As an Original Six team in the vaunted NHL, it's pretty easy to come up with a Top 10 list of great and memorable Maple Leafs captains. So, while thinking about the upcoming decision facing management, I pondered the qualities that I am expecting in the team's next on and off ice leader. I'm thinking moreso in terms of the intangibles (the essence and attributes) that duly warrant such an appointment from players I've seen play -- and not simply leading the team shift after shift but, for example, explaining a devastating loss in a composed manner to uber-critical mainstream media types night after night, since 1967, or happily appearing at SickKids to hug a 7 year-old who is dying of cancer. Of the most recent group, these are my choices...
Wendel embodies "passion" as it describes the penultimate of Leafs players and captains. He not only leveled player after player with devastating hits, but had that unique ability to score the game-winning goal coming down the left wing with a wicked snapshot. Wendel Clark was feared, simply, and he delivered in all departments. He is a living legend for Leafs fans, a real hero of the game. In terms of cultural importance, he is also the subject of a popular song, "The Ballad of Wendel Clark", written and released in the 80s by The Rheostatics. His first season with the Leafs was 85-86... 34 goals, while sitting 227 minutes in the box! Next season? Even better: 37 goals, and 271 minutes in the sin bin. Incredible.
Dougie was inspiring and a true gentleman, yet incredibly tenacious; grit and flash rolled into one gifted and gutsy captain. He never gave up the dream. He made me, and likely you, believe the Leafs could have won the Cup back in the early 90s. We were really close; one game away from the finals in fact. He came to Toronto from Calgary (in the 91-92 season) in a massive deal, and certainly played his best hockey while on the Leafs. In his second season, he set a franchise record of 127 points. During that playoff run, he amassed 25 assists, and finished second behind Mario Lemieux for Hart Trophy votes - the league's most valuable player. The following season he nailed 111 points, and for the 94-95 season was named captain, but this was the year of the infamous player lockout. Thereafter the team has been in a re-building mode and he was traded away. But he returned at the tail end of the 2003 season. Then it happened, on his first game back for the blue and white: the career ending collision. Luck and timing.
Honour and integrity. These two words come to mind when I think of Darryl Sittler. I watched the game (feb 7, '76) when he scored 10 points in one game... six goals and four assists! He was skilled and fun to watch. In those days he played alongside Errrol Thompson and Lanny McDonald, and together they scored a bunch. In total, Sittler played 844 games for the Leafs and scored 389 goals for the team, while assisting on 527 others. These totals are more than any other Leafs player, btw, and he served as captain for 6 of his 12 seasons with the club. He was both a leader and a star, and now a proud member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Sittler remains a great ambassador for the game today. The biggest reason, however, for his inclusion on this list has to be the way he publicly handled his (crushing) trade to the Flyers. Sittler was incredibly traded for Rich Costello, and a year later notched his 1000th point. This all-time great Leafs captain was invited back to the team in '91 and still works tirelessly for this community.
Let me preface this by saying it was pretty difficult to find a decent picture of Rick Vaive in action - and he truly had an awesome slapshot coming down the right wing. Vaive brought real scoring punch to the team. He played are what are now called some "awful" Maple Leafs teams in the 80s and during this period he played very, very well, after coming from Vancouver in the 79-80 season along with Bill Derlago, in exchange for Jerry Butler and Tiger Williams, though had been originally drafted into the WHA by Birmingham. He was a wonderfully tough and gritty player, and one of the first to be recognized as a power forward in the league. Imagine this: for three consecutive seasons in the early 80s, while playing on an "awful" Leafs team, Vaive scored 50+ goals, never let a good fight get in the way either! Some pundits today have called him an 80s version of Jerome Iginla. Vaive led the team with skill and toughness, and had to endure the ridicule of a merciless media in this era, not to mention a few disrespectful promotions, despite his tremendous efforts. Day after day, he must've felt the weight of the world on his shoulders ...until he was traded away. I believe Vaive is an unsung hero of the Leafs, too often overlooked. He delivered.
I never saw Ted "Teeder" Kennedy play, but he was certainly brought to my attention this summer in passing. He was great, and it was a tough decision, given these types of names who might've also rounded out this list, such as: Dave Keon, George Armstrong and Syl Apps. Teeder captained the team for several periods, starting in the late 40s and through the 50s. As reported by The Toronto Star recently, he played centre for the Leafs for 12 seasons and enjoyed five Stanley Cup wins, and was the last Leafs player to win the Hart Trophy in 1955 as the league's most valuable player. While Leafs owner and manager Conn Smythe never stated it publicly, in private he said that Kennedy was his favorite player, the man who represented Smythe's ideals of hard work, loyalty and tenacity. It was Frank Selke, however, the hockey genius who was in charge of the Leafs during Major Smythe's World War II absence, traded young defenceman Frank Eddolls to the Canadiens for the NHL rights to Kennedy. Kennedy thus caused the most monumental rift in Leafs history between Smythe and Selke. (After being fired, Selke then moved along to build the Habs' dynasty.) Upon retirement in '55 and after winning the Hart, Kennedy said: "The fun had gone out of the game for me, which became labor after a few seasons with the pressure on all the time." Howie Meeker, a linemate, convinced him to rejoin, though Kennedy eventually returned for 30 games, he gave way to a young Frank Mahavolich. "The team missed the playoffs and I sat out the last two games of the season so they could take a look at a kid named Frank Mahovlich,'' he concluded.