Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull have many things in common.
They’re Hall of Famers, Stanley Cup champions, beloved heroes and are immortalized on their former NHL playing grounds with statues holding their resemblances.
The last point on the list is what differentiates these men from Maple Leafs legends such as Johnny Bower, Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler and Doug Gilmour, players whose likenesses aren’t sculpted outside of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.
“Over the years the Leafs have not been noted for embracing their history,” said Joe Pelletier, a freelance hockey journalist and founder of greatesthockeylegends.com. “Harold Ballard was not much of a sentimentalist.”
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Ballard, the notoriously grouchy majority owner of the Maple Leafs in the 70s and 80s, seems to be the consensus scapegoat regarding the organizations disconnect with its past and players.
Keon, the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP in Toronto’s most recent Stanley Cup victory in 1967, was driven away from the club by Ballard in 1975 despite being team captain and a fan-favourite.
In his 15 seasons on the team he helped the Leafs capture four Stanley Cups, won two Lady Byng awards and a Calder trophy, but was essentially forced to the WHA by Ballard, who felt his leadership was lacking and wasn’t worth a new contract.
Sittler, another captain, was the first Leaf to have a 100-point season and his 10-point (six goals, four assists) game in 1976 is an NHL record that looks as though it could stand forever.
A 12-year member of the organization and one of its best scorers to date, Sittler’s relationship with Ballard and general manager Punch Imlach was also a rocky one.
Ultimately the feud built on mistrust, communication breakdowns and poor team performance, led to Sittler being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers leaving him on bad terms with the Leafs.
Keon and Sittler are the most glaring examples of scorned Leafs heroes, annoyed with the behaviour of their former owner. They are also two of the more-deserving Maple Leafs in line to have a statue erected in their honour despite their gripes with the organization.
However, Ballard passed away in 1990, over two decades ago, and the Maple Leafs attitude toward its history has taken a different tone ever since.
“After [Ballard] departed, they started to honour their players and their numbers,” veteran journalist and broadcaster Scott Morrison told the Observer. “And they have done a much better job of embracing their past.”
The Maple Leafs have since honoured 15 players’ jersey numbers, and retired two others to honour legends from times of yore. Mats Sundin’s No. 13 will be the 16th number honoured in a ceremony next February at the ACC.
Regarding sculptures, the concept of idolizing players from the past is percolating within the Maple Leafs brain-trust.
“Plans are underway to erect statues in the area outside of the ACC,” said Kevin Shea, a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs Historical Committee. “I’m not able to divulge much now, but there will be news announced in the not-too-distant future.”
A contact from within the Maple Leafs organization could offer no official statement regarding the situation.
Knowing that a statue will be raised, three questions come to mind, where will it go, who will it honour, and when will it be revealed?
“At the ACC they have property on the west side to erect something,” said Morrison, who also sits on the historical committee. “Who would it be? You could argue Conn Smythe or Johnny Bower.”
The west side of the ACC is the location of Maple Leafs Square, off of Bremner Ave., just east of York St., where there is an open courtyard between the west and north entrances to the arena.
While Morrison’s prediction of the location for the statues seems spot on, the characters featured in sculpture may not be as easy to pinpoint.
“There are plenty of candidates,” said Pelletier. “So many that if they all had statues, there’d be no place left to park.”
Pelletier went on to list Leafs legends such as Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy, Bill Barilko, Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour, among many others. Being an original-six franchise, there are plenty of impactful people to choose from.
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Putting a timeline on when the statues are planned to be unveiled is about as difficult as it is to identify the legend, or legends, that are to be featured in the monument.
Privileged information such as the exact location, timeline and likeness immortalized by the statue is hidden under lock-and-key by the Maple Leafs and cannot be reported with certainty.
The good news is that the team continues to build a positive recognition of its storied history, leaving behind the drama and disregard of years gone by.