Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Another Tale of...What If?

Yesterday, I wrote about Elmer Lach's brief time in Toronto with the Maple Leafs. In April 1937, Lach was invited to participate in a post-season drill held in Maple Leaf Gardens. As fate would have it, Lach's long-term future wasn't with the Leafs. Ultimately, the speedy center signed as a free agent with Montreal and went on to have a Hall of Fame career. Today's tale of "What If" , involves another Toronto connection - George Armstrong.

Like many youngsters in the Toronto Maple Leafs system, George Armstrong's goal was to become a member of the big-league club. In 1949-50, "The Chief", while playing for the Toronto Marlies, was summoned on two occasions - December 3, 1949 & December 24, 1949 - by Leaf brass. Armstrong pulled the Maple Leaf crest over his shoulders and skated in his first two National Hockey League games. He would go on to play in 1,185 more games wearing the colours of the Blue & White. His time with Toronto would span 21 seasons. He still holds the club record for most regular season games/seasons (1.187/21) played as a Leaf. Another team record held by "Army" is assists by a right winger (417) and points (713). He was team captain on four Stanly Cup champion squads - 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967. To cap off his long run, Armstrong was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975.

In what would have been an amazing twist, George Armstrong was almost lost by the Toronto Maple Leafs. The culprits in this case were Jack Adams and the Detroit Red Wings. Here's how the story unfolded.

In 1950, Conn Smythe was certain Armstrong had the skills to become a full-pledged member of the Leafs. At the time, Armstrong was playing for the Pittsburg Hornets in the American Hockey League. As per NHL regulations, once promoted by Smythe, his name had to be transferred from the Hornets list to the Leafs. This is where the situation becomes tricky. When Armstrong's name was removed from the AHL list, there was a brief period of time prior to it appearing on the Leafs list. The procedure required two separate contacts with league offices - AHL & NHL. Before Armstrong's name could be added by Toronto, Detroit stepped in and put him on their list!

The Maple Leafs filed an appeal and the league determined that a clerical mix up was the root of the problem. The time gap between one league contacting the other, was the only reason Armstrong's name was left hanging in the wind.

There is some background as to why Detroit may have targeted the Leafs. Prior to the Armstrong incident, the Leafs attempted to "steal" a player off the Wings protected list. In order to make room for this unnamed player, the Leafs removed Oshawa General Bep Guidolin from their list. However, Detroit sought an appeal and the NHL ruled clerical error was the reason for the player being exposed. Hap Day immediately moved to place Guidolin back on his list, but he was too late. The Boston Bruins grabbed the rights to the Generals player.

The ruling would pay dividends for the Leafs down the road. When the Armstrong matter occurred, Leaf management implemented the same defense used by Detroit. It enabled them to retain a player who became a huge part of their success.

George Armstrong would score his first National Hockey League goal in a game played on February 9, 1952. The Leafs were hosting goalie Gerry McNeil and the Montreal Canadiens. The following newspaper account details Armstrong's magical moment.

His goal was a lulu. He took Bentley's pass in full flight, brushing big Butch Bouchard aside as he stormed around him, then fired a low one that McNeil got his skate on but couldn't handle. Big George jumped two feet in the air, let go a war-whoop that was drowned in the tremendous cheer that greeted the rookie's goal. He and Danny Lewicki could keep Max Bentley young enough to stay around for a few more seasons. Armstrong's goal proved to be the winner.

Of note, Armstrong scored the final goal in the Original Six era. In the 1967 final, he scored into an empty net, ensuring the Leafs victory and being crowned as the final Stanley Cup champions of hockey's Golden Age.

Fitting information for a blog which deals extensively with the Original Six era.

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