While there are well-known professional sports teams with a connection to Ireland and that country’s culture (most notably, the NCAA’s iconic Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and the NBA’s Boston Celtics) only one – the Toronto Maple Leafs – can lay claim to sharing a name with the worldwide phenomenon that is St. Patrick’s Day.
Indeed, before coming to be known as the Maple Leafs, the franchise was known at the Toronto St. Patricks. But that wasn’t their first name, as the team was christened the Toronto Arenas upon its inception in 1917. That lasted all of two seasons, and ended when manager Charlie Querrie assembled a group – that included members of the management team that had run the Ontario Hockey Association’s St. Patricks senior amateur squad – to take over ownership of the organization.
Starting at the beginning of the 1919-20 NHL regular season, the Arenas were renamed the St. Patricks, and their blue-and-white uniforms were changed to green-and-white. Given the demographics of Toronto at that time – this was a burgeoning metropolis comprised largely of English and Irish immigrants and referred to unofficially as “the Belfast of Canada”, it was easy to see why the name and colour changes weren’t met with outrage from the public. And for the next seven-and-a-half years, Querrie and the St. Pats went about their business on the ice, winning the franchise’s second Stanley Cup in 1921-22.
However, amid financial issues and rumours the organization would be relocated to Philadelphia, iconic hockey figure Conn Smythe stepped in and formed a new ownership group that kept the team in the city. And when Smythe took control of the franchise in February of 1927, he immediately renamed it the Maple Leafs – yes, right in the middle of the season – and reverted to the Arenas’ colour scheme.
But that wasn’t the end of the links the Leafs have to Ireland. Far from it, as a matter of fact. The reality is, Irish people have been instrumental in the building and success of the team, and continue to hold a prominent place with the organization today.
Aside from Smythe – who was half-Irish – the Leafs have employed numerous Irishmen in a team-building capacity, including Clarence ‘Hap’ Day, Francis Michael ‘King’ Clancy, Leonard ‘Red’ Kelly and Pat Quinn, all of whom also served as Leafs players in addition to their roles as coaches and managers. Similarly, proud Irishmen Brian Burke and Pat Burns worked in coaching and management capacities, and current team president Brendan Shanahan has Irish heritage as well.
Out of all of those legendary names, Clancy might well be the most celebrated Irishman in team history. When his Hockey Hall-of-Fame playing career was drawing to a close, Clancy was celebrated by the team with an elaborate event that included nearly a dozen on-ice floats at Maple Leaf Gardens and featured Clancy wearing a green shamrock sweater (that he had to change out of mid-game when the opposition complained).
Of course, Clancy went on to become the most trusted friend of Leafs owner Harold Ballard in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and when Clancy passed away in November of 1986 at age 83, he received what amounted to a state funeral from the team. His casket was draped in a Leafs flag, and for the remainder of the 1986-87 season, the team wore a shamrock with a crown on their sleeves in his honour. No other Leafs player has had his passing recognized like that.
The Leafs have employed a slew of other players with an Irish background, including more recent alumni Bryan McCabe, Jeff O’Neill, and Tim Connolly. Combined with their rich history, that makes the Buds one of, if not the greenest team famous for wearing Blue and White you will ever encounter.