The man who (almost) named the Toronto Maple Leafs

Coach. Manager. Owner. He’s largely forgotten now, but Charlie Querrie helped create the boys in blue we know today
By Stephen Smith - Published on Jan 13, 2021
Charlie Querrie (right) was the manager of the Torontos during the National Hockey League’s inaugural season in 1917-18. (Wikipedia)

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The downtown Toronto arena he ran for more than a decade has now been reduced to a plaque in a park, shadowed by condo towers. The theatre he built in the city’s east end is no more, and so is the daily newspaper he worked at for years.

The hockey teams he owned and coached to a pair of Stanley Cups in the early years of the NHL are history, too.

A century ago, there were few more conspicuous — or energetic — players on the Toronto sporting scene than Charlie Querrie. Now he’s largely forgotten, but his legacy has endured, hiding in plain sight on the sweaters of the iconic team that he shepherded into NHL history.

Querrie was born in Markham in 1877 and made his mark as a field lacrosse player. He’s in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame for his exploits on the grass, back when the sport was much more prominent than it is today. He was a shifty player, according to those who saw him compete, and speedy, with a deadly shot. In 1902, while touring England with a Toronto team, he scored 68 goals in a run of 17 games. One of those was at Lord’s Cricket Ground, in London, in front of 20,000 fans —among them, King Edward VII.

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Querrie played professionally, signing in 1906 as the playing coach of another Toronto team — the Tecumsehs. Court records confirm he was not an entirely peaceful player. In 1904, he was arrested for clouting a referee during a game on the Toronto Islands. He was convicted of assault and paid a $5 fine. An Ottawa newspaper declared that “he has caused more trouble through rough work than probably any other man in the game.”

At the time, Querrie was working as a printer. Later, he was a sportswriter and editor for the daily Toronto News.

In 1912, professional hockey debuted in Toronto with the opening of Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. Without quitting his day job or his summer lacrosse gig, Querrie became manager of the new facility.

a team of lacrosse players
Charles Querrie (front row, third from the left), shown here in 1907, is in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

He was 40 in 1917, the year that the professional hockey world shifted. On a November afternoon, after eight seasons as the major league in eastern Canada, the National Hockey Association died a quick administrative death — only to be immediately reformed as the National Hockey League.

The manoeuvring was because of one not-much-liked man, Eddie Livingstone — a former newspaper editor who had owned several of the NHA’s Toronto franchises. “The toxic Toronto owner,” according to hockey historian (and former prime minister) Stephen Harper, was “quarrelsome and litigious.”

Livingstone was so thoroughly loathed by his NHA peers that they were willing to scuttle the whole enterprise just to be rid of him. It worked. The NHL’s new Toronto team found a home at Arena Gardens, backed by Montreal owners. The man originally picked to manage the team was Jimmy Murphy, another veteran of the lacrosse field.

And when Murphy bowed out just two weeks before the league’s inaugural season? “I’ve got a new job,” Querrie told the Globe.

Managers in the early NHL were often more directly involved than their modern-day counterparts, exhorting their players and directing traffic from the bench while also arranging trades and doling out contracts. So, while Querrie hired Dick Carroll as coach, he was also on the front lines himself, thick in the action.

Querrie’s team was named the Torontos that year, though press reports sometimes called them the Blueshirts. Before they hit the ice that December, Querrie issued a 15-point manifesto distilling his own rigorous sporting philosophy.

Point four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

Point eight: “You will be punished for indifferent work or carelessness. If you are anxious to win all the time you will be a good player. Indifference or lack of pepper is one thing we never did like.”

The Torontos overcame an early goaltending crisis to win both the NHL title and the subsequent Stanley Cup final, beating the west-coast champion Vancouver Millionaires.

It wasn’t always pretty. Frank Patrick, the president of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, felt there was too much gambling in the Toronto rink. Also, he added, “Torontonians are very prejudiced.” As for Querrie, “he acted pretty friendly,” Patrick said, “except when under stress of excitement.”

That might explain the feud that Querrie cultivated with former star defenceman Art Ross, who was assigned to referee a pair of the 1918 Cup games. “Ross started in by telling me that I was a poor loser,” Querrie said after one game, “and went on to say that I was mixed up in a crooked league and was a crook in sport. I promptly called him a liar, and then he threatened to lick me.”

In 1918, the Toronto team relaunched as the Arenas. A year later, Querrie and an old lacrosse pal took control, renaming the team the Tecumsehs. That lasted just a day or two before the owners of the senior-league St. Patricks bought the club and changed the name again.

Querrie remained a part-owner of the NHL St. Patricks, newly clad in green, and continued his hands-on management, with success — the St. Pats won another Stanley Cup championship in 1922.

In 1924, the NHL fined Querrie $200 for abusing an official: Art Ross.

Ross eventually took over as coach and manager of the expansion Boston Bruins. One night in December 1926, with Querrie’s St. Patricks battling the Bruins at Boston Garden, a melee broke out over a called-off goal. Ross was already out on the ice remonstrating with the referee when the Toronto manager followed him.

“Someone hurled a monkey wrench at my head,” Querrie recalled when he was back in Toronto. “It wasn’t any toy either, but a full sized three-pound wrench, and I brought it away for a souvenir. It only missed my head by a foot. Then someone socked me with a hard-boiled egg, and not an overly fresh one at that. There were plenty of eggs flying.”

The St. Patricks were not very good that season. With Querrie behind the bench, the team won just two of their first 10 games. Local newspapers reported that he and his partners were ready to sell the team and that C.C. Pyle — an American promoter who wanted to move the team to Philadelphia — was the likeliest buyer.

The story of how the hockey team stayed in Toronto has been burnished into legend. It’s the one in which Conn Smythe — war veteran, gravel contractor, hockey coach — saved the day, backed by a partner or two. Smythe had been hired and quickly fired by the fledgling New York Rangers that fall and parlayed his earnings into even bigger money with a couple of sports bets. Then he combined those winnings with his own daring, pluck, and sense of civic duty to buy the St. Patricks. In February 1927, he duly transformed them — in the middle of the NHL season, no less — into the Maple Leafs.

And that, more or less, was the way that it went.

The team’s new name was nothing particularly novel. The maple leaf had been a national emblem since before Confederation and had been appropriated by hockey and lacrosse teams across the country ever since — complete with the spelling-error of the plural. Toronto’s minor-league baseball Maple Leafs had been swinging away since 1895.

headshot of a man
In February 1927,
Conn Smythe transformed
the St. Patricks into the
Maple Leafs. (Wikipedia)

Smythe did not explicitly take credit for the new name, but he didn’t seem to mind when credit accrued to him and his patriotic pride. “I had a feeling that the new Maple Leaf name was right,” he wrote in his 1981 autobiography, invoking the 1924 Olympic team and the insignia he had worn while serving with the Canadian artillery in the First World War. “I thought it meant something across Canada.”

The only problem with that narrative: Charlie Querrie had the idea first.

As Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth note in their book Deceptions and Doublecross, Querrie had had a name-change in mind three months earlier.

In December 1926, Querrie’s interest in changing the name wasn’t a secret. The Toronto Daily Star reported (and endorsed) the Querrie plan. “The name St. Patricks doesn’t mean anything,” the Star opined, “and he is seriously considering dubbing his team the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

In fact, Querrie’s first choice was to return the team to its NHL roots, rebranding as the Torontos — but he discovered that Eddie Livingstone still owned the rights to the name. Toronto Star columnist (and NHL referee) Lou Marsh was on board with Querrie’s “non-partisan” second choice, which was “a name of fame in sport.”

“If the switch in nomenclature is made,” the Star went on to hazard, “the green sweater may be dropped in favour of some other color scheme with a large Maple Leaf on the back.”

If Querrie was annoyed at not getting credit for his plan, he doesn’t seem to have shared it publicly. That may be because he was reported to have walked away from NHL ownership with $65,000 — almost $1 million in today’s terms. His 1919 original stake was said to have been no more than $1,200.

Out of hockey, Querrie busied himself running the Palace Theatre, a popular movie-house he’d opened in 1924 on the Danforth, in Toronto’s east end. He returned to writing, filing a genial weekly column in the Star and penning features for Leafs’ programs. He was proud of his ongoing devotion to Toronto hockey: in 1944, he noted that, in the 32 years since professional hockey first launched in the city, he’d witnessed every game but three.

His feud with Art Ross withered away, then sprouted into friendship. In 1939, Querrie presented the wrench that just missed his head, mounted with a clock, to his old rival. 

Querrie died in April 1950 at the age of 72. The Leafs were trying, that week, to defend the Stanley Cup championship they’d won three times in a row. Querrie’s last regret was said to have been that he couldn’t be on hand to watch the team he’d once owned — and almost named. 

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