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Ron Stewart: Mr. Versatility in a fine Maple Leaf career




For whatever reason—as a very young Leaf fan in those great old days—I never fully appreciated long-time 1950s and ‘60s Maple Leaf Ron Stewart.

Who knows why we, as fans, develop certain likes or even dislikes for particular players.  In Stewart’s case, while I knew he was a fine player, I just never warmed up to him.  Other than Eddie Chadwick and Johnny Bower, the goalies, in those days I was much more into young, emerging players like Dickie Duff, Marc Reaume, Frank Mahovlich and then Dave Keon.   But Stewart certainly helped the Leafs in a big way in the 1950s and early '60s before he was dealt to the Boston Bruins after 13 seasons with the blue and white. (Check out the great old action-photo above from the late 1950s.  Stewart is the Leaf at the far left of the picture.  Bower is in goal.  The Chicago captain is Eddie Litzenberger, who later went on to help the Leafs win three Cups, alongside Stewart.  In the background is, if I'm not mistaken, Litzenberger's teammate, the great Ted Lindsay.)

When I read last week that Stewart had passed away at the age of 79, I wanted to write something to, in a small way, recognize his tremendous contribution to Maple Leaf lore.

Stewart was one of those guys who just seemed to skate effortlessly.  He was faster than he looked, but was one of those players who looked like he played the game for fun.  He was a naturally gifted athlete.

He was a very good penalty-killer, too.  But the thing about Stewart that probably wasn’t talked about much was how versatile he was. It wasn’t just that he could play any forward position. But he had actually played primarily as a defenseman early in his career, and he morphed into a forward as years went on.  When “Red” Kelly did that after then Leaf General Manager and coach Punch Imlach acquired him in a trade with the Red Wings, it was a big deal, and the media made quite a fuss about it.  To this day, observers comment on how amazing it was that Kelly had the skill to switch from defense to forward at an advanced stage of his career (and it was amazing)—and help the Leafs win four Stanley Cups, after he had already been a key player with  the Wings.

Kelly, of course, was a many-time All-Star and a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman who won several Cups with Detroit.  Though with much less fanfare, Stewart made a similar transition, from full-time defenseman early in his career to full-time winger. 

Stewart played about 1,300 career regular-season NHL games, and scored close to 300 goals- even though scoring goals was just one part of his game.  He had two stints with the Rangers (he was with them when they beat the Leafs in the playoffs in 1971) and played near the end of his career with the Canucks, Blues and Islanders.

There is a bit of a kicker in the Stewart story for Leaf fans:  Stewart was traded after the 1964-’65 season to the Bruins, for three players- including future All-Star and Team Canada ’72 member Pat Stapleton.  Unfortunately, Stapleton never played a game for the Leafs.  His stay in Toronto lasted one day.  (He was picked up in the “intra-league” draft the day after he became a Leaf.) Stapelton could have been a difference-maker in Toronto for years, especially as he reached his prime in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when the Leafs often struggled on the blueline. 

As for Stewart, he should be remembered fondly as a key Leaf in the Imlach era, and one of the significant contributors to those three Cups in the early 1960s.

2 comments:

  1. Long suffering Leafs fanMarch 27, 2012 at 10:47 AM

    Thanks for taking the time Mike to write a nice piece on Ron Stewart. Never had the opportunity to watch him play for the Leafs, but, do remember him as a Ranger. Did see him in those early classic games and understood why Punch Imlach loved him as a player. In his book I believe it was "Hockey is a battle", Punch said that trading Ron Stewart was one of the hardest decisions he ever had to make, but a necessary one because he had a strong talented kid (Peter Stemkowski) that he needed to secure on the roaster or risk losing him in the intra-draft. Mr. Imalach refer Ron Stewart as one of those "Quiet men" who went out and did their jobs without complaint. Taking a line out of John Ford 1952 movie "The Quiet man" staring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, Mr Imlach said of Stewart, "He's a fine stick to beat the other top team scorer with!" A high praise and honor indeed for a checking forward. Its truly sad to see another one of our unsung hero's leave this planet to be only reunited with that remarkable early sixties squad.

    Rest in peace.

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  2. Nicely said, Long Suffering, about a wonderful old Leaf. Thank you.

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