The Maple Leafs will hold their 10th annual Armed Forces Night Saturday at Air Canada Centre – hosting hundreds of soldiers for the team’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers – but the franchise’s connection to Canada’s military runs far deeper than that. Whether you’re talking about team’s current name, or its long line of famous coaches, management and players, there’s no shortage of homages to the bravest, most unselfish men and women the country has to offer.
The link to the military extends back nearly 90 years, when then-Leafs manager and hockey icon Conn Smythe decided to change Toronto’s NHL team’s name from the St. Patricks late in the 1926-27 season. He chose the name Maple Leafs because the grand majority of Canadian military regiments in World War I wore a maple leaf badge – and it was not a token gesture on his behalf.
Indeed, Smythe was a genuine war hero: he was an Army major who served in WWI and WWII; a brave soul who helped save some of his fellow soldiers in the third “Battle of Ypres” in 1917; one of Canada’s pioneers in what later would become the nation’s Air Force; a man whose plane was shot down by German fire and who was a prisoner of war for 14 months until WWI ended; a patriot who re-enlisted at age 45 because of WWII and who was stationed in England for two years before he was seriously injured in France after a German bombing attack; and someone honoured with the United Kingdom’s Military Cross as a recognition of "an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy”.
Smythe wasn’t the only member of the Maple Leafs organization who enlisted with Canada’s Armed Forces and served his country. Fellow Hockey Hall of Famers Syl Apps and Turk Broda both left the NHL to serve, and Wally Stanowski, Nick and Don Metz and Gord Drillon were among a slew of Leafs who joined the service. And as the years went on and other military conflicts arose, the franchise and its players continued to contribute to military efforts in a number of different manners.
In some instances, that didn’t mean an active service for players on the roster; rather, it meant Leafs alumni headed to the front lines of battle and entertained the troops, as Toronto legends Dave ‘Tiger’ Williams and Lanny McDonald, former GM Brian Burke and former Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment COO Tom Anselmi did when they visited Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Their presence went a long ways toward boosting morale among soldiers thousands of miles from their families and under unimaginable stresses.
In addition – and at the behest of Burke in 2009 – the Leafs have honoured Canada’s troops in an individual fashion throughout the regular season via a special programme first called “Luke’s Troops”. Named for former Buds blueliner Luke Schenn, the programme selected one active military member in each of Toronto’s 41 home games to receive a special mention before the Air Canada Centre crowd, which always provided a standing ovation as a recognition of their gratitude. After Schenn was traded, Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul attached his name to it, and today, the honor is known as Leafs Troops.
And since 2006, the Leafs also have designated one special night each season to celebrate Canada’s soldiers. On every Armed Forces Night, the team accepts donated seats from gracious season ticket holders and welcomes as many military members as possible to enjoy a game and meet up with players at ice level after it ends. Each season has a different theme – in some instances, there will be a focus on soldiers who tend to humanitarian missions; in others, military personnel who’ve missed special occasions with family will be recognized – but there’s always a heightened and overdue awareness of their impact on their fellow citizens, and the sentiment is always the same: the team, the players, the city, and the country all are grateful for their sacrifices and achievements.
One of the current Leafs who has the closest emotional links to Canada’s Armed Forces is goaltender James Reimer. The 27-year-old has been a willing participant in each of his six seasons with the Buds, and the Manitoba native is deeply touched by the people he meets and the stories they tell.
“Playing a sport is hard and obviously, it’s a lot of fun and it’s a dream come true, but it’s hard mentally, to go in there sometimes and battle, and there’s a lot of pressure,” Reimer said. “But it’s meaningless – it’s not life or death. It’s a game, and you take it seriously, and you do your job well and you work hard because that’s what you need to do. But it pales in comparison; it’s meaningless in comparison to what those guys do.
“To hang out with those guys and appreciate them and try and give them a good time, it’s just something you just try and give back to them. They’re unreal men and women, and you owe them more than you’ll ever be able to repay. So you just try and have a good time.”
At this year’s Armed Forces Night, more than 500 Canadian Armed Forces members will be in attendance. Each of them likely won’t ever forget the experience, but neither will those they meet.
“You’re indebted to them,” Reimer said. “You’re just humbled by what they do.”