George Armstrong

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Джордж Армстронг
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George Armstrong

George Edward "ChiefArmstrong (July 6, 1930 – January 24, 2021) was a Canadian professional ice hockey centre who played 21 seasons in the National Hockey League (NHL) for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He played 1,188 NHL games between 1950 and 1971, all with Toronto and a franchise record, and was the team's captain for 13 seasons. Armstrong was a member of four Stanley Cup championship teams and played in seven NHL All-Star Games. He scored the final goal of the NHL's "Original Six" era as Toronto won the 1967 Stanley Cup.

Armstrong played both junior and senior hockey in the Toronto Marlboros organization and was a member of the 1950 Allan Cup winning team as senior champions of Canada. He returned to the Marlboros following his playing career and coached the junior team to two Memorial Cup championships. He served as a scout for the Quebec Nordiques, as an assistant general manager of the Maple Leafs and for part of the 1988–89 NHL season as Toronto's head coach. Armstrong was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975 and the Maple Leafs honoured his uniform number 10 in 1998, and later officially retired the number, along with ten others, during a pre-game ceremony on October 15, 2016.

Early life

Armstrong was born in 1930 in Skead, Ontario, to an Irish Canadian father and Ojibway mother. He grew up in Falconbridge, Ontario where his father was a nickel miner. Sport was an important part of Armstrong's family as his father played soccer and his mother was a canoeist. The younger Armstrong developed a passion for hockey but was a poor skater, which his father believed was a consequence of a case of spinal meningitis George suffered at the age of six.

While attending Sudbury High School, Armstrong played on the hockey team with Red McCarthy and Tim Horton. Inspired by a newspaper advertisement offering tryouts with the Copper Cliff Redmen of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey Association (NOJHA), Armstrong convinced Horton and McCarthy to join him in trying out. They made the team and Armstrong began his junior hockey career at age 16 in the 1946–47 season. He recorded six goals and five assists in nine games and caught the attention of scouts for the National Hockey League (NHL)'s Toronto Maple Leafs who added him to their protected list. He also played with the Prince Albert Blackhawks for part of that season. Armstrong quit school in grade 11 to focus on his hockey career.

Playing career

Junior and senior

The Maple Leafs placed Armstrong on the Stratford Kroehlers in the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) junior division for the 1947–48 season. He led the league in both assists (43) and points (73), and was named recipient of the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHA's most valuable player. Promoted to the Toronto Marlboros for the 1948–49 season, Armstrong recorded 62 points in 39 games with the junior squad and played in three regular season and ten post-season matches for the senior team. Armstrong remained with the senior Marlboros in 1949–50 where he served as captain. He led the OHA senior division with 64 goals, at the time an OHA record, and recorded 115 points in 39 games. He was again named the winner of the Red Tilson Trophy.

The Maple Leafs briefly recalled Armstrong during the 1949–50 season and he made his NHL debut on December 3, 1949. He appeared in two games before returning to the Marlboros. In the 1950 Allan Cup playdowns, he recorded 19 goals and 19 assists in 14 games as the Marlboros won the national senior championship. It was also during the season that he earned his nickname. While visiting the Stoney Reserve in Alberta with the Marlboros, the locals presented Armstrong with a ceremonial headdress and called him "Big Chief Shoot the Puck" owing to his own Native heritage. The nickname was often shortened to "Chief".

Toronto Maple Leafs "This kid's got everything. He has size, speed, and he can shoot 'em into the net better that any hockey player I've known in a long time. I'll be surprised if he doesn't become a superstar."

—Toronto's assistant general manager King Clancy's assessment of Armstrong in 1952.

Upon turning professional in 1950–51, Armstrong was assigned to Toronto's American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Pittsburgh Hornets. 

In 71 games for Pittsburgh, he recorded 15 goals and 48 points. Despite being hampered by hand and wrist injuries suffered in fights, Armstrong was the AHL's leading goal scorer and stood second in points by mid-season in 1951–52. He was recalled to Toronto during the season and scored his first NHL goal, against goaltender Gerry McNeil of the Montreal Canadiens. It was the first goal ever scored by a player with Native heritage. He finished the season with three goals and three assists in 20 games with Toronto.

Though he missed the start of the 1952–53 season due to a separated shoulder, Armstrong earned a permanent spot on the Maple Leafs' roster. He quietly established himself as an important contributor for Toronto by recording 25 points that season, then scoring 32 points the following season and 28 in 1954–55. A 48-point season in 1955–56 was second on the team to Tod Sloan's 66. Armstrong then led the Maple Leafs in scoring with 44 points in 1956–57 despite missing 14 of his team's games. He was named to play in the NHL All-Star Game in both seasons. They were the first two of seven he ultimately played.

The Maple Leafs named Armstrong the team's captain in 1957–58 as he succeeded Ted Kennedy and Jim Thomson who served as co-captains the season before. He finished fourth in team scoring with 42 points, then played his third All-Star Game during the 1958–59 season. He recorded four assists in the playoffs as the Maple Leafs reached the 1959 Stanley Cup Final, but lost to the Montreal Canadiens. With 51 points in 1959–60, Armstrong finished one behind Bob Pulford for the team lead. Toronto again reached the Stanley Cup Final where they were again eliminated by Montreal.

The Maple Leafs finally reached the NHL's peak two seasons later. Armstrong set a career high with 53 points in the 1961–62 regular season, then added 12 points in 12 playoff games for Toronto. He started the play that resulted in the Stanley Cup clinching goal, rushing the puck up ice before passing to Tim Horton, who then passed to goal-scorer Dick Duff that capped off a 2–1 victory in the sixth and deciding game of the series against the Chicago Black Hawks. As Maple Leafs captain, Armstrong was presented the trophy by league president Clarence Campbell. It was the first of three consecutive championships for Toronto as the Maple Leafs of 1962–1964 became the fourth dynasty in NHL history. Individually, Armstrong scored 21, 19 and 20 goals over the three seasons and by virtue of the NHL's All-Star Game format of the time that had the defending champion play the all-stars of the remaining teams, appeared in his fourth, fifth and sixth All-Star Games. Early in the 1963–64 season, on December 1, 1963, Armstrong scored his 200th career NHL goal.

A 37-point season followed in 1964–65, then 51 points the 1965–66 season. By 1966–67, Armstrong led an aging Maple Leafs team that entered the playoffs as an underdog against a dominant Chicago team. The Maple leafs nonetheless eliminated the Black Hawks in six games to set up the 1967 Stanley Cup Final against Montreal. The Canadiens were so confident of victory that a display area for the Stanley Cup had been set up at the Quebec pavilion at Expo 67 prior to the series' start. The Maple Leafs dashed Montreal's hopes by winning the championship in six games. Armstrong scored the final goal of the series in a 3–1 victory in the deciding contest. It was also the last goal scored in the NHL's "Original Six" era as the league was set to double in size to 12 teams for the 1967–68 season.

Armstrong announced his intention to retire as a player following the championship but changed his mind and returned for another season. The Maple Leafs placed him on their protected list for the 1967 Expansion Draft, and he remained with Toronto. He played in his seventh All-Star Game in 1968 and finished the season with 34 points. Retiring following the season before changing his mind became an annual event for Armstrong as he announced his intention to leave the game in five straight years. He remained a consistent scorer for Toronto, recording 27, 28 and 25 points in his following three seasons. He finally ended his playing career after the 1970–71 season to take an office position in the Maple Leafs., and also he finished his career with two hundred and ninety-six goals, four goals away from obtaining three hundred.

Coaching and scouting career

Armstrong was announced as the head coach of his former junior team, the Toronto Marlboros, in July 1972. Though he had preferred his previous role as a scout to coaching, Armstrong led the Marlboros to Memorial Cup victories on two occasions: in 1973 and 1975. In 1977, Armstrong's name circulated as a possible successor to Maple Leafs coach Red Kelly when the latter was fired by the team. When approached by the organization with the prospect of assuming head coaching duties however, Armstrong rejected the possibility. His decision resulted in animosity from within the organization and subsequently led to his resignation as coach of the Marlboros that season to accept a scouting post with the Quebec Nordiques.

Some 10 years later, Armstrong returned to the Maple Leafs organization in the dual capacities of assistant general manager and scout. During the 1988–89 season, and after management had fired head coach John Brophy, team owner Harold Ballard was adamant that Armstrong be named Brophy's replacement. Armstrong agreed to take the position, but increasingly delegated majority of his duties to assistant coach Garry Lariviere. The Maple Leafs finished with 17 wins in 47 Armstrong's games coached. He was replaced by Doug Carpenter the following season and returned to his scouting capacities with the team. Armstrong remained a scout for the rest of his life. In 1972–73, he was selected as Coach of the Year by his peers in the OHL (Toronto Marlboros).

Playing style

The Toronto Maple Leafs described Armstrong as being a "consistent, durable and hardworking" player throughout his 21-season career that spanned parts of four decades.  A consummate leader, Armstrong was lauded by owner Conn Smythe as "the best captain, as a captain, the Leafs have ever had". His 713 career points were the second most all-time in Toronto franchise history at the time of his retirement, and as of 2014 remains fifth-best. His 1,187 NHL games are the most by any player in Toronto history, and he remains the franchise leader with 417 career assists and 713 points by a right wing. The Maple Leafs named him the co-recipient, with Bob Pulford, of the J. P. Bickell Memorial Award in 1959. The award is presented to members of the organization who perform with a high standard of excellence. In 1998, the franchise honoured his uniform number 10. In 2013, he ranked number 14 on Sportsnet's list of the greatest Maple Leafs. Armstrong was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975 and the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.

Personal life

Armstrong was a resident in Leaside, a neighbourhood in Toronto, for more than 55 years and often spent time with his family bike riding throughout the area. Aside from his coaching career in professional hockey, Armstrong coached sports teams around his community and contributed his time coaching the first floor hockey team for the Canadian Special Olympics. In Toronto, Beverley Street Public School was the foundation of this floor hockey team.

Armstrong resided in Toronto with his wife Betty. The couple had four children: Brian, Betty-Ann, Fred and Lorne. He was the uncle of Dale McCourt, a former first overall draft pick by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1977 NHL amateur draft.

When given a day with the Stanley Cup in 2005, Armstrong elected to have a family gathering with it at his son's home in Vaughan, Ontario. His granddaughter Kalley was a team captain with the Harvard Crimson women's ice hockey program. She joined Kelly Paton's coaching staff with the Western Mustangs women's ice hockey program in the autumn of 2016. His best friend was Bryce Black who won the Cup by his side.

Armstrong was recognized by the NHL for his charitable efforts in 1969 when he was named the inaugural recipient of the Charlie Conacher Humanitarian Award. Proud of his Native heritage, Armstrong often supported programs organized by both Indian and Northern Affairs and non-governmental agencies that aimed to promote positive role models for Native children.

Armstrong had a brief film career, appearing as himself in the 1971 film Face-Off, a.k.a. "Winter Comes Early".

Armstrong died on January 24, 2021.


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