The Toronto
Maple Leafs

How Canada's national symbol found its way onto center ice.
By Robert Klara

Hockey fans filling the stands at Toronto’s old Arena Gardens on the night of Feb. 17, 1927, were in for two surprises. First, their home team, the St. Patricks, would pull out of a loss suffered two nights before in Windsor to trounce the New York Americans, 4-1. Second, their home team wasn’t called the St. Patricks anymore. The men who hit the ice that night 91 years ago were wearing jerseys they’d been given on the train by their new owner Conn Smythe: They were now officially the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In a sense, the name change was probably inevitable. After all, if there’s any single thing ubiquitous to Canada, it’s the maple leaf. Toronto boasts a Maple Leaf Tavern, a Maple Leaf Square and Maple Leaf Square condominiums. Its airport has a Maple Leaf Lounge, and the Amtrak train that chuffs in from New York is called the Maple Leaf. Maple leaves appear on the Canadian penny and, of course, on the Canadian flag.

So it figures that brands, too, appropriate the national symbol. To name a few, there’s Maple Leaf Foods out of Winnipeg, maple leaf cookies baked by Leclerc in Quebec and Maple Leaf Diamonds mined from the Ekati Mine in the Northwest Territories. Canadian Tire, Molson Beer and Air Canada all incorporate maple leaves as their badges.

According to Toronto-based retail consultant Bruce Winder, the reasons for this stretch beyond mere sight recognition to touch on a powerful national sentiment that confers both benefits as well as responsibilities. “As a Canadian, I would suggest that the brands that use the maple leaf in logos have a higher perceived standard and reputation to hold true to by our citizens,” he said. “Simply put, we expect more of them because we see them as Canadian.”

This logic certainly applies to the Maple Leafs, a name that Smythe chose to honor servicemen in World War I. An Army major and holder of the Military Cross, Smythe had fought bravely in Ypres and spent 14 months as a prisoner of war. Most units fighting in the Great War had a regiment badge with some version of the maple leaf on it, and Smythe looked no further for a symbol.

“The maple leaf, to us, was the badge of courage, the badge that meant home,” he said. “It was a badge that meant more to us than any other badge that we could think of, so we chose it, hoping that the possession of this badge would mean something to the team that wore it, and when they skated out on the ice with this badge on their chest, they would wear it with honor and pride and courage.”

Not that Smythe didn’t have a keen eye for commercial branding. Among his first moves was to change the team’s colors from green and white to blue and white, as the Maple Leafs team historian Mike Ferriman points out. “He owned a few businesses, one being a sand and gravel company,” he said. “All the trucks were blue and white.”

And so: Part patriotism, part capitalism. Fortunately, in Canada as well as the U.S. (where the bald eagle adorns no shortage of brands), there’s room for both. And while many factors affect the success of an athletic team, Smythe’s name clearly hasn’t hurt. Nine decades later, the Toronto Maple Leafs have an estimated value of $1.4 billion and are the second most valuable team in the NHL.

Conn Smythe named his team the Maple Leafs, then built the Maple Leaf Gardens for them to play in.

Conn Smythe named his team the Maple Leafs, then built the Maple Leaf Gardens for them to play in.

While it may look unchanged at first glance, the team’s logo has been repeatedly tweaked over the years. Pierre Pilote (1) wears the leaf used between 1967 and 1969, while Wendel Clark (2) sports the logo in use from 1970 through 2015. Bobby Baun (3) shows off the logo worn by the team between 1932 and 1966. Charlie Conacher (4) wears the short-lived design used from 1926 through 1932, and again in 1937. And finally, Morgan Rielly (5) shows off the logo design adopted in 2016 and still in use today.

While the Canadian Parliament voted to adopt the maple leaf flag as recently as 1965 (it features the 11-point leaf shown here), the leaf’s association with Canada stretches back hundreds of years. Indigenous peoples made use of maple sap long before the Europeans arrived and, when they did, they used maple wood to raise houses. By 1834, Montreal Mayor Jacques Viger proclaimed the maple “king of the forest” and “symbol of the Canadian people.”