It has now been a little over a week since the Leafs sent Dion Phaneuf to Ottawa, rendering the Leafs captainless for a third time. Fan reaction was about what one would expect – equal parts acceptance, glee and despair.
What I found a little puzzling was a media reaction that I saw in multiple places: “Why is it that Leaf captains are never permitted to retire gracefully? Why do they always end up leaving, so often in poor circumstances?” (I’m paraphrasing, of course. It lets me clean up the grammar.)
In terms of who the last Leaf captain was to retire as captain on his own terms, this was invariably reported incorrectly. The common answer was George Armstrong, but the correct answer is Ted Kennedy. Armstrong did get to retire on his own in 1971, but had ceded the captaincy to Dave Keon in 1969. Teeder retired as captain twice – once in 1955, again in 1957.
In terms of why Leaf captains always get sent away, the answer is the same as it is for every other team in hockey:
With very few exceptions, the only time a captain gets to sail gracefully into the sunset is when they’ve been a winner, preferably more than once. For the rest of them, it’s not so much about whether they are somehow insufficient as players or leaders, they’re just victims of the rebuild cycle every failing team undertakes with regularity (and realistically, 90% of teams haven’t won in recent memory and are unlikely to do so in the immediate future).
Everyone has seen it. Team X isn’t getting where it needs to go. The coach may or may not already be replaced. The focus turns to the core of the team, the leadership and expensive veterans (one of whom is invariably the captain). They’re either moved for different expensive core bits or more likely picks and youth, so the whole cycle can begin again. This isn’t a Leaf habit. It’s an everybody habit. None of this is news.
For the record, this is what has happened to each captain since Teeder retired for the last time:
George Armstrong captained the Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, so he earned his right to do what he wanted. As the ’60s started to head into the ’70s, Armstrong became more ambivalent about playing (he was well into his late 30s) and needed to be talked into his last couple of seasons. He ceded the captaincy to Dave Keon in 1969, but played on until 1971.
Dave Keon put up some of his best scoring totals as captain, but the Leafs stumbled primarily due to management. The Leafs sold off most of their farm system in the late 1960s and were shredded by the WHA when Ballard decided he didn’t feel like playing the salary game. By 1974-75, young kids like Sittler, McDonald et al were showing themselves ready and the Leafs decided to go with them. Keon, hardballed in contract talks, went to the WHA, starting a long, long period of estrangement.
Darryl Sittler‘s Leafs fared pretty well, but could never get to the level that would let them get past the dynasty Habs teams of the late 1970s. Ballard thus hired Punch Imlach as GM, hoping he still had some magic. Punch decided that the players of the 70s needed to become the indentured servants of the 1950s and ’60s, which went about as well as one would expect. The team was gutted and fell apart. Sittler, who had a no-trade clause and a long-term deal, outlasted Punch but had had enough by 1982. He was dealt to Philadelphia for picks and prospects, the best of whom was Peter Ihnacak.
Rick Vaive was named captain at just 22 years of age and led a team that relied heavily on players even younger than he was. Things generally went badly. In the middle of 1985-86, Vaive stayed out too late commiserating with former linemates and overslept, missing practice. He was stripped of the captaincy and traded to Buffalo a year and a half later.
Rob Ramage was named captain immediately after arriving in a trade from Calgary, ending a period of three seasons without a captain (sound familiar?) His first season went quite well and the Leafs had their best finish in a decade. His second season was the great collapse of 1990-91, in which an injury-ravaged Leaf team traded everything that wasn’t nailed down in order not to not finish last and hand Eric Lindros to New Jersey. Mission accomplished. Ramage was left unprotected in the expansion/restocking draft for San Jose and Minnesota.
Wendel Clark captained the Leafs to within a goal of the Stanley Cup Final in 1993 – still their best showing since 1967. After another semi-final trip in 1994, GM Cliff Fletcher and coach Pat Burns agreed that their team had maxed out its potential. Clark was traded at the draft for future captain Mats Sundin.
Doug Gilmour captained a team that lost its way after losing Clark and never really found it again, even with Clark reacquired in an ill-advised deal. The real problem is that there were far too many ill-advised deals. The whole thing fell on its face in 1996-97 and the team was taken apart. Gilmour eventually asked out and was traded to New Jersey for prospects.
Mats Sundin captained the Leafs through a period of resurgence under Pat Quinn and through two semi-final appearances in 1999 and 2002. Post-lockout, the Leafs were old, lacked goaltending and the decision was made to rebuild. Much like with Sittler, former GM Cliff Flectcher was brought back in to try to work magic and spent most of his time trying for force players to give up no-trade clauses and be moved. Most of Sundin’s last season was spent with Fletcher publicly trying to convince him to accept a deal. Sundin refused, saying he wanted to see things through with his teammates. He would sign a half-season deal with Vancouver and then retire.
Dion Phaneuf, like Ramage, was brought in from Calgary after a couple of captainless seasons and awarded the ‘C’. Very little has worked since. Was it Dion’s fault? No, not really. But now he’s a Senator.
It looks bad to see it laid out like this, but it’s certainly not uncommon. Most teams have similar stories. Montreal hasn’t had a captain retire since Gainey. Boston is the same. Detroit has had it, but of course, they’ve been winning. Shane Doan looks like a possible exception to the rule, but really, he’s about it.
If Stamkos arrives and hoists a Cup while he’s here, well, then we’re talking.
Here’s the back of the Teeder card, since this is what I do: