The Hockey Hall of Famer played all 21 seasons of his NHL career for the Maple Leafs, 12 as their captain. The forward was named one of the One Hundred Greatest Maple Leafs, had his No. 10 retired by Toronto, and is a member of Legends Row.
“George is part of the very fabric of the Toronto Maple Leaf organization and will be deeply missed,” Maple Leafs president and alternate governor Brendan Shanahan said. “A proud yet humble man, he loved being a Maple Leaf but never sought the spotlight even though no player played more games for Toronto or captained the team longer. Always one to celebrate his teammates rather than himself, George couldn’t even bring himself to deliver his speech the day he was immortalized on Legends Row.”
Armstrong and Syl Apps were added to Legends Row on Feb. 21, 2015. In Armstrong’s own words, the final paragraph from his unread speech were: “Hockey is a great game and I love it. I am part of a fading generation that you will never have again. Every one of us is one of a kind, that will never be repeated. To all of my friends and acquaintances, thank you for your advice and direction, that helped make me who I am today … a very, very happy person.”
As captain of the Maple Leafs beginning with the 1957-58 season, Armstrong lifted the Stanley Cup four times. Toronto won three consecutive championships from 1962-64, then upset the Montreal Canadiens in 1967 with Armstrong scoring an empty-net goal in the Cup-clinching Game 6.
“The National Hockey League family is saddened to learn of the passing of George Armstrong,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “For 70 years, he represented his beloved Maple Leafs and the entire NHL with class and distinction as a player, coach, executive and ambassador. A humble man and revered leader, Armstrong captained the Leafs for 12 seasons, including to three straight Stanley Cups in 1962, 1963 and 1964 and the stunning 1967 title, and scored the final goal of the Original Six Era in Game Six of the ’67 Final.
“Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975, Armstrong had a passion for the game that was equaled only by his enthusiasm for interacting with fans across his city and province. Our game will miss him dearly. The NHL extends its deepest sympathies to George’s wife Betty, their children, grandchildren and the entire Armstrong family.”
Maple Leafs owner and manager Conn Smythe called him “the best captain, as a captain, the Leafs ever had.” Armstrong earned that level of respect from his superiors and his peers alike, his hard work and steady presence helping transform Toronto into a perennial contender.
“George Armstrong did more for the Maple Leafs than any other hockey player who played for me,” longtime coach Punch Imlach said in “Hockey Is a Battle,” his 1983 autobiography. “He felt always that he had a responsibility to the game, that it gave him a lot, and he was always trying to put some of it back. That made him a wonderful guy for a coach to have around.”
Armstrong ended his NHL career owning Maple Leafs records for seasons and games played (1,188), during which he had 713 points (296 goals, 417 assists).
“I must have been a better player than I thought I was,” he told The Toronto Sun the day before a 1998 ceremony when his No. 10 was honored at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Maple Leafs retired his number on Oct. 15, 2016.
Armstrong was born July 6, 1930, in Skead, Ontario. He was of Irish Algonquin descent and reportedly had the name “Chief Shoot-the-puck” bestowed upon him by a Native Canadian tribe in Alberta in 1950. Future generations of Maple Leafs fans called him “Chief.”
Expectations were high for Armstrong when he made the Maple Leafs for good at the start of the 1952-53 season.
“This kid’s got everything,” assistant general manager King Clancy said. “I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t become a superstar.”
George Armstrong with Cup at 1963 Maple Leafs Stanley Cup parade. Photo courtesy of HHoF Images
Armstrong became an efficient two-way player who was strong in the corners, reliable in his own end and averaged 17 goals and 38 points during his first nine full seasons.
In 1961-62, the fifth year of his captaincy, Armstrong scored 21 goals and an NHL career-high 53 points. More important were his seven goals and 12 points in 12 postseason games, helping the Maple Leafs defeat the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in six games to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 11 years.
Armstrong’s regular-season numbers dipped during the next two seasons, but he continued to come through when it counted most. He scored eight goals and 22 points in 24 playoff games to help Toronto retain the Cup with consecutive Final wins against the Detroit Red Wings in 1963 and 1964.
Three years later, Armstrong scored an NHL career-low nine goals and finished with 33 points, but the Maple Leafs became one of the oldest teams ever to win the Cup when they upset Montreal in six games. Armstrong’s empty-net goal secured the win and was the final goal of the Original Six era in the NHL.
Armstrong retired briefly after winning that final Cup championship and again after the 1967-68 season but returned each time before retiring for good after scoring 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) in 1970-71. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975.
“He’s a true Leafs legend,” said Hockey Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler, who played for the Maple Leafs from 1970-82. “He told you the way it was. There was never any doubt what George meant. He told you what he thought.”
Armstrong coached the Toronto Marlboros, his former junior team, to the Memorial Cup in 1973 and 1975. However, he turned down a chance to coach the Maple Leafs, preferring be a scout, which he did for nine seasons with the Quebec Nordiques before returning to Toronto in 1988 as a scout and assistant general manager. He was coach for 47 games in 1988-89 after owner Harold Ballard fired John Brophy but was replaced by Doug Carpenter the following season and returned to his role as scout.
“When I was in player development, I got to work with him a bit. A true legend,” said Hockey Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour, who played seven seasons for the Maple Leafs from 1992-97 and in 2003. “He was an amazing storyteller. He didn’t like the public eye, but he had an eye for talent. One of the greatest leaders in Toronto Maple Leafs history.”