One of the things that confronts every Leaf fan at some point in his or her existence is the oddity of the team name. This usually comes in the form of some meathead who offers up a gem like “Hey, shouldn’t it be Leaves? Hur, hur, hur…”
As a result, Leaf fans learn at a young age the rules surrounding the plural form of proper nouns (two Maple Leaf players are Maple Leafs for the same reason that Julia Child and family are the Childs and not the Children – the first place I saw this actually spelled out in detail was in The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker). This is a form of public service, then. If grammar is not fully explained in our schools, we can learn it from our local sports teams.
Spelling aside, the question remains as to why this particular name was chosen. Off the Leafs’ official website, we get the following:
In February of 1927, Conn Smythe, who had built the New York Rangers franchise but was dismissed in favour of Lester Patrick, raised enough money to buy the St. Pats and prevented the team from moving to Philadelphia. Smythe, a military man, immediately had the Toronto franchise name changed from the St. Pats to Maple Leafs, the name of a World War I fighting unit, the Maple Leaf Regiment. He also switched the uniform colours to blue and white from green and white.
Conn Smythe fought in both world wars and was a fairly unabashed patriot, so the story rings somewhat true. There’s just one issue with it: so far as I can tell, there was no Maple Leaf Regiment that fought in World War I.
It is very difficult to prove a negative, so I can’t say with absolute certainty that this regiment never existed, but I find no evidence for it. The Canadian military takes its history seriously. My great-grandfather was part of the 85th Nova Scotia Highlanders. I can find his enlistment date, honours he won, places he fought, the date he was killed and where he was buried. The photograph of him in uniform is readily available online.
This is equally true of other regiments. When I was writing about Scotty Davidson, I was able to verify parts of the story by looking at military websites. If you fought for this country, there is a record of you.
I find nothing when looking for the Maple Leaf Regiment. The closest thing I found was that it might be considered an alternate name for the Princess Pats, but that’s an Edmonton unit. Smythe was an Ontario boy. He wouldn’t have named the team after a unit to which he had no ties.
I don’t find the lack of a unit completely damning for the official story, though, because I think the official story we have is actually a transcription error. During the First World War, the overwhelming majority of soldiers serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force wore a badge on their caps that looked something like this:
Each unit had something a little different, but the basic theme of the maple leaf was common to the majority of them. My suspicion is that what Smythe actually said was that the team name evoked the maple leaf regiment badges worn in WWI. In this case, “maple leaf” describes “regiment badge” as opposed to being the name of a particular regiment. What was transcribed as “Maple-Leaf-Regiment badge” would thus have been “maple-leaf regiment-badge.”
I also suspect this story came out many years after the name change, and the person taking the quote had no memory of WWI uniforms.
Why do I think this story came out well after the fact (and isn’t necessarily the real story)?
I have a couple of reasons. The first is that I’ve dug about old newspaper records from February, 1927, and while all note the sale and the name change, none (that I’ve found) carry the WWI angle. It wasn’t something being noted at the time. The second is that I don’t really think the military angle was really the driving force behind the change.
In Holzman and Nieforth’s Deceptions and Doublecross – How the NHL Conquered Hockey, the authors note that in late 1926, the exact same name change was being contemplated by the previous ownership group (this was reported in all the Toronto dailies). The reason they were looking at rebranding the St. Pats as the Maple Leafs was to align themselves with the most successful sports franchise in the city – the local baseball team.
The name “Toronto Maple Leafs” had an existence prior to February, 1927. The professional baseball club in town had worn it for 25 years and had had no small amount of success with it. The baseball Leafs played in the International League and had been a strong squad for a number of years. Of the MiLB Top 100 minor-league teams of all time, four are Leaf teams from the first quarter of the century.
In 1926, the Leafs finally broke through and passed the mighty Baltimore Orioles to claim first place in the IL. They hit .308 as a club, went 109-57 and swept the Junior World Series. They were playing in a beautiful, brand new ballpark at Bathurst and Lakeshore. They were setting attendance records. Life was good.
The St. Pats, for their part, were still mired in the lawsuits of Eddie Livingstone and were going nowhere as a club. The owners thought that maybe they could grab a bit of the positive Leafs vibe for themselves. Paraphrasing the viewpoint of the papers of the day, you could call the team a rose, but it would still stink.
Nonetheless, the first move Smythe made as new owner was to complete the name change the previous ownership was debating. Why?
Clearly, part of the change was the desire to start a new era. The Livingstone lawsuits were done (it was the damages he was awarded from the St. Pats group that forced the sale of the team) and he wanted a fresh start. I suspect that being the patriot he was, the symbolic aspect of the Maple Leaf appealed to him.
A secondary aspect of the change is that the baseball Leafs were owned by a man named Lol Solman. The person running the Arena Gardens (aka, the Mutual Street Arena) – the facility from which Smythe needed to rent ice? The same Lol Solman. By naming the team Maple Leafs, he was syncing his interests with those of the landlord of the building he was playing in.
It wasn’t unheard of for two teams in one city to share a name. Pittsburgh had an NHL team at the time called the Pirates. Sharing the name wasn’t that different from sharing a set of uniform colours (which most Toronto teams still do).
The name change did end up being a fortune-changer for the hockey team. By the 1930s, it was the hockey Leafs that owned the city. They had their own brand-new building they owned themselves (Maple Leaf Gardens), and the old Arena Gardens became a second-tier facility that eventually went bankrupt. The ball club fell on hard times, too. The 1930s and 1940s were decades of poor squads and bad attendance. There would be a nice revival in the 1950s, but they would never again rival the hockey team, much less surpass them.
Once the hockey Leafs became the established team, the suggestion that they were actually named for a struggling minor-league ballclub would not have been all that flattering. I think this is where Smythe made mention of the WWI angle. It makes better-sounding history. While I can imagine, again, that he liked this aspect of it at the time, I simply don’t accept it as the core reason for the switch.
In order for the reason for the name change to be anything other than what I suspect here, the following things have to be true: for a completely independent set of reasons, Smythe would have changed the name of the St. Patricks to the exact thing proposed by the previous ownership group – a name that just happened to be the same as the dominant sports entity in the city and just happened to be the property of the new landlord with whom he would need to arrange ice time and generally curry favour.
It just doesn’t pass the smell test.
The Leafs were named after the city’s baseball club, who they then surpassed in success and public profile to the extent that many forget the ball club ever really mattered or even existed. The rest is spin and marketing.
(Note – added 2013-03-06 – while the name most likely comes from the ball club, the original crest bears a distinct resemblance to the pin shown and could very easily have been an homage to it. That crest was in use through most of the 1930s.)