Before King Auston Matthews’ goals in the NHL, there was Gaye Stewart – 75 years ago. Why don’t the Maple Leafs win more NHL awards?
It’s a trivial question that has convinced even die-hard Maple Leafs fans. Now that we’ve seen Auston Matthews grab the Rocket Richard Trophy throughout the season as the NHL’s top scorer, who was the previous Leaf to lead the league in goals?
If you’ve posed it to hockey-inclined acquaintances over the past few weeks, you’ll know the answers are mostly incorrect.
Could it be Rick Vaive? It’s a good try, as Vaive holds the team’s record for goals in one season. Alas, the year Vaive achieved that club record of 54, Wayne Gretzky scored a humble 92.
What about Mats Sundin? That’s a decent guess, since Sundin is a Hall of Fame and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. But even when Sundin’s 41 best goals in 2001-02 were tied for second in the league, he scored 11 goals outside the pace set by winner Richard Jarome Iginla.
Or maybe it’s Frank Mahovlich? Fans of a certain age may recall a famous run to become the first unnamed NHL player Rocket Richard to score 50 goals in a season. But while Mahovlich led that 1960-1961 showdown for most of the season, he was ultimately stifled by Montrealer Bernie Geoffrion. Boom Boom, as Geoffrion was called, scored his 50th against the Leafs. Mahovlich finished with 48.
Let’s just say the answer is hardly familiar, unless you grew up in the home of Gaye Stewart, the Leafs forward who scored 37 goals in 50 games to lead the NHL in 1945-46.
“Not many people know the answer to that question,” said Ian Stewart, 73, the eldest of Stewart’s two sons, recently. “I know they mentioned it in a Saturday night game (a few weeks ago). I’m sure this is the first time many people have heard of it.
Even David Poile, Toronto-born Nashville Predators general manager, was puzzled, “I certainly wouldn’t have known the answer. Which says something considering Poile’s late father, a Hall of Famer named Bud Poile, was both Stewart’s roommate and line mate with the Leafs.
“It always amazed me that my dad was the last Leaf to lead the league,” said Ian Stewart. “You always hear about Mahovlich and Vaive. But I guess they never got as far back as my dad because 37 goals didn’t look like much back in Wayne Gretzky’s day.
Thirty-seven goals, extrapolated from the standard 82-game schedule, equates to a pace of 60 goals. So it is safe to say that Gaye Stewart had a fantastic 1945-46 season during a remarkable career in which he won two Stanley Cups and a Calder Trophy as a leaf, while also stopping his run in the NHL to serve in the Royal Canadian. Navy during World War II.
However, time passes. Stewart, who also served as an NHL referee, died in 2010 at the age of 87. Most of his contemporaries left with him.
“A lot of these things are lost in history,” said Jim Stewart, 68, the other son of Gaye Stewart.
Which only underscores the long-awaited significance of Matthews’ achievement.
After all, the Maple Leafs have long chosen to market themselves as a heritage franchise that doubles as a globally recognizable brand – the NHL’s answer to baseball’s New York Yankees. But there’s more than one problematic difference in the comparison, most notably the Leafs’ championship drought spanning more than half a century, in which the Yankees have won seven of their 27 World Series.
While the Yankees have long used their peerless resources to build a long list of league MVPs, home-run kings, and Cy Young Award winners – they’re synonymous with all-time greats – the Leafs rarely have employee of comparable talents. They had a lot of very good players, no doubt, but they rarely employed the undisputed best player in an important discipline.
The league’s MVP? A Leaf hasn’t won the Hart Trophy since Ted Kennedy won it in 1955.
The best defender? A Leaf has never won the Norris Trophy, which has only been awarded since 1954.
The league’s leading scorer? If Matthews or his teammate Mitch Marner ever pulls off the feat during their time as Leafs – and Connor McDavid realizes making it difficult – you’ll have to look beyond even Stewart’s time to find Toronto’s predecessor. The answer to this particular trivial question, another difficulty, would be Gordie Drillon in 1938.
At least Toronto can say it’s only been about 28 years since a Leaf claimed the best defensive forward in the NHL. Before Matthews won the Calder Trophy in 2017 and became the alleged winner of the Rocket Richard this season, Doug Gilmour’s Selke Trophy in 1993 ranked as a rare victory in Toronto of important NHL material.
The reasons for the dearth of superlative seasons are countless.
“The easy answer is, it’s the pressure of playing in a Canadian city, especially Toronto,” said Jim Stewart.
Matthews seems to handle the pressure well, as does Stewart. He joined the Leafs as an 18-year-old high school student in 1942, playing a small role as Toronto overcame a 3-0 series deficit to beat Detroit for the Stanley Cup – still the only North sports team. Americans to bounce back. a 3-0 hole to win a title. The following season, Stewart became the rare Stanley Cup champion to win a Calder, beating Richard, among others, for the honor.
“The Rocket broke his ankle – otherwise it wouldn’t have been close,” Stewart humbly pointed out years later.
But as her career took off, reality brought her back to earth.
“He spent two years riding on patrol boats on the Atlantic Ocean during the war,” Ian Stewart said of his father. “They were looking for submarines that were crossing and trying to go up the St. Lawrence River.
It was not an easy time for the NHL players. Salaries were meager enough that most Leafs got off-season jobs. Stewart, who earned $ 3,500 as a rookie, used his $ 1,000 signing bonus to install a new roof and siding on his parents’ home in present-day Thunder Bay, Ontario. David Poile, whose father also served in World War II, said he recalled reading correspondence between Bud Poile and Conn Smythe, the owner of the Leafs. Bud Poile wrote from the war asking for a pair of tickets so his wife could attend a Leafs game.
“Smythe responded by saying, basically, my dad’s job on the Leafs wasn’t guaranteed when he came back,” Poile said. “He didn’t even mention the tickets.
Although Gaye Stewart is no longer a household name in Leafland, the men who wore blue and white were always heroes in their day. Jim Stewart remembers his father corresponding with more than one fan who had been named Gaye in honor of his father. It is perhaps not surprising then that, as the young Stewart star rose to his feet in Toronto – as reporters praised his explosive speed and nose for the net – the Leafs coach of the era, Hap Day, felt the occasional urge to pack public praise.
“Comparing (Gaye Stewart) to the greatest of all time is probably too much for the child to swallow and keep his head at a normal size,” Day told reporters in 1943. “It is absurd to make such comparisons. . “
In retrospect, nonsense would not be the right word. Stewart’s career spanned a modest 502 games in the NHL, but his accomplishments – including finalists for the Hart and Art Ross plus a first-team all-star sign in 1946 and a selection of second-team stars in 1948 – compete with these. contemporaries entered in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
When a panel of experts picked the 100 Greatest Leafs of all time for the franchise’s centennial a few years ago, Stewart landed 67th. It is possible that his legacy was not helped by the fact that when he led the league by scoring the goals, there was no reward to honor the accomplishment. Regardless of whether putting the puck in the net is the rarest and most important skill in the game, the Rocket Richard Trophy didn’t debut until 1998-99.
As much as Stewart played for five of the so-called Original Six franchises, he’s always been a fan of the Leafs. A longtime Burlington resident, where he raised a family with his wife Margaret, who died a few years ago, Stewart bought a pair of season tickets in 1963 at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Corner Reds, since relocated to a location reasonably comparable to the Bay Street Arena, remain in the family.
So, as a legend and longtime loyalist, what might the last Maple Leaf to lead the league in goalscoring think about Matthews being next?
Jim Stewart laughed, “He would probably say, ‘It’s about time’. But as a Leafs fan, he would be very happy about it.