Each day from now until the Winter Classic, Sportsnet will count down the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time.
When George Armstrong walks into a room and dozens of well-adjusted, educated people greet the former Maple Leafs captain of First Nations roots with cheers of “Chief! Chief!” don’t worry—it’s not what it looks like. Well, actually it is. But it was the early 1950s when Armstrong was given that horribly politically incorrect nickname; it was a different time. And today, 60-some years and much advancement in cultural sensitivity later, Armstrong doesn’t mind the moniker one bit. So it’s probably one of those things better left untouched.
Chief’s record 12 straight seasons as Leafs captain will also likely never be disturbed. Armstrong was a part of four Cup—winning teams in Toronto, including the last squad to ever do it in 1967. The empty-netter he potted to seal a 3–1 win in game six against the Canadiens was just his second goal of those playoffs, but that was normal for the workhorse centre who would have profiled as a power forward or a checking-line grinder if he played today. Even without soft hands or quick feet, Armstrong still scored 296 goals and 713 points in nearly 1,200 NHL games. But he made his true bones in the corners and along the boards where he drove defencemen batty with his persistence. For Armstrong there was never a loose puck that couldn’t be reached and no such thing as an easy dump-in. Every square inch of ice was fought for.
Despite his abrasive style of play, he was durable, playing 60 games or more in 10 seasons throughout his prime. It wasn’t until his final years in the late ’60s when the rigours of the game caught up to Armstrong, who finally retired, at 40, in 1971. Even in those latter days he was renowned as a strong, vocal leader and an irreplaceable presence in the dressing room.
But maybe what endears Armstrong to Maple Leafs fans more than anything is the fact that he’s been a part of the organization for nearly his entire life. He was put on Toronto’s protected list in 1946 when he was 16 and playing minor hockey in Copper Cliff, Ont., a small mining town west of Sudbury. En route to joining the Leafs in 1952 he played stints with the team’s Jr. B, Jr. A and AHL affiliates. After he retired, he returned to the Jr. A Toronto Marlboros to coach, leading the team to Memorial Cup victories in ’73 and ’75, before rejoining the Leafs as assistant GM in 1988. He even stepped behind the Toronto bench in December of that year to take over from the fired John Brophy, who had led the team to an 11-20-2 record. The Leafs went 17-26-4 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs by a game. Armstrong is still listed today on the Leafs payroll as an amateur scout. No one’s bothered to check, but he’s got to be the longest-serving employee in organization history.
And so to this day, crowds of Maple Leafs fans will rise to their feet and chant “Chief! Chief!” whenever he walks into a room. The Buds haven’t had much success since Armstrong hung up his skates, and every captain that has come after him has been measured against the Hall of Famer’s desire and accomplishments. But certainly they aren’t calling him Chief just because of his First Nations ancestry, right?
Well, as the story goes, it was 1950 and Armstrong was travelling to Alberta with the Marlboros to play the Calgary Stampeders. When the team visited the Stoney Indian Reserve in the southern part of the province, reserve residents learned of Armstrong’s heritage, gave him a ceremonial headdress and coined him “Chief Shoot-the-Puck.” His teammates simply shortened it to Chief. At least that’s how the story goes. Like so many other things, it’s probably better left untouched.