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The evolution of the Maple Leaf

From Official Toronto Maple Leafs

In the 99-year, storied history of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team’s logo has reached an iconic status few other organizations can boast of. But the logo you see worn today by Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly and his teammates has undergone a number of evolutions before it arrived at this point. And some of the stories behind the different versions of that blue-and-white Maple Leaf image are as intriguing as the games they were worn in.

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This might shock some of the younger hockey fans out there accustomed to modern-day marketing campaigns and pick-the-team-name fan voting contests, but Toronto’s NHL team – founded in 1917 as the Toronto Arenas, only to be renamed the St. Patricks two years later – didn’t change to the Maple Leafs at the start of any one season. In fact, the decision to switch team names for a second time was made on a train ride the team made from Detroit (where they had just lost to the Detroit Cougars) to Toronto in 1927: team legend Conn Smythe, who had just taken over as manager of the franchise, announced the name change – and later that same night, at the Mutual Street Arena, they played their first game as the Leafs, against the New York Americans.

That said, the Leaf they wore for the rest of the 1926-27 campaign wasn’t blue and white. Instead, it was green – no doubt, a link to the St. Pats era. Unfortunately, there are no photos in existence that detail the exact shape of that first Leaf logo, but Smythe made clear the name change was inspired by the maple leaf badges most Canadian military regiments wore during World War I, and there’s also a belief the 1924 Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team – which stirred national pride by winning a gold medal at the Games in Chamonix, France, and doing so with a maple leaf on their jersey – played a role in the choice Smythe made.

Another distinguishing fact about that first Leafs logo, which the team wore full-time beginning in 1927-28: inside the Leaf (which now was blue), there was only the word “Toronto”. And from that point on until the Tampa Bay Lightning rebranded to their current logo and sweaters in 2011, the Leafs were the sole team in the league that had two different logos – a white Leaf with blue lettering, and vice-versa.

For the next four decades, Toronto employed essentially that same Leafs logo with only minor tweaks: it changed the number of points on the leaf from 48 points in 1927 to 35 in 1938, and added veins to the leaf that same year; and for a few months in 1947, the words “Toronto Maple Leafs” appeared in red. But the most radical change to the logo took place in 1967 – Canada’s centennial year – when the veins were removed and the number of points on the leaf shrunk to 11, the same number of points on the leaf that was dead center in the middle of the new national flag of Canada that was unveiled two years prior. All in all, it was the first version of the modernized version we know today.

But here’s a fun fact: that change came at a major point in Leafs history, as the team began wearing it in the 1967 post-season. (In that decade, Leafs players wore one uniform for the entire regular season, then received a new uniform for the playoffs and wore that same one in the following regular season.) If you know your Leafs history, you’ll know that 1967 playoff tournament marked the most recent occasion Toronto has won a Stanley Cup championship. Adding to the lustre of it – at least, among Leafs players – was the fact the team wasn’t expected to do much damage in the ’67 playoffs. They’d suffered through a 10-game losing streak in the regular season and weren’t favoured against the Chicago Blackhawks, but, clad in their drastically new sweater, they beat Chicago to face the arch-rival Montreal Canadiens, who came into the Cup Final on a 15-game unbeaten streak, then won Game 1 to extend it to 16. But Toronto would go on to win four of the next five games to claim its 13th Cup – and, given that hockey players are notoriously superstitious, they embraced the new jersey.

Nevertheless, significant changes to the logo were still to come, and only a few years later: in 1970, the corners of the leaf were rounded, and the lettering on the leaf was modernized to the present-day version. Sure, the franchise has brought out older versions and alternate logos on special occasions over the years, but the primary logo has remained intact for nearly 46 years.

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The Leafs logo is a key part of the plot of “The Sweater”, a brilliant and beloved short story by celebrated French-Canadian novelist Roch Carrier. Published in 1979, it’s based on the real-life experience Carrier had as a child in Quebec who loved the Canadiens and star forward Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard and ordered their sweater from a mail-order catalogue, only to receive a Leafs sweater instead. The book – which has sold in excess of 300,000 copies and was adapted into a 10-minute animated film that was in 1981 named best in its genre by the British Academy Film Awards – perfectly encapsulates what it means to be a hockey fan. And although the original French version of the book translates as “An Abominable Maple Leaf On The Ice”, Torontonians think so much of it that, when Richard passed away in May of 2000, the Leafs organization cleared an entire intermission during a game of all the usual promotions and sponsors, and aired the entire “Sweater” short film on the video board at Air Canada Centre in tribute to him.

Regardless of the version of the Leafs logo we’re talking about, one thing remains clear: it resonates with fans as deeply today as it ever has, and that’s reflected in its ubiquitousness in hockey and Canadian culture. To wit: in the heyday of the Maple Leaf Gardens era, artists who appeared on stage during concerts would regularly be offered, and often wear, a Leafs jersey as they performed. The late Eagles guitarist/singer Glenn Frey was one of the more famous examples in the 1970s, and although today’s social media world makes many artists think twice before donning any team’s jersey (lest they draw the ire of fans in their hometown), popular singers including Taylor Swift, Lorde and Keith Urban have pulled a Toronto sweater over their head for shows, and been more popular for it.

But don’t kid yourself – part of the appeal of the Leafs logo is knowing the devotion of the fan who has it on their person. The blue-and-white Maple Leaf enjoys an unusual popularity among actors and comedians, including Jim Carrey and Mike Myers – both of whom wore Leafs jerseys when making appearances on the legendary NBC late-night show Saturday Night Live. But as Myers and Carrey weren’t doing that simply to curry favour in their native land. Rather, they’re bona fide Leafs boosters who’ve lived in Toronto and follow the team’s fortunes regardless of how any one season plays out. There’s an authenticity there you don’t see in many other franchises, no matter the sport.

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It’s easy to see, then, why the Maple Leafs logo means as much as it does, both in the hockey community and the world outside of it. It has grown and evolved alongside a young country that shares its symbol, and it represents a city that adores its team and the sport of hockey as much as any other place on the planet. It’s been that way for nearly a century now, and it certainly won’t change in the centuries ahead.

Source: The evolution of the Maple Leaf

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