To celebrate their 100th season, The Toronto Maple Leafs enlisted award winning author Kevin Shea to write the definitive history of the franchise. The result was The Official Centennial Leafs Publication, a book that documents the history of the team through anecdotes, media clippings and a wide range of photos and interviews.
Described as a 'hockey archeologist', Shea, who grew up a Leafs fan, began the formal process of researching the book over three years prior to its publication.
"I've been such a Leaf fan my entire life so I guess I've been doing research for 50 plus years in an inadvertent sort of way. I had started work on it ahead of time because I knew it was going to be a crazy amount of work, but work I was going to love."
This is Shea's 14th book on the subject of hockey. While he has written on the Leafs before, his prior works had been primarily focused on a specific player or era. This work covers the entire history, so Shea's approach had to be a little bit different.
"This was a history book. This is one where I knew that I was charged to write the definitive history of the most iconic team in sports. I had to make sure that it was honest, respectful, true and entertaining. You can never trust every source necessarily, especially before electronic sources were available. You want to make sure you get multiple angles of it just to make sure what you're reading is true."
The book spans the entire life of the team, starting from its beginnings in 1917 with a variety of stories that bring colour and character to the blue and white. While Shea acknowledges there are many stories that Leafs fans will be familiar with, such as Darryl Sittler's 10 point night and Bill Barilko's Stanley Cup winning goal, his aim was to try to also find stories that aren't as well known. One particularly interesting story tells the tale of a wrestling match between players Red Horner and Hap Day.
"It's a nothing story in the scheme of Maple Leafs history. I'm going through newspaper articles from the 1930s and I see an ad for a wrestling match. Wrestling was huge at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1930s. The Leafs were number one as far as attendance, but wrestling would be right under it. It was a fundraising event and I thought maybe it was phony, but it was a legitimate wrestling match. They raised a great deal of money for people who were going through tough times in the Depression. I can't imagine that happening today!"
Another era that stood out to him was the 1940s. "So many things happened. The war takes away a bunch of the boys for a while yet they won the Cup in 1945 with teenagers and university students, then in 47, 48, 49, and 51 they won four Stanley Cups in five years."
The book also speaks about how the identity of the Leafs and the changing demographics of the city of Toronto are intrinsically linked. For Shea, one of the surprising facts while doing research for this book was how Leafs Nation was not a recent phenomenon but goes back to the very roots of hockey in the city.
"Toronto was such a different place back then. In 1917, hockey wasn't a big deal. Everybody was more concerned about the first world war and baseball was massive. The NHL was formed in 1917 and Toronto wasn't even on the radar. After the war was over, the Great Depression came along and hockey was a salvation for many people. They couldn't pay the bills, or put food on the table, but for 2-3 hours hockey was their respite in the scope of a very sad time of their life and the city's life.
Leafs Nation goes back to when radio was introduced in the mid-1920s. The Toronto broadcast became a national broadcast shortly after that. Hockey Night in Canada was nation-wide. Everyone across Canada was listening to the radio and it was the Toronto Maple Leafs who were playing. When TV broadcasts came along in 1952, again, it was the Leafs every single Saturday."
Shea spoke to over 200 players while researching the book, and the phenomenon of Leafs Nation wasn't lost on them either. One of the players that Shea spoke to was Johnny Bower, who continues to be an ambassador for the Leafs to this day. "I still do a lot of appearances for the team and I love doing things like that, meeting people, shaking hands with them," Bower said at a recent signing for the Official Leafs Centennial Publication. Fans of all generations were there to meet the legendary Leafs goaltender, the enduring passion for Leafs Nation on full display.
While it can be easy to reminisce about the Leafs eras gone by, the book does end on a message of new hope as it looks ahead to the next chapter of the Leafs franchise. Jim McKenny, a former Leafs defenceman who played on the team during the '60s and '70s says the hope and optimism is warranted. "The Leafs were like Gods in Toronto in the 60s and 70s. It's been a little quiet since, but they've got a good team now and they're becoming better and better. They've got tons of speed and very good young players."
The Official Leafs Centennial Publication is available now.