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How the Leafs franchise became NHL’s first to 1,000 players

When 20-year-old Swede Timothy Liljegren stepped into Saturday’s game against Chicago,  he became the 1,000th player to suit up for the Maple Leafs in franchise history, by the NHL's count. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
When 20-year-old Swede Timothy Liljegren stepped into Saturday’s game against Chicago, he became the 1,000th player to suit up for the Maple Leafs in franchise history, by the NHL's count. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The Maple Leafs went into the all-star break battling a slump, but batting a thousand.

When 20-year-old Swede Timothy Liljegren stepped into Saturday’s game against Chicago, he became the 1,000th player in franchise history by the NHL’s count. That comprises 898 skaters and 102 goalies through 103 years and four nicknames, the Blueshirts, Arenas, St. Patricks and Leafs.

“That it has been a thousand players speaks to the (longevity) of this team in the city,” said Ron Ellis, one of five men to have played more than a thousand games exclusively as Leafs. “It will be an honour (for Liljegren) and I hope he plays a long time. My old friend Johnny Bower used to say it’s a privilege to be a Leaf.

“I was in high school in Toronto in Grade 13 when I was called up for my first game (against Montreal). Punch Imlach came in the dressing room to announce the starting lineup; Tim Horton, Allan Stanley, Red Kelly, Frank Mahovlich … and me. I was fortunate to have started with the Original Six Leafs, too,” Ellis said.

The inaugural four-team NHL of the 1917-18 season had a Toronto entry with no defined ownership. Players were referred to by their previous National Hockey Association name the Blueshirts, Blues or Torontos. Seven skaters and one goalie, Hap Holmes, appeared in the majority of the 22-game schedule.

When the owners of their rink, Mutual St. Arena, took control of the club at the end of the season (in which Toronto won the Stanley Cup) they became the Arenas. Two years later, new people at the top changed the moniker to St. Patricks, a nod to the town’s large Irish population. Near the end of the 1926-27 season, the club was purchased by businessmen including J.P. Bickell and Conn Smythe and renamed for Canada’s national emblem.

Winger Spencer Abbott, who alphabetically leads the entire thousand-name list, is also among 37 to have played just a single game, as is Roland Huard, the only one to score in his lone appearance, on Dec. 13, 1930. Blair MacKasey, now a pro scout with the Leafs, had his night of fame in the 1976-77 season opener against the Colorado Rockies before returning to the farm.

“I was partnered with Randy Carlyle,” recollected MacKasey. “I took a penalty on the first shift against Randy Rota (coincidentally in his only NHL game that year). Like anyone I wish I could’ve stayed longer, but I felt part of the Maple Leafs and the Gardens family.

“I’ve been part of two great organizations, the Leafs and the Montreal Junior Canadiens.”

Speaking of the Habs, who have been in the NHL as long as the Leafs, they list 871 players since 1917. The difference is reflective of the large group of Leafs serving in World War II, who had to be replaced with young fill-ins and later underlined some of the upheaval in Toronto after its last Stanley Cup in 1967. Player raids by the World Hockey Association in the ‘70s, a rush of promotions from the farm in the ‘80s and “Trader” Cliff Fletcher’s many moves in the ‘90s helped speed them to Saturday night and Liljegren’s debut.

“It was fun being the 1,000th player,” Liljegren said, “but getting that first game feels good for sure.”

We can’t list all 1,000 Maple Leafs, but here are 10 notable items:

1. On Dec. 19, 1917, Reg Noble scored the first goal in franchise history in the 10-9 opening night loss to the Montreal Wanderers. In the Leafs’ Centennial game, Dec. 19, 2017, James van Riemsdyk scored the 20,000th goal in franchise history against Carolina.

2. The Arenas’ Harry Mummery was Toronto’s first American-born player.

3. Among the thousand players are 11 with the surname Smith (Al, Art, Ben, Brad, D.J., Floyd, Gary, Glenn, Jason, Sid and Trevor) as well as five Armstrongs, five Martins (including two Matts) and three of Toronto’s own famous Conacher clan (Charlie, Pete and Brian).

4. Centre Carl Voss was the first of many players to be summoned from the Toronto Marlies — the juniors and today’s AHL farm team — and the first to be signed as a Leaf in 1926-27.

5. That same season, winger Albert Pudas became the first European-born Leaf (Siikajoki, Finland in 1899).

6. This season, Rasmus Sandin became the first player born in the 2000s, to suit up for the Leafs.

7. Five players have appeared in 1,000-plus games for the Leafs; George Armstrong (1,188), Tim Horton, (1,184), Borje Salming (1,099), Dave Keon (1,062) and Ron Ellis (1,034).

8. Five new players arrived in one day, when GM Cliff Fletcher completed a 10-player trade with Calgary in 1992.

9. In his many call-ups from the minors in the 1970s and ‘80s, Bruce Boudreau wore six different numbers.

10. Long-time equipment manager Brian Papineau has seen a good number of players come through town since the late 1980s. Of all the names he’s had to afix on the back of sweaters, Alexei Ponikarovsky’s was among the hardest.

“Our nameplates are 24 inches long and his name went two inches over that,” Papineau said in an earlier interview. “So we sewed two plates together.”

Other challenges were Lou Franceschetti and Mike Krushelnyski. And what tailoring will need to be done if 2018 draft pick Semyon Der-Arguchintsev makes the team?

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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