Recently I was chatting back and forth on Twitter with Michael Stephens, who many of you will know from the fine Maple Leaf Hot Stove web site.
For reasons I won't detail we were chatting about kids' books, and Michael raised the well-known book, “The Hockey Sweater”, which I believe was originally written in French but translated into English. As Michael reminded me, the story has it that the child in the book sends away for a Montreal Canadiens hockey sweater (I’m probably getting this all wrong) of the legendary "Rocket" Richard. But he receives, instead, a Maple Leaf jersey from the Eatons’ store he ordered it from. (Many of you will know that Eatons was one of the large Canadian retail store chains in Canada, an iconic name in these parts...)
In any event I know it was a very well received book (by Roch Carrier). You probably know it better than I remember it. Our kids are grown now. But it did get me thinking back to the first “jersey” I ever received as a present. And what a wonderful surprise it was.
In my “neighborhood” (a small town in Essex County, near Windsor, Ontario, across from Detroit) most kids cheered passionately for one of three teams: the local team (the Red Wings), the hated Montreal Canadiens (we were a pretty large French settlement in those parts) and of course, my beloved Maple Leafs. When it came to hockey jerseys, it was rare to see anything other than a Montreal or Toronto jersey and you only ever saw them when we played hockey on the local ponds and river. (I’m trying to think back. I don’t think I ever saw a kid wearing a New York Rangers jersey. The Ranger crest has always been one of my favorites. Maybe a couple of guys had Blackhawk sweaters, but I’m not a hundred per cent certain. I seem to recall that was about it. The Bruins? I don’t think so, not in the early ‘60s when they weren’t very good, though they had a classic jersey. And besides, it was not easy to find an NHL team sweater in those days. It’s not like the merchandize that surrounds us nowadays, with people wearing them casually year-round.
In any event, the vast majority of the kids, again, stuck to the Habs and the Leafs. And it was almost always the traditional home, dark uniforms: the deep blue and white of the Leafs, and the classic red, white and blue (predominantly red) of the Canadiens. I don’t know if those were the easier ones to get ahold of or what, but when we played shinny, as we did for hours on end on the ponds and also on the local winding river which bent around for miles and miles in our little town and surrounding areas, those were the colors you would see littering the freshly hand-shoveled ice surfaces: the Leaf blue, and the Montreal red.
My first Leaf jersey was surprise Christmas present, one of the best Christmas presents I ever received. I was probably 10, in and around 1963, I’m going to say. I don’t know when it arrived (I assume it came by mail or some kind of delivery/courier in those days, but I had no idea because it was indeed a surprise…) but I received it on Christmas day. In our part of the world, that was perfect timing, because that’s when things were really getting cold and we skated outdoors a lot over the Christmas school break and right through until the end of February most years. (I was a bit older before the small town next to us got its first “artificial” ice rink, and for the first few years it was outdoors—it didn’t have a roof. We eventually went big time and a roof was put on. It made things a bit warmer, at least. You weren’t constantly fighting the cold wind, like we did on the ponds and rivers…)
But you know what was really neat about my present? Yes, it was a Leaf jersey, small size, of course. (And yes, I believe it came in an Eatons box. I don’t think they tried to tell me it was from Santa at that point in my life…) And it was un-numbered. (I have no idea if you could get them numbered in those days. Probably they were available, but my parents were no doubt just happy to get the cheapest version they could find! We came from very modest means...) But what I was so thrilled about, and what made it so special, was that it was an “away” jersey—the predominantly white sweater with the blue Leaf crest and piping.
Now, where I was raised, those things were rare, really rare. (The early 1960s hockey card photo that I still have of long-time Leaf Bobby Pulford, left, was from the same era my parents were able to purchase a Leaf sweater for me. Very simple, but I thought it was great.) I was so proud to wear not only my Leaf jersey, but a kind that no other kid (at least that I can remember) wore at the time. I think even as a kid I knew the material wasn’t like the pros wore or anything like that, but it was just so neat to have the white Leaf sweater. I kept it for years. (I think part of what made is so cool was that in the area where I lived, we only saw the Leafs play on Saturday nights, once a week, and it was always at home. So we always saw them in their dark home jerseys on our old black and white TV. Seeing them in "white" was unusual. Even come playoff time, in the Detroit area the games were blacked out when the Wings played at home, so that white uniform was pretty "special" for me.)
Years before, at some point in the 1950s, one of my two older brothers (both huge Montreal fans) had been given a Montreal jersey. We may have had a red one in the family but if so it was likely pretty ratty from all the wear. But one of the boys definitely had a white Hab “away” jersey as well. I thought it was beautiful, with the classic “CH” as the crest. I was envious of my brother but the day I received my Leaf jersey, I had something of my own to be proud of.
Like a lot of people in those days (and today still, of course), our family didn’t have a lot. We led a pretty modest existence in a tiny house with five kids. But, also like so many people, we never went for anything that was truly necessary.
And every once in a while, something like a Maple Leaf sweater would arrive, and I would feel like a million dollars.
I know many of you must have had similar experiences. I’d really enjoy hearing from you. When did you get your first hockey sweater?
I look forward to you sharing your memories….