A different captain for a different time

DAVE FULLER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:20 AM ET

TORONTO - George Armstrong was in Dwight, Ontario, north of Huntsville, last week, looking to buy a canoe skin.

The last Toronto Maple Leafs captain to win a Stanley Cup turns 80 next month. Apparently he still skins his own canoes. But that’s another story.

Armstrong and his son were up in Dwight, chatting with the proprietor of the local sporting goods store, a guy whose store walls were adorned with photos of old-time sports celebrities.

“See that one?” the owner said proudly, pointing to a photo of himself with one of the VIPs. “Do you know who that is?”

“Yeah, that’s Lionel Connacher,” Armstrong replied.

“Boy are you good ... how ’bout that photo?”

“Ted Kennedy,” the Chief shot back.

The game continued for a few more minutes before Armstrong’s son finally identified his dad. Unfortunately, no one had a camera handy.

That same night, when Armstrong arrived home, there was an email from the canoe shop waiting on his computer.

“The guy said he was so excited, he told everyone he met that I’d been in his store,” Armstrong said. “Except, only one person had ever heard of me.”

We’re guessing, a generation from now, not everyone will know of Dion Phaneuf. For now, though, the 25-year-old defenceman, who seems more guarded than personable, is the Chosen One, the 18th captain in Maple Leafs history, joining a rarified fraternity that includes Armstrong, Kennedy, Darryl Sittler, Bob Davidson, Wendel Clark, Doug Gimour, and most recently, Mats Sundin.

These are difficult times to be a Leaf — they have been for quite a while. And, now that Leafs fans can no longer hide behind the Chicago Blackhawks when it comes to Stanley Cup futility, the pressure inside the Air Canada Centre will intensify. If that were possible.

Phaneuf, were he a religious man, might want to pray that Leafs general manager Brian Burke knows what he’s doing, otherwise he’s going to be facing a lot of unfriendly questions from a prodding sports media, so large now, that it rivals small towns in terms of population.

Were it not for the fact that Armstrong has been with the Leafs every step of the way since 1967 — as player, interim head coach, scout, ambassador and mentor — Monday’s massive cornonation might have seemed over the top.

Actually, it was over the top — even by Leafs standards.

Armstrong, Sittler and Clark were there. So were teammates Phil Kessell, Tyler Bozak and Luke Schenn. Burke, Cliff Fletcher and coach Ron Wilson. Leafs suits Richard Peddie, Larry Tanenbaum and Tom Anselmi. A handful of ex-Leafs, player agents, and lining a glass balcony two stories above the staging area, were dozens of Leafs season ticket holders invited to be part of this slice of history in the making.

“When I became captain it was a little bit different than it is today,” Armstrong said with a chuckle. “ I remember we went in to play our first game, we looked at our sweaters and the ‘C’ was on my sweater. That was it!”

The year was 1957.

“There was no big fanfare about those things in those days,” he continued. “Like when we scored goals, we didn’t even stick our arms up in the air and say ‘hooray’. We’d say, ‘Hey, we got a goal’, head for the bench and that was it.”

Armstrong said he kept his role as Leafs captain simple:

“For me, I just wanted to play as hard as I could, lead by example, try to lead a clean life off the ice and try to be respectful.”

Even so, when the Leafs were struggling, getting embarrassed by the likes of Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard or Bill Gadsby, Armstrong often found himself at the centre of tyrannical coach Punch Imlach’s hurricane.

“One of the things I learned in those days was that sometimes the captain gets a lot of hell in the dressing room from the coaches,” he said. “The reason for that was if the coaches could give the captain hell, no one else on the team could complain about getting hell.”

Forty years later, coaches, in most cases, are a lot more player friendly. They almost need to be, for it doesn’t take much for a team of players to pull the chute, leaving their bench boss dangling with no safety net.

But the media demands — that’s something Armstrong wouldn’t wish on any player.

“I think it’s a heavier burden being a captain in these days. It was an important thing in those days, but with the news media and the coverage the kids get ... We used to be interviewed once a year on the radio for 10 minutes by Wes McKnight and that was it.

“We didn’t have to talk to you guys every day after practice, every day after a game ... we just played hockey.”

Armstrong hopes Phaneuf can handle all that, figuring if Brian Burke didn’t, or Ron Wilson didn’t think he could, they would not have crowned him captain on Monday.

Whether Phaneuf turns out to be the first since Armstrong to hoist the Cup, remains to be seen.

Says Armstrong about his own 43-year streak as the last captain to win it:

“I’m glad I was on the Stanley Cup team and I’m sorry some other folks weren’t.”

Meantime, Armstrong says he’s headed back to Dwight, Ontario, to buy that canoe skin.

We mention this just in case the store owner wants to bring his camera.


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