Sir Robert Borden was Canada’s prime minister when the Toronto hockey club played its inaugural game.
Thomas Langton Church was Toronto’s mayor. Canada was embroiled in the First World War.
When the puck dropped for the first game of what would become the National Hockey League in 1917, it might have been hard to picture just how important this team would be to the city a century later.
First the Arenas, then the St. Pat’s and not long after the Maple Leafs. There have been countless great moments for this team in the last century.
And then there was Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. It will go down in history too.
Not only was there an incredible ceremony to celebrate the centennial year, but the franchise finally did what so many thought they should do for decades upon decades.
They retired the numbers belonging to their 17 greatest players.
No longer will a player skate in the blue and white wearing No. 14, because the team’s greatest ever, Dave Keon, wore it. No one will again wear the No. 27 both Frank Mahovlich and Darryl Sittler wore with such distinction.
Same goes for 17, because Wendel Clark wore it, or George Armstrong’s 10, or the No. 7 that Tim Horton made famous. No new player will don the No. 1 that backstopped the team to nine Stanley Cups between Turk Broda and Johnny Bower.
No one will wear No. 13 — it forever belongs to team points leader Mats Sundin. Same for Doug Gilmour’s No. 93, the sweater in which he set the single-season and playoff scoring record.
Many fans were emotional when this was announced. But it shocked some of the players and their families.
“I was standing out there on the ice and I had no idea they were doing that,” Gilmour said. “I was in a state of shock. I have to tell you it was one special moment. One I will never forget.”
Bower told me he was holding back his emotions, too.
“You know, I didn’t put on that sweater until I was 35,” he said. “I lied and told them I was 33 but I was 35 and a guy from the minor leagues.”
Just think — from age 35 he went on to four Stanley Cups and got to see his number retired and banner raised high at the ACC at age 91. Yet another accomplishment in a fascinating life.
“Never give up,” is the motto.
And you never know what you can achieve and what greatness you possess.
This ceremony was beautifully done. It was magical.
“It’s just an amazing feeling,” said Horton’s daughter, Geri, who reminisced with Armstrong about those incredible glory days.
The terrific evening was also poignant because it celebrated the glories of the past while ushering in new elements of this storied team. A new PA announcer in Mike Ross. A new teen anthem singer, Martina Ortiz Luis, who wowed the crowd with amazing pipes and range, and exciting young players like Mitch Marner and Connor Brown to go with first overall draft pick Auston Matthews.
It’s a crop of players that may one day see their numbers retired. They may watch a Stanley Cup banner get raised to the rafters.
Toronto has changed in 100 years, and there’s no question the Blue Jays are hot and the Raptors, Argos and TFC have awesome support.
But on a night in October 2016 when Justin Trudeau was prime minster and John Tory mayor, the Maple Leafs showed why they reign as the kings of Toronto.
GRAPES: KEON A CLASS ACT
Dave Keon wasn’t just great on the ice, the Maple Leafs’ greatest-ever player was also great off it. Just ask a one-time player (who you might have heard of) who only put the Maple Leafs sweater on for a few minutes for a picture.
“He was a big star and there was no reason for him to even talk to us minor leaguers invited to camp, but he did,” Don Cherry said.
Cherry said in those days of the six-team league, many times players on the big club would not even talk to the outsiders.
“Davey Keon was a quiet guy but he was all class with me,” said Cherry. “He shook my hand and made sure I was comfortable.”
Years later, Cherry said he’s so pleased Keon no longer has bad feelings toward the Maple Leafs franchise and is getting his due.
“He deserves it,” Cherry said.
As for his fellow Kingston native Doug Gilmour being selected as the 13th greatest Leaf of all time, Cherry cried foul.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “I don’t agree with that at all. Who played with more heart and grit? There is no question he should be in the Top 5.”