Lighting The Lamp: Turning A New Leaf

Memorabilia: a signed Maple Leafs Alexander Steen jersey and a plethora of figures, including (l-r) Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler, Tim Horton, Lanny McDonald and Dion Phaneuf - Rick Ackerman

You might recognize the "Lighting the Lamp" feature from the Game Time paper. Rick Ackerman has been nice enough to send over his column for the website. "Lighting the Lamp" will be featured every home game day.

Lighting The Lamp, With Rick Ackerman

Like the Blues, the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs got off to a great start this season, winning ten of the first 14 games in October to lead the Atlantic Division. Since then, however, Toronto has only won six of 17 games, settling down to fifth place in the division. The Leafs can score (86 goals), led by enigmatic winger Phil Kessel with 16 goals and 29 points, yet have major difficulties with team defense, ranked 20th in the league with 2.74 goals against per game. Nor is the problem with goaltending, as both Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer sport excellent save percentages, .929 and .932 respectively. The Maple Leafs biggest problem is allowing far too many shots against (1150, a whopping average of 37 per game), ranked dead last in the league. (Statistics do not include the Leafs' match last night against the Kings in Toronto.)

Toronto was a founding member of the NHL in 1917, however, the franchise was originally a temporary franchise and was not called the Maple Leafs. Before the NHL was formed, the National Hockey Association consisted of teams from Montreal (Canadiens and Wanderers), Quebec (Bulldogs), Ottawa (Senators) and Toronto (Blueshirts). Cantankerous, troublesome Eddie Livingstone, owner of the Blueshirts, fought many a battle with the other owners and they wanted rid of him. So, the other owners voted to disband the NHA and form the NHL, leaving Livingstone out in the cold in a league all by himself. Yet it would be unthinkable not to have a team in Toronto, so a temporary franchise was granted to the Arena Company, owners of the Arena Gardens in Toronto. The Arena Company leased the Blueshirts' players and were granted a year to work out any disputes with Livingstone. The franchise did not have an official name and was referred to by fans and the press as the Blueshirts or Torontos. Toronto went on to win the Stanley Cup at the end of the NHL's inaugural season in 1918.

The following season, rather then return the Blueshirts' players to Livingstone as originally promised, the Arena Company formed it's own team, named the Toronto Arena Hockey Club, or Arenas and was granted admission to the NHL. Mounting financial difficulties caused by Livingstone's continuing lawsuits forced the Arenas to sell off most of their star players and suspend operations for the rest of the season after winning only five games, the worst season in franchise history. The ongoing legal dispute with Livingstone forced the franchise into bankruptcy the following season and an ownership group consisting of members of the senior amateur St. Patrick's hockey club purchased the franchise. The Toronto St. Patricks, now clad in green rather than blue, would play in the NHL until 1927, winning another Stanley Cup championship in 1922.

Livingstone continued his legal actions against the franchise, and ten years after the league was founded, the franchise against faced bankruptcy due to ever-increasing legal fees and court costs. The University of Toronto varsity hockey coach, Constantine (Conn) Smythe, a former college player, formed a conglomerate and purchased the franchise on Valentine's Day, 1927. Smythe was a colorful character indeed, serving with distinction and valor in World War I, earning a Military Cross as Commander of the 40th Artillery Battery. He also transferred to the Canadian Royal Flying Corps and served as an artillery observer until he was shot down and captured by the Germans in October, 1917. Smythe was a POW until the end of the war, spending most of his time in solitary confinement after two failed escape attempts. After the war, he formed a successful sand and gravel company and made a small fortune paving the streets of Toronto. In 1926, he was hired by the expansion New York Rangers as GM, yet was fired before the season started due to several disputes with ownership. The Ranger team Smythe largely built went on to win a Stanley Cup in 1928.

Smythe returned to Toronto and immediately formed the group that would purchase the Toronto franchise. He renamed the club the Maple Leafs and changed back to blue uniforms. Smythe himself said, "The Maple Leaf to us, was the badge of courage, the badge that meant home...so we chose it, hoping that the possession of this badge would mean something to the team that wore it and when they skated out on the ice with this badge on their chest, they would wear it with honour and pride and courage, the way it had been worn by the soldiers of the first Great War in the Canadian Army."

Due to the small size of the Arena Gardens (8,000), Smythe decided to build a new arena, and in November 1931, Maple Leaf Gardens opened at the corner of Carlton and Church Streets in downtown Toronto and the newly named Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup that first season behind rookie coach Dick Irvin. Smythe would rule the roost in Toronto until 1961, when he retired. Under Smythe's direction, the Maple Leafs won seven Stanley Cup championships. He was inducted into the HHOF in 1958 and the Smythe Memorial Trophy was named in his honor. The Smythe Division of the NHL (1974-1993) was also named for his many contributions to the league.

The Blues need to take advantage of a tired club with a porous team-defense, hopefully energized after a hard-fought victory in Winnipeg. A good first period will also help the Blues out of their current doldrums as they attempt to catch and surpass Chicago in the Central Division standings.

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