What happened to Leaf Nation?

How this generation of Leafs fans forgot a legend

What happened to Leaf Nation?I was on Bay Street in Toronto to watch the line of convertibles carry my Maple Leaf heroes as they drove to meet the mayor at City Hall following their Stanley Cup victories in 1962, ’63, ’64 and ’67. There used to be a black and white photo of the 1962 parade hanging on the wall on the second floor of Maple Leaf Gardens. I was the kid hanging from the lamppost in the bottom right hand corner of the picture. Just my being there, as a fan during the Leafs’ glory years, probably qualifies me as a member of Leaf Nation.

Last week in Port Colborne, the 12th captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ted “Teeder” Kennedy, was laid to rest in his 84th year following a lengthy illness. The downtown church was crowded with friends and relatives. His wife of 61 years was there. His son delivered a wonderful, funny tribute. It was more like a conversation with friends than a speech. Those in attendance did not include Richard Peddie, Larry Tannenbaum, Tom Anselmi, or Brian Burke. There were no Leafs suits and no Leafs Alumni Association executives or members at the church’s funeral liturgy.

I wondered, where was “Leaf Nation”? Don’t they know who Ted Kennedy was and the impact he had on Toronto?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Following the announcement of his death, local newspaper reports provided incorrect statistical information, incorrect bio information, and even misidentified the most famous photo in Leaf history—Ted Kennedy being presented to Princess Elizabeth. They said it was a photo of him “following the Stanley cup win.” In fact, the photo was taken in 1951, following a one-period exhibition at the Gardens in front of a full house, including the Princess and Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Only Frank Selke, representing the Selke family and the Special Olympics organization, George Armstrong, Ted’s former teammate and Leafs captain, and the “other” #9, Dick Duff, attended.

In Maple Leaf Legends: 75 Years of Toronto’s Hockey Heroes, author Mike Leonetti claims Ted was the second-best Leaf in history, behind only David Keon. But as good as Keon was, his post-playing days have been marred by drama, grudges, and whining. He says he doesn’t have any good memories of his time as a Leaf and doesn’t want his name associated with the team. In contrast, Ted Kennedy spoke of his former teammates as family, and his face lit up when he reminisced about old games and his time wearing Toronto’s blue and white.

Kennedy started his hockey career as a 17-year-old and played for only one NHL team during his 14 years in the league. He was the quintessential team captain for seven of those years—an outstanding spokesman for his team and the city. Howie Meeker claims Kennedy made him and other Leafs players better—”he wouldn’t let them fail.” He was a force on the ice and in the dressing room. Kennedy-led teams won five Stanley cups with players like Gardner, Lynn, Mortson, Ezinicki and Klukay. They beat teams filled with future Hall of Famers—Howe, Lindsay, Kelly and Abel in one case, and Rocket Richard, Lach, Harvey and Geoffrion in another. How did the Leafs ever win?

In 26 Stanley Cup final games, Kennedy scored 23 points. That’s more “finals” points than any other Leaf. Kennedy was the type of player you would want on your team for championship games. You’d never want to be playing against him. He would wear you down.

Can any member of Leaf Nation today imagine a Stanley Cup-winning team in this city? How about five of them? How would Leaf Nation treat the captain? Would they make him mayor? During the championship years in the ’60s, they twice helped elect Red Kelly to the House of Commons.

Since “Teeder’s” days as captain, one successor has been a recluse for more than 30 years, another rarely visits Toronto and doesn’t want to be associated with the team, another ripped the C from his jersey before a game at the Gardens. Then there’s the most recent one, who some say left the dressing room without removing his equipment following the last game of the season because he was so anxious to leave Toronto and get back to Sweden. Two years after his retirement in 1955, Kennedy, at the request of the owner, rejoined the club because the team was having trouble winning.

A few years ago, the hockey world mourned the passing of the great Maurice “Rocket” Richard. It was like a state funeral. Fans, former teammates, team and league officials, and government representatives were there. Rocket deserved the wonderful tribute. Stats-wise, Richard’s finest year in hockey was 1955, when he scored 74 points. And yet, Ted Kennedy earned the Hart trophy that year as the league’s best player. “Teeder” and teammate Babe Pratt (1944) are the only Leafs to ever earn the Hart trophy. Had his rights not been traded from Montreal to Toronto when he was 16 and had he played for the Habs, perhaps the Montreal fans would have taken more notice of the passing of this hockey hero and exemplary citizen. He may have even been honoured with a statue outside the Forum beside the Rocket’s.

Ted Kennedy was born on December 12—the same day as Frank Sinatra. Each year, on or around that day, I would put a Sinatra song on the stereo, crank up the volume and give Ted a call to wish him well. He always got a kick out of the song in the background.

Although I admit to being a member of Leaf Nation, I think I’m in the “veterans’ category.” I don’t relate to the present-day members. Today’s members don’t know about Ted Kennedy. I think today’s Nation is made up of the guys I see on TV during games broadcast from the ACC. They are the guys with the baseball caps on backwards, screaming and waving at the camera…the Leafs have just scored! It’s the third period and the score’s 8-3—for the visiting team.

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