‘That pride of being a northerner’: Remembering Leafs great George Armstrong

He was a Toronto hockey legend. But the Hall of Famer never forgot his roots in northern Ontario
By Nick Dunne - Published on Feb 02, 2021
Toronto Maple Leafs alumni applaud fellow alumni George Armstrong (left) during a pre-game ceremony in Toronto on February 21, 2015. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

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SUDBURY — When George Armstrong and Tim Horton were students at Sudbury High School in 1946, Armstrong heard that the Copper Cliff Redmen, a local hockey team, was holding tryouts. Armstrong wanted to give it a shot, but Horton wasn’t so sure. As the story goes, he told his friend, “George, we're not that good.”

“Can you imagine that? ‘We’re not that good!’” says Danny McCourt, Armstrong’s nephew. “Those were [Armstrong’s] stories,” McCourt says. “He never told them to anybody but us, his family.”

Horton and Armstrong would go on to play for the Redmen and, eventually, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Both are Hockey Hall of Fame inductees.

Armstrong died on January 24 at the age of 90. Although he rose to fame in Toronto, he maintained deep ties to northern Ontario — returning in the offseason to participate in community events, see his family, and, in the process, inspire a generation of hockey players across the region.

Armstrong was born in Boland’s Bay, on the south shore of Lake Wanapitei. His father, Fred Armstrong, was Irish, and his mother, Alice, was Algonquin. Fred worked in the nickel mines, including at the Falconbridge mine, where he also played on the company soccer team. “They said [Fred] was one of the dirtiest soccer players in Sudbury in the 1930s. And Nanny grew up in [Boland’s Bay],” says McCourt, a former NHL official. “For those two sets of genes to get together, it probably wasn't that hard to bring out an athlete like George.”

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a old wooden building
George Armstrong was born at a camp near Skead, Ontario. (Courtesy of Danny McCourt)

He joined the Maple Leafs as a centre in 1950; in 1957, he was named captain, a title he held for 12 years — the longest tenure in franchise history. In total, he played 1,188 games over 21 seasons, helping the team win the Stanley Cup four times and scoring the final goal of the 1967 finals, the team’s most recent championship.

Mike Foligno, a former Leaf who was born in Sudbury, says that Armstrong changed the game of hockey: “He’s one of those guys I call masters of the game” alongside such players as Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, and Jean Beliveau. “He took pride in his face-offs, being responsible defensively,” Foligno says. “He saw the ice really well, was a physical presence. George was a complete player that could play any style of game.”

After he retired from playing, Armstrong coached the Toronto Marlboros, winning two Memorial Cups. He then worked as a scout for the Quebec Nordiques before returning to the Leafs in 1988. In 2014, the franchise named him an ambassador. “He had that class, he had that respect,” says Foligno. “And he had that pride of being a northerner, of being a part something really special — as being a Maple Leaf for such a long, long time.”

man wearing a Maple Leafs jersey
George Armstrong was named the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1957-58 season. (Wikipedia/George Armstrong)

Greg McCourt, Danny’s younger brother, says that when people asked Armstrong why he still worked for the club, he would answer, “They need me to remember the [championship] parade route.” When he was asked what it was like to be the last Leafs captain to win a cup, he would respond: “I forget.”

While George will always be associated with Toronto, Greg says that George’s character was shaped by his upbringing in a mining family. “I think that character came from his mother and father: honesty and hard work is what will get you by.”

And he never lost sight of his roots in the north. When he became a professional player in the early 1950s, Armstrong would spend his summers at the family’s camp, near Sudbury, with his wife, Betty, and their four children. Dale McCourt, a former top draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings, says that his uncle was his hockey idol. However, he adds, “When family was together, we were always sticking to family stuff.”

When Armstrong spoke at the minor-hockey banquet in Falconbridge, which he did each year for at least 15 years between the early 1950s and the mid-’70s, the kids would swarm him for autographs, Dale says: “It was a great honour for Falconbridge. All the women got dressed up with a corsage, and they would bring a box of chocolates. All of the men would wear a suit and tie.”

Other athletes from the area followed in his NHL footsteps — including Foligno, Randy Carlyle, and Ron Duguay, all of whom are from Sudbury. “Coming from a small town, you sometimes don’t think that people have a chance,” Foligno says. “And all you're looking for is a morsel of hope. People like George showed us the way.”

Armstrong, perhaps the most successful Indigenous hockey player in NHL history, was also an inspiration across northern Indigenous communities. “Armstrong’s always been this iconic figure, not just in terms of Maple Leafs hockey but for Indigenous hockey, culture, and communities everywhere,” says Waubgeshig Rice, author and former host of the CBC Radio show Up North. Although he didn’t grow up watching Armstrong play, he says, he’s “been a constant — he's always been there.

two hockey players face off in front of a group of men in jerseys while one man prepares to drop the puck
George Armstrong drops the puck at a ceremonial face-off Toronto in 2007. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Rice, who grew up in Wasauksing First Nation, near Parry Sound, says his father remembers Armstrong visiting the community after one of his Stanley Cup victories. “That was obviously huge back in the 1960s — to have this hockey giant come to the rez and visit rez kids.”

And Armstrong brought him closer to his own family, Rice says: “It’s something that I connect with my dad, and I have for my whole life and always will.” 

In 2015, the Maple Leafs unveiled a statue of Armstrong outside Scotiabank Arena (then the Air Canada Centre). According to Danny McCourt, his uncle’s response was another example of his ethos of putting team success over individual achievements: “The only thing a statue is good for is for pigeons to shit on.”

Danny adds that Armstrong didn’t stay for the celebrations but told his family to stop by his house, in Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood, before they went their separate ways.

While there, Greg says, he bumped into Armstrong in the kitchen. Greg had recently quit both smoking and drinking. “I wanted to be with him face to face to tell him how proud I was of him,” Greg says. “And he says to me, ‘Your mom has told me what you’ve been doing, and I am very proud of you.’ Here I am trying to tell him how I feel on his day, but he turns it into me and says how proud he is of me.” 

For Danny, the pandemic is a blessing in disguise when it comes to Armstrong’s funeral. It will be small, quiet, and just for family. Eventually, he will be cremated and brought to his mother’s burial site near Skead Road, in Sudbury. “Just how George would want it,” Danny says.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

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