As you likely know by now, the Maple Leafs’ lavish ceremony on Saturday night to open the 100th season of NHL hockey in Toronto was a huge success. After years of choosing to “honour” players numbers but keep them in circulation, the team announced it would retire those numbers – as every other team in sports does for its greatest franchise heroes.
What Dave Keon had long perceived as this lack of proper recognition is what had kept him away from the team for so long, rather than any lingering resentment over his feud with Harold Ballard. Now Keon is back, and while I might quibble with his selection as the number-one player in Leafs history, his number 14 has taken its rightful place among the rest of the team’s greats.
In the past, the Leafs had only retired the numbers of Bill Barilko (5), who was famously killed in a plane crash after scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1951, and Ace Bailey (6) whose career ended in 1933 when he fractured his skull after being knocked to the ice by Boston’s Eddie Shore. Even so, James van Riemsdyk was the only current Leaf wearing one of these newly retired numbers, and he gladly gave up Borje Salming’s now-retired 21 and took 25.
Team president Brendan Shanahan had something very interesting to say when asked about the decision to change the Leafs’ policy regarding retired numbers. “When you asked questions, people really didn’t have a reason why we [weren’t doing it]. I like the story of players handing numbers down … to another player. But I don’t remember Borje Salming handing a sweater to JVR. It wasn’t happening. It’s a great story. But if you’re not doing it, then let’s do the right thing.”
I have read accounts from Teeder Kennedy saying how pleased he was when he was given the number of his hero Charlie Conacher, and I know that Darryl Sittler has talked about his belief that the team had big plans for him because he was given Frank Mahovlich’s #27. But the only Leafs story I’m aware of where a player literally handed his former number to a current player was when Ace Bailey requested that Ron Ellis be given his #6.
Bailey handed his number to Ellis in a ceremony at the Hot Stove Lounge at Maple Leaf Gardens on September 24, 1968. “My family and I wanted to see somebody wear the number while I was still active in hockey,” said Bailey, who was a timekeeper at the Gardens. “Ron is a real hockey player who never gives his club any trouble. I think he’ll be an all-star in years to come.
“This number is two digits lighter than your old number,” Bailey joked to Ellis, who had worn #8 since his junior days, “so you should go a little faster.”
“I’ll wear this sweater with a great deal of pride,” Ellis told him.
But as the Toronto Star noted the following day, Ace Bailey handed a #6 sweater to Ron Ellis, but not the #6 sweater. Bailey had kept his retired jersey for nearly 30 years, but it had recently been discovered that it was missing!
Bailey had loaned his sweater to the Hockey Hall of Fame about seven years earlier, but a short time later the Maple Leafs asked the Hall if they could have it and Barilko’s #5 sweater for a display at Maple Leaf Gardens. Gardens officials swore they had returned it, but the Hall of Fame’s new curator Lefty Reid was “99 percent sure it was not in the building.”
Speculation was that Bailey’s sweater may have been destroyed a few years earlier when a drain backed up at the Hall of Fame building and flooded some storage rooms, or that a workman might have made off with it during recent renovations there.
“If anyone has seen a blue hockey sweater, 1933 vintage, with a white Maple Leaf on the front and the number 6 on the back,” wrote Jim Crerar in the Star, “please contact Lefty Reid at the Hockey Hall of Fame immediately.”
I don’t believe the sweater has ever turned up.
P.S. As a late note to this story, the dean of hockey historians Bill Fitsell points out that Charlie Conacher DID hand a #9 sweater to Teeder Kennedy, as noted in the Globe and Mail of September 11, 1946. Click on the link to the right: leafs-unis-4