Ted “Teeder” Kennedy was originally property of the Canadiens and was invited to Montreal, to play for their Junior club but Montreal wasn’t for Ted. It didn’t feel right. He told the Habs he was going home.
February 28th 1943; enter Frank Selke who was running the Leafs for Conn Smythe, while he was on military leave. Selke would pull off what just might have been the greatest trade in Leafs history, acquiring the rights to the 17 year old Kennedy who would become the youngest ever to suit up for Toronto; Ted was about to fulfill his boyhood dream. That season, he would play his first game for the Maple Leafs.
Initially infuriated by the deal, because Selke had not consulted him, Kennedy would eventually become Smythe’s favourite player. Of Kennedy, Smythe would say “He was not the most gifted athlete, the way some players were but he accomplished more than most of them, by never playing a shift where he did not give everything he had. He was the greatest competitor in hockey”.
In his first full season with Toronto, he would average a point a game and in 1945 he would win his first Stanley Cup. Ted Kennedy and the Toronto Maple Leafs were poised to become hockey’s first dynasty.
At the outset of the 46/47 season, the Leafs bestowed upon Kennedy a great honour… the number 9. It was the number worn by his boyhood hero Charlie Conacher. The Toronto tradition, of one great passing his number onto another, had begun.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were the most powerful team of the era and would win Cups in 47 and 48. Ted’s idol and Captain, Syl Apps retired after the 48 victory and a clubhouse vote was taken to choose the next Leafs Captain. Ted Kennedy would be the recipient of the “C” and lead Toronto to their third straight Stanley Cup, a feat never before accomplished. Ted would say of the honour of replacing Syl Apps as Captain, “It was the proudest moment of my life.”
Line-mate Howie Meeker described Ted as “Tough as nails… there’s never been a harder worker. You would be ashamed if you didn’t go out and work as hard as he did. It was never I or me… it was always we… or us.”
Ted was as popular a player as any who has ever suited up for the Leafs. The battle cry of season seat holder John Arnott, from his section in the greens of “Come On Teeeeeder!” was as familiar in the 40’s and 50’s, as Go Leafs Go is today.
Four Cups in five seasons… there was more to come for the 23 year old Captain. Two years later in 1951, he would drink from the Cup for the fifth and final time; more than any other Maple Leaf in history. Every game of that series against the Canadiens went to overtime, with Ted scoring one of the winners. Ted became and still remains, the Leafs’ highest career scorer in the Stanley Cup Finals.
In the fall of 1951, following their 5th Cup in 7 years, a very special guest stopped by the Gardens. Princess Elizabeth attended a twenty minute exhibition match between the Blackhawks and the Maple Leafs. This was all quite special for the Leafs players and their Captain, who was presented to the future Queen. The game would end, in a 0-0 tie but don’t let the score deceive you. The last time I spoke with Ted Kennedy, I asked him about this game and the five-time Cup Champ told me that “it was the most intense 20 minutes of hockey, ever played at Maple Leaf Gardens”.
Ted would play four more seasons and in 1955 was awarded the Hart Trophy as the League’s most valuable player. It spoke to the type of player that Ted was; he did not finish in the top ten in scoring; he wasn’t even selected to the First or Second All Star Team… but he won the Hart anyway… and then… at the young age of 30… he retired.
Ted would play again, coaxed out of retirement by his old friend Howie Meeker, along with a campaign spearheaded by his legion of fans and the Toronto Star. After a year away Ted came back, wearing the “C” and the number 9 for thirty more games. His final game; a 14-1 win over the Rangers; the largest victory in Leafs history. The season not yet over and the Playoffs out of reach, Ted retired permanently after the victory, saying “It was time for a new generation to lead the team.” The next night, a player by the name of Frank Mahovlich would make his NHL debut, taking Ted’s spot on the roster.
Following Ted’s retirement, tradition would continue, as rising star Dick Duff was given Ted’s number 9. Duff said, that “at the time, Ted Kennedy was regarded by fans and team ownership as one, if not the best player, to have ever worn the crest of the Maple Leafs. I was truly humbled by the gesture. I admired him greatly and I wore his number with tremendous pride.”
In 1993, Cliff Fletcher canvassed the Alumni, to see who they felt deserved to be the first Leaf to have his number honoured and raised to the rafters of Maple Leafs Gardens. The consensus was overwhelming; it had to be Ted.
Always loyal, always humble and forever a gentlemen, Ted would politely decline the honour. He did not feel comfortable having his number go up before that of his idol; his Captain… Syl Apps. So on Opening Night, 1993, Syl Apps’ number 10 and Ted Kennedy’s number 9, were raised together. Ted wept.
The words written on the walls of the Leafs’ Dressing Room read “The Price of Success is Hard Work”. If this is true, then no one paid the price more often, no one enjoyed as much success.