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Kulemin, Gunnarsson and a George Armstrong flashback: The Leafs could use an on-ice leader like “The Chief” now

Most Leaf fans would agree that the team is obviously making strides.  We can argue ( and I have) that the "plan" has shifted, but this much is clear:  they're younger, faster, tougher.  They're simply harder to play against.  We all know they have a ways to go, but it's a good sign when they can overcome some struggles as they did against the under-manned Pens on Wednesday night to win yet another close one.

The Grabovski OT marker may trigger another offensive outburst for the emerging Maple Leaf center, though he has continued to play hard even when he wasn't scoring as much of late.  But my focus during the game was also on Kulemin and Gunnarsson.  Kulemin is a guy I've been writing about for what feels like forever.  (Click on his name to see an earlier post on young Nik.)  I predicted last spring that he would double his point production soon.  He won't do it this season, but he is tracking that way, for sure.

And while Gunnarsson saw a fair bit of the press box earlier this season, he is rounding into form at a useful time.  I first started really noticing him in November of '09.  (Check out that story here.)  Two assists, a plus 2 and 23+ minutes of ice time against Pittsburgh.

Toronto blocked a ton of shots.  Earlier in the season, the opposition seemed to be blocking way more than the Leafs.  The Leafs are bringing their sandpaper almost every night now.  But having a goalie play as consistently as Reimer means that those good efforts are turning into points.  (We can actually have a fun debate when the season is over regarding who is the team's MVP this season- Grabbo, Kessel, Schenn or Reimer.)

This is the best run of games this team has had in quite a while.  And the games actually mean something, eh?


When the Maple Leafs unveiled Dion Phaneuf as their new captain this past summer, they brought in, not surprisingly, two popular and relatively recent captains:  Darryl Sittler and Wendel Clark.

But I was shocked to see one other, much older, Maple Leaf legend and captain on the dais:  none other than “The Chief”, George Armstrong.

Armstrong (see the old photo at right of Armstrong and Dave Keon, taken after they won the Cup against Detroit at the Gardens in the spring of 1963) normally avoids such public outings like the plague.  By all accounts he has never been comfortable in those situations.  You’ll rarely (almost never, really) see him doing interview or guesting at an autograph show.  He'll never write a personal memoir. 

When all the living former Leaf captains were part of a special photo shoot project just a few years ago, Army took part, but he only arrived to have his picture taken after everyone else was done.

So for him to be on hand for the Phaneuf announcement likely took some arm-twisting by Brian Burke, among others.

I have no idea what Armstrong really thinks of the Phaneuf announcement.  (The jury appears to be out as to the kind of captain Phaneuf will turn out to be.)  Armstrong is a guy who has been a part of the organization for so long, I can’t remember when he wasn’t.  In fact, he was already playing with the Leafs before I was born (which was in 1953), and I’m not certain he has ever fully been apart from the organization since—despite many ownership, GM and coaching changes.

After he retired (for good…he came out of retirement a few times) in 1971, he soon become the coach of the then-powerful Junior "A" Toronto Marlies.  He led them to some great seasons, including a couple of Memorial Cups. (He coached so many big-name juniors that I remember watching, many of you must recall as well….Paulin Bordeleau, Mark Howe, Bob Dailey, Mike Palmateer, Bruce Boudreau, Bob Dailey, among others. ( I don’t remember if he was already coaching the Marlies when they had the great Shutt-Gardner-Harris line. I don’t think so but I could be wrong.)

He actually coached the big team for a brief period of time, but it’s a job he never wanted.  So he has primarily been a scout for the Leafs all these years, if I’m not mistaken.

As a player, Armstrong, as I remember him at least, was a tall, relatively lanky guy.  He used to joke about his big muscles, but in fact he didn’t exactly have a muscular build.  Nonetheless, he was a tough, determined player and he was very hard to get the puck away from along the boards and in the corners.  He was not fleet afoot but got where he needed to go.  He was smarter than he was gifted or fast.  He was sometimes on the first line, but in today's parlance we would probably slot him as a "second-line" winger, a guy who could score but also defend and play both ways.  (Later in his career he was more of a third and fourth-line guy much of the time.)

He was the only Maple Leaf captain I knew as a kid.  He took on the job in the late 1950s.  He was the team leader all the way through the 1960s, when they won those four Cups.  He kept the job until just before the 1969-’70 season.  He had retired (again) after the previous season, and so the Leafs, under new General Manager Jim Gregory, went ahead and named Dave Keon his successor. Then Army decided to come back (he was able to miss training camp, which was likely his plan, anyway) but when he returned he basically said he was fine with Keon having the job, he just wanted to play his part on the team.

Few expected him to play beyond that, but he stayed for one final season, when the Leafs were building a pretty good young team, with emerging defensemen like Rick Ley, Jim Dorey, Brian Glennie, Brad Selwood and Mike Pelyk assuming a larger role in the organization.  That 1970-’71 season was also the year Darryl Sittler arrived on the scene.

It’s funny.  Armstrong was one of those guys who almost never used the big slapshot.  Once in a while, sure, but he was a wrist shot guy all the way.  Interestingly, he would sometimes be used as a fourth forward on the point on the power play at the end of his career, even though he didn’t have a big shot.

He did score well over 200 goals in his NHL career, but his contributions to the Leafs went way beyond his stats.  He was a quiet leader, a guy players looked to to pull the team together when various issues, in those sometimes tumultous Imlach years, threatened to tear the team apart.  On the ice he was a penalty-killer, the corner-man, and a stand-up guy.  No fighter, he nonetheless was a leader on a team that, at various times, had many other great veterans around like Allan Stanley, Tim Horton, Johnny Bower, (later) Normie Ullman, Frank Mahovlich and Bobby Pulford.

The only time I was ever around Armstrong was back in 1976, when I was a young guy in broadcasting and was often up in the press box at the old Maple Leaf Gardens when the Leafs were in town.  One night, I overheard him telling the (true) story of when he scored a goal in the playoffs against Montreal (either in spring of 1959 or 1960, I’m not sure) but no one saw it go in.  Films released after the playoffs were done show the goal did go on, but that was well before “instant replay” and long, long before video replay.

I’ve not written enough about Armstrong on this site, but young Leaf fans should know he was absolutely one of the central figures in Leaf history in the 1950s and 1960s. 

The current Leafs have some guys who may be fine leaders some day. Schenn.  Maybe MacArthur.  Aulie, perhaps.  But there won’t ever be another George Armstrong.


  1. Great piece on George “the Chief” Armstrong, he truly was a Maple Leafs legend! If younger Leafs fans want an idea of what kind of player he was, look no further then current Leaf, with the same last name. Although I must admit Colby is a little more of an agitator than the Chief was, but still have similarities to their game. They're very hard to knock off the puck once they have it on their stick. I have watched a few old classic games and have come to appreciate the Chief even more. I remember one particular game (you can watch it online at Hulu or NHL classic games) against Detroit on January 2 1971, where Wings great, Alex Delvecchio was crossing his own blue line when the Chief stop him dead with a determine forecheck with his stick. Not only did the Chief manage to lodge the puck free from Delvecchio, but he also scored a goal on the same play! It was truly amazing feat, and to see the surprise look on Dave Keon face said it all.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Long suffering. Armstrong was there when times were tough (mid-'50s) and through the championship years as well, and then through more lean years and the mini-re-birth in 1970-'71. There are probably many guys who the Leafs would not have won those four Cups without, and he is surely one of them. Interesting reference to Colby Armstrong- they share some similar qualities, for sure, the modern-day Armstrong being the more the obvioous agitator, indeed!

  3. As I recall, Armstrong scored the goal that clinched the Leafs' last Stanley Cup win.

    As for the January 2, 1971 game, it is one Leafs' fans cherish and us Detroiters would like to forget. I have a copy of it. Final score: Toronto 13, Detroit 0. Ugh.