Mike Ulmer has worked for seven news organizations including the National Post and, most recently, the Toronto Sun. Mike has written about the Leafs for 10 years and wrote Captains, a book about the club's greatest leaders.
February 14, 2007
(TORONTO) -- George Armstrong settles into a chair in an Air Canada Centre conference room to do the thing he almost never does: look back.
Twenty minutes with George Armstrong, captain of the Leafs 1967 Stanley Cup-winning team is worth a day invested with a modern-day player.
The Leafs legendary captain is funny, warm and astute. He is also famously private and shy. He is not comfortable with media and instead saves his candour for his many friends.
Forty years ago, he did not ruminate over the impending end of a Maple Leafs dynasty that produced four Cup winners, all captained by him, in the 1960s.
The past has always held limited appeal to Armstrong. Yesterday's hero, a robust 77, is still today's man.
"The first year of expansion was coming. We knew things were going to change," he said.
"Maybe the other guys thought about that, but I didn't. I spend more time in the present than I do in the future or the past."
On May 2, 1967 Dave Keon won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Terry Sawchuk was unbeatable in backstopping the Leafs. But the dominant image of that series 36-year-old George Armstrong chugging up ice and firing the puck into an unoccupied Montreal net to put the Leafs up 3-1 in Game 6.
"More people remember that than the guy (Jim Pappin) who scored the winning goal for crying out loud," Armstrong laughs.
The cult of that insurance goal, he said, was born out of relief.
"When that goal went in, they all could relax. The fans could let the air out. Before that, it was still nip and tuck. If that winning goal had been scored in the last minute of the game, that's what people would have remembered."
The numbers do not fully describe George Armstrong, a captain who formed the bedrock for those matchless Leafs teams.
He recorded 296 goals regular season goals and carded 713 points but Armstrong was a steady scorer. He had two career hat tricks. Darryl Sittler, the Leafs all-time leader in goals, had 16.
But Armstrong led instinctively. He knew he would be of most value to the Leafs by casting himself and by extension the club, as diligent defensively and offensively opportunistic.
"I think that I could have scored a lot more goals if I hadn't been so conscious of defence," he said. "I really believe that all good goalscorers are not too conscious of defence. They may pull the wool over people's eyes but inside they aren't that conscious of it. You've got to cheat to score."
Armstrong never cheated. He was superb in the corners and even better in the bus or on the train. Conn Smythe called him the best Leafs captain and Armstrong thrived as the perfect counterpoint to acerbic coach Punch Imlach.
Imlach believed it was his job to unite the players...against him. "Everybody had problems with Punch," said the gentle Johnny Bower. Imlach's approach required a counterweight, someone whose standing or integrity couldn't be questioned, someone who could help the players fixate on Imlach's message, not Imlach the man. "He is the coach," Armstrong would say on the rare occasions that warranted a team meeting. "What can we do to play better?"
"Coaches don't make players," Armstrong said across the conference room table. "Players make coaches. Coaching is much more important during the game. That was Punch's asset; he was really good at seeing who was going well that day."
Armstrong said lieutenants such as Red Kelly, Allan Stanley and the presence of a roster of veterans made his role of captain easy.
"I was one of five or six guys who could have been captain of any hockey team in the world," Armstrong said. "The only reason I was captain is I was here before them."
There was, however, only one George Armstrong. "He was the missing ingredient who made that team come together," said Bob Pulford, a longtime NHL executive who was an assistant captain on that great 1967 team.
"That championship doesn't happen without George."