The hockey world has lost a great player and a fine person with the passing of Toronto Maple Leafs legend George Armstrong. One of the top Leafs of all time, Armstrong led the team to three consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1960s and scored the final goal in the era of the Original Six in 1967 when the Leafs won their last Stanley Cup.
He was 90.
In that game against the Montreal Canadiens, Leafs coach Punch Imlach put his 36-year-old captain Armstrong and four other senior Leafs on the ice, a salute to their abilities, to help prevent the Habs from tying the game in the final minute. With Gump Worsley pulled, it was six men to five.
“We needed to keep those guys from scoring,” Imlach wrote in his memoir, “Hockey is a Battle.” “Where better to turn to than my old guard?”
So he sent out Allan Stanley, Tim Horton (of doughnut chain fame), Red Kelly, Bob Pulford, and Armstrong, in front of goalie Terry Sawchuk. After the faceoff, Pulford saw Armstrong moving up the right wing and fed him a perfect pass. Armstrong strode over the centre line to prevent an icing call if he happened to miss, and then shot the puck into the empty Montreal goal. “That capped the most satisfying Stanley Cup I ever won,” Imlach said.
The 3-1 win was gratifying for the rest of them too. It was Armstrong’s fourth cup after those in 1962, ’63 and ’64.
Having watched that game and many others in which Armstrong distinguished himself with classy behaviour and a laser-like shot, I can vouch for his excellence. I don’t recall him ever fighting, at a time when fighting was common.
”George is part of the very fabric of the Toronto Maple Leaf organization and will be deeply missed,” Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement. ”A proud yet humble man, he loved being a Maple Leaf, but never sought the spotlight even though no player played more games for Toronto or captained the team longer. Always one to celebrate his teammates rather than himself, George couldn’t even bring himself to deliver his speech the day he was immortalized on Legends Row.”
That was in 2015 when he joined Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy, Borje Salming, and Darryl Sittler. The team released a statement with the words from Armstrong’s unread speech that night.
”Hockey is a great game and I love it. I am part of a fading generation that you will never have again. Every one of us is one of a kind, that will never be repeated. To all of my friends and acquaintances, thank you for your advice and direction, that helped make me who I am today … a very, very happy person.”
Armstrong was also one of a few Leafs honored with a banner at Scotiabank Arena, and his number 10 was retired in October 2016 at the team’s centennial anniversary home opener, an Associated Press story reports.
His death, of heart complications, was announced Jan. 24. The team lost another great, Howie Meeker, in November. We lost Hank Aaron of baseball fame on Jan. 22.
Armstrong had 296 goals and 417 assists over 21 seasons for the Leafs, including 12 seasons as captain, and remains the franchise’s leader in games played, variously listed at 1,187 or 1,888. The right winger had 26 goals and 34 assists in 110 playoff games. He was the only Leaf to play in four different decades, debuting in 1949 and retiring in 1971, hockey writer Jeff Veillette has noted.
Known as the ”Chief,” Armstrong was one of the first players of indigenous descent to play professional hockey. He was born near Sudbury, Ont., to an Irish father and an Iroquois mother.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975. Some 41 years later, Armstrong was voted No. 12 on the franchise’s list of 100 greatest Maple Leafs in its centennial season.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman also paid him tribute. ”The National Hockey League family is saddened to learn of the passing of George Armstrong. For 70 years, he represented his beloved Maple Leafs and the entire NHL with class and distinction as a player, coach, executive and ambassador. Our game will miss him dearly.”
After retiring in 1971, Armstrong coached the Toronto Marlboros to Memorial Cup victories in 1972-73 and 1974-75 before accepting a scouting position with the Quebec Nordiques in 1978.
He spent nine years with Quebec before returning to Toronto as assistant general manager and scout in 1988. Armstrong served as interim coach for the final 47 games of the 1988-89 season.
Armstrong scored 20 goals four times during his career but was better known for his leadership and work ethic, helping restore the franchise’s winning touch. A smart player and talented back checker, the 6-foot one, 204-pounder worked the angles to get the best shot at his opponent and formed a formidable penalty-killing tandem with Hall of Famer Dave Keon.
It was during the Allan Cup tournament in 1950, specifically a visit to the Stoney Indian Reserve in Alberta, that he got his nickname. When the band heard of Armstrong’s ancestral background, they made him an honorary member with the name ”Chief Shoot-the-Puck” and presented him with a ceremonial headdress.
”The Chief” stuck.
Toronto owner and GM Conn Smythe named Armstrong his captain before the 1957-58 season. Smythe would later call Armstrong ”the best captain, as a captain, the Leafs have ever had.”
Brad Bird is a B.C.-based writer. His book “No Guarantees” about the hockey career of former Chicago Blackhawk Don Dietrich is an inside look at life in the pro game.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.