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If you were MLSE, or Tim Leiweke, what Maple Leaf numbers would you retire?

My intent today is not to trigger a debate about whether numbers of former Maple Leaf greats should be retired or not.  We all have differing views, and we also know that Leaf ownership has never done what, say, the Canadiens have done in Montreal—actually formally retire the jerseys of their legendary players.

In Toronto, our approach has been to “honour” numbers. The jerseys of old Leafs are raised to the rafters, but the number of the player still remains in circulation. (Not so in Montreal, where no one will ever wear the number 9, for example, of Rocket Richard, seen at right, or the number 4 of the equally legendary Jean Beliveau, among many others.)

I guess what got me thinking about this was MLSE’s (Tim Leiweke’s?) decision to create a new statue/monument viewing area in Maple Leaf Square to celebrate some old time Leafs like the late Teeder Kennedy. That will create some buzz, no doubt.  But my question for VLM readers today extends the discussion a bit.  

You may have been following the Leafs since the 1940s or ‘50s (for me it began in earnest in the late 1950s) or the 1960s.  Or, you may have “only” started supporting the blue and white in the ‘80s/‘90s. Regardless, we have all seen some outstanding Leafs in action. If you were the individual making the decision, which Leaf players so stood out for you, based on your personal observations over many years, that you would not hesitate to retire their number for good—never to be worn by a Leaf player again?

You set the criteria. It could be excellence combined with longevity.  It could be their contributions to championship teams.  They may have been a great scorer, a tremendous leader, or a blood and guts kind of old-time Maple Leaf.

You may think we should retire Doug Gilmour’s number 93, though the man we called “Dougie” was actually only a Leaf for a handful of seasons.

Personally, I can only speak for the Leafs I followed closely since the late ‘50s.  Clearly, there were worthy Leafs before my time like Kennedy and Syl Apps and maybe Turk Broda and others that longtime Leaf followers could talk about much better than I could.

My own assessment is that I would retire Johnny Bower’s number 1, because he was—and still is—a special Leaf on and off the ice. His then unique story - not making the NHL until he was into his 30s, and not becoming a front line NHLer until well past that - was certainly out of the ordinary.  He was a heroic Leaf, not retiring until he was 45 years of age.

Bobby Baun had two stints with the Leafs and was a heart and soul player (and scored one of the most famous goals in Leaf history, on broken ankle, no less), but I’m not sure I would retire his number.  Arguments could be made for Allan Stanley and Tim Horton, both cornertsones on those 1960s championship squads.

George “Chief” Armstrong, yes, for sure, I would retire the number of the longtime Leaf captain.  He was not an extraordinary scorer, but he was the glue that held the Leafs together under their fiery coach, Punch Imlach. Few were as good at controlling the play along the boards during his 20-year NHL career.

Dave Keon, yes. Ron Ellis…that’s a tough one.  He was certainly a fine Leaf and very well respected. Darryl Sittler would have to be a consideration.  His Leaf teams were never quite good enough to get to the finals, but he was a special Leaf.  (He was also a big part of the 1976 Canada Cup squad along with linemate Lanny McDonald, who should never have been traded.) Wendel Clark was a three-time Leaf, and clearly one of the most popular Maple Leaf players of the modern era.  He helped restore Leaf pride after a difficult few years in the early 1980s.

I’m guessing many would suggest Borje Salming’s #21 should be in this special category, too. And what about Mats Sundin, a bit of a lightning rod during his time with Toronto, but surely a guy we all dearly wish we had on the roster now as we talk year after year about needing a front line center?

(Quick aside: I happened to hear a Toronto radio host make the claim a couple of days ago that the Leafs have never had a truly "great" player.  Some very good players, he said, but not great.  I guess it depends on one's definition of great. In my view, Dave Keon, while not a Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, was one of the best overall players in the NHL between 1960-'61 and 1966-'67. He was consistently outstanding, a marvellous skater and two-way player who, in modern day terms, was also a "shutdown" centre, playing against the best opponents in his era. The Leafs would not have won those four Cups in the '60s without him.  He played 15 seasons in Toronto, won several major NHL awards (Calder, Byng, and Smythe) and was twice an end-of-season All-Star.  In that generation, and especially in his first ten or twelve years in the league, I don't think anyone did more things well than Keon.  Was he not "great"?)

One thing that struck me as I was penning this piece:  we of course think of Leaf players who should be honoured, either via retiring the jersey or now, a bronze statue.  But I believe the first bronze statue should have gone to Conn Smythe, even ahead of Kennedy, because without Smythe, there would never have been Maple Leaf Gardens, or the Maple Leafs. (Conn and his son Stafford, above right, were the guardians of the Leaf dynasties during the franchise's hey day.)  But that's a discussion for another day.

I’m obviously missing some great names that should be included in any discussion about retiring numbers (like "Red" Kelly, who had been an award-winning defenseman in Detroit, and proceeded to win four Cups as a forward with Toronto), but again, you set the parameters. You’re in charge—you make the decision.

Given the chance, which numbers should we retire?


  1. Hi Michael,

    I think it is very tempting to make a list of twenty names or something like that, but I think you should not retire to much numbers. But it is difficult. You mentioned a lot of names that a lot of us have never seen in action. But if you retire numbers you have to do it a few years after the player retired.
    In other words it is very difficult for me to decide about players from the 60's or 50's.
    I think there are a few numbers that players can not take anymore as a Leaf and these numbers could be retired. I think they do not give out the 13 and 17 anymore and if it is that way, better retire them. Wendel is a guy I can say he has earned it and Sundin is the scoring leader. I would retire Johnny Bouwer's number one and Keon's 14. The 93 and 27 should also be retired. But here we go.

    I would like to talk about hockey. I would like to suggest an article about style of play (a subjuct Colleen and I often talk about as you know) or about what the lines will look like the next season.

    1. Hi Marcus- how our forward lines will look will be a topic of discussion for sure. And we will see if Carlyle adjusts how he expects the team to play.

    2. Now you said nothing to my suggested numbers but I want to add something here.
      If Kessel stays here the coming 8 years there is no doubt his number should be retired then. And if Phaneuf will stay the coming 7 years number 3 should be retired too, he really earned it. Because of all the dirt thrown at him 365 days a year.
      Do you think numbers should be retired inflationary? Or do you think only a few numbers should be retired?

    3. It's so hard to make this kind of determination, Marcus. Bower and Keon are two that come to mind for sure. As you mentioned, Clark and Sundin will be in the picture, too.

      Nowadays so few players stay with a team for their entire career. Kessel and Phaneuf are key Leafs. We'll see how their careers go in the years ahead.

      I think it should be fairly selective- Montreal has retired a lot of numbers but they have had some all-time greats on their roster over the years, too. But there is certainly room to retire some numbers in Toronto, if the organization ever starts to lean in that direction.

    4. Hi Marcus-I'll reply on last post-"Leaf Optimism".

  2. I know that there are many players whose numbers I would like to see honoured, but precious few I would like to NEVER see another player wearing again. As much as I'd like to see Dave Keon in the fold with a retired number that I would consider for him (and a few others), I would also GREATLY miss seeing that number on the back of a current player (should he deserve the honour of carrying such a legacy). At the same time, I don't want 'just anybody' wearing some numbers.

    As a side note, when I see a few Marlies games, when they are wearing the Jerseys like the 70's Leafs wore, I can't help but wonder if Peter Holland might just have a little bit of Darryl Sittler potential when I see him wearing 27, but I wouldn't want him to wear that for the Leafs if Darryl didn't agree!

    On a related topic, I have a question about Bill Barilko (acknowledging that I believe he scored the Stanley Cup winner before the Leafs drought over the rest of the 50's until the 60's dynasty): Was he a truly GREAT player in your estimation (do you remember references to his play from your youth)? Or was his number retired primarily because of his tragic death?

    I know that you weren't wanting to trigger a debate, though I have thought about a different scenario (to an 'either/or' situation) for some time and would like to reiterate it below:

    It almost seems to me that Barilko's number should have been honoured (without retiring the number), whereas the Leafs great players' numbers should have been 'reserved' for those players to be given the opportunity to endorse the number's use for a current player (as an 'internal' honour for both the former and the new player), in that way, players like Stajan, Weir and others would have only worn #14 if Dave Keon wanted to honour them thus.

    This seems to be exactly what 'Ace' Bailey did when he offered the number to Ron Ellis (and brought it 'out of retirement'). This is exactly the idea I like, and one of the early reasons I liked Ron Ellis... if he could garner that kind of respect from a legend, then I should like him, too! Perhaps a Borje Salming could provide 21 to a Jake Gardiner or Morgan Rielly (though the latter might prefer Red Kelly to give him his old number!).

    Having said all this, I would be much more free with 'reserved' numbers than I would with 'retired' ones... If we are going with my idea, then all the current numbers in the rafters would remain (plus a few more considerations, since I can't remember them all off the top of my head). If we are talking about retired numbers... then it would be less (because I don't like all the missing numbers on the Habs Jerseys -
    whether it's a matter of principle or familiarity, I can't decide :).

    If I had to go with 'retirement' - I would think Broda/Bower (/Plante) #1 - Keon #14 - and a very few more would be considerations, but I just don't like the idea of removing the option of using the number EVER again (like 99 for Gretzky... why not let each honouree decide the fate of their number?)!

    OF course, it goes without saying, that 62 should be retired on this site :)

    After the death of such a player, the number could be reserved by the team for exceptional players in the future at their own discretion (otherwise, the next great player might be wearing the 147 - or whatever 3 digit abomination we could come up with - sometime during the coming century!)

    1. Yes, that was a very nice gesture back in the '60s when Bailey essentially asked Ellis to wear his old (retired) number 6. Clearly Bailey respected the way Ellis played the game. (I recall that Ellis wore number 11 in his first year with Toronto, then he wore number 8 before playing the rest of his career with number 6.)

      Some good food for thought, as always, InTimeFor62- and yes, we can retire "62" here at VLM, in honour of your birth year and a Leaf Stanley Cup!

    2. Thank you for honouring me with the continuing use of your banner calendar year number!

      As I read a little something on Ace Bailey (and in conjunction with Bill Barilko), it seems that both were good players, yet the career-ending injury/death of these players were factored into the retirement of their numbers... in that light, it seems another promising young player could have had his number in the rafters, if Brian Berard had not come out of retirement for his devastating eye injury.

      I'm glad that the teams decided to institute the all-star game to help Bailey... I wonder if that should have been it's continuing legacy (i.e. to provide funds for players from previous eras who were not 'remunerated' as well as those who stand upon their shoulders are now). I think it might invigorate the concept if we added a legends all-star game to the weekend and use the funds for any older players (injured or otherwise determined to receive from such a legacy fund).

      It would be a great way to more broadly integrate new stars with those of bygone eras (even more so than the winter classic, for instance, does with specific teams), but the primary purpose would be to create a fund for those in need who formerly played.

    3. I like the idea of creating a fund, InTimeFor62. I've long thought current players (at least some of them) should do more in various pro sports to help former players in need.

      You asked about Barilko. He was a bit before my time, but as you mention, by all accounts he was considered a young player with plenty of talent who was likely to only get better.

  3. Hi Michael.

    I like the idea of numbers being honoured but also passed if a player wishes. I guess this is how the Leafs have always done this. Charlie Conacher passed on his #9 to Ted Kennedy, George Armstrong wore Syl Apps' #10, #4--Hap Day and Red Kelly, #7--King Clancy and Tim Horton, #27--Frank Mahovlich and Darryl Sittler. I know it was Conacher's wish for Kennedy to wear his number but I don't know about the rest--though I imagine the team often assigned a great former player's number to someone they felt was most deserving. Maybe honouring the number but not retiring it wasn't such a bad idea.

    I didn't like the idea of statues at all until I saw the plan. I'm not sure how Dave Keon would feel about that but he's still my pick for a banner and Johnny Bower, after all these years, is still a Leaf at heart. There are several other numbers I'd like to see raised, with players wearing the same number side by side. I think picking a few to be immortalized in bronze will be a task I'm glad I don't have. Colleen

    1. It's difficult indeed to select players who should be honoured, Colleen. So many Leafs have contributed to the team over the years. It is good to see when a former great "passes" their number along to a deserving player.

      It will be interesting to see who the team chooses to honour after Kennedy.

  4. Good Evening Michael,

    Great topic during the summer doldrums. For those of us whose memories may need a gentle nudge this websight provides a list of every number worn by a Leaf and the players who wore them.

    As a youngster growing up in the 40's and 50's, I avidly collected hockey cards and knew all of the Leaf sweater numbers and most of those on the other 5 teams. Sweater numbers were important and number 9 held particular significance as it was usually worn by the star player.

    If the Leafs were to retire numbers beyond 5 and 6 (and I don't think they should as I like the honoured number concept) I would opt for 1 (Turk Broda and Johnny Bower), 9 (Charlie Conacher and Ted Kennedy), 10 (Syl Apps and George Armstrong) 14 (Dave Keon) and 27 (Darryl Sittler). I do, however hope they keep the present system but are very discriminant in their assigning of honoured numbers. No more Colby Armstrongs getting a number 9 for instance.

    1. Hi Pete Cam - always good to hear from you as another "old" Leaf guy! (Your reference to hockey cards brings back fond memories for me as well.)

      As far back as I can remember, number 9 was indeed special. I only go back (in terms of hockey memories) to the late '50s, but even then, it was the Rocket, Gordie Howe and Andy Bathgate who were great stars on their respective teams, all wearing number 9. (As I recall, he wore 9 with the Leafs as well, the number Dickie Duff had worn.)

      Bobby Hull switched to number 9 in the early '60s, and Johnny Bucyk with the Bruins became a Hall-of-Famer wearing that number.

      As I mentioned above, picking players to honour in whatever fashion is not simple- but your list is a good one.

  5. This is indeed a tough project, and no matter the number of players selected or the criteria, there will still be disagreement on who was selected and who was left out. For myself, I also agree that the present system of "honouring" numbers and not retiring them is perfectly fine. To make my own selections, I put the number at twelve. This is because the team has said they will name three players this year, and more in the next three years leading up to the 100th anniversary. I realize they never said they would keep it at three per year times four years, but I had to stop somewhere.

    We all have our own criteria for who to select, I realize. Are we choosing purely the greatest players on the ice? The most successful, including Stanley Cups? Heart and soul players? Personalities? Those who made an everlasting impact revolutionizing the game? There's a lot to consider there! My choices here are a combination of great skill and those who left their mark on the game in a considerable way. Like everyone else here, I acknowledge that I am far too young to have seen a lot of the players in the team's history, and I am relying on history of the game as told by others. Here's my twelve selections:

    King Clancy
    Charlie Conacher
    Syl Apps
    Turk Broda
    Ted Kennedy
    Johhny Bower
    Dave Keon
    George Armstrong
    Frank Mahovlich
    Darryl Sittler
    Borje Salming
    Mats Sundin

    I of course, had to omit some guys that were hard to leave off, but this is a short list for a long and illustrious history. Barilko would be a nice sentiment, but that is not the criteria I used. Tim Horton was a great player for a real long time, but somehow doesn't even make this list. Red Kelly would have been a cinch if he had played more of his career here and not in Detroit. Present day realities mean that less players today and in the future will spend the majority of their time in one location, and another fifty years from now, we might be hard-pressed to find more Leafs to add to this list for that reason alone!

    1. Hard to argue with the worthiness of those on your list, Pete. And yes, it is awfully tough to "eliminate" some outstanding players.

  6. Personally I like the Leafs' system of only retiring a player's number if he died or suffered a career-ending injury as a member of the team. We were the first team to retire a number, we get to dictate how we do it.

    As for the "great" argument, it's more valid to say the Leafs have never had the best player in the world (though still debatable), but saying we've never had any great players is just wrong.

    1. Hi Steve- I'm with you on the "great" discussion. Perhaps the Leafs have never had the single best player in the league at any one time (though I can't speak to that question before my time), but they have certainly had all-time greats on their roster.

    2. 1 Turk Broda and Johnny Bower
      9 Charlie Conacher and Teeder Kennedy
      14 Dave Keon

      Do it and now as no current Leafs have these numbers

      Perhaps properly honoring Keon will finally remove the curse seems to be in place since 1967.

  7. what was bon jovi's number again michael? :-P