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Do any of the current Leafs remind you of '50s Maple Leaf winger Gerry James?

For Leaf fans born in the last thirty years or so, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did not know who Gerry James was, or what he meant when it comes to Maple Leaf history. The fact is, James did not have a long NHL career in Toronto.  That he played in the late 1950s means he just isn’t a household name for modern-day Leaf fans—understandably so.

James was quite a unique athlete, in that he is one of the only guys that I am aware of who played not only two professional sports at the same time, but did so with hockey as one of the sports  We all know about Bob Jackson and Deion Sanders in the “modern” era and they, of course, accomplished this rarest of achievements in football and baseball.  I seem to recall Danny Ainge played baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays and then NBA basketball with the Boston Celtics in the 1980s.  And of course, a number of guys get drafted in more than one sport.  But to play at the highest levels—and to do it in football and hockey, as Gerry James did—in two sports is out of the ordinary, I think it’s fair to say.

But my focus today is not so much about how unusual James was as a “two-sport” star.  Rather, I’m thinking about the type of player that he was, and why what he brought to a hockey team was important- and still is today in the modern, much faster game.

One of the key ingredients that we have talked about often here at VLM is that the Leafs have needed, for some time, an infusion of "team toughness", which has started to happen.  Now, that term can mean different things to different fans.  For me, it's not about fighting all the time, though I recognize that can be part of the equation.  But it's about playing hard along the boards, in front of both nets, about staying after and on your man and finishing checks when it's the right time to finish them and not take yourself out of the play. It's about not backing down physically, and being able to give and take hits.  We see that in various Leafs these days, including Komarov, Kulemin (maybe not quite enough, but more lately), McClement and of course Phaneuf and Fraser on the back end.  Even the not-very-big Kadri has showed an edge to his play with some big-time hits.

Over the years, when I think of guys who helped make their teammates play bigger and tougher, I think about Bob Gainey, Terry O'Reilly, Bob Nystrom, Clark Gillies in his prime, and of course Brendan Shanahan and players of that ilk.  They fought for every inch of ice, and yes, if necessary, would drop the gloves, too.

Sometimes, a team needs someone to lead the way, to set the tone in this regard.  And that’s where I have these childhood memories of none other than Gerry James.

James, a native of Regina, was one of those players who came up in the Leaf “system”, having played several years with the junior Marlboros. (Almost every Leaf in  those days had played for either the Marlies or St. Mike's in Toronto...)

I don’t pretend to have a ton of vivid memories of James with the Leafs.  I was born in 1953, so I was awfully young when he started playing in Toronto but James’s time in blue and white sort of falls into my early-life hockey “wheel-house”—you know, that time when you are just falling in love with something.  That was me with hockey in the late ‘50s.  The Leafs were my team, even though my Dad and two much older brothers were passionate Hab fans—much to my chagrin.

Back then, as a 5, 6 and 7 year-old in the late 1950s, the Leafs meant Saturday night games on CBC and names  like Eddie Chadwick (the first Leaf goalie I remember...I really love that old late '50s action-photo of Eddie against Ted Lindsay and the Red Wings, above left) and Dickie Duff, the shifty little forward with tons of speed.  Other Leafs come to mind, too, like Bobby Baun and Frank Mahovlich, of course, but Chadwick and Duff stand out perhaps the most for me.

So it makes sense that I also remember Gerry James because he played with the Leafs in that late 1950s era when I really started following the Leafs closely.  It was easy following hockey "closely" because my family was hockey-mad, so watching any game that was on and listening to the NHL on the radio and reading daily newspaper stories was common in our tiny house filled with too many kids and not enough radios.

I saw James on TV only; by the time my Dad started taking me, somewhat infrequently, to Leaf games at the Olympia in Detroit in the early 1960s, James was no longer in the league. Because he also played in the Canadian Football League with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, he was busy through the fall and couldn’t join the Leafs until December or thereabouts.  But he played in Toronto for parts of four seasons, most prominently in 1959-’60, when he also played in 10 playoff games that spring—at a time when I was old enough to remember and start shaping some lifelong hockey memories. The spring of 1960 saw the Leafs advance to the finals, but lose to the Habs in four straight, as Montreal completed its remarkable run of five Stanley Cups in succession...)

James wasn’t a big-time goal-scorer, always scoring in the single digits, albeit in shortened seasons because he only played half the schedule, if that, because of his time in the CFL.  But he was still a key Leaf because he gave everything he had, was tough and not surprisingly given his football background—played a rugged style, something his coach at the time, Punch Imlach, fully appreciated.  

He was only in his mid-20s when he last played with the Leafs so he had a very short NHL career.  While he was sort of what we might consider a fourth-line guy nowadays (though teams generally used only three lines and two defense pairs much of the time in those days), he was all heart.

A big-time CFL star on the football field, he played about a dozen seasons in Winnipeg, before finishing his career in his home province of Saskatchewan for one last season in 1964.  Meanwhile, after his days with the Leafs, he played minor-league hockey in Winnipeg for a time (while he was still with the Blue Bombers) and later with a team in Saskatchewan.

On this year's Leaf roster, the individual who probably most reminded me of Gerry James was Mike Brown- now with the Edmonton Oilers, of course.  Brown plays with that same straight-ahead, hard-nosed style that James did.

Players like Gerry James are important for a lot of reasons, including the fact that their intensity tends to rub off on their teammates.  The Leafs have maybe turned a small corner this year in this regard.  They play with a bit more nastiness some nights, a bit more of that 'edge'.  You don't ask Phil Kessel to play that way, but those that do maybe create a small psychological advantage for players like Phil.  Can we prove this?  Probably not.  But the ex-players I've talked with over the years swear by it.

In any event, I know Gerry James is not a name that will trigger memories for young Leaf fans, but some "older guys" like myself who visit VLM may remember him, and thus may be able to offer up some ideas as to what current Leaf, with Brown now departed, may fit the James "mold".

I look forward to hearing from you.


  1. Wow! What a great blast from the past, Michael! I, too, remember Gerry James somewhat vaguely. Like you, he played just as I was getting into the Leafs. (Though the first goalie I remember - and the one whose bubblegum card "pose" we imitated when we played, was Harry Lumley. I could still do it today - right pad down, left knee bent, left arm up to catch the high corner shot...) You're dead on about Brown being in the James mold. In a way, the player today who reminds me of James is Fraser. Tough, rugged, straight ahead play on a consistent level. As you suggest, we could add Komarov, Phaneuf, and McClement as well.
    What's a nice change from past years is that we can compile such a list of current players!

  2. as someone born in 1982, i can honestly say that i've never ONCE heard the name 'gerry james.'

  3. We're in the same boat, Gerund O'. I remember him of course but don't have the detailed memories like Duff or Chadwick and Mahovlich. It's fun to harken back to those days, which were pretty special as young Leaf fans.

    And yes, we now have some guys who live up to that hard-working legacy!

  4. Now you have, Alex! Thanks for visiting anyway....

  5. Being born in '73, obviously I had never until today heard of Gerry James. It's a good story though, something a TV station somewhere should think about: a series on the lesser known hockey players who were important parts of their teams with interesting stories.

    When you stated names of guys who helped make their teammates play bigger and tougher, did you purposely leave out our very own Mr. Clark? We can't talk about the all heart guys without mentioning Wendell, maybee the best of all time in that category.

    On the current roster the guy who for me fits the mold is Komarov. He knows what the job is and goes out and does it, sometimes going above and beyond. You also gotta love his "strictly business" approach, not even a mild grin on his face. It's all part of the job for him, and he likes it.

  6. You're absolutely right, portuguese leaf, Clark deserves to be on any list like the one I started in today's post. (I did not intentionally leave him out, just sometimes when you're writing you just go with the first names that pop into your head...)

    Yes, Komarov has been a nice addition, like McClement and Fraser. Credit to Burke and Nonis (and their staff, and in Komaro'vs case, Ferguson and his staff) for finding some hidden gems who play tough.

  7. Michael:
    Gerry James was not known for his finesse. He played hockey like the straight ahead fullback (one of best ever) he was. I would liken him to a wrecking ball on the ice. As I remember he did not go out of his way to deliver a body check (like Torres, TooToo), he bowled anyone over who happened to be in his way. His checks could be crunching. I do not remember him for fighting - probably opponents knew better. Don't see current Leafs enough to comment.

    Another CFLer who had excellent hockey talents was Ron Howell of Hamilton Tiger Cats. New York Rangers sponsored entire Dundas Police Minor Hockey League to have rights to Harry Howell (Hall of Fame) and Ron. This is the story of the "C Form" young hockey players like myself signed in the old days.

    Ron was top defenceman with Guelph Biltmores for number of years, but stuck to football as wide receiver. The fact that James and Howell concentrated on football shows how hockey players were paid in the old days???

  8. When you talk about the Howell boys, Ralph (RLMcC), you're talking about some gifted athletes. (By the way, I'm impressed that you signed a "C" form- you clearly had ability and potential in those golden days of "sponsored" youth hockey!)

    I interviewed Harry Howell in the early '80s. What an engaging guy. I brought up a bit of a bitter playoff memory to him (from a mid-'60s series against the Habs) and he could not have been more charming about it. Great guy- and a wonderful NHL defenseman for more than 20 years.

    Thanks Ralph! Great names, tremendous memories.

    1. Michael:
      Yes,Howell boys were truly talented. You may find the following interesting.

      While a few years ahead of me at Westdale Secondary School (Hamilton), the school may have had best Canadian high school football team ever - mid 50's?)

      QB - Russ Jackson (Ottawa RR), Receiver - Ron Howell (Hamilton TiCats), Kicker - Cam Fraser (Ticats), LineBacker Butch Rogers (Toronto Argos). I believe there was a fifth player who played in CFL?

  9. That's a very impressive list, Ralph. Thanks for sharing that. (Russ Jackson is still the best CFL QB I have ever seen, with due respect to Moon, Flutie, Lancaster and a few other wonderfully talented quarterbacks.)

  10. I did not know it, but Gerry James went to the high school just a few blocks from my house. He came back to visit less than a year ago:

    Another interesting factoid about my street. Neil Young lived in the house two doors down. Bob Dylan came to to see it and was wondering around and visiting a few years ago.

  11. Thanks for posting that video, DP. Good stuff.

    Those are awfully big names in the music industry, by the way, DP. You live in a famous part of the world!