Skip to main content
NHL Insider

Former forward Ellis dreaming of Cup for Maple Leafs

Champion with Toronto in 1967 sees big things for current group

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- For half a century, members of the 1967 Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs have heard the plaintive cry of "When?" from fans whose patience and loyalty have been tested and frayed.

Ron Ellis, who has smiled bravely and even with a little resignation when speaking about the Maple Leafs' last championship parade in 1967, thinks he can see the light at the end of this tunnel.

Bleeding blue and white, having played all 1,034 of his NHL regular-season games, and 70 more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, for the Maple Leafs between 1963-64 and 1980-81, the former forward is even allowing himself the gentle thought of what it might be like in this city should the team win, well, you know …

"Toronto will be much like it was when we came home in 1972, having won the Summit Series in Moscow," Ellis said at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Thursday, 45 years to the day since Team Canada's stunning Game 8 victory over the Soviet Union. "In '72, there were thousands of people standing outdoors in the pouring rain at Toronto City Hall waiting for us to come in from the airport. That's a sample."

Then with a laugh, without mentioning by name the holy grail that sat glistening in the shrine's Great Hall one floor above where he spoke:

"This city is going to go just bonkers."

Ellis will be an interested member of so-called Leafs Nation when Toronto opens its season at the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).

The 72-year-old remains one of the most popular and visible members of the 1967 champions. For more than 20 years, he's been deeply involved with the Hall of Fame; he is the shrine's program director for the development association.

Ellis is around the Maple Leafs a great deal, often dropping into Air Canada Centre to visit with old friends and teammates, flying team colors without needing to be asked.

Impressed by the solid path being charted by a top-notch management team and coaching staff, his eyes opened by a roster that blends young talent with seasoned veterans, he is as encouraged as a fan base that is among the most loyal, and frustrated, in sports.

"It's an exciting time for Leafs alumni," Ellis said. "When we're up in the alumni box watching games, we're excited by what we're seeing. Even last year, those kids just played their hearts out. Every game was exciting. It was well worth the admission to watch them do their thing."

Ellis enjoyed last season's Maple Leafs, who finished fourth in the Atlantic Division with 95 points (40-27-15) and lost to the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference First Round in six games.

"Watching them this preseason, I feel that they haven't lost a step," Ellis said. "There's definitely going to be more pressure on these kids to repeat the season they just had but I think Coach [Mike] Babcock is the right guy to keep their feet on the ground and keep them encouraged and help them maintain their confidence. It's going to be a little tougher. The rest of the League knows them now, they're going to be facing shutdown lines and shutdown defensemen, but I think they're going to fight through that."

Ellis cherishes his sepia memories of the 1967 Cup victory, the Maple Leafs knocking off the heavily favored Montreal Canadiens that year in a six-game Final. He had a lot to do with it, using his 5-foot-9, 195-pound fireplug physique to bruise the Canadiens at every turn and check Montreal's stars into the ice. As a bonus, he scored the first goal in Game 6, a 3-1 victory, burying a Red Kelly rebound behind Canadiens goalie Gump Worsley.

In the historic Summit Series five years later, skating on a line with Bobby Clarke and Paul Henderson, Ellis was given the formidable task of checking Valeri Kharlamov. The Russian forward scored twice in Game 1 but once more in the six subsequent games he played.

Ellis had broken into the NHL from the major junior Memorial Cup champion Toronto Marlboros, given sweater No. 11 by coach Punch Imlach. The native of Lindsay, Ontario, scored 39 points (23 goals, 16 assists) in his 1964-65 rookie season (after playing one game for the Maple Leafs in 1963-64) and was edged for the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie by Detroit Red Wings goalie Roger Crozier.

Fueled by his superstitions, Imlach took No. 11 off Ellis for 1965-66 and gave it to Ellis' Marlboros friend and teammate Brit Selby, hoping it would bring the incoming forward good luck. Ellis happily took No. 8, which he'd worn to win the Memorial Cup in 1963-64, and played solidly in it for the next three seasons.

And then the forward was given what he says was his greatest honor in hockey. Former Maple Leafs forward Ace Bailey, seeing more than a little of himself in Toronto's No. 8, asked Toronto management to take his own iconic No. 6 out of retirement so he could offer it to Ellis.

Only two Maple Leafs numbers were out of circulation at the time: Bailey's, since 1934, and defenseman Bill Barilko's No. 5, since 1951.

Ellis wore No. 6 with great distinction until the end of his career, the number going back into retirement after his final game on Jan. 14, 1981.

"I was thrilled to have Ace offer me his number and we became very, very good friends," he said. "What made it even more special was when Paul (Henderson) and I were invited to Summit Series training camp, I said to Ace, 'If I make the team, I'm going to ask for No. 6 in your honor.' And it worked out."

In his first 12 full NHL seasons, Ellis scored 22 or more goals 11 times, with an NHL career-high 35 in 1969-70. Last season, he was chosen by fans and a voting panel as No. 24 on a list of the top 100 Maple Leafs of all time. Bailey was No. 25.

Today, on contract with the Hall of Fame, Ellis handles marketing, sponsorship and public relations needs while keeping in touch with the shrine's honored members.

Any time he's in the Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto, he's within a few steps of the Stanley Cup, which he hugged in 1967 and which this city has been waiting to embrace for half a century.

"The people ask me about it all the time," Ellis said. "I was fortunate enough to be on the last Stanley Cup team here 50 years ago, and it's so hard to believe the Leafs haven't won since then. But as we know with expansion and so many teams now, it's not an easy thing.

"Back when we won it, there were six teams and we only had to play two playoff series. Now, even if you have the best team in the League, you have to win four series to win the Cup. Many years, the top-place team (in the regular season) doesn't get past the second round. It's crazy. It's so difficult to win."

Ellis is a proud reflection of the most recent NHL championship in this town, something very clear beneath the Great Hall's stained glass ceiling as he poses for a photo, wrapping his arm around a priceless sterling trophy on which his name is engraved. But he also can't wait for the day when he can no longer say that he was on the most recent Maple Leafs team to win, well, you know …

View More

The NHL uses cookies, web beacons, and other similar technologies. By using NHL websites or other online services, you consent to the practices described in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, including our Cookie Policy.