TORONTO (Jan. 23) — It is called Legends Row — the medley of bronze statues on the west plaza of Air Canada Centre commemorating, subjectively, the greatest of all Toronto Maple Leafs.
In the not–too–distant future, it might have to be re–branded as Legends Throng.
With Thursday’s announcement by the Leafs of Dave Keon, Turk Broda and Tim Horton being honored in September, the cluster of statues will increase to ten. Were it to be maintained as an actual “row,” the monuments would ultimately span the tracks at Union Station and continue into the lobby of the Royal York Hotel. That would create serious issues for rail travel in our country’s hub, not to mention a cascade of nightmares along Front St. As such, the statues will continue to expand outward rather than lengthwise. Already, Mats Sundin, honored last September, has initiated the second row of Legends Row — his likeness situated at the far–north end of the cluster, kitty–corner to his “waving” countryman, Borje Salming.
And, you can be sure the Leafs won’t stop erecting these monuments.
JOHNNY BOWER, THE LEAFS MOST BELOVED ALL–TIME PLAYER, ADMIRES HIS STATUE DURING THE FIRST LEGENDS ROW CEREMONY OUTSIDE AIR CANADA CENTRE, SEP. 6, 2014. Toronto Star Photo
So, who comes next? Your trusty correspondent believes there are three profound omissions: Bob Baun, Frank Mahovlich and Charlie Conacher. All should be immortalized on Legends Row in the Autumn of 2017.
For reasons that have long escaped me, Baun is among the most under–appreciated figures in Maple Leafs history. He was an absolute rock on the blue–line during the 1960’s Stanley Cup dynasty — skating alongside Carl Brewer on the championship teams of 1962–63–64; the other defense pairing for Punch Imlach being Horton and Allan Stanley (who should also figure in the statue conversation). When Brewer could no longer endure the tyrannical Imlach, he quit the Leafs prior to the 1965–66 season. Baun then skated with, among others, Kent Douglas and Larry Hillman. A falling out with Imlach prior to the 1967 playoffs limited Baun’s contribution to the club’s most–recent Stanley Cup conquest. He did not appear on Toronto’s list of 11 protected skaters for the 1967 expansion draft and was claimed by the California Seals.
After a stop in Detroit — where he was re–united with Brewer — Baun returned to the Leafs in a November 1970 trade with St. Louis for Brit Selby. A neck injury sustained in a collision with Detroit’s Mickey Redmond at Maple Leaf Gardens on Oct. 21, 1972 ended his 18–season career in the National Hockey League.
Baun is most–famously remembered for his exploit in Game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup final at the Detroit Olympia. Having blocked a shot with his skate, he was carted from the ice on a stretcher, only to return with a fracture numbed by pain–killing injection. Early in overtime, his slap–shot from the right point brushed defenseman Bill Gadsby and slightly changed direction, fooling Terry Sawchuk in the Red Wings net. Having evaded elimination, the Leafs returned home and won their third consecutive Stanley Cup two nights later with a convincing 4–0 triumph. Again, doctors poked needles into Baun’s fractured ankle.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS LEGEND BOB BAUN: WHERE’S THE LOVE?
But, the native of Lanigan, Sask. was not a scorer — amassing only 37 career goals (Bobby Orr’s total in Boston during the 1970–71 season). Instead, he often proved to be Johnny Bower’s best friend. “Nobody blocked shots for me the way the ‘Boomer’ did,” the old goalie has said on countless occasions. “He was also a really good body–checker in the open ice. We wouldn’t have won our Stanley Cups without him.”
As such, the Maple Leafs committed a regrettable blunder on Oct. 4, 2006. Prior to the season opener against Ottawa, they raised banners at Air Canada Centre for Hap Day, Red Kelly and Borje Salming. Appropriately, Day and Kelly shared the honor of the No. 4 pennant. Salming’s went up alone — without recognition for Baun, who wore No. 21 during the club’s championship reign in the 60’s. I remember speaking with him earlier that day on the phone. Though effusive in praise for Salming, he was deeply hurt.
“That was my special number, too,” Baun lamented.
Immortalizing the Boomer on Legends Row would atone for such an egregious error.
Then there’s the “Big M.”
Among recognizable monikers in Maple Leafs history, none resonates like that belonging to Frank Mahovlich. With long, loping strides, the Timmins, Ont. native manned the left flank throughout the 60’s Cup dynasty. He is most fondly remembered in hindsight, given what hid beneath his poisonous affiliation with Imlach. The GM/coach tortured the sensitive winger with disparagement and deliberate mispronunciation of his name — “Maholo–vich” in media repartee. Twice during his years in Toronto, the Big M suffered nervous breakdowns that landed him in hospital care. It can be argued that no elite player with the Leafs ever wore as broad a smile as did Mahovlich upon learning he’d been traded to Detroit — Mar. 3, 1968 — with Peter Stemkowski, Garry Unger and the NHL rights to Brewer for Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith. One of the most striking deals in Toronto hockey history underscored the disconnect between coach and player. Once freed of Imlach’s abuse, Mahovlich — skating alongside Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio with the Red Wings in 1968–69 — netted a career–high 49 goals.
He would later help Montreal to Stanley Cup victories in 1971 and 1973, further shrouding his contribution to the Maple Leafs. With seasons, however, of 48, 36, 33 and 32 goals, Mahovlich ranked among the most prolific scorers in the pre–expansion era. Indisputably taking their lead from Imlach, the denizens of Maple Leaf Gardens often heaped scorn on Mahovlich for perceived sloth. His lengthy stride was an illusion — akin to watching a Boeing–777 and a Canadair Regional Jet in the sky. The larger plane appears to be lumbering when it is, in fact, moving at the same speed. Imlach was incapable of — or unwilling to — recognize such an analogy. To the cranky coach, Mahovlich was a malingerer. The crowd at the Gardens caught on and the troubled Big M slumped to 18 and 19 goals in his final two Maple Leaf seasons.
FRANK MAHOVLICH, AS HE APPEARS TODAY, NEARLY 50 YEARS AFTER PLAYING FOR THE LEAFS.
Today, nearly half–a–century later, few Toronto hockey stars are viewed with such reverence and esteem. I’ve had the opportunity, on several occasions, to walk off an aircraft behind Mahovlich and marvel at how people, young and old, recognize and swarm to the Hall–of–Fame winger. He has always looked 10 years younger than his age — now 78 — and though intrinsically shy, he never turns down an autograph request. Appointed to the Canadian Senate by Prime Minister Jean Chretien in 1998, four years after being made a Member of the Order of Canada, Mahovlich should be a certainty for Legends Row at the Air Canada Centre.
And, how much longer can the Leafs overlook “Big Chas?”
For young fans of the Blue and White, Charlie Conacher was simply the best right–winger in hockey during the 1930’s — leading the NHL in goals on five occasions and points twice (1934 and ’35). Were he a Leaf today, Conacher would be the biggest name in Canadian sport. As hockey historian and author Eric Zweig told me: “If [the Leafs] do not honor Charlie Conacher, the whole thing (Legends Row) is a joke. He was the best Toronto player at a time when the Leafs became a national institution and one of the few that may have been the best — period — in the NHL during his day.” Conacher played right–wing on the famed “Kid Line” with Joe Primeau and Harvey (Busher) Jackson; scored the first (and only) Toronto goal the night Maple Leaf Gardens opened (Nov. 12, 1931) and helped lead the club to a Stanley Cup championship that season. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961 and died of throat cancer in December 1967.
A COLORIZED PHOTO — CIRCA 1937 — OF CHARLIE CONACHER LEADING THE MAPLE LEAFS FROM DRESSING ROOM TO ICE AT THE OLD BOSTON GARDEN. Courtesy Nitzy’s Hockey Den
A measure of Conacher’s place in history is published in Mike Leonetti’s 2007 book Maple Leafs Top 100. A panel of 14 Leaf observers, of which I was privileged to be part, ranked “Big Chas” No. 6 among all–time players — behind only Dave Keon, Ted Kennedy, Syl Apps, Frank Mahovlich and Darryl Sittler; ahead of such–esteemed figures as Johnny Bower, Tim Horton, Turk Broda, Borje Salming and Mats Sundin.
Clearly, and unequivocally, it must soon be Conacher’s turn on Legends Row.