Here’s the thing: ideally, the business of retiring the numbers of former players who brought distinction to the Maple Leaf organization would have been done properly decades ago. But that not being the case, it was very good to see current management, led by Brendan Shanahan, be decisive in determining that the 100th anniversary season would be the time to do it.
Let’s give credit where credit is—the Leafs have been trying since the days of Ken Dryden (as team President) to be more adept at doing the “right” things in terms of public relations and community awareness. Not to pin everything on Harold Ballard, but certain aspects of the organization seemed to fall short during his lengthy tenure as majority owner—except that he made a lot of money off the team. Fair enough, I guess.
But I always wondered why the organization was so determined to be different than say, the Montreal Canadiens, when it came to retiring the jerseys of worthy players. The Habs were—and are—rightfully proud of their team’s legacy, whether we’re talking about Aurel Joliat, Howie Morenz, Butch Bouchard, The “Rocket” (right), Beliveau, Dickie Moore, Doug Harvey, Jacques Plante, "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, Yvan Cournoyer or more (relatively speaking) modern era players like Lafleur, Robinson, Savard, Lapointe, etc.
We, as Leaf followers, can be just as proud of our history, though we obviously don’t have as many championship banners to raise to the roof as they do in Montreal.
The surprise announcement this past Saturday kind of makes amends, I suppose. And credit to Lou Lamoriello and Shanahan. Born in 1953, I was not around long enough or old enough to see guys like Syl Apps and Teeder Kennedy or King Clancy and Turk Broda. But appreciating the history of this franchise because of countless hours spent with my father talking hockey (though Dad was a passionate Hab fan, ugh), I have an understanding of what players like that meant to the franchise built by the legendary Conn Smythe.
I was fortunate to have seen players like Armstrong, Mahovlich, Keon, Bower, Tim Horton and Red Kelly in the Leaf blue and white for many years. Now, it certainly was not just those individuals who won those four championships in the 1960s—there were so many valuable contributors to those Cup-winning efforts. But they were each unique players who were difference-makers on winning teams.
In more recent years, wonderful players like Salming and Sittler (left), Gilmour and Clark and of course Sundin thrilled fans across the country as Leaf greats.
Each in their own way made Leaf fans proud and created a lifetime of memories for all of us.
I know Leaf supporters of today are, understandably, most interested in talking about the team right now, not constantly harking back to the “old days”. On that note, “right now” may well be the most truly hopeful Leaf supporters have been in well over a decade, because we may have more young talent here than there has been in the organization in about as long as I can remember.
Yes, we have to see how all the “kids” do over time. But whether we’re talking about Rielly, Marner, Nylander, Matthews or some of the other youngsters beginning to make an impression, there are better days ahead. Finally.