One of the reasons that I have maintained my love affair with the Toronto Maple Leafs over more than fifty years is this: I have felt, in a tiny, tiny way, part of something bigger, something kind of different and yes, special—a Club that not everyone belongs to, but that anyone who cares to, can. There are no restrictions. All you need is passion—and devotion.
Heck, you don’t even need to be loyal. Lots of people have jumped on and off the Maple Leaf bandwagon over the years, and that’s OK. There are no “good” or bad” Leaf fans, in my mind. If you like the Leafs, you’re part of the community.
While it has not always necessarily manifested itself (the Ballard years, for example), the Leafs, for me, have represented class, style—and competing to win. They did not always win, but that was always the goal.
Back "in the day", the players had to have what it took to wear the jersey. Those that made it wore those beautiful blue and white uniforms with pride. It simply could not be any other way. The organization stood for certain things: civility, tradition, respect, commitment—and yes, in the good old days of my youth (I was born in 1953), success.
Proud individuals wore the Leaf colours. Many of you know the names; some of you actually saw them play. From King Clancy and Primeau, Conacher and Jackson—the so-called Leaf “Kid line”—to Turk Broda, Syl Apps, Teeder Kennedy (pictured above on the far left, along with Sid Smith and Tod Sloan) and in my era, Johnny Bower, George Armstrong, Dave Keon, Ronnie Ellis, Darryl Sittler and many others, they were special; heroes in many ways, at least in hockey terms, flawed as they all surely were as individuals.
The man who started it all was of course the legendary Conn Smythe. He built the old Maple Leaf Gardens during the Depression, if I’m not mistaken, and created a legacy that stands to this day. The Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since his 1967, when his son Stafford was the team’s principal owner. Just when new General Manager Jim Gregory, hired by Stafford, was about to turn the team around, the younger Smythe (right) died somewhat suddenly and the team fell into the hands of Harold Ballard. It’s easy to say, “the rest is history”, but it would require much more space than I will take today to try and explain the often-disastrous results that followed over the next 20 years. (If you go to the right-hand section of this site, you will note some posts that recall the 1970s and '80s. Feel free to click on those for some of my thoughts on the Ballard years...Clicking on the "Leaf Legacy series" might be your best bet.)
Oh, as I’ve posted here before, there were some very good players in this market in the 1970s and ‘80s under Ballard’s awkward stewardship, and some pretty decent teams, but nothing that matched the championship quality mold of the old six-team NHL Maple Leafs under the Smythes'.
The Smythes’ were not perfect men, but they were driven individuals who loved the Leafs and through their efforts, they created what has become an emotional - and historical - landmark for millions of Maple Leaf fans around the globe.
Well, I am here to report today that the Smythe family is still very much around. Along with Matteo Codispoti from We Want a Cup, I was able to connect and chat with one of Stafford Smythe’s daughters (and grand-daughter of Conn), Elizabeth Brinton. Elizabeth is a talented writer who has lived with her husband and (now grown) family in beautiful Idaho for many, many years. But interestingly, she maintains her passion for the Maple Leafs, and a love for the game that her grandfather and father helped make, along with legendary Foster Hewitt, a Saturday night institution in Canada for so many decades.
In a conversation that could have gone on much longer, Elizabeth shares so many unique memories. (In a telephone chat before our interview, she told me a wonderful story about a Stanley Cup party at her father’s house when she was a child. I think the year was 1962, after the Leafs had beaten the Blackhawks in Chicago in Game 6 of the finals, but it could have been one of the other years that the Leafs won in the ‘60s. In any event, her sister was under the weather and therefore not allowed to be downstairs at the team gathering of the "grown ups". That was obviously very disappointing for a child, to miss out on all the action—and all the fun. When captain George Armstrong asked where Elizabeth’s sister was and found out, he went up to the sister’s bedroom and sat and discussed various topics for half an hour, and had to be dragged back to the party, it sounds like. Can you imagine this happening nowadays?) I'm so glad that Matteo and I were able to connect with her.
The interview is not intended to be a history lesson, but it is a conversation that those who might appreciate hearing about where the Leafs came from might enjoy.
For me, it brought home why I still care about the Maple Leafs, and why they still matter, even after all these years of losing. Elizabeth quite eloquently helps us understand why the Smythe family cared so deeply for the “Maple Leaf”—the crest every Leaf player has worn since the day Conn Smythe started the franchise.
If you’d like to know a bit more about what it was like to be a “Smythe” in the Leaf glory years, what the “C” really stood for on the captain’s jersey, why the family still cares deeply about the success of the Leafs, tune in to Episode 12 of the “Leaf Matters” podcast. It is now available on iTunes at
For those not on iTunes, here is the link from Podalmighty, the network Leaf Matters is now proudly part of:
I walked away from my conversations with Elizabeth with the very distinct feeling that no one would be happier to see the Leafs win a championship again than the living members of the Smythe clan—the family that started it all.