Where fans gaze to the rafters of Scotiabank Arena and an impressive lineup of team history, Suzanne Primeau sees a hole.
Staunch a Maple Leaf supporter as can be, she thinks the 19 retired banners are incomplete without a 20th to commemorate her grandfather, ‘Gentleman Joe’ Primeau.
Not that his No. 10 should be hung solely on that nickname, earned through clean play as the team’s first Lady Byng Trophy winner, or a life of integrity in family and business. Suzanne — and many others — think her ‘Papa’ merits a pennant for winning the Stanley Cup as a player and coach of two Memorial Cup teams and an Allan Cup that all produced another generation of stars.
“I look at those 19 Leafs and think that he played with or coached 14 of them,” Primeau said. “Charlie Conacher, Ace Bailey, King Clancy were among his teammates (on the 1932 Cup); Turk Broda, Bill Barilko and Ted Kennedy he coached (in ‘51) and with St. Michael’s College (the Leaf feeder club were ‘47 Memorial champs) and the Marlborough seniors (the ‘49 Allan Cup), he influenced many other greats, including Red Kelly and George Armstrong.
“He was true blue, never played nor worked for another organization, a team builder who won NHL awards, was a first team all-star and in the Hall of Fame. Papa was a big part of that legacy the Leafs always talk about and he did it for so little money (a few thousand dollars a year). It baffles me he is not up there.”
She doesn’t mean to take away from those who got special recognition in the rink or among the 14 bronze statues on Legend’s Row. She’s happy for the Conacher clan that Charlie, Joe’s Kid Line right winger, is twice recognized inside and out of SBA and she is close friends with Charlie’s son Pete.
Yet as many noted when both tributes were created in 2017, the now 57-year gap between titles led to five players who didn’t win one Cup getting banners or statues.
She’d like to see Primeau, the only coach to have won the Stanley, Memorial and Allan Cups, to have his No. 10 accommodated with Armstrong and Syl Apps.
A former high school teacher who still works for the Peel Board, Primeau is sensitive to all of Canada’s past sports heroes fading, but especially Joe’s role with the Leafs up to his passing in 1989 at age 83.
She proudly points out the 5-foot-9, 160-pounder was the first player team patriarch Conn Smythe signed, between the latter getting fired as manager of the New York Rangers in 1927 and returning home to Toronto to rebuild its sagging NHL team.
“Papa was a great centre (with the junior Marlboros and St. Mike’s) and the Rangers thought he was still their property when they fired Conn. But he’d made it a personal services contract and told Papa ‘come to Toronto, be my leader and I’ll find you two great wingers’.”
Smythe did just that with Conacher (The Big Bomber) and Harvey (Busher) Jackson.
“What pleases Horace H. Public the most is the Leafs’ kid forwards delivered,” wrote the Toronto Star’s Lou Marsh on Jan. 6, 1930, after a 4-3 win in Chicago. A week later the trio led the same score at home over Montreal.
“It was the Kid Line that turned the trick!,” Marsh enthused. “Play that on your old tambourine and hear how nice it sounds!”
Between 1929-36, Primeau was either first, second or tied for second in team assists. In the ’32 playoffs, capping Maple Leaf Gardens’ first season, Primeau had six helpers in seven games in a sweet Cup victory for Smythe over the Rangers.
“You can have nice cars, but you still need the gas,” was the only time he might give himself a little credit whenever Suzanne asked him about the Kid Line.
With 25 penalty minutes, less than half his rambunctious wingers, Primeau won the Byng in ‘32, likely when ‘Gentleman’ was first affixed in the papers.
“That name was definitely part of who he was,” Suzanne said. “He was a kind man, not wimpy soft, but honest and always a good word for everyone. It’s why Hockey Night in Canada always interviewed him.
“His reputation boiled down to how he treated his teammates, players, family and employees.”
Primeau was born in Lindsay in 1906, gifted his first skates from great uncle Cecil, who’d gone off to World War I. They were so big that Joe had to wear house slippers in the boot, but loved playing so much they never came off. His mother eventually laid cardboard from the front door to the dining table.
With her three brothers of Joe Primeau Jr. and 11 cousins, Suzanne recalled having the run of his basement with its mass of 8 X 10 photos of Leafs glory years and memorabilia.
“I was his eldest granddaughter and started to play at age 13 as well as figure skate. Dick Beddoes (the colourful sports columnist) came out to do an article on Papa and I. He was very supportive of me playing (in the nascent years of women’s hockey) and at 15 I was doing well against 22-year-olds.”
Joe and his children did well in the block and brick company that complimented Smythe’s sand and gravel operation. But he was never far from the Gardens, sometimes getting a call from St. Mike’s grad Jim Gregory when he became GM in the 1970s, wanting Joe’s opinion.
“All the older Leafs talked to me about Papa. Red would recall a tape-to-tape trick play he saw him use before the centre red line came in. You see pictures of Papa with Frank Mahovlich, Tim Horton and Bill Barilko. Hes mentioned on Dick Duff’s hockey card, Bob Baun just wanted to see him to say he was so sad to have missed him on the Marlies by a year.
“And the night the Leafs honoured Dave Keon, I told Dave Jr., I just wanted to meet him. When Dave Sr. found out who I was, he pulled me out of the crowd.”
Current Leaf ownership believes it has paid proper homage to its past, including ranking Primeau 22nd in the franchise’s top 100 of its centennial and is now pushing ‘Next Generation’ events in an ever-changing GTA demographic.
“I’d still like to see more of what came before with the Leafs,” said Suzanne, a board member of the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. “As year after year goes by, you start to lose that.
“When I see the banners, I think of Papa being there for the Leafs, beginning, middle and end.”
ONCE A LEAF
Featuring one of the more than 1,100 skaters coaches and general managers who have played or worked in Toronto since 1917.
D Rick Nattress
Born: May 25, 1962 in Hamilton, Ont.
Years with the Leafs: 1991-92
Games played: 36 (2 goals, 14 assists 16 points, 32 PIM)
Sweater number: 2
At the Calgary Flames New Year’s Eve party in 1991, Doug Gilmour took Nattress aside and advised him to start packing next day.
“Dougie said ‘something’s in the works with a trade’. We just didn’t know how big it turned out to be.”
A record 10-player deal with Toronto sent Gilmour, Nattress, Jamie Macoun, Rick Wamsley and Kent Manderville to the Leafs for Gary Leeman, Michel Petit, Jeff Reese, Craig Berube and Alexander Godynyuk.
“It was incredible to see all the names, but my first thought was ‘holy s**t my Mom (Joyce), will love this’. She was a single parent, such a big Leaf fan and now I was coming home. Up to then, I think the only time she saw me on TV in Calgary was when Don Cherry did a feature on a special boot I was wearing for a crushed instep.
“The trade wasn’t a surprise. Our contracts were up and the transition was coming with both GMs (Toronto’s Cliff Fletcher and Calgary’s Doug Risebrough) wanting to put their own stamp on new teams.”
The veteran defenceman was among Fletcher’s 1989 Cup winners and though Nattress wasn’t around long, he helped set the table for a dramatic return to contention in ’92-93.
“Toronto was my dream. As a kid, I rushed home every Wednesday and Saturday to watch Darryl, Lanny and Borje.”
Yet he knew as a pending UFA, his time as a Leaf would likely be brief.
“I had my wife Jackie, kids aged 8 and 5 and thinking ‘do I buy a new house?’ Your life really isn’t your own after a trade. Counting Calgary, Toronto and Philadelphia (where he played one more year), Justin and Kristi changed schools four times in 13 months.”
Nattress had links to the Leafs long before the trade. Starting with his 1980s draft year by Montreal from the OHL Brantford Alexanders, he was with future Buds Mike Bullard, Gregg Terrion, Allan Bester, Daryl Evans, Dave Gagner, Dave Hannan and future exec Mark Hunter.
Unfortunately, memory of that part of his career is hazy, the effects of an infamous Mark Messier elbow in a ‘91 playoff series against rival Edmonton.
“Some guy from my junior days might come up and say ‘great to see you, how’s the family?’, but I’m just wondering ‘who are you again?’ I’m still working on getting over that.”
The chatty Nattress worked in media as a hockey analyst after retirement and was an Off The Record guest with Michael Landsberg, the NHL Network and working on a show with Rod Black. For a time he was former Leaf GM Gord Stellick’s co-host on radio pre and post -game shows.
“I love to free-wheel on the air. But as my wife likes to say, my personality gets me hired — and fired.”
Wanting to give back to the Leafs, the NHL and the game as a whole, Nattress is on the board of the Leafs Alumni, a participant in their many worthy charity events and exhibition games.
He supports the players’ strong bonds with the Canadian military and through a long friendship with indigenous NHLer John Chabot, has visited isolated communities to aid and raise awareness of lack of WiFi and broadband services.
He also does work with McMaster Children’s Hospital in his hometown.
‘’Around Christmas a few years ago, I was visiting the cancer wing at Mac, chatting with a kid. I asked were they going home for the holidays. They said ‘I haven’t been home in four years’. That definitely leaves an impression.”
FAVOURITE LEAF MEMORY
Player agent Bill Watters convinced Nattress to attend the 1980 draft in Montreal, where Ric figured he’d go in the fourth or fifth round.
“I thought I’d have time to try one of those famous Forum hot dogs in the hall. I’m halfway to wolfing it down when I hear the announcement in the second round ‘the Canadiens are pleased to select Ric Nattress’.
“I go, ‘s**t that’s me!’ and ran to their table, coughing up the hot dog on the way. I’m also thinking ‘didn’t they just win four Cups? I’m probably gonna die on their Halifax farm team’.
“I knew my Aunt Georgia, who drove me around to hockey practice as we had no car, would be happy as she was a French Canadian Habs fan.
“But my mother? I could tell she was proud, but pissed. She grew up in the old days listening to the Leafs. It wasn’t until the Calgary trade that she thought I’d done something right and she could start bragging about me again.”
THIS WEEK IN LEAFS HISTORY
Saturday marks 20 years since good timing put Gary Roberts and Tom Fitzgerald into their 1,000th NHL games on the same night … The team’s first hat trick after Smythe changed the name from St Patricks came Jan. 14, 1928, when Hap Day had three against the Rangers … NHL/Leaf goalie great and facemask proponent Jacques Plante would’ve been 95 on Wednesday.