The National Hockey League was formed on November 26, 1917 as a result of a meeting held at the Windsor hotel in Montreal. Present at this meeting were team owners of the National Hockey Association. However, the troublesome and unpopular owner of the Toronto franchise in the NHA, Eddie Livingstone, was not invited to attend. Former NHA secretary Frank Calder was chosen as the NHL’s first President. Charter members included the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators, Quebec Bulldogs and a Toronto franchise, which was given to the directors of the Arena Gardens in Toronto. Quebec elected not to operate until the 1919-20 season.
Babe Dye scored nine goals in the 1921-22 Stanley Cup finals Toronto’s entry in the newly formed National Hockey League for the 1917-18 season played its first game on December 19, 1917 against the Montreal Wanderers. Toronto scored a total of nine goals but still lost the game by a count of 10-9. Ironically, it was the only win for the Montreal Wanderers in the NHL as the team folded operations when their arena burnt down after only six games. That left the new league with only two other teams - the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators - to compete with the Toronto team in the inaugural season of the league.
The first Toronto game wasn’t much of a success at the gate either as a mere 700 people attended the first home game - and many of those were soldiers in uniform that were guests of team management.
So, it wasn’t an auspicious start for the Toronto team, but that game was the beginning of a rich tradition of hockey in Toronto that we know today as the ‘Leafs Nation’. At the end of that first year, this Toronto club, called the Arenas, managed to win the first ever Stanley Cup in the NHL.
Arenas’ goalie Hap Holmes backstopped the team to the championship in five games over the Pacific Coast Hockey League champions, the Vancouver Millionaires. The top scorer for the Arenas in the finals, which was played at the Arena Gardens in Toronto, was Alf Skinner with 10 points.
Late in the following season, the Toronto Arenas withdrew from the NHL due to financial difficulties, but the Toronto franchise reemerged in the 1919-20 season, this time with new owners and a new name - Toronto St. Pats. The name was selected in hopes of attracting the city’s large Irish population to attend the home games. Two years later, in the 1921-22 NHL finals, the St. Pats, managed by Charlie Querrie and coached by George O’Donoghue, surprised the first-place Ottawa Senators in the NHL finals, winning the two-game-total-goals series 5-4.
For the Stanley Cup, the St. Pats again faced and defeated the champions from the west, the Vancouver Millionaires in five games at the Arena Gardens. Babe Dye was the St. Pats star in the finals scoring nine goals in the five games - still a record today. Dye was also awarded the first-ever penalty shot, but failed to score as his 36-foot shot sailed over the goalie’s head. The winning goaltender for the St. Pats was John Ross Roach who allowed just nine goals in the five games
The St. Pats failed to win a championship for the next few seasons, but continued to build a foundation for a successful team. On December 9, 1924, the St. Pats signed Clarence ‘Hap’ Day from the University of Toronto hockey team. Day would play, coach and manage in Toronto until the end of the 1956-57 season. Irvine ‘Ace’ Bailey joined the team for the 1926-27 season and led the team in points.
In February of 1927, Conn Smythe, who had built the New York Rangers franchise but was dismissed in favour of Lester Patrick, raised enough money to buy the St. Pats and prevented the team from moving to Philadelphia. Smythe, a military man, immediately had the Toronto franchise name changed from the St. Pats to Maple Leafs, the name of a World War I fighting unit, the Maple Leaf Regiment. He also switched the uniform colours to blue and white from green and white.
The Leafs of the 1930’s were called the ‘Gashouse Gang’ for their off-ice antics. These Leafs were a colourful bunch. Pranks such as Charlie Conacher hanging King Clancy by his feet out of an open hotel window were common. As Conn Smythe saw the increasing popularity of the team, he knew that he needed a larger, more modern arena to house his hockey team. However, North America was in the midst of the Great Depression and finding funding for construction was difficult if not impossible.
The 30's saw the Leafs move to their new home, Maple Leaf Gardens Undaunted, the well-connected Smythe arranged for a purchase of land from the Eaton family and convinced a number of the well to do of the time to invest in the team and the new building. When Smythe’s energetic assistant Frank Selke convinced union members of the trades to takes shares of stock instead of cash for their labour, the building of the hockey shrine got the go-ahead and unbelievably was constructed in only five months. It was referred to as a ‘miracle in engineering’
s the war was ending in 1945, some of the Leafs who had joined the armed forces were starting to return to the team. But the Leafs, missing the injured Teeder Kennedy for most of the season, failed to make the playoffs in 1945-46.
The following season with players like Apps and Broda finding their form again and together with an outstanding crop of rookies from the minor-league system, the Leafs won another Stanley Cup beating the first place Montreal club in the finals in six games. The Leafs had lost the first game of that series 6-0 which prompted Habs star netminder Bill Durnan to question how the Leafs ever advanced to the finals. The Leafs were inspired by Durnan’s comments and went on to win four of the next five to win the 1947 Stanley Cup.
The Leafs, believing that strength down the middle was crucial to success, were fearful that the veteran Apps would soon retire. So, on November 2, 1947, Conn Smythe traded the entire ‘Flying Forts’ line plus two defencemen, Bob Goldham and Ernie Dickens to Chicago for the former NHL scoring champion, ‘Dipsy Doodle Dandy’ Max Bentley and Cy Thomas. With Apps, Kennedy and the supremely skilled Bentley as their centres, the Leafs had their best season in 1947-48 finishing first and defeating the Detroit Red Wings in the finals four- straight games to easily win their second consecutive Cup.
By the time the 1948-49 season began, captain Syl Apps had retired forcing the Leafs to trade for aggressive centreman Cal Gardner from the Rangers. There was no surprise when hard-working Teeder Kennedy replaced Apps as captain so the Leafs certainly didn’t lack in leadership. The Leafs though had an off year finishing in fourth place with a 22-25-13 record.
The Detroit Red Wings finished in first place - beginning a dynasty of their own with seven straight first-place finishes. The Wings, with their top line of Sid Abel between ‘Terrible’ Ted Lindsay and emerging superstar Gordie Howe, were heavy favourites to win the Cup. The Leafs regrouped in the playoffs and defeated the second-place Boston Bruins in five games in the semis. In the finals, Toronto once again swept the Detroit Red Wings in four games to win a record third-consecutive Stanley Cup. The Leafs were victorious once again and the Red Wings became increasingly embittered, having now lost 11 straight playoff games to their hated rivals.
Remarkably, every game in these finals went into overtime and the clinching Game 5 was particularly memorable as Timmins native Bill Barilko scored his legendary winning goal in overtime. ‘Bashin’ Bill’ had left his defence position (despite orders not to from coach Joe Primeau), to pick up an errant pass and score on goalie Gerry McNeil to give the Leafs their fourth Stanley Cup victory in five years.
Bill Barilko scored one of the most famous goals in NHL history with the Maple Leafs But what started out as a promising decade turned into what is referred to as the ‘lost years’ with the Leafs dynasty of the 1940’s turning into mediocrity for most of the 1950’s.
The Leafs entered the 1961 semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings with Bower, Kelly, Olmstead, Armstrong and others injured and not able to play up to their capabilities. The Leafs disappointedly went down to the Red Wings in five games.
But the Leafs were real close to success and in the following season, they won their first Stanlcy Cup in 11 years, beating the defending champion Chicago Black Hawks on Dick Duff’s winning goal in Game 6. The Hawks had ended the Habs reign the previous year and the Leafs now were hoping to start their own streak.
Interestingly, the last time that the Leafs won the coveted Cup was in 1951 on Bill Barilko’s overtime goal. Barilko that summer vanished after a fishing trip and had never been found. After 11 years, and only after the Leafs won their next Cup, was the crash site and Barilko’s body discovered.
During the 1966-67 season the Leafs were floundering and by February 8, 1967, the team had lost 10 games in a row, sending Imlach to the hospital with a stress related illness. Leafs were fortunate that easy going King Clancy took over the coaching and by the time Imlach returned, the club was on an 10 game unbeaten string and had momentum going into the playoffs.
In the semi-finals, the Leafs faced the first place and offensively powerful Chicago Black Hawks and the veteran Leaf squad was given no chance to advance. But with the superb goaltending of Sawchuk, especially in games five and six, together with sound team defensive play, the Leafs beat the Hawks in 6 games to advance to play the reigning Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. No one gave the ‘over the hill’ (with ten players over 30) Leafs a chance in the finals either and in this year of ‘Expo 67’, plans were made to display the Cup in the Quebec pavilion at Expo which was held in Montreal.
The Leafs lost the first game of the finals badly by a score of 6-2. Then for Game 2, the ageless Johnny Bower, then 42, turned back time by shutting out the Habs 3-0. Bower was again sensational in Game 3 when the Leafs won in double overtime on Bob Pulford’s goal. The Leafs lost game four with Sawchuk replacing the injured Bower, but Sawchuk rebounded in Games 5 and 6 to put on as outstanding a display of goaltending that has ever been seen.
Late in the third period of Game 6 with the Leafs up by a goal and with the Montreal goalie pulled for an extra attacker, Imlach sent his veterans out to protect the slim lead. Allan Stanley took the face-off, dropped the puck behind him to where Red Kelly just beat the speedy Yvan Cournoyer to the loose puck. Kelly shoved the puck ahead to Bob Pulford who spotted a streaking George Armstrong on the right side. Armstrong took Pulford’s perfect pass and after crossing the centre ice line, shot the puck into the empty net and the Leafs won their 11th Stanley Cup.
It was the last Cup of the NHL’s ‘Original Six’ as the league was doubling in size with the addition of six new expansion teams for the 1967-68 season. It was the end of an era for sure. But not known at the time, it was also the end of the Toronto Maple Leafs as a powerful force in the NHL for many years to come.