January 24, 2021

Remembering George Armstrong

George Armstrong was never supposed to last long in the National Hockey League. Critics said he was a slow, clumsy skater who didn't possess a great shot. Yet somehow he overachieved. He played in 21 NHL seasons, all with the Leafs, and record 296 goals and 713 points in almost 1200 games. He is remembered as one of the all time great Leaf captains and is a member of the National Hockey League Hall of Fame.

George, universally known as Chief because of his proud native heritage on his mother's side, was a junior and senior hockey star in Toronto in the late 1940s. He was able to use his size to dominate these two levels of hockey, but many believed he couldn't make the jump to the NHL because of his poor skating and puck skills. But Leafs' boss Conn Smythe always believed in Armstrong and gave him every opportunity to make the Leafs. After two years of apprenticing in the American Hockey League, Armstrong made the Leafs full time in the 1952-53 season.

Armstrong was able to adjust to the NHL game and prove his critics wrong. He became a very reliable two way player. He was always dependable in his own zone and patrolled his wing with great efficiency, and there are few players who could work the walls and corners with the effectiveness of Armstrong. Offensively he contributed steady though never mind boggling statistics, but was always dangerous when he controlled the puck close to the net. He was the team jester off the ice, but deadly serious on it, both in games and in practice.

By the time Armstrong joined the Leafs, the franchise's great glory days had just been completed. After capturing 4 Stanley Cups in 5 years from 1947 through 1951, the team fell on lean times for most of the 1950s. But slowly but surely the Leafs progressed as Armstrong matured into a great player. By 1957-58 the dressing room comedian became the Leafs captain, and the following two seasons he led the Leafs back to the Stanley Cup finals, but wound up falling short to the dynastic Montreal Canadiens in both series.

The Canadiens lost their grip on the Stanley Cup following the retirement of Rocket Richard in 1960, just as the Leafs were emerging as the top team in the league. Armstrong was simply outstanding as the Leafs captured the 1962, 1963 and 1964 Stanley Cup championships.

As the 1960's wound down, Armstrong's game continued to be strong despite his advancing age. Despite his worse offensive season as a pro, Armstrong was instrumental in a surprise Stanley Cup championship in 1967. It was typical of Armstrong. Other than his longevity, no hockey statistic could ever relate just how important a player Armstrong was. All the unquantifiable intangibles that make hockey such a great game is where Armstrong excelled.

George retired for a short while after the 1966-67 season, just prior to the expansion draft. He told boss Punch Imlach to not protect him out of sentimental reasons, and thus risk losing a younger player to one of the expansion teams. But Punch refused to accept George's resignation. When George wasn't claimed in the first few rounds of the expansion draft, Punch Imlach protected him and left the door open for his return.

George's second retirement came after the 1967-68 season, but once again he left the door open, offering his services if he could help. Management welcomed him heartily and hadn't even tried to replace him as a captain.

He finally did retire permanently in 1971, but continued to work with the Leafs as a junior coach, and briefly coached the Leafs, with a fair deal of reluctance, in 1988-89. He also worked as a long time scout for both the Quebec Nordiques and the Leafs.

George's nephew Dale McCourt was one of the best juniors in the world and was the first overall pick in the NHL draft 1977 and went on to play 553 NHL games including 72 with the Leafs in 1983-84.

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