturday, October 13, so they could, in theory, have caught the Leafs’ home opener against the Chicago Black Hawks that night.
But they were busy with a state supper at the Royal York that night. Instead, the Leafs and Hawks obliged with an afternoon exhibition game that doubled as a benefit for the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. Fourteen thousand (mostly young) fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock face-off, after which, at precisely 3:15, the royal party was supposed to leave to visit Riverdale Park.
Originally the park was going to have the Princess for 15 minutes longer than the rink, but in the end she didn’t get out of the Gardens for a full half-hour.
I’m willing to take at face-value the notion that the royal schedule was the reason for truncating the game and that it didn’t have to do with hockey’s bigwigs, its Clarence Campbells and Conn Smythes, in a cold flash of self-abnegation, realizing that there was only so much hockey a serious person who’d never seen the game in full fig could be expected to endure the first time out. I’ll accept that it was a scheduling decision. Even so, it still raises the essential Shakespearean question of whether hockey is hockey which alters when it alteration finds.
Turk Broda seems to have worked the Toronto net, though he was, at 37, no longer the team’s regular goaler — indeed, over the course of the regular 1951-52 season, he’d appear in just one game in relief of Al Rollins. One other Toronto roster note: the Leafs were hitting the ice that fall without the man whose timely goal had won them the Cup back in April — Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, as the song goes. With his fate still unknown, the Leafs left his sweater, number 5, hanging in the dressing room as they headed out to the ice — “where it will stay, presumably,” the Canadian Press reported, “until its owner is found.”
The Globe reported next day on the festivities. The royal couple was “introduced to a new phase of Canadian life” and heard a sound “that must certainly have been unique in their experience.” The scream of an aggrieved Gus Mortson? Joe Klukay cursing out Rags Raglan? No. “The roar of a hockey crowd as a home player sweeps in on goal is different from any other sound in any other game. It builds up quickly to a crescendo and explodes when the shot is made.”
The VIPs sat in Box 50, west side of the Gardens, bookended by Gardens’ president Conn Smythe and Reginald Shaw, who wore the fez of the acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners. A large Union Jack adorned the front of the box. The regular seats had been removed, replaced with chairs. Before the puck dropped, they royal couple met the respective captains, Ted Kennedy of the Leafs and Chicago’s Black Jack Stewart. One witness rated Stewart’s obeisance as “markedly similar to his hockey technique. He bows, in other words, with a short and choppy motion in contrast to the deeper, more eloquent method employed by Mr. Kennedy.”
“Big time hockey is a thrilling game,” said The Globe, “and the Royal couple seemed to enjoy their first taste of it.”
Actually, Prince Philip had been to hockey games before, lots of them, in London; she’d only watched on television. That’s what the Princess told Conn Smythe, who later gave the Globe’s Al Nickleson a moment-by-moment account of sitting with HRH.
“The Princess asked me many technical questions,” Smythe said, “while the Prince, behind me, laughed heartily at the rugged play. Every crash increased the tempo of his laugh and he slapped his thigh in delight a couple of times.”
She wondered how fast the players could skate and what their sticks were made of. Were there special skates for hockey? “She asked,” Smythe reported, “if many players were injured, at the same time commenting because the padding would protect them.”
The Hawks had the better of the play. “Body contact was hard but no fights broke out,” the Globe’s sports reporter wrote. “The Princess betrayed her emotions by a wide-eyed look and an automatic jump of the royal shoulders when a player was hit hard.” The crowd divided its attention between the game and the royal couple.
Smythe: “She sensed right away that players were allowed to do practically anything in the way of checking with their bodies, but that they were governed in the use of sticks.”
Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson did what Leaf defenceman do, no matter era, coughing up the puck to Chicago. Noticing that Ted Kennedy was open and awaiting a pass, the Princess was displeased, Smythe said. “That was not good combination,” she confided.
Getting the royals into the rink and settled in their seats had taken time, and the teams had only been playing for five minutes when an aide alerted the Princess that she was falling behind on her schedule. “Surely,” she said, no question mark necessary, “we can stay and watch some more of this.”
They stayed, they watched. Alongside Kennedy, the Leafs had Tod Sloan and Sid Smith and Max Bentley skating that afternoon, while the Hawks iced Max’s brother Doug and Bill Mosienko, who’d finished the season as the NHL’s second-best goalscorer, after Gordie Howe. For all that firepower, no-one could put a puck past Turk Broda, the veteran back-up who took to Toronto’s net, or Harry Lumley in Chicago’s. Under royal scrutiny, no goals were scored.
Conn Smythe confided that the Princess said she felt sorry for the goaltenders and “didn’t fancy playing that position in hockey.”
“Or any other sport, I suggested, and she agreed wholeheartedly.”
At one point, after a heavy crash of bodies on the ice, the Princess asked Smythe: “Isn’t there going to be a penalty in this game?” Eventually there was: Chicago winger Bep Guidolin was called for the scrimmage’s only infraction, for holding.
That night, when the Gardens returned to regular service, the Leafs unfurled their Stanley Cup banner. NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hometown goaltender Al Rollins with the Vézina Trophy he’d won as the league’s top goaltender. As they tend to do in Toronto, the pipes and the drums of the 48th Highlanders played the Leafs into the new season — whereupon the Hawks beat them, 3-1. Al Nickleson thought the home team was still dazzled from the afternoon’s exposure to royalty — they “appeared in somewhat of a trance” all evening.
“The boys were whooping it in slightly mad fashion,” The Globe and Mail’s Al Nickleson wrote of the April night in 1949 that the Toronto Maple Leafs wrapped up another championship, “when through the bedlam of the crowded Maple Leaf dressing-room came the stentorian tones of portly Tim Daly. ‘I don’t know why you guys are so excited at winning the Stanley Cup,’ he needled. ‘We do it every year.’”
The long-time team trainer wasn’t far off: the Leafs had just, it’s true, won their third consecutive Cup, and their fifth in eight years. (They would claimed it again two years later, in 1951, on the strength of Bill Barilko’s famous final goal.) In ’49, coached by Hap Day, Toronto had dispatched the Detroit Red Wings in a four-game sweep. They won the decisive game 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens on goals by Ray Timgren, Max Bentley, and Cal Gardner. Ted Lindsay scored for Detroit. Once it was all over, NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hockey’s most coveted trophy to Leaf captain Ted Kennedy — as seen above — before the Stanley Cup was carried in the Gardens’ press room and (as Nickleson recounted) “filled with bubbling champagne.”
In street clothes, Leafs joined officials, newspapermen, and friends to sip from the Cup. Garth Boesch, hard-hitting defenceman, stroked the outsize trophy gently, and said, “See you again next year, honey.”
Toronto’s Cal Gardner and Boston’s Grant Warwick each scored shorthanded in the first period of the game depicted here, a Wednesday-night tilt towards the end of March in 1949 in which the Leafs ended up beating the hometown Bruins by a score of 3-2. It was enough to put the Leafs into the playoff finals that year, where the would end up — seems so easy to say — beating the Detroit Red Wings to claim the Stanley Cup.
Toronto got a second goal in the first period from 20-year-old left winger Ray Timgren (lower left), and that’s the one we’re seeing going in here. “With his back to Frank Brimsek, Ray managed to move his stick just in time to nudge in a 35-foot drive by [Jim] Thomson,” reported Boston’s Daily Globe on the morrow. Max Bentley put away what would be the Leafs’ winner in the second period. The goal Boston’s Johnny Peirson scored in the last minute of the game? “Really only a gesture,” wrote Tom Fitzgerald. Also on hand here are Boston’s Fernie Flaman (10) and Murray Henderson (8) and Toronto’s Joe Klukay alongside Ted Kennedy (9). The attentive referee is, unmistakably, King Clancy.
It was on this day in 1950 that Gordie Howe was grievously injured in a clash with Toronto’s Ted Kennedy, falling head-first into the boards at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium on the opening night of that year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Rushed to Harper Hospital, Howe was soon in surgery, where neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Schreiber saved his life by draining fluid building up near the brain. In the memoir that writer and broadcaster Paul Haavardsrud ghosted on Howe’s behalf in 2014, the patient recalled being aware of the noise of the operation, and pressure on his head. “My most vivid memory from the 90-minute operation,” the tale is told in Mr. Hockey: My Story, “is hoping they’d know when to stop.”
There was much debate in 1950 about just what had happened on the ice that night. (In later years, the incident would be fodder for the pages of comic books.) Many witnesses at the Olympia held that Kennedy had high-sticked Howe with purpose, sending him into the boards, though Kennedy swore it wasn’t so. Howe’s version, circa 2014: “As I recollect it, I believe his stick hit me, but I don’t blame him for it. He was just following through on a backhand and trying not to get hit. Hockey’s a fast game and sometimes things happen.”
While Howe recovered (and, above, tended his mail) in hospital, Detroit went on without him to beat Toronto in seven games. They did the same to the New York Rangers to win the 1950 Cup, the Red Wings’ first since 1943. “As close as I came to shuffling off into the sunset at the tender age of 21,” Howe narrates in My Story, “I bounced back relatively quickly from surgery.” He joined Detroit for training camp that fall, donning a helmet, if only for a short spell, on the advice of his doctors.