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A few weeks ago on the 32 Thoughts Podcast (54:00 mark), in the listener mail segment, someone brings up the National Rugby Hall of Fame in Australia which has a section dedicated to the "Immortals" of the game.
To be chosen as an Immortal is the greatest honour a player can receive and it is widely considered that to earn the accolade he needs to have changed the game or had an impact beyond his career.
There are 110 players in the Hall of Fame, but only 13 have been granted Immortal status. Only 13 players in over 100 years of history of the league. The Immortal status was first bestowed in 1981, with four players being named. Two were named in 1999, one in 2003, one in 2012, and then the final five in 2018.
This is a tough group to enter. They are the best of the best.
As these segments usually do, they got me thinking about how this would apply to the Toronto Maple Leafs, because everything in hockey revolves around the most popular and least decorated team.
Do the Maple Leafs have any players who could stand out above the 299 players in the Hockey Hall of Fame?
So, if we were to go through the 1,071 players to be a Maple Leaf (960 skaters and 111 goalies), who would we find to be the first, or perhaps only, player that can be designated an Immortal Maple Leaf?
The Toronto Maple Leafs are the most represented team in the Hockey Hall of Fame, with 62 inducted players having suited up for the storied franchise. The team itself has whittled those 60 members down to 19 players whose numbers have been retired (multiple players represent some numbers). Then, from those 19, 14 have been recognized in bronze, with statues of them being built to form Legends Row. These are our jumping off point for naming our "Immortal" Maple Leaf.
The team has already deemed these players important enough to be immortalized in statue form. Does any one of them stand above the rest?
Now, this is just a thought experiment, who am I to decide what man is better than another? Disclaimer done, it's time to decided.
The fourteen players on Legends Row are:
Wendel Clark, Turk Broda, Charlie Conacher, Syl Apps, Darryl Sittler, Johnny Bower, Mats Sundin, Börje Salming, Teeder Kennedy, Dave Keon, Tim Horton, Frank Mahovlich, Red Kelly, and George Armstrong
Some of the names may pop more than others. Tim Horton is an internationally known name, maybe just not for his hockey. Darryl Sittler is well known among hardcore hockey fans for his ten point game - a record that's never been matched, even by today's superstars. Wendel Clark is THE Maple Leafs for a segment of fans, for his truculence and skill.
The Conachers and Apps are multi-generational hockey families. Mats Sundin, Frank Mahovlich, and George Armstrong were leaders on their teams.
Ted Kennedy, Turk Broda, and Dave Keon won multiple Stanley Cups for Toronto, and are names known to fans even decades after they hung up the skates.
Börje Salming was as tough as they come, a trailblazer for his countrymen, and a legend on and off the ice. He was nominated for the Norris Trophy several times, medaled with Team Sweden twice at the World Championships, holds the Leafs record for most points by a defender, most career assists, named to All-Star teams in the NHL ,Canada Cup, World Championships, and IIHF, and was the first Swedish player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Now, the Salming Foundation funds research into ALS, and support those afflicted by the disease and their families.
However, one player among them all stands out the most to myself. He was a long time Maple Leaf, invented the goalie poke check, won four Stanley Cups with the team - including the last one - was named to the All-Star team, is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, AHL Hall of Fame, and on Canada's Walk of Fame. One of the players who should instantly come to mind when you say "Toronto Maple Leafs".
Number One, Johnny Bower is the Maple Leafs immortal.
He played his early years in the AHL with the Cleveland Barons, and he still holds the AHL all time wins record with 359. It isn't just his numerous professional awards and accolades that make him the immortal to me.
He stayed in the Toronto area after retirement. In the Weston neighbourhood Johnny Bower Boulevard stands in memorial to the street he grew up on. Near his home in Mississauga stands Johnny Bower Park, where he was known to frequent, taking pride in having a public space named for him, picking up litter, feeding birds, and enjoying the peace.
He has his own stamp, his own 50 cent coin, and is the focus of stories from people all over Toronto and Maple Leafs fandom.
No one spoke ill of him, and he represented the Maple Leafs longer in retirement than he did as a player. He worked as a scout, goalie coach, assistant coach, and team ambassador. When Scotiabank Arena opened, they had Johnny Bower put there in the opening ceremony.
When he passed teams outside the Maple Leafs honoured him including the Toronto Raptors, Arizona Coyotes, and Winnipeg Jets.
To me, no Maple Leaf stands taller in their history than Johnny Bower. He is the epitome of what we want our Maple Leafs to be on and off the ice.
Johnny Bower is the immortal Maple Leaf.
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