Brendan Shanahan does not want it misconstrued as “an award you get before you die.”
But Borje Salming and Rodion Amirov, the first recipients of a special medallion the Maple Leafs president created in the past year, had put on the bravest of faces in battling their no-win medical conditions.
Shanahan knew the high admiration the two generated within the Leafs family and legions of fans across the world. He sought to recognize that without intruding on the grief surrounding their final days or their family’s privacy.
During Salming’s final visit to Scotiabank Arena last November, ravaged by ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) that robbed the pioneer Swedish defenceman of speech, Shanahan chose a quiet moment to give him the first bronzed memento, about half the circumference of a puck.
One side features today’s team motto, ‘Honour, Pride, Courage’ that is sewn into each Leaf game sweater, the other embossed with variations of the team’s logos through its first century.
“I had the idea from the medallions the Canadian military often presents,” Shanahan told the Sun, though he doesn’t wish to publicize the images at present. “I can tell you the players truly appreciated it.”
Shanahan does keep a picture on his I-phone of the beaming Salming accepting his memento. Their existence might have remained quiet had Ruslan Amirov not mentioned how much his son treasured his as part of emotional ‘thank you’ post to Shanahan, former general manager Kyle Dubas and Leafs Nation after 2020’s first round pick died of brain cancer in August.
Shanahan lamented it was a rather rushed presentation to the Amirovs at 6 a.m. one morning a year ago as they were off to the airport. Rodion had improved enough to attend 2022’s training camp as an observer, only to have his condition worsen and be sent back on short notice for treatment in Germany. Amirov tried to live as normal a life as possible, working out off ice and going to the movies despite failing eyesight.
“Rodion brought this award to Ufa (his hometown in Russia) and was very proud of it,” Ruslan said.
Acknowledgement of intangible off-ice fortitude is a Leaf tradition in many forms through the decades. Each year the Toronto chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association joins all 32 NHL teams to nominate a candidate for the Bill Masterton Trophy for ‘perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey’, won once here by leukemia survivor Jason Blake in 2008.
The in-house J.P. Bickell Memorial Cup used to be a more prominent team platitude. It was created by the board of directors of Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1950s and given ‘to a player at such times and for such merit as may be designated and determined’.
Named for the club’s first president, who had a vital backroom role in keeping the Leafs in town in 1927 and building the Gardens with partner Conn Smythe, it went annually to stars such as Ted Kennedy, Harry Lumley, Tod Sloan, George Armstrong, Bob Pulford, Johnny Bower, Red Kelly, Dave Keon, Allan Stanley, Terry Sawchuk, Tim Horton, Bob Baun and executive King Clancy.
Harold Ballard nearly mothballed the Bickell in the ‘70s and ‘80s, until ensuing directors dusted it off for Doug Gilmour’s magical ’92-93 season. Respected player-scout Bob Davidson received it in ’95, a year before he passed, while Mats Sundin and Curtis Joseph were both chosen for their prominent part in the ‘99 run to the conference final. Pat Quinn got it at the height of his success as GM/coach.
Shanahan resurrected it once, when Ian Turnbull, one of the top 100 players chosen for the team’s centennial, ended a long estrangement from the club in 2018.
By the way, the original Bickell wasn’t made on the cheap at your neighbourhood hardware store with a plastic player glued on top. It cost $10,000 at the time, one of the costliest hockey baubles ever, 14-karat gold on a silver base, no doubt in tribute to Bickell’s Northern Ontario mining background in precious metals. Each winner received a replica cup.
But the new medallions will continue to be low-key presentations by Shanahan when a recipient is deemed appropriate.
“I wondered a bit if I was the right person to be giving them out,” said Shanahan, whose Hall of Fame career did not include playing for his hometown team. “But you get to know the stories of players such as Borje and Rodion and think ‘what can we do to recognize that’?”
ONCE A LEAF
Featuring one of the more than 1,100 players, coaches and general managers who have played or worked in Toronto since 1917.
Centre John Pohl
Born: June 29, 1979, in Rochester, Minn.
Sweater numbers: 53, 21
Games played: 114, 16 goals, 21 assists, 37 points, 24 PIMs
It was a favourite mealtime story in the Pohl household when John’s wife would tell their three daughters Dad was traded to the Leafs one summer “for a bag of pucks”.
The minor deal was actually for the ubiquitous ‘future considerations’ from the St. Louis Blues, a low draft pick had Pohl made the Leafs at their 2005 training camp. But their parents love relating the ‘pucks’ yarn to this day.
“My youngest believed it and she couldn’t understand why the Leafs didn’t take their own bag of pucks with them,” laughed Pohl over the line from St. Paul, Minn.
“Another funny part about the trade was how fast it happened. It seemed I was in St. Louis one minute, on a plane and in a Toronto hotel the next, not really knowing much about the deal.
“I woke up, a Sun newspaper landed at my door with the huge headline ‘How The Big Trade Went Down’. I’m thinking ‘Holy cow, was I part of something for Sundin’? But it turned out to be the same day Ottawa traded Marian Hossa (to Atlanta for Dany Heatley).”
The move east was an NHL lifeline for Pohl, who’d come all the way from 255th in the draft from the University to Minnesota, a pick pushed by Blues’ hockey operations boss John Ferguson Jr., who retained him when he became Leafs’ GM.
In ’06-07, Pohl got to contribute full time on the same team with Hall of Famer Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle under coach Paul Maurice. Pohl was penciled in a few places in the lineup.
“It was an awesome time, though not growing up in Canada, I knew very little about the Leafs and their history. Maybe it was a good thing I was so naïve, because people there can be psychotic about hockey, really passionate.”
He encountered a bit of that when given sweater 21 on a full-time basis. Salming’s number had not yet been retired and its significance was often pointed out to an oblivious Pohl.
“Had I known, I’d have taken another number. I’d grown up watching the North Stars and then the Wild, never the Leafs. But then there was a rumour we were going to get Peter Forsberg from the Flyers. I thought ‘I can probably send one of my kids to college with the money he’d give me to pass on 21’.
“Kidding aside, the Leafs treated me first class. Once you leave there, you realize how fortunate you were.”
Pohl had personal highlights, his first NHL goal on New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur in a New Year’s Eve win.
“It was a 5-on-3 power play for us, they told me just to stand in front. Mats is out there with the stars and they’re whipping the puck around with about 50 passes before I just tapped it in.
“There’s no highlight I’ve ever seen of it, no YouTube, so I just tell people I went end to end and scored.”
Pohl also had a penalty shot goal on Cam Ward of the Hurricanes and in the same season, a shootout winner in Ottawa when Sundin told Maurice to use him on the captain’s hunch Pohl would clinch it.
“My kids love hearing about Toronto and I still pull for them,” Pohl said. “My only regret is I never got to play a game in Minnesota because the schedule back then was (unbalanced).”
From Toronto, Pohl spent one season each in Lugano, Switzerland and Frolunda Sweden, the latter a teammate of 18-year-old Erik Karlsson, concluding his playing days with the AHL Chicago Wolves.
Once a business major at Minnesota, he changed gears to a Masters’ degree in Education at Saint Mary’s University in the state, embarking on a 14-year teaching career. The past seven of those he’s been at Hill – Murray, a private catholic academy, Grades 6 to 12, as sports activities director, heading to a soccer tournament as we spoke.
“I enjoyed having the whole summer off in my playing days, so this was the perfect job,” he joked.
His daughters with Krissy Wendell, former captain of the U.S. Olympic women’s team, are now 15, 13 and 11. Wendell broke ground as one of the NHL’s first female scouts, hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2021 to work Minnesota high schools and local USHL teams.
“The last four years of my career, I didn’t play much, so she did a lot of watching other players,” John said. “She’d tell me this guy or that guy should be in the NHL. I’d say ‘really?’ and then she’d be proven right.
“My year in Sweden, Karlsson was only 18, but she called it with him as a future star and now he’s (won Norris Trophies). Her job works out really well for our schedule. She has got to know Kyle (Dubas, the former Leafs GM is now running the Pens), she gets to go to the draft and is in on team meetings.
“She would be a huge asset to any team.”
Former Leaf GM Gord Stellick has a new book coming out ‘Revival’ the story of Toronto’s wild seven-game playoff series with the Islanders in 1978 … Darryl Sittler will get the Conn Smythe Life Achievement Award at the Smythe Sports Celebrities Dinner in March … Overseas, defenceman Petter Granberg, the 6-foot-2 Leaf draft pick from 2010, who played for Toronto and Nashville, is still going strong in his 30s for the Skelleftea club. Taken in the fourth round at 110 th overall, the next Swedish blueliner taken after him was current Leaf John Klingberg by Dallas.
THIS WEEK IN LEAFS HISTORY
Monday is the 80th anniversary of Gus Bodnar scoring the fastest goal by a rookie in NHL history, at the 15-second mark at the Gardens against the Rangers, part of a hat trick en route to his Calder Trophy season … On Oct. 29, 1944, Sweeney Schriner and Lorne Carr each had three-goal games in an 11-5 win at Chicago … Born on Halloween 1897 in Cayuga, Ont., Jimmy ‘Sailor’ Herberts, a forward for the ’27-28 Leafs. His nickname came from work as a Great Lakes freighter deck hand and he later refereed hockey in Britain.
Have a question, comment or would like to see a former Leaf featured? Drop a line to [email protected].