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The first thing that comes to mind when I think about these Maple Leafs—present and past…

There’s really no serious activity when it comes to the Maple Leafs these days.  Rookie tournaments are fun and all that, but until training camp is in full gear, we are all mostly speculating about what Randy Carlyle will or won’t do with his roster and line combinations once the games start for real. There's no goalie controversy, and not a lot of spots available on the roster.

So today, I’d like to step back from that and respond to a familiar question people often get asked in media interviews: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about…name the player.

I’ll ask myself the question, and reflect on a few Leafs present—and past:

Current roster

Jake Gardiner—skill, for sure, but I’d like fewer “wide circles” this season and for him to be more coachable. Will he ever reach that high ceiling that I talked about a year ago?

Phil Kessel—Phil has certainly upped his game in his years with the blue and white.  A dynamic threat most nights who makes the players around him better. I’m not sure it’s still fair for me to simply say, “he is what he is…”. I think he's gone beyond that, at least to a degree. So why are there always questions about a guy with all that speed and skill, who produces lots of points every year?

Tyler Bozak—a good NHL player, but forever a lightning rod in Toronto if he plays on the first line.

Dion Phaneuf—I’m not sure Phaneuf can ever satisfy his critics, but he’s a high-end NHL defenseman. Where would the Leafs have been without him most nights these past few years?

James Reimer—a guy I have liked since he joined the Leafs.  A competitor.  He has been a humble guy and popular with fans, but even I agree he needs to play well this coming season—to help the Leafs, and to give himself a shot somewhere else down the road.

Nazem Kadri—cagey player who should take that next step this season. That said, expectations will be higher than ever, I suspect, from the organization.

Joffrey Lupul—unfairly, he feels like an afterthought.  Is it his injuries that concern fans?  That said, might he surprise us this year and be the leader some of us thought he could be here?

Morgan Rielly—does anyone in the organization have a higher ceiling?

Jonathan Bernier—could not have done much more last season.  Does a healthy Bernier take Toronto to the playoffs next spring?

William Nylander—not a Leaf just yet, but it’s nice to have a young player in the organization who is widely considered a sublimely skilled young player. We need forwards who will be difference-makers.

Former Leafs

Mats Sundin—he was never quite good enough for many fans while he was here.  We’d take him in a heartbeat now, eh?

Mike Walton—if you’re a young Leaf fan, look him up.  This late ‘60s Leaf was one of the fastest Leafs on skates I’ve ever seen, maybe the fastest.

Ron Ellis—about as consistent a Leaf as has played for this organization since I started following the club in the late 1950s. He played his entire career here, too.

Rick Vaive—while his three 50-goal seasons in blue and white stand out in the early-mid ‘80s, what I remember most is that, late in his career, Vaive was still fighting for ice in front of the opposition net, taking punishment every night.

Don Simmons—I’ve written about Simmons at length here before.  He was in net the night the Leafs won their first Cup in my lifetime, in the spring of ’62.

Eddie Chadwick—one of the first Leafs I remember as a youngster.  Along with Foster Hewitt and Frank Mahovlich, he symbolized Maple Leaf hockey to me.

Doug Gilmour—for two seasons, he was about as valuable a Maple Leaf as I’ve ever seen. Could a player work any harder?

Pat Quinn—should be in the Hall of Fame as a builder.  As a coach, he won an Olympic Gold medal, a World Cup, a World Juniors and the U18 World Championships.  He twice took teams to the NHL finals.  But because he “never won a Cup”, he’s not in the Hall of Fame.  Huh?
Bob Pulford—maybe the best “third line” center in the history of the game.

Bobby Baun—a heart and soul Leaf. An old-time defenseman who used the hip check. Short but tough as nails.

Dick Duff—(right) one of my favourite all-time Leafs.  What speed and skill.  Should never have been traded. Would have been an all-time Leaf great.

Brian Spencer—another of my favourite all-time Maple Leafs.  They gave up on him too soon.  Worked so hard, and had an excellent career later in Buffalo as an energy player.

Scott Garland—he had a short career with the Leaf in the mid ‘70s, but played his heart out in Toronto.  Spent most of his time in front of the opposition net. He finished his checks.

Jim Dorey—Another guy who should never have been traded, in my view.  Not only rugged but had skills as a defenseman, too.

Few remember Bernie Parent as a Maple Leaf, but I do. Losing him to the WHA stung.

Lanny McDonald—went to Colorado in perhaps the worst trade the Leafs (Punch Imlach) ever made. Drafted in the first round in 1973, he should have been a lifetime Leaf, though I was glad he won that Cup with his home province Flames in 1989.

Wendel Clark—fans who started following the Leafs when Wendel was a rookie can probably cite a number of different “most memorable” Wendel moments. Mine would be Game 6 of the playoff series against LA in ’93.

Gary Roberts—the very definition of intense.  We never had to worry about this guy fraternizing with the enemy. Would we like him on our club now?  A resounding yes.

Johnny Bower—maybe the most popular Leaf of all time, with good reason.  He is still (now in his late 80s), by all accounts, the same down-to-earth engaging guy who played goal so brilliantly for the Leafs when they were champions. He proved you could he humble and really good at the same time.

Dave Keon—For the first half dozen years of his career, was one of the best all-around players in the NHL.  Few if any players did more things as well as he did. So consistent. Those fans who saw him play in his prime witnessed an all-time great.

Borje Salming—A hockey pioneer. And I’ve never forgotten the goal he scored at the Gardens in the playoffs in the spring of 1976 against the hated Flyers, flying in alone against Bernie Parent.  Classic Leaf moment.

Darryl Sittler—He was so much more than his famous 10-point game against the Bruins. A proud Leaf who led a good but not quite good enough Toronto squad in a difficult era when the Flyers and Habs were dominant.

Curtis Joseph—wish he had never left in free agency.

Al Iafrate—remains, in my mind, one of the most naturally gifted Leaf players I can recall.  There was a time in the late ‘80s, when he was between serious injuries, that he looked to be a budding superstar.

Sylvain Lefebvre and Bob Rouse—I put them together because they were such an important part of the early ‘90s Pat Burns ‘no name’ defense corps. Rouse was tough and could skate; Lefebvre was a cerebral defenseman.

Todd Gill—another heart and soul Leaf, who wore the jersey with pride. Tough, too.

There are plenty of other Leafs I could comment on, past and present.  But you no doubt have reflections of your own…


A couple of recent posts you might have missed:


  1. Good Evening Michael,

    Wow! What a great topic, It will be of great interest to me to see some of the names that other regular posters come up with. My list, while no way complete, contains stars but also some journeymen that piqued my rooting interest. I will try to list my choices in chronological order. The years listed are the years that they were a Leaf.

    Turk Broda: (1936-51 - Hall of Fame - 5 Stanley Cups) I never saw Broda play. My recollections are from Foster Hewitt broadcasts and those wonderful hockey pictures that appeared daily in the Toronto Telegram. As an aspiring goalie as a youngster, Broda and Chuck Rayner were my heroes.

    Ted Kennedy: (42-57 - HOF - 5 cups) A great captain and a skillful centre who gave his all every night. If you attended a game at Maple Leaf Gardens you were sure to hear the guy in the corner blues yell "C'mon Teeder" during a lull in crowd noise.

    George Armstrong (58-71 - HOF - 4 cups) Another great captain who led the Leafs by example, he always gave maximum effort at both ends of the ice.

    Bob Baun and Carl Brewer, Allan Stanley and Tim Horton: These defense pairs gave the Leafs outstanding backline play during their Stanley cup run in the 60's. Brewer had 3 cups, The other 3 each had 4.

    Eddie Shack: (60-67, 73-75 - 4 cups) A true entertainer who had the crowd buzzing every time he hit the ice. Shack was a hard nosed player who could also play the game (239 career goals and 226 assists)

    Darryl Sittler: (70-82 - HOF) A great centre and captain who was a scoring threat whenever he was on the ice. He should have been a lifelong Leaf. His 10 point night against Boston will ever remain a part of Leaf lore.

    Borje Salming: (73-89 - HOF) I remember a game against Philadelphia when it seemed every one of the Broad Street Bullies took a shot at him and he kept getting up and coming back at them. He was an extremely accomplished offensive defenseman but he was also a lot tougher than a lot of people gave him credit for.

    Wendel Clark (85-94, 95-98) Injuries retarded what could have been a great career. Another excellent captain. I agree that game 6 against LA in 1993 may have been the top Wendel highlight.

    Steve Thomas: (84-87, 99-01) A left winger that I really liked and was very angry when he was traded. He came back and was especially a clutch performer for some of Pat Quinn's playoff teams.

    There are many other Leafs who stood out for me over the years: Gerry James, Gerry Ehman, Sylvain Lefebvre and Peter Zezel to name a few.

    1. Great to hear from you on this one, Pete Cam. So many great names that you cite. My Dad spoke to me often of names like Rayner, Broda and Montreal's Bill Durnan.

      It's remarkable that Shack was not only an entertainer but, as you note, a guy who could really score.

      Totally agree on Steve Thomas. Gerry James was one of the first Leafs I remember well in the late '50s, and Ehman contributed to a couple of those Cup wins in the early '60s. Thanks Pete.

  2. My lists would remember most of the guys you have listed above, but I would add:

    Norm Ullman - Classy, talented and effective come to mind.

    Paul Henderson - Speedy, made for the moment (wish he could have put it all together with the Leafs like he did in the summit series)

    Mike Palmateer - never say die, throw yourself at every puck in any way possible.

    Felix Potvin - home grown, finally some strong goaltending (not bad in a brawl with Hextall, either - not that he initiated, but he certainly finished well)

    Jacques Plante - innovator, wanderer, puck-handler, mentor (to the aforementioned Bernard Parent).... legend (and the first goalie that made me want to be one)

    Ian Turnbull - gave us lots of memories but left us knowing more was possible

    The Eddie's (Olczyk and Belfour) both of whom were better known for their days in Chicago, but had something left in the tank to remember them by in Leafland.

    Thanks for the memories...

    1. Those are tremendous names, InTimeFor62. Each one evokes memories for me, as well. I saw Ullman play at the old Olympia in Detroit as a youngster- what a player.

  3. Hello Folks,

    My list would include most of the names already mentioned but I would add Tiger Williams into the mix. To me he was such a heart and soul kind of player who could also play.

    I would like to relay my own little Johnny Bower story if you don't mind.

    When I was a kid just out of high school in the early 80's, I worked at the St. Clair Paint and Wallpaper store in Weston. Mr. Bower used to come in every once in a while. He was so humble and such a nice man.

    I'm sure he wouldn't be too pleased at me saying it - but I swear he looks the same now as he did back then. I'll chalk that up to him aging really well...


  4. I'm with you on Tiger, W.B.

    That's a great story about Bower. My sense is he's been a gentleman his whole life, just a genuinely good person who happened to be a great goaltender.

  5. One name L inadvertently omitted.

    Dave Ellett (90-97): Ellett was my idea of an ideal defenseman. He was a tough defender who could also provide offense (.5 ppg as a Leaf and always gave a solid consistent effort.

    Todd Gill also deserves a mention in the same vein.

  6. I'm glad Rick Vaive got a shout out in your article, as he's an unsung hero during a pretty dismal 80s for the Leafs. I remember being a teen, and waiting outside Maple Leaf gardens for autographs after the Rangers just pasted Toronto. Many Leafs and Rangers signed for the crowd, and a lot of the Leafs players didn't exactly seem to carry the pain of a roster that just got hammered that night. Rick came out the door and spoke to us, saying he wasn't signing autographs, looking upset and pissed off. What he did that night meant a lot to me, taking the time for the fans, but at the same time showing that the losing was really hurting him inside. A great hockey memory.

    1. Great story, Anon- sometimes a conversation like that means more to a young fan than an autograph!

    2. Thanks for the response, Michael, and sorry about the bizarre (Anon) label. Just figuring out how the heck to use a relatively simple setup! In my time as a Leafs fan, I would also add Borje, Gilmour, Wendel, and some nights even Darcy Tucker, in terms of a short list of "hate to lose" players. Remember Tucker, injured and on the sidelines, after Cam Janssen steamrolled Kaberle with a disgustingly dirty hit. The whole Leaf team on the ice never approached Janssen, while Tucker screamed (and foamed at the mouth) from the player tunnel, more than ready to offer up retribution for that heinous hit. Tucker is no angel (just ask Mike Peca!!), but he sure was a team-first player. I could write a book on Salming, as what he endured as a foreign player was just embarrassing yet inspiring, by today's standards.

      I love your site, and the thoughtful posts by all. The troll count seems pretty low here!

    3. I'm no technology guy, either, Russ!

      All those names bring back memories, for sure. And you're right about Tucker. Good teams need players who hate to lose- and also that the opposition hates playing against.

      Thanks for the kind comments about the VLM site- the posters here make it worthwhile.

  7. Frank Mahovlich, long strides racing down the left wing and firing slap shot past the goalie from just inside the blueline. Awesome talent but suffered undr Imlach. My favourite all time. First player I remember - beginning with 59-60 season.

    1. The "Big M" was a special player, for sure. Anon. He was an outstanding Leaf to have as a favourite. As you say, his relationship with Imlach was not the best. Frank blossomed again in Detroit, and was tremendous while helping the Habs win the Cup in '71 and '73.

  8. I second Frank Mahovlich. A player I felt should have spent his entire career in Toronto with an eventual captaincy at some point. I was young child when he left the Leafs but my Dad and brother loved him. It's sad that I only really got to watch and appreciate him as an older player with the Habs.

    Lots of great players in Toronto's past who may never have worn the "C" but led on the ice. Colleen