It’s a trivia question proven to stump even diehard Maple Leafs fans. Now that we’ve watched Auston Matthews put a season-long stranglehold on the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal scorer, who was the previous Leaf to lead the league in goals?
If you’ve posed it to hockey-inclined acquaintances over the past few weeks, you’ll know the answers mostly come back incorrect.
Might it be Rick Vaive? It’s a good try, since Vaive holds the team’s single-season goal-scoring record. Alas, the year Vaive got that club-best 54, Wayne Gretzky potted a humble 92.
How about Mats Sundin? It’s a decent guess, since Sundin is a Hall of Famer and the franchise’s all-time leading goal scorer. But even when Sundin’s team-best 41 goals in 2001-02 tied for second in the league, he ended up 11 goals off the pace set by Richard winner Jarome Iginla.
Or maybe it’s Frank Mahovlich? Fans of a certain age might remember a famous race to become the first NHL player not named Rocket Richard to score 50 goals in a season. But while Mahovlich led that 1960-61 showdown for the bulk of the season, he was ultimately nipped at the wire by Montreal’s Bernie Geoffrion. Boom Boom, as Geoffrion was known, scored his 50th against the Leafs. Mahovlich finished with 48.
Let’s just say the answer is hardly a household name, unless you happened to grow up in the household of Gaye Stewart, the Leafs forward who scored 37 goals in 50 games to lead the NHL way back in 1945-46.
“Not many people know the answer to that question,” Ian Stewart, 73, the eldest of Stewart’s two sons, was saying recently. “I know they mentioned it on a Saturday night game (a couple of weeks back). I’m sure that’s the first a lot of people heard of it.”
Even David Poile, the Toronto-born general manager of the Nashville Predators, pronounced himself puzzled: “I certainly wouldn’t have known the answer.” Which is saying something considering Poile’s late father, a Hall of Famer named Bud Poile, was both Stewart’s roommate and linemate with the Leafs.
“It always amazed me that my dad was the last Leaf to lead the league,” Ian Stewart said. “You’d always hear about Mahovlich and Vaive. But I guess they never went back as far as my dad because 37 goals didn’t seem like that much in the era of Wayne Gretzky.”
Thirty-seven goals, when extrapolated over the standard 82-game schedule, amounts to a 60-goal pace. So Gaye Stewart, it’s safe to say, had a fantastic 1945-46 season in the course of a remarkable career in which he won two Stanley Cups and a Calder Trophy as a Leaf, this while interrupting his NHL run to serve in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War.
Still, time passes. Stewart, who also spent time as an NHL referee, died in 2010 at age 87. Most of his contemporaries are gone with him.
“A lot of this stuff is lost to history,” said Jim Stewart, 68, Gaye Stewart’s other son.
Which only underlines the long-awaited significance of Matthews’s achievement.
Even in the midst of a pandemic-shortened 56-game season, in which he appeared 52 games, Matthews managed 41 goals — the 16th-best season by a Maple Leaf in the post-1967 expansion era. If that’s not jaw-droppingly impressive, consider that Matthews’s rate of 0.79 goals per game puts him in elite company.
If you narrow down the field to players who competed in a minimum 40 games in a single season, his Rocket Richard campaign ranks as the highest goals-per-game rate in the history of the franchise — surpassing some of the best work of Depression-era star Charlie Conacher, not to mention the previous best season of the post-1967 era: Wendel Clark’s 0.74 goals-per-game effort of 1993-94, when Clark scored 46 goals in 64 games.
Zooming out to include the rest of the league, in the past 25 years only Mario Lemieux and Alex Ovechkin have scored at a higher rate than Matthews in a single season.
The Maple Leafs have long chosen to style themselves as a heritage franchise that doubles as a globally recognizable brand — the NHL’s answer to baseball’s New York Yankees. But there’s more than one problematic difference in the comparison, not least the Leafs’ championship drought that stretches more than half a century, during which time the Yankees have won seven of their 27 World Series.
While the Yankees have long used their peerless resources to mint a long list of league MVPs and home-run kings and Cy Young Award winners — they’re synonymous with all-time greats — the Leafs have rarely employed comparable talents. They’ve had plenty of very good players, no doubt, but they’ve rarely employed the undisputed best player in any significant discipline.
The league MVP? A Leaf hasn’t won the Hart Trophy since Ted Kennedy took it home in 1955.
The best defenceman? A Leaf has never won the Norris Trophy, which has only been given out since 1954.
The league’s leading point-getter? If Matthews or teammate Mitch Marner ever pull off the feat during their time as Leafs — and Connor McDavid figures to make it difficult — you’ll need to go beyond even Stewart’s era to find the Toronto predecessor. The answer to that particular trivia question, another toughie, would be Gordie Drillon in 1938.
At least Toronto can say it’s only been 28 years or so since a Leaf laid claim to the NHL’s best defensive forward. Before Matthews won the Calder Trophy in 2017 and became the presumptive winner of the Rocket Richard this season, Doug Gilmour’s 1993 Selke Trophy ranked as a rare Toronto win of significant NHL hardware.
The reasons for the dearth of superlative seasons are myriad.
“The easy answer is, it’s the pressure of playing in a Canadian city, especially Toronto,” said Jim Stewart.
Matthews seems to be handling the pressure just fine, as did Stewart. He joined the Leafs as an 18-year-old high schooler in 1942, playing a bit role as Toronto overcame a 3-0 series deficit to beat the Detroit for the Stanley Cup — still the only team in North American sports to bounce back from a 3-0 hole to win a title. The next season Stewart became the rare Stanley Cup champion to win a Calder, beating out Richard, among others, for the honour.
“The Rocket broke his ankle — otherwise it wouldn’t have been close,” Stewart would humbly point out years later.
But just as his career was taking off, reality brought it back to earth.
“He spent two years riding on patrol boats out on the Atlantic Ocean during the war,” Ian Stewart said of his father. “They were looking for submarines coming across and trying to get up the St. Lawrence River.”
Those weren’t easy times for NHL players. Salaries were scant enough that most Leafs had off-season jobs. Stewart, who earned $3,500 as a rookie, used his $1,000 signing bonus to put a new roof and siding on his parents’ home in what’s now Thunder Bay, Ont. David Poile, whose father also served in the Second World War, said he remembers reading a correspondence between Bud Poile and Conn Smythe, the Leafs’ owner. Bud Poile wrote from the war to request a pair of tickets so his wife might attend a Leafs game.
“Smythe wrote back saying, essentially, that my father’s job on the Leafs wasn’t guaranteed when he got back,” Poile said. “He didn’t even mention the tickets.”
Even if Gaye Stewart is no longer a well-known name in Leafland, the men who wore the blue and white have always been heroes in their time. Jim Stewart remembers his father corresponding with more than one fan who’d been named Gaye in his dad’s honour. So maybe it’s not surprising that as a young Stewart’s star rose in Toronto — as newspaper reporters wrote glowingly of his explosive speed and nose for the net — then-Leafs coach Hap Day felt the occasional need to tamp down the public praise.
“Comparing (Gaye Stewart) to the all-time greats is probably too much for the kid to swallow and keep his head at normal size,” Day told reporters back in 1943. “It’s nonsense to make such comparisons.”
Nonsense would not be the right word in retrospect. Stewart’s career lasted a modest 502 NHL games, but his accomplishments – including runner-up finishes for the Hart and Art Ross plus a first-team all-star nod in 1946, and a second-team all-star selection in 1948 — rival those of contemporaries enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
When a panel of experts picked the 100 greatest Leafs of all time on the occasion of the franchise’s centennial a few years back, Stewart landed at No. 67. It’s possible his legacy wasn’t helped by the fact that when he led the league in goal scoring there was no award to honour the accomplishment. Never mind that putting the puck in the net is the game’s rarest and most important skill, the Rocket Richard Trophy wasn’t inaugurated until 1998-99.
As much as Stewart played for five of the so-called Original Six franchises, he was forever a Leafs fan. A longtime Burlington resident, where he raised a family with his wife Margaret, who died a few years back, Stewart bought a pair of season tickets in 1963 at Maple Leaf Gardens. The corner reds, since relocated to a reasonably comparable locale at the arena on Bay Street, remain in the family.
So as a legend and a lifelong loyalist, what might the last Maple Leaf to lead the league in goals think about Matthews becoming the next one?
Said Jim Stewart with a laugh: “He’d probably say, ‘It’s about time.’ But as a Leafs fan, he’d be very happy about it.”
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk