Ted Kennedy is the greatest-ever Maple Leafs centreman.
Not Doug Gilmour, not Mats Sundin nor even the marvelous Dave Keon.
Ted Kennedy. Teeder.
The key word here is great. Great is impossible to define. It can be quantified through statistics but greatness…greatness is an element that transcends numbers.
Ted Kennedy was great.
I was writing a book on captains of the Maple Leafs in 1995. We met at Fort Erie Race Track where he governed as chief of security. Ted was 70 years old but when a fly got too close his right hand shot out and crushed it. The movement was so quick, so instinctive, so precise and violent I lost my train of questioning.
If you ever sat in a room with Ted Kennedy, just you and him, you never forgot it. He was gentle but he would hurt a fly; would do in fact whatever it took to win. Maurice Richard is the only other man I interviewed with a comparable presence.
The only token of Ted’s 14 years with the Leafs was a picture of the Queen. Ted was presented to Princess Elizabeth in 1951 when Leafs founder Conn Smythe arranged an exhibition game for her perusal. To accommodate the Queen’s schedule the game lasted only a period and was played in the afternoon.
We talked face-offs. In a 1998 Sports Illustrated poll conducted 41 years after he retired, hockey experts rated Ted Kennedy the best face-off man in the history of the NHL.
Ted was breaking down alignments and explaining the necessity of five men doing their job to win a draw. Suddenly he stopped, excused himself and left the room. A few seconds passed. Teeder returned, apologized and tried to explain.
Sometimes, he said, the rush of memory was so strong it took his breath away.
That’s what you need to know about Ted Kennedy, that he was the finest centreman because he was a great, great man with a passion for the game that he could not govern but could superbly channel.
Teeder Kennedy – the nickname was bestowed by a hometown friend – won five Stanley Cups as a player. No Leaf won more. He scored his first Cup-winning goal at 22. Teeder captained the Leafs for eight years and never played anywhere else; never wanted to.
Ted was from Humberstone, what is now Port Colborne, Ont. His father died in a hunting accident 11 days before the birth of his son. Margaret Kennedy was now her family’s breadwinner. She took a second job at the local arena’s snack bar. It was there that Ted Kennedy acquired the work ethic that defined him – literally, at the feet of his mother.
Never a smooth skater, he burned through the league by the force of his will.
In the 40 years he owned the Leafs, Smythe kept only two player pictures in his office. One was of Syl Apps. The other was Ted Kennedy.
Kennedy was voted the Hart Trophy as league MVP in his final full season as a player. His 52 points in 70 games tied a career high but he was never a first-team all-star. He was, instead, an incomparable winner.
A fan named John Arnott so admired Ted Kennedy that he would jump to his feet during a lull in a Leafs game and bellow “Come-On Teeder.” Come-on Teeder became a fixture of Leafs games, as familiar as the long ride up her massive escalators and the incandescent glow from that famous marquee.
The two men met after Ted retired. When John Arnott died, Ted Kennedy was one of the men who carried him to his final home.
Ted followed him in 2009 at the age of 84. His name no longer adorns the Stanley Cup he held so often. The last ring bearing his name was removed to make room for more winners. He can of course be found at the Hockey Hall of Fame where he was enshrined in 1966 or among the banners hanging from the rafters at Air Canada Centre.
One final story, courtesy of a friend. Kennedy was brought in to coach a junior team on faceoffs. A parent volunteer, perhaps unaware of the guest coach’s identity, repeatedly contradicted him. Finally, Teeder invited him into the faceoff circle to demonstrate his technique. The man went for the puck. Ted drew his stick up into the man’s groin.
As the know-it-all lay on the ice, Ted Kennedy bent over him and said: “That’s how we used to do it when I played for the Toronto Maple Leafs.”