Well, let’s face it. It ain’t the Stanley Cup. Then again, the Leafs have won the Stanley Cup twice in my lifetime. (I don’t remember them. I was six months old in 1964 and 3 1/2 years old in 1967.) But I wasn’t even born the last time a Toronto player was named the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. Before last night, it had only happened twice in team history.
I don’t understand where the stars of the current team go once the playoffs start. Better analysts than I am have (and will continue) to discuss that. But Auston Matthews has won the Hart Trophy after a team record-breaking 60-goal season. You can’t take that away from him. And even if you want to argue that Connor McDavid is still the better player, the voting wasn’t all that close.
What do sportswriters know?
Well, Matthews also won the Ted Lindsay Award, and that’s given to the most outstanding player as voted on by his fellow players. If they think he deserves it, who are we to say he doesn’t?
The first Leafs player to win the Hart as MVP was Babe Pratt in 1944. The second — and last, until last night — was Teeder Kennedy in 1955.
Ted Kennedy was just a 17-year-old kid when the Leafs acquired him in the spring of 1943. With so many players serving in the military during Word War II, the NHL was populated mainly with young kids and worn-out veterans.
Kennedy was never the most skilled player. He wasn’t very fast. He wasn’t a big scorer. But he was a good playmaker. Most importantly, he was a leader who knew how to win. He starred during the most successful era in team history, winning the Stanley Cup in 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951. He was named captain of the team before the 1948-49 season.
Though he was still just 28 at the time, Teeder Kennedy had completed 11 seasons in the NHL by the end of 1953–54. He had planned to retire, but was convinced to come back for another year. Kennedy would score just 10 goals in 1954-55, but his 42 assists ranked third in the NHL and his leadership was a key reason why the Maple Leafs even made the playoffs.
Unlike the current team, the Leafs of Kennedy’s era won the Stanley Cup plenty of times, but didn’t win a lot of individual honours. “As coach Hap Day put it so well,” team owner Conn Smythe told reporters after the team’s Stanley Cup win in 1948, “we may not have the all-stars on our team, but we have the world champions.”
So it was somewhat ironic that Kennedy won the Hart Trophy in a year the Leafs struggled just to make the playoffs. (They were swept by the Detroit Red Wings, who went on to beat the Montreal Canadiens in seven games for the Stanley Cup.) But, when the results of the voting for the 1954-55 MVP award were announced, Kennedy easily out-polled teammate Harry Lumley as well as Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, and Doug Harvey of the Montreal Canadiens. Gordie Howe and Red Kelly of the Stanley Cup champions were well back in the voting.
Still, the general censuses was that it was about time that Teeder Kennedy was finally recognized for his talents. Everyone seemed to agree, except perhaps for the Leafs captain himself. “It comes as quite a thrill, one of the biggest I’ve had in hockey,” said Kennedy. “But I believe it should have been Harry Lumley. Leafs would have been down the drain without him. And I’m not just being modest.”
“Kennedy deserves the Hart,” said the Leafs goalie. “I hate to think of us without him. He was the guy that made our club tick.”
Despite winning the Hart, Kennedy made good on his plans to retire … though he did return to the team again during the 1956-57 season to help out when the club was hit with a rash of injuries. After that, he retired for keeps.
Sixty years later, in 2017, Teeder Kennedy was ranked third all-time — behind Dave Keon and Syl Apps — when the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrated their centennial season by naming their top 100 players. Auston Matthews undoubtedly has more sheer talent than any of those three. He’s probably already among the greatest players in Toronto’s history. But if he’s ever truly going to be the best, he’s going to have to lead the Leafs to the Stanley Cup … and pretty darn soon!