The Greatest Maple Leaf?

Who is the greatest Toronto Maple Leaf of all time? Not an easy question, is it? If you were to ask 10 different people you'd come up with 10 different fans.

This is not as big a problem for other organizations in the National Hockey League. Lets first examine the other "Original Six" teams. The Boston Bruins have had a lot of greats but none better than arguably the game's greatest in Bobby Orr. Same can be said about the Detroit Red Wings with Gordie Howe (although Steve Yzerman could be 1a easily) and the Chicago Blackhawks with Bobby Hull. The Montreal Canadiens have had more greats than anybody but no one will ever be able to displace Maurice "Rocket" Richard from a top the all time list. The New York Rangers are the only other Original Six team where the best player of all time is debatable, although the pool to pick from up is noticeably smaller. Modern fans will tell you Mark Messier, older fans will tell you Jean Ratelle or Rod Gilbert, historians will tell you about Frank Boucher and the Cook brothers Bill and Bun. Eddie Giacomin would get the popular vote.

Compared to the Original Six, many other franchises in the NHL have obvious choices as the best player their fans ever saw. The Oilers have Gretzky (we'd say the Kings too although Marcel Dionne's longevity on the west coast clouds the always sunny California picture a bit). Bobby Clarke is the ultimate Philadelphia Flyer, Mario Lemieux is the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Gilbert Perreault is the sharpest of all of the Buffalo Sabres. Brett Hull would have to rank a top the St. Louis Blues and Ron Francis is the greatest "Whalercane."

Many of the remaining teams are debatable for various reasons. A few teams have a small pool to pick from equally great choices: The dynastic New York Islanders could name Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy as 1a, 1b and 1c as their number 1. The Quebec Nordiques would be a choice of three players - Dale Hunter, Peter Stastny and Michel Goulet. The reincarnated Nordiques known as Colorado Avalanche would have a tough choice between the likes of Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy or Peter Forsberg.

Some teams are just too new to have really decided or to have had a worthy player, such as the numerous 1990's expansion teams. And then there's a few that have been around a while but have been as nondescript as their nondescript players. The Vancouver Canucks or Washington Capitals are prime examples of this, although Alex Ovechkin may already be considered the greatest Cap ever.

But who is the greatest Toronto Maple Leaf? Perhaps the question that should first be examined is why is it that there is no obvious choice as the all time greatest Maple Leaf? At least that question is a little easier to answer.

The Leafs have been around so long that that actually hurts them when discussing the greatest ever. Quite arguably the greatest Maple Leafs were all from an era that has long passed us by the vast majority of Maple Leaf fans have never seen with their own eyes. The lucky few who were able to see (or at least hear Foster Hewitt's magical words on the radio) are quickly dwindling and so too are the memories of the Babe Dyes, Ken Randalls and King Clancys of the early days. Even the Leafs teams of the 1940s are all but forgotten in many circles. It is human nature, but unfortunate.

Okay, so what about the modern era. Most of us can analyze the past 25-30 years. Even those of us who are too young to have seen the Leafs in their post-1960s dynasty teams are able to make a good judgment of the players over the past 30 years with a little bit of homework, as history is documented much better than those early Leafs days.

Well, like most Leafs fans we don't blame you if you'd rather forget about the modern era. They were some of the leanest years any sports franchise in any sport has ever had to go through. Those Leafs teams were bad, and so too were many of the players. Yes there have been a few fan favorites - the Tiger Williams, Wendel Clarks, and Tie Domis who will get many votes, but they aren't legitimate candidates for the greatest player to ever skate for this franchise. The few greats that did play in the modern era suffer from the bad team. Rick Vaive was the only thing close to a top level hockey player during much of the 1980s, but since his team went nowhere, he doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Same can be said about three of the top candidates for the title of greatest Leaf - Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming and Doug Gilmour. All are incredibly popular choices and perhaps if they had more playoff success in Toronto, they would be clearer choices.

So if the obvious choice as greatest Leaf can't be found in the old era because they are all but forgotten, and it can't be found in the new era because we're trying to forget, the answer must lie somewhere during the Toronto Maple Leafs glory years.

Well, maybe not.

There are two modern versions of the Toronto Maple Leafs glory years - the Leafs that won 5 Stanley Cups in 7 years from 1945 through 1951, including three consecutive championships from 1947 through 1949. Those were wonderful teams with the likes of Syl Apps and Teeder Kennedy up front, the "Gold Dust Twins" Gus Mortson and Jim Thomson on defense and the best goalie of a great goalie era in Turk Broda. These were the days of the Gashouse Gang, perhaps the greatest team of all time they speculated back then if not still today. However time has passed by this era as well as the pre-World War II era, forgetting about much of this team as well.

That leaves what many modern fans considered to be greatest Leafs dynasty - the 1960s. The Leafs again captured 3 consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1962 through 1964, and captured the Cup again in dramatic form in the fabled 1967 playoffs. These were the great days where Punch Imlach stocked his lineups with lots of veterans, including some of the greatest names in the history of the game.

But the answer can not be found easily here either, and the reason would make old Punch Imlach smile up in heaven. His philosophy was to have a complete team with no one player being bigger than the team or anyone else. That was the make up of this team, and a major reason for its success. It was also a major reason for the love-hate relationship (alright, mostly hate) between Imlach and the one player who perhaps stood out more than any other - Frank Mahovlich. You can't talk about one without mentioning their feud with the other. Mahovlich was a superstar who wanted to be treated like the rest of the superstars in the league - specifically with more ice time and with quality linemates to bolster his statistics. Imlach of course wanted to "hold back" The Big M for what he honestly felt was the good of the team.

There are certainly a few others from this dynasty that deserve recognition as well, most notably the likes of Dave Keon or Johnny Bower. Some fans will be quick to point out these names as the greatest ever, while others won't include them in their top 10 list.
I realize starting this discussion is going to cause a lot of controversy, as any list of this sort tends to do. It is not our intention to create confrontation, but to create communication. We do not know of a general consensus as to who is Mr. Maple Leaf, so maybe this post will create discussion which will help define a consensus. And in the process we hope to keep alive the memories of the many great players who have worn the blue and white. I encourage all who read this article to post their comments below, and share why you think a certain player is the greatest player in Toronto.


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