It’s a Nice Idea, But…

With expectations high among Toronto hockey fans for the upcoming season, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and mayor John Tory announced this week that December 19, 2017, will be designated Toronto Maple Leaf Day. The date will mark exactly 100 years since the first games in NHL history, which were played on December 19, 1917.

“Our birthday comes on a Tuesday,” said Shanahan. (The original date in 1917 was a Wednesday.) “It’s a school night. So the decision was made [to play the game] at two in the afternoon.” It would have been nice to have had a more historically significant opponent than the Carolina Hurricanes, but what can you do? Shanahan said the Leafs are encouraging season ticket holders to bring a child with them that day, or to donate their tickets to the MLSE Foundation, which will give them to school-aged fans. Of course, the kids will have to get permission to skip an afternoon of school.

The Leafs will also be wearing special jerseys that night, modelled after the uniforms worn by the Toronto Arenas of old.


My guess would be, this jersey – which the team didn’t actually wear until the second NHL season of 1918-19 – was chosen because it so prominently displays the Arenas name. It’s pretty widely known that Toronto’s team was called the Arenas before it became the St. Patricks and the Maple Leafs … but you can pick a pretty good fight among hockey historians by asking them whether or not the Arenas name was actually used in 1917-18. The team was clearly run that first season by the owners and operators of the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, but most newspapers referred to them that year as the Torontos, the Blue Shirts, or the Blueshirts. (Sometimes, just the Blues.) These were nicknames the team had been known as throughout the history of the National Hockey Association, forerunner of the NHL. But that’s another story for another day. (Or you can see some of the comments below.)

Still, if anyone had asked me, I’d have argued strongly for a sweater based on the uniform Toronto’s team actually wore during that first season of 1917-18. Yes, it’s a little bit plainer (and was pretty much the same uniform the team had worn for five seasons as the Blue Shirts/Blueshirts in the NHA), but it’s the uniform that was worn on the night of December 19, 1917. It’s the uniform Toronto players were wearing when they won the Stanley Cup at the conclusion of the first NHL season in 1918.

Harry Holmes, on the left, in the uniform of Toronto’s team
of 1917-18.  Harry Cameron sports the jersey of 1918-19.

Instead of honouring the first NHL champions, the Leafs are going with a sweater that commemorates, arguably, the worst season in 100 years of Toronto’s NHL history.

The 1917-18 Stanley Cup winners completely fell apart in 1918-19. There were accusations that some team members played while drunk. That may or may not have been true, but the team was playing so poorly that the NHL decided to re-jig the entire schedule midway through just to keep Toronto in the playoff picture in a league that only featured two other teams! Even at that, the Arenas were so awful in 1918-19, and attendance in Toronto so terrible, that ownership suspended operations before the season was over. The team played just 18 games, posting an overall record of 5-13-0 for a “points” percentage of .278 that will probably always be the worst mark in franchise history. It would result in just 45 points in the current 82-game schedule. Toronto returned to the NHL in 1919-20 under new ownership comprising men who had previously run the senior amateur St. Patricks team of the Ontario Hockey Association. Hence the new name.

You can read all about those early years … and every other season in the first hundred years of Toronto’s NHL history in a certain new book due out in October…

Leafs book

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, if you’re already thinking about buying or recommending The Toronto Maple Leafs: The Complete Oral History, please consider pre-ordering a copy at Amazon or Indigo or wherever you like to buy your books. And don’t be shy about ordering any of my other books there either!

9 thoughts on “It’s a Nice Idea, But…

  1. I’m looking at Volume 1 – Hockey History Yearbook
    A Year in the History of the …

    Toronto Blue Shirts
    The Torontos

    Stanley Cup Champions

    Not sure how long I’ve had this, maybe 20 years. Photos on the cover show players wearing “T” shirts.

    Looking forward to receiving your book.

    1. If that book wasn’t the very first to claim the Arenas of 1917-18 should really be the Blueshirts, it was certainly the first I was aware of. As I say in the story, the newspapers often referred to them as the Torontos, and the Blueshirts/Blue Shirts that season … but I don’t really believe that’s concrete proof they weren’t officially the Arenas.(After all the Blue Shirts of the NHA were officially the Toronto Professional Hockey Club.)

      1. “Deceptions and Doublecross” by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth places the “birth” of the Toronto Arenas franchise at October 19, 1918, because at the NHL meeting held on that date, Hubert Vearncombe submitted an “application for franchise rights to become a member and partner of the National Hockey League on terms to be mutually agreed upon,” in the name of the “Toronto Arena Hockey Club” (page 197).

        Of course, on the very next page, the authors write that “the temporary franchise held by the Arena Gardens Hockey Club, whose name first appeared in the minutes of the NHL meeting of February 1918, was returned to the league.”

        According to Andrew Ross in “Joining the Clubs,” after the 1917/18 season, when Eddie Livingstone sued the Arena Gardens people for the return of the players’ contracts, the Gardens claimed they were under no obligation to do so.

        Why? The Gardens claimed their agreement with Livingstone covered the team in the NHA, which was still incorporated but no longer operating as a hockey league. They claimed Livingstone had behaved “fraudulently” by “wilfully suppressing” news of the impending shutdown of the NHA, and that their only recourse had been to form a new team, the Arena Gardens Hockey Club of Toronto, and enter it in the NHL. Ross cites court testimony from July 1918 here.

        So, at least as early as July 1918, the position of arena management was that the club had been the Arena Gardens Hockey Club from November 1917 onward. But even if that’s the case, as you note, Eric, reporters and editors of the Toronto papers didn’t call them the Arenas. I’m most comfortable thinking of the 1917/18 team as simply the Toronto Hockey Club.

  2. Ever notice how these supposed 1918/19 Toronto Arenas player photos, like the one of Cameron above, bear the hallmark of being digitally retouched? “Arenas” on his sweater is quite apparently in the Helvetica typeface, which didn’t exist until 1957. (There’s one of Bert Lindsay out there, where someone appears to have gone to the trouble of making the “Arenas” text look a bit embossed.) The striping on the arms is also suspect. And aside from the lettering and the striping, what they are wearing is basically identical to pictures claiming to depict the 1917/18 Toronto club.

    Photos of the 1918/19 Arenas seem to be rare, at least on the Google machine. Holzman & Nieforth paraphrase the Toronto Globe as saying that the team that took the ice on December 23, 1918, wore uniforms “which borrowed from the colour scheme of a local amateur team, the Ashalantas” (page 201).

    This passage is quoted on the HF Boards by someone suggesting that the 1918/19 Arenas wore different colours from the “Blueshirts” of the year before. The thread is here:

    The original poster bases this hypothesis on an undated newspaper photo of the Arenas:

    (Not the greatest shot, but it’s pretty clear the lettering isn’t in the as-yet-undesigned Helvetica font — there’s enough variation that my guess is the letters were cut by hand out of felt in a generic “gothic” or sans-serif style.)

    I honestly don’t think you can make a sound judgment about the colour of the sweaters from that photo. But someone later in the thread did go to the trouble of unearthing a December 5, 1918, story in the Globe about the Ashalantas, who seem to have played only one game before their bid to join the OHA junior series was denied. The story refers to them as the “blue and white.” So it’s a safe bet that the sweaters were some shade of blue.

    But what interests me about the undated photo is that the trim on the necks of at least some of the sweaters is tone on tone. In other words, that detail is not identical to the year before.

    So not only did the 2017/18 Maple Leafs miss an opportunity to, as their marketing bumf claims, “go back to the beginning,” but the design seems to be based on a sweater that may well never have been used in an NHL game.

    Sorry to go all [crazy] on you, Eric, but you’ll agree there’s something about the early history of Toronto pro hockey that brings out the uber-geek in some of us!

    1. Yes, the early Toronto history certainly does bring out the “uber-geek” in some of us!

      James Milks and I had a brief discussion about the Arenas photos yesterday. And, yes, I think that photo you link to MUST be legit, and must be from a newspaper.

      As to colours, I see no reason to doubt that the Blue Shirts wore blue shirts, that the 1917-18 shirts are those very same blue shirts, and that other than adding Arenas and some stripes, there’s little reason to believe the 1918-19 jerseys would have radically altered that color scheme.

      With regard to your first comment, clearly an application was made by Hubert Vearncombe on behalf of the Arena Gardens for a franchise in 1918-19. And just as clearly, the “temporary” franchise held by the Arena Gardens was returned to the NHL after the 1917-18 season and before the 1918-19 season. It does seem that at some point after the 1917-18 season, even the newspapers began retroactively referring to the 1917-18 team as the Arena Hockey Club. My guess would be the Arena people started pressing the name change in relation to the Livingstone suit to be able to say it was clearly a different team. Another well-known author with an interest in this time period seems to believe that during the 1917-18 season, Arena management was happy with, and certainly didn’t discourage, the use of the Blue Shirts/Blueshirts name … probably as a familiar “marketing brand” and that it was likely Livingstone’s lawsuit that pushed the Blue Shirts name out of popularity.

      For me, and I know that this certainly isn’t a legal argument that would stand up, I’m happy to call a Toronto Hockey Club operated by the Arena Gardens the Arenas. (I think, over the years, we’ve become way too hung up on team nicknames from long ago in a way the people at that time never were.)

  3. Fascinating history of the Leafs b4 they were the Leafs! I had NO idea…And in Dec. 1917 my Father was 3 weeks old….
    My point is: I really enjoy reading about this ‘old’ history! You really bring it to life for a ‘hockey dummy’ like me!!! Hahaha….
    Sherri-Ellen T-D. 🙂

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