The Toronto Maple Leafs made Sunday’s game against the Calgary Flames about George Armstrong. Instead of last-minute preparations, the team gathered to talk about the man who was the Maple Leafs. Armstrong played for 21 seasons, all of them with Toronto. He was the captain for 12 seasons, including the last Leafs’ team that won the Stanley Cup in 1967.
Although the Maple Leafs were about to face a tough test, Sheldon Keefe changed the game-day plans. “It was tough news for our organization and our fans and people that love the game,” said Keefe. “We actually took a moment today as a team – normally 90 minutes before a game, we have a meeting. That’s where we cover a lot of our plans for the game and preparing for the opposition. Today we made it about George and shared a video of him and had a conversation about him and his impact on our organization.”
Armstrong was a Leaf for 75 Years
The on-ice was just part of his contribution to the franchise. He was a player, a coach, an assistant general manager, and a scout before becoming a community ambassador. Armstrong, who was 90-years-old, was part of the Maple Leafs for more than 75 years after signing with the club in 1946. “Leaf Nation is as strong as it is because of the efforts of people like George and, in particular, that era when they were winning the Stanley Cups. Generations of Leaf fans were bred through those efforts. We felt that it was important to acknowledge that.”
The Calgary Flames played a video tribute before the game, fitting as Armstrong had a special connection to the area. He was one of the first players of Indigenous descent to play professional hockey. In 1949, he led the Toronto Marlies to an Allan Cup victory over Calgary. The Stoney Indian Reserve’s Band, just west of Calgary, heard about his family and invited him for a special ceremony. The Band presented him with a headdress, called him “Big Chief Shoot-the-Puck,” and made him an honorary member. That is how he earned his nickname, “the Chief.” He was also the first player of Indigenous descent to score in the NHL.
Armstrong was “the fabric” of the Leafs
Armstrong’s number 10 hangs in the rafters in Toronto. He is a member of the One Hundred Greatest Maple Leafs of all-time and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975. Maple Leafs President & Alternate Governor Brendan Shanahan said in a media release, “George is part of the very fabric of the Toronto Maple Leaf organization and will be deeply missed. A proud yet humble man, he loved being a Maple Leaf.”
The game itself was not that pretty. Which seemed fitting on a day remembering Armstrong. He wasn’t about the flash but more revered for his work ethic. Toronto worked hard to beat the Flames 3-2. Auston Matthews scored what proved the winner, but he wasn’t talking about the goal after the game. “First off, I just want to extend my condolences to the Armstrong family. Obviously, George was an incredible ambassador for the City of Toronto and the Maple Leafs. He paved the way for the guys like us who are trying to accomplish something big here. I just want to extend my condolences to his family.”
Keefe echoed those words, “We feel the efforts of people like George and the efforts that they put forth in that era. We feel that every day here with the Leafs and are grateful for that.”
Armstrong played 1,187 regular-season games. He scored 296 goals and added 417 assists. Armstrong also played in 110 playoff games, putting up another 60 points. He scored the final goal of the original six era of the NHL. He scored the last Leafs’ goal in a Stanley Cup Final. Now it’s up to Keefe, Matthews and the rest of today’s Maple Leafs to change that.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.