The jinx of being a Toronto Maple Leafs’ captain

Perhaps being named the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The position has more or less been a jinx on anybody wearing the C on their Leafs’ sweater since they last won the Stanley Cup about half a century ago. There have been nine captains in the club’s history since 1967 and not one of them retired from the team in that capacity. In fact, each and every captain since 1969 left town in controversial fashion.

Dave Keon 1969-1975
The last time the Leafs managed to hoist Lord Stanley’s silverware there were just six teams in the league. George Armstrong was the captain at the time, but his stint came to an end two years later when he handed over the position to Dave Keon. Although Keon had already helped his team capture four Stanley Cups, Harold Ballard, who was then the club’s owner, showed him a lack of respect in the media and the classy centre ended up jumping ship to the World Hockey Association in 1975. Keon never forgot the way he was treated by Ballard and only just recently ended his longtime feud with the organization.

Darryl Sittler 1975-1982
With Keon gone, the Leafs still had one of the NHL’s best players in centre Darryl Sittler and he took over as captain. The love affair between player and team turned sour though when Punch Imlach was brought in as general manager. Sittler and Imlach didn’t see eye to eye and Ballard sided with his GM in their public feud and went as far as calling Sittler a dressing-room cancer. Things came to a boil when Sittler’s line mate and best friend Lanny McDonald was traded to the Colorado Rockies just three days after Christmas in 1979. The captain then took the C off his sweater and announced that he was giving up the captaincy. Sittler and Ballard made up to a certain degree after Imlach was let go and he was  named captain again in 1980/81. He was fed up in Toronto though and agreed to waive his no-trade clause. He was traded to Philadelphia in early 1982 for a second-round draft pick and Rich Costello in one of the worst deals in NHL history. Sittler is now back with the Leafs in a good-will ambassador capacity.

Rick Vaive 1982-1986
In 1980 before Sittler was dealt, the Leafs traded forwards Tiger Williams and Jerry Butler to Vancouver for Rick Vaive and Bill Derlago in GM Punch Imlach’s best-ever move. Vaive became the franchises’ first 50-goal scorer and hit the mark three seasons in a row. He replaced Sittler as captain of the squad and held the position from 1982 until the 1985/86. He was then stripped of the C for missing a practice. Vaive was then traded to Chicago before the 1987/88 season faced off.

Rob Ramage 1989-1991
Luckily for superstitious players, the team went without a captain until defenceman Rob Ramage was traded to Toronto from Calgary in 1989. All-star defenceman Borje Salming was offered the position after Vaive was stripped, but claimed he was happy with just wearing an A on his sweater. Ramage found himself gone just two years later when the club left him unprotected in the 1991 expansion/dispersal draft. He ended up Minnesota and like Vaive, would later find himself in court over a drinking/driving charge after retiring. After Minnesota selected him, Ramage said it was definitely a blow to his pride to go from Leafs’ captain to being unprotected in a draft.

Wendel Clark 1991-1994
Former first-overall draft pick Wendel Clark became a fan favourite as a rookie back in 1985 and captained some pretty strong Leafs teams. He took over from Ramage as captain in 1991, but was then traded in his prime to the Quebec Nordiques in a 1994 deal which saw young Swedish star Mats Sundin join Toronto. Clark rejoined the Leafs in the 1995/96 campaign, but left Toronto again in 1998 when he signed with Tampa as a free agent. Clark once again returned to Toronto in 2000, but his career didn’t end the way it should have as then-coach Pat Quinn rarely used the small power forward in his final season. Clark promptly retired and like Sittler, also works a Leafs’ ambassador.

Doug Gilmour 1994-1997
The Leafs arguably had the most success with Doug Gilmour wearing the C after Clark left in 1994. He led the team to a couple of deep playoff runs and put up some excellent numbers. Things came to an end in 1997 though when he was traded to the New Jersey Devils along with defenceman Dave Ellett for defenceman Jason Smith, centre Steve Sullivan and young forward Alyn McCauley. The Leafs would later waste away the talents of those three players and they were all playing for other teams within a few years. Gilmour would return to the Leafs in the 2002/03 season, but suffered a career-ending knee injury in his very first game back.   

Mats Sundin 1997-2008
Since the Leafs had traded Gilmour it was only natural the big Swede Sundin took over as captain. He held the position for 11 years and led the team to a few decent seasons and some competitive playoff appearances. However, the Leafs asked their all-time leading scorer to waive his no-trade clause in 2007 and he wouldn’t do it. The club wanted to deal him before the trade deadline ended since he was about to become an unrestricted free agent. Sundin said he didn’t want to become a rental player and stood his ground. Much to the franchise’s chagrin, the 37-year-old Sundin then signed with the Vancouver Canucks in 2008 and Toronto got absolutely nothing for him. Sundin later admitted his departure left a bad taste in his mouth and many turned against him for not agreeing to a trade. However, he’s back on good terms with the club these days.

Dion Phaneuf 2010-2016
The Leafs went without naming another captain until defenceman Dion Phaneuf was acquired from Calgary and given the honour before the 2010/11 campaign. Phaneuf will likely go down as the least-loved captain in team history by the fans though and was shipped off to Ottawa on Feb 9th 2016. The Leafs likely won’t name a captain until prior to the 2016/17 season at the earliest. But considering the history of the team’s last eight leaders they might have a hard time convincing somebody to wear the C.  

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