Jeff Veillette (Jeffler)
March 17 2014 12:17PM
For whatever reason, I didn't get a lot of variety in my mailbag questions today, so I'm going to hold off from doing my usual weekly bit until I get a couple more. However, there is one question that I've been asked a lot and seen pondered even more so that is worth addressing today. Why don't the Leafs wear their Toronto St. Pats jerseys anymore?
It's crazy to think about, but the Toronto Maple Leafs haven't always been the Maple Leafs. In fact, if we want to get technical, the Ottawa Senators name has been around longer! The blue and white took on three different names and even a colour scheme change before landing on their iconic brand 87 years ago.
The National Hockey League as a whole was founded as a way to kick out Toronto Blue Shirts owner Eddie Livingstone from the National Hockey Association, but his hands weren't out of the new league's pockets just yet. Needing a roster, the Toronto Arena Company leased Livingstone's players from him for their first year, becoming the first NHL team to win the Stanley Cup. They didn't want to keep paying, however, so they turned the club into their separate entity, known as the Toronto Arenas, and kept the players without paying. Livingstone sued the arena company and won, effectively bankrupting them and forcing them to sell the team.
Enter the St. Patricks, a Toronto Amateur team with a decade or so of experience, and $5000 to pay to get into the league. Out went the blue and white, and in came the green. Their first year saw them get eliminated in the playoffs by Ottawa (the early 20th century was weird), but in 1921/22, Babe Dye lead the team past the Vancouver Millionaires in the deciding game of a best of five final, giving the St. Pats their first and only etching on the Stanley Cup.
Over the next few years, Toronto would have a playoff drought (sounds like today), get back into the playoffs because of a strike (sounds like today), and then crashed and burned in the two years that followed. Babe Dye was sold to the expansion Chicago Blackhawks, and once again, Livingstone reared his head, winning another lawsuit against the current ownership.
The St. Pats group had two options; take $200,000 and move to Philadelphia, or take 20% less and sell to Conn Smythe, keeping the team in Toronto. Eventually, it was decided that city pride was more important than money, and the rest is history. Smythe kept the green for one more season, mulling over the decision to go red or blue, but the Toronto Maple Leafs took to the ice and started their new era by... missing the playoffs.
Anyway, the St. Pats had a cool, simplistic design to their uniforms, and MLSE, the NHL, and their merch makers have adapted it to sell over the past decade and a half. Most popular of them all is the 1926-27 jersey, which due to its unique colour was used at home and on the road.
On to the actual question. There is some precedent in the idea of having the team wear the jersey again. Most teams will pull out a green jersey for warmups if they play in and around the date, and the New Jersey Devils have worn their "Christmas" red, white and green jerseys (in my opinion, the best active uniform in hockey) for several St. Patrick's Day games since 2010.
The NHL allows for a retro secondary alternate jersey to be worn up to four times a season (Vancouver used this policy during their 40th anniversary and the Kings still use it to wear their Royal Blue / Purple uniforms). Not to mention the fact that the Leafs wore it for a game during their 75th anniversary season! But, that's where the problem lies.
While not really publicized, the reason they haven't worn them since March 9th, 2002 is because of what happened on the day of that game. That night was opened with a lengthy pre-game ceremony, meant to pay tribute to the 26 best players in Leafs history. Many heroes from decades past showed up, and for the ones who were no longer alive, family took their place. In Busher Jackson's place came his nephew, Art.
But then the unthinkable happened. As he was called to the ice, he bent down and collapsed. He had suffered a heart attack, and didn't make it, dying before the opening faceoff (though kept quiet until after the game).
Whether it's a respect thing or a superstition isn't known, but the Leafs have avoided using the jerseys since. Blowing a third period lead and settling for a tie probably didn't help things much either.
Even with that said, I wouldn't be surprised to see them come back in the future. The organization's 100th anniversary is three years away, and barring that, the NHL St. Pats 100th is a half decade from now. At some point, the team will have little choice but to pay tribute.
In the mean time, the only way you'll see them on the ice is by picking one up yourself and having a game of shinny (maybe not here, though; outdoor rinks in Toronto are closed as of yesterday).