The Maple Leafs don’t have a lot of Stanley Cup tales to tell of late, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been great stories about the team.
In his 30-plus years on the beat, Toronto Sun columnist Lance Hornby has been covering a few such episodes and heard many more yarns about the franchise’s 102-year history.
So he’s added If These Walls Could Talk to his collection of Leafs and hockey history books, a compendium from the ice, locker room and press box of the NHL’s most talked-about team.
From the formative days of the league in Toronto, through the golden Gardens era, Harold Ballard, the crazy 1980s and Doug Gilmour on to the young guns of the Shanaplan, this will entertain fans of the Leafs and the game at large.
Published by Triumph Books, with a foreword by former Leaf Mark Osborne, it’s available for Christmas at book stores and online. Here are some excerpts:
♦ Harry Mummery was a 5-foot-11 defenceman whose bulk, estimated between 220 and 240 pounds, made it hard for opponents to get around him when facing the 1917-18 Toronto Blueshirts.
In the recollection of Ottawa’s Cy Denneny, there was a real fear the unstable skating of Mummery would see the big man topple on another player, even a teammate, and do serious harm. The Illinois-born, Manitoba-raised Mummery made quite an impression in Toronto’s first NHL season, starting with his dining habits.
He didn’t reach that weight missing many meals and teammate Jack Adams once caught him cooking a huge steak in the Mutual St. Arena boiler room, putting it on the end of a shovel and holding it over the open flame. On game nights, Mummery’s torso was wrapped like a mummy into a 12-foot long elastic band by a team trainer that allowed him to squeeze into his equipment.
♦ Four-time Stanley Cup captain George Armstrong had plenty of fun at the expense of his uber-polite friend Johnny Bower.
Knowing Bower was always on his best behaviour around women, the mischievous Armstrong invited him out one afternoon on the road to a major department store, on the pretext of buying their wives a purse or scarf.
Armstrong kept leading Bower deeper and deeper into the ladies’ section to a discreet aisle with intimate apparel. He then told Bower to wait a moment while he went to the washroom — then giddily watched from afar as the nervous Bower stood uncomfortably next to all the gaudy bras and panties for almost a half hour while suspicious, frowning females passed him by.
♦ Harold Ballard’s connection to Inge Hammarstrom did not end when the owner virtually ran the talented Swede out of town in the late 1970s with the cutting comment that the winger could go into the corner with six eggs in his pocket and not break any.
Fast forward to the 1989 draft in Bloomington, Minn., which Hammarstrom attended as a Central Scouting employee. Despite very poor health, the wheelchair-bound Ballard insisted on going that year and sitting at the Leaf table with all the staff. But the attendant pushing his chair that day took the ramp at draft floor level much too fast and Ballard was jerked forward, heading straight for a face-first landing on the concrete floor, only to be caught by Hammarstrom, who happened to be standing at the gate.
♦ In the early days of team charters in the 1980s, winger Steve Thomas recalled a hairy landing or two on the club’s Air Ontario prop plane.
“We called it Air Treetops,” Thomas chuckled. “Once, we were coming into Toronto and came down pretty hard. Borje Salming always sat at the back of the plane, right beside one of the exit doors, and when we hit, it flew open. Everyone looked around and all you could see was Borje with his tie blowing around his head in all that wind.”
♦ When Mike Murphy coached the Leafs in the 1990s, late-season wins were vital to stay in the playoff hunt. The competitive Murphy proposed a faster plane be chartered to get the team back from a road game in St. Louis, in time to beat the strict curfew at Toronto’s Pearson airport for landings after midnight and get extra sleep.
“We might get two or three exemptions for those late arrivals a year, but that was it,” said Bob Stellick, the business operations manager at the time. “We usually flew on a turbo prop, but Murph insisted we had to have a jet to save an hour and 10 minutes of flying time. It costs us four times as much.
“So we lose in St. Louis, but do land in plenty of time in Toronto. But the next morning there’s a buzz around the dressing room. Someone had called The FAN 590 to complain, saying ‘I was at an airport strip club last night and about six Leafs came in at 12:30 for last call’.
“He was a real Leaf fan and it bugged him. So much for our good intentions.”
♦ Wayne Gillespie was one the long serving building superintendents at 60 Carlton St.
His duties often took him inside the Gardens dressing room, through the oversized wooden door that had been there since 1931. Captains from Hap Day to Mats Sundin had come through the same portal, familiar to many people through Hockey Night In Canada.
“You walk through that door, you’re stepping back in time and hockey history,” Gillespie said.
Gillespie could be found inspecting the front lobby where star-struck visitors came to look at the famous black and white photos of players and game action going back to the dawn of the Leaf era in 1927. Often, Gillespie would be touched to see an entire family come by to see such artifacts. If they were out-of-towners or first-time visitors, he’d treat them to an impromptu tour of the Gardens if his schedule permitted.
“I’d take them into the Leaf room before the players arrived, the Hockey Night studio, the boiler room filled with all the old machinery and ice making equipment and then let them sit in the penalty box. We always kept a minimum of 44 frozen pucks for a game on hand and I’d give them one. It was real warm and fuzzy stuff for a Leaf fan. We’d end the tour at centre ice, where they could stand on the big Leaf logo for a picture.”
On one occasion, Gillespie noticed a boy about 9 or 10-years-old who seemed overwhelmed by the whole experience. After he and his parents had their Kodak moment at centre, Gillespie noticed a yellow puddle had spread itself over the blue Leaf logo.
“The kid just got too excited and peed himself,” laughed Gillespie. “So I had to go in the workroom and get the guys to scrape it off. They were somewhat mad, but we all took it as a personal compliment that the building had a such an impact on the young fan.”
♦ When non-team sports events were held and the Gardens was in concert mode, performers and VIPs were put in a ‘green room’, a temporary set-up near the visitors’ dressing quarters at the north end of the building, with fine food, drinks and creature comforts.
At one tennis event in the ‘80s, the promoter brought in a pinball machine for the players. Jimmy Connors was due to arrive and a big deal was made to assure everything was just right for the former World No. 1. Until someone noticed the rather revealing art work theme featured on the machine was Connors’ wife at the time, former 1977 Playmate of the year Patti McGuire. A blanket was thrown over it and Gardens’ workers hustled to carry it away just as Connors was coming in.
♦ The early ‘70s Leafs, freed from manager Punch Imlach’s vice-like grip on their lives were a team of good-time Charlies.
They loved to hoist a pint and stay out late, which didn’t sit well with old-school goaltender Jacques Plante.
“Plante would squeal on us a lot for drinking,” said Jim McKenny, one of the most notorious of the wild bunch at the time. “But John McLellan, our coach, would say ‘I know they’re drinking Jacques. Tell me some real news. John just didn’t want any empty bottles rattling around the dressing room.”
♦ The deeply troubled John Kordic was brought in under a cloud, a highly unpopular trade with Montreal for the skilled Russ Courtnall. Coach John Brophy, who pressed young general manager Gord Stellick to make the deal to give the Leafs an enforcer, could not envision what a train wreck Kordic would become. One Leaf youngster was unlucky enough to draw Kordic as a road roommate. But when he checked into the hotel, Kordic’s luggage was there, but no sign of the belligerent winger.
“So I went to bed, figuring there must have been a mistake, maybe John was in another room. But at about 1 a.m., he bursts through the door, yelling about something, takes the old metal key you used to have at hotels and whips it at the window, which breaks. Then he flops into bed.
“I spent the whole night wide awake under the covers worried about what he might do to me.”
♦ When away from the rink, Brophy was a sharp dressed man. When he saw any piece of clothing he liked, he simply had to have it.
In one home game in the minors, a St. Catherines Saints player suffered a serious leg injury and had to be taken to hospital. Seeing the guy’s coat left at the rink, Brophy tried it on and claimed ownership.
“The problem was the team was leaving for a nine-day road trip,” the player recalled. “So I had no coat — and my wallet and ID was still in the pocket.”
♦ In March of 2016, pals William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen were called up by the Leafs after their practice with the Marlies had ended.
Elated at the news, but not wishing to make the other feel bad about being ignored, the two sons of NHLers didn’t share a text about the good news.
“We were kind of quiet,” said Kapanen. “But when I saw Willy in the (Leaf) locker room, we started laughing.”
♦ Radio colour man Jim Ralph and a couple of members of the Leafs broadcast crew were on the road a few years ago at a nice steak house and happened to sit a table or two away from goaltender Jonathan Bernier and defenceman Stephane Robidas.
The players finished eating first, exchanged pleasantries with the group and departed. When the media members asked for their bill, the waiter explained that Robidas had picked up their entire tab, including the tip. Everyone texted their thanks, with the mischievous Ralph adding “Hey Robie, I had a coffee afterwards, so you still owe me four bucks.”