TORONTO (May 5) — Every year during this week for nearly half–a–century, hockey fans in Toronto have seen varied images of George Armstrong hoisting the 1967 Stanley Cup as captain of the Maple Leafs.
Today, nearing his 86th birthday, Armstrong works diligently to keep his spirits hoisted.
The reason? His wife of 62 years, Betty Armstrong, is battling Alzheimer’s Disease and is no longer able to live at home. She now resides in long–term care at a facility in the Danforth Village area of Toronto. For three or four hours every day, the legendary captain of all four Stanley Cup teams under Punch Imlach stays by his wife’s side, watching helplessly as her faculties diminish. And, it tears at his enormous heart.
“No, Howard, it isn’t a nice time in my life,” the Chief, as he’s forever been known, confessed over the telephone Wednesday night. “It’s hard for me; for my family… and for Betty. But, I think it’s more difficult for us to watch such a good person get to a point where she doesn’t know a whole lot anymore. She still recognizes me because I visit her every day. She’s always happy when I show up. But, with the kids, sometimes it takes a minute or two before she catches on who they are. And, that part is very sad.”
Forty–five years after his retirement as a player, Armstrong is still the longest–serving captain in Maple Leafs history. He wore the ‘C’ from 1957–58 to the end of the 1968–69 season, at which point Dave Keon assumed the role. On four occasions in a six–year span (1962–63–64 and ’67), Armstrong accepted the Stanley Cup from National Hockey League president Clarence Campbell — first at the old Chicago Stadium, and then three times at home in Maple Leaf Gardens. The last–such occasion — clearly no secret to followers of the Blue–and–White — was 49 years ago Monday.
“It would be nice if they finally had someone else’s picture doing that,” Armstrong chuckled. “All you ever see in those photos is me, Apps or Kennedy. But, it’s never been easy to win the Stanley Cup — not in my day or today, where 29 other teams want it just as badly. I always tell people you have to work for the Cup… and you’ve got to get lucky. You cannot win with one or the other. You really need both.”
GEORGE ARMSTRONG HOLDS THE STANLEY CUP ON THE COVER OF THE LEAFS 1962–63 MEDIA GUIDE (TOP–LEFT); THEN SHARES THE CUP WITH TEAMMATE PETER STEMKOWSKI AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS ON MAY 2, 1967, AS BOB PULFORD (20) LOOKS ON. THE CHIEF WON IT FOUR TIMES IN THE 1960’s DYNASTY.
The problems with Betty Armstrong began a couple of years ago. “She was in the kitchen when she turned around awkwardly and fell,” remembered George. “It so happened that she broke her hip. We took her by ambulance to Sunnybrook Hospital where the doctors said they would have to operate and do a hip–replacement. After the operation, she suffered a setback, but it wasn’t really a surprise. The surgeon warned us beforehand that her memory may not be the same.”
Such is the peril of general anesthesia on an elderly person. Hip–replacement surgery can last for three or more hours and the level of insentience (or “sleep”) is thorough for such an involved procedure. Among the risks for an octogenarian is changes in behavioral pattern and dementia. “The doctor told us it didn’t happen to everyone, but there’s a good chance it would with us,” Armstrong said. “We really didn’t have a choice. Betty needed the operation. And not long afterward, we started to notice some changes. She was forgetting things she would have easily remembered in the past. It got progressively worse and dementia set in. Within a year, she had to leave home for long–term care. It’s been very tough on all of us.”
Until his wife began to decline, George regularly attended Leaf games at the Air Canada Centre as a part–time amateur scout with the club. In my days covering the Leafs for The FAN–590, he sat in a private box just over my left shoulder. It wasn’t often that a period went by without three or four kernels of popcorn raining down on my head. I always looked forward to sitting with George in one of the intermissions. He would greet me with a Jewish indignity and I’d follow with an Indian crack. We’d both laugh uproariously and then chat about the game. I could talk hockey for hours with the Chief and not tire of it.
“I don’t go to the games anymore,” said George. “Now, my life is all about Betty and our family.”
No two individuals from the Leafs Stanley Cup dynasty have remained closer through the years than Armstrong and Johnny Bower — the venerable goalie and undisputed most popular figure in franchise history. In his 92nd year, Bower has endured some recent health issues, but is stubbornly bouncing back.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen him lately, but it’s hard to believe how little he is,” said the Chief of his best pal. “When he played goal for us, he was so wide in the net. But, he’s definitely shrunk a few inches. He’s also the nicest man you’ll ever meet — as popular today with kids and older people as he was during his career. He’s always so nice and happy. And, thankfully, he’s got his father’s genes. I remember his dad passing away as a little, old man. Johnny’s out–lived his father and he deserves all the love that people show him.”
BEST BUDS: GEORGE ARMSTRONG (RIGHT) AND JOHNNY BOWER IN 2013 AT AIR CANADA CENTRE DURING A 50th–ANNIVERSARY REUNION OF THE MAPLE LEAFS 1962–63 STANLEY CUP TEAM.
I wondered how Armstrong felt about Dave Keon returning to the Leafs a couple of months ago after a long estrangement. Keon will have his statue erected in Legends Row outside the Air Canada Centre this autumn. “Dave was a bit stubborn there for awhile, but stubborn is okay, Howard,” Armstrong insisted. “That’s what made [Keon] so great as a player. He was stubborn as hell. He never gave up in a game, no matter what the score or circumstance. If he’s made his peace with the team, then I’m happy.”
Armstrong had his own statue–ceremony in Legends Row last September.
“When I played, all my teammates said I was for the birds,” George quipped. “Now it’s true — literally. Who knows what those seagulls are doing to me outside the arena today?”
THE CHIEF AND HIS LIKENESS ON LEGENDS ROW. Toronto Sun Photo
In the end, our conversation once more turned to his ailing wife. “We don’t know how long this is going to last,” said the Chief. “Alzheimer’s is very tricky. A patient can die fast from it or go on for years. Other than her mind, Betty’s in very good health for her age. So, we could have her with us for awhile still.”
When I wondered how difficult it must be to not have Betty at home with him, the ol’ captain paused to prevent from breaking down. “That’s the hardest part,” he replied — voice quivering. “She’s such a wonderful woman; a good wife and mother. She’s been my best friend for more than 60 years. To see her deteriorating like this is heart–breaking. For me and for our children.”