As the Toronto Maple Leafs would be waiting in the corridor to take to the ice before games in the 1960s, teammates would invariably hear the sound of a stick being whacked against shin pads. Their captain would then look down at his legs and say, “Come on, you money makers!”
It was a regular bit that was equal parts inspiring and hilarious, “because, let’s face it, Chief was not the swiftest skater,” recalled teammate Ron Ellis. George Armstrong was afflicted with spinal meningitis at the age of six that forever hampered his skating ability, but it was not near enough to prevent him from becoming a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest players in Maple Leaf history. To be sure, he was the greatest captain the franchise has ever had, wearing the ‘C’ for the last four championships, all the while providing a calming influence and bridging the gap in a sometimes toxic, often dysfunctional, relationship between an iron-fisted management team and a group of players who were beginning to stand up for themselves.
George Armstrong died Sunday in Toronto at the age of 90. Fifty-seven of those years were spent as a player, coach, assistant GM or scout in the Maple Leafs organization. Armstrong leads the franchise with 1,188 games played and may very well do so in perpetuity. The active games-played leader for the Leafs is defenseman Morgan Rielly, who just happens to be 664 games behind Armstrong. In order to pass Armstrong, Rielly would have to play every game this season and not miss a game for the next 7-1/2 seasons, which would take him past his 35th birthday. Good luck with that.
If you’re not of a certain vintage, you might not realize what George Armstrong accomplished and that’s OK. In fact, Armstrong would prefer it that way. Even though he was a leader among leaders and possessed a wicked sense of humor, he was very withdrawn when it came to drawing attention to himself. “I worked for the Hall of Fame for 25 years and George never came to one event,” Ellis said.
But Armstrong would have had every reason to puff out his chest. In addition to winning four Stanley Cups, he coached the Maple Leaf-owned Toronto Marlboros to Memorial Cup championships in 1973 and 1975. Prior to joining the Leafs, he led the Marlboros senior team to the Allan Cup championship and in his only season in the minors, his Pittsburgh Hornets lost the Calder Cup final in seven games to the Cleveland Barons and a goalie named Johnny Bower, who would later become Armstrong’s teammate, roommate on the road and dearest friend. The Leafs have never actually had a true superstar in their franchise history and Armstrong likely wouldn’t crack the top 10 among all-time Leafs. But there were few that left a mark on the franchise that Armstrong did.
When you think of the great leaders in the game’s history, thoughts immediately go to players such as Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman and Jean Beliveau. But those who knew and played with Armstrong are adamant that Armstrong belongs in that category as well. As successful as they were in the 1960s, the Leafs were owned by Conn Smythe and managed and coached by Punch Imlach, oppressive and dictatorial men who ran roughshod over their players. Nothing tested Armstrong’s leadership more than the 1966-67 season, the last time the franchise won the Stanley Cup. A 5-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings Feb. 8 of that season was the 10th in a row for the Leafs and left them sitting out of the playoffs with 17-21-8 record. The Leafs rallied to finish fourth, then knocked off the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks in the first round and the Montreal Canadiens in the second to win the Stanley Cup, with Armstrong scoring the empty-net goal to seal the victory in the clinching game. “George was the glue that kept that team together,” said Brian Conacher, who was a rookie on the 1966-67 team. “When that team was about to fracture, the catalyst and the glue who made that come together, I would put that as much in George Armstrong’s category as anybody. When he knew the guys had just about had it, he could go up to the office and talk to Punch. George was the leader who kept that team together when it could have exploded.”
Armstrong always seemed to be there for the Maple Leafs, whether it was to run their junior program or to fill in when coach John Brophy was fired. The funny thing is, as much as he loved the Leafs, they didn’t always love him back. In fact, after a successful run with the Marlboros junior team, Armstrong was pegged to take over from Red Kelly, who had been fired after the 1976-77 season, but he couldn’t come to terms on a deal with owner Harold Ballard. He coached one more season with the Marlboro juniors before leaving the organization to take a scouting job with the Quebec Nordiques. “I remember him leaving,” said former Leafs executive Gord Stellick, who co-wrote a book on the 1967 Leafs championship team. “I remember him sitting outside Ballard’s office and he was taking his company keys off his keychain. I felt really sad, but I also admired him.”
But it was not the first time that Armstrong crossed swords with a dictatorial Leafs owner. When the Leafs spotted him playing junior hockey in Copper Cliff in 1947, they placed him with their junior team in Stratford, instead of the Marlboros where they prime prospects played. Armstrong won both the scoring title and MVP honors in the Ontario Hockey Association that season, earning a promotion to the Marlboros. But Armstrong, still upset that he wasn’t chosen as a Marlboro the season before, insisted on playing in Stratford again before agreeing to stay in Toronto. “Nobody wanted to incur the wrath of Conn Smythe,” Stellick said. “But it got worked out and Conn Smythe was impressed by Chief’s stand and that was a big reason he made George captain later on. And he always said, ‘The smartest thing I ever did was making George Armstrong captain.’ He stood up to Conn Smythe.”
Armstrong remained in an official capacity with the Leafs until 2014-15. When he scouted for the Leafs, he was a fixture in junior arenas around Ontario because that was where he liked to be, far away from the big crowds and the spotlight. Renowned for his sense of humor, when the TSN cameras panned the Leafs table before the 1989 draft, an event where they had three first-round picks, Armstrong flipped out his false teeth. He was a bon vivant and a recluse all wrapped into one. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find someone in or outside the hockey world who would have a bad thing to say about him.
“We thought George would be around forever,” Ellis said. “Whenever you saw him, he just didn’t change. He looked the same, he never looked older.”