Prolific hockey writer Mike Leonetti set out to answer one of the most difficult questions in all of hockey.
Who is the greatest Toronto Maple Leaf of all time?
Not an easy question, is it? While Montreal has Rocket Richard, Boston has Bobby Orr, Detroit has Gordie Howe, Chicago has Bobby Hull and Edmonton has Wayne Gretzky, is there a definitive face of the storied Toronto Maple Leafs franchise?
In fact, when I named the top 36 hockey players of all time a couple months back, I did not include a single player synonymous with the Maple Leafs. (Terry Sawchuk and Red Kelly both made my list, but I think most people always view them, especially Sawchuk, as Red Wings)
If you were to ask 14 different people you'd come up with 14 different answers. Well that's exactly what Leonetti did for his latest book project Maple Leafs Top 100: Toronto's Greatest Players Of All Time. Leonetti asked a jury of Mark Askin, Howard Berger, Joe Bowen, Milt Dunnell, Doug Farraway, Paul Hendrick, Lance Hornby, Harry Neale, Frank Orr, Paul Patskou, Frank Selke, Bill Watters, co-author John Iaboni and himself to determine a definitive list of the top 100 players in Maple Leafs history.
Coming up with this list is extremely difficult. The Leafs glory years came in the 1940s and 1960s. Very little video evidence and first hand accounts exist for the late '40s dynasty, so how do you fairly treat Syl Apps, Teeder Kennedy, Turk Broda and Max Bentley. Even the 1960s dynasty is very distant, and those teams really prided themselves on putting the team before the individual. Frank Mahovlich, Johnny Bower and Dave Keon stood out, but perhaps their legacies were minimalized. The Leafs have had so little success since the 1960s that a couple generations of fans don't know what a championship run really is. Championships = greatness, so how do you compare Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark and Mats Sundin.
Well the panel of experts narrowed it down, and I have to say I'm highly impressed with the results, or at least the top end. The panel's voting identifies Dave Keon as the greatest of the Maple Leafs, with Teeder Kennedy, Syl Apps, Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler, Charlie Conacher, Johnny Bower, Tim Horton, Turk Broda and Borje Salming rounding out the top 10.
I have no real qualms over the top 10 list, though once you realize who is not included you realize how tough this undertaking really is. Where's Mats Sundin, the franchise's all time leading scorer? Where's King Clancy, once the undisputed face of the franchise? How about George Armstrong, Doug Gilmour, Max Bentley....
The list goes 100 deep, which is an aesthetically pleasing number, but perhaps a bit too long. Even with 80 years of history to wade through, do Mark Osborne or Todd Gill really belong in a book about the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time? With this being the 80th anniversary of the franchise, perhaps 80 would have been enough?
This book is published by Raincoast Books, and as always they come through with the most beautiful of books. Each of the top 100 receive a full color photo (except, for obvious reasons, for some of the players from decades ago) with at least one more smaller color image.
Leonetti is a power writer, churning out books left, right, and center. In fact, just 5 years ago he did the book Maple Leaf Legends: 75 Years of Toronto's Hockey Heroes, featuring the top 75 players in his estimation. His usual style is to accompany Raincoast's commitment to beautiful photography with biographies, some of which can be quite brief.
Leonetti recognizes that his past formula for success needs refreshing for another greatest Leafs book. Instead of biographies Leonetti highlights a single game in each player's career which was the defining moment in each player's time with the Leafs.
Now the defining moment provides for some nice reading, but it somehow leaves me feeling like the book is lacking. If you write a book ranking the greatest players of all time, then I want some defense of the results. I know it was a panel decision and not Leonetti exclusively, but compel me, wow me with some arguments why. Too controversial? All the better! The greatest game idea is a wonderful concept, but perhaps for another book.
I think the best part of the book's text is essayist John Iaboni's contributions. Perhaps too often his compositions are too biographical, but when he allows himself to get personal in his memories (Keon, Bower) he writes wonderful stuff.
All in all, I think this is a REALLY good book that comes up a bit short of being a GREAT book.