Christmas Day contests in the National Hockey League were, at one time, a grand tradition for fans. I remember well sitting with my family after Christmas dinner watching the Toronto Maple Leafs play.
While it was a grand tradition for fans, for the players? Not so much! Maple Leafs alumni relate stories with a tinge of sadness, explaining how Santa’s magical arrival took place a few days before Christmas so Dad could have Christmas with his kids before having to head off on a Christmas Day road trip.
“The players didn’t care for playing at Christmas, but it was worse on our kids,” Bobby Baun remembers. “They’d always be confused whenever Santa came a few days early. For the players, it meant we’d miss out on seeing our kids’ smiling faces as they opened their presents.”
The very first game played by the Toronto franchise, usually referred to as the Blueshirts, was on December 25, 1912, the opening night of the season of the National Hockey Association, the predecessor to the NHL. Toronto faced the Montreal Canadiens, and lost 9-5. It was the first game played by the franchise in the new Arena Gardens, often called the Mutual Street Arena.
The Toronto Arenas and the Toronto St. Patricks, predecessors to the Maple Leafs, played on Christmas Day on three occasions, losing all three.
The first time the Toronto Maple Leafs played on Christmas Day was against the Montreal Maroons in 1928. Toronto won 4-1 in a contest that carried little holiday cheer. “It was a ding-dong battle that saw a total of 23 penalties and a fine of $100 plastered on Manager Connie Smythe of the Leafs for vociferously directing Referee O’Leary’s attention to an alleged foul,” wrote Toronto Daily Star. One player had his head cut open, another broke his hand and a third was cut in the back of the neck by a skate after a collision near the boards. In addition to the penalties, there was also “plenty of tripping, butt ending and sly poking” that went uncalled.
Toronto Arenas games on Christmas Day
December 25, 1920: 5-4 loss to Montreal Canadiens at Arena Gardens in Toronto
Toronto St. Patricks games on Christmas Day
December 25, 1924: 8-1 loss to Hamilton Tigers in Hamilton
December 25, 1926: 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh
Toronto Maple Leafs games on Christmas Day:
December 25, 1928: 4-1 win over Montreal Maroons at Arena Gardens in Toronto
December 25, 1929: 6-2 loss to Boston Bruins in Boston
December 25, 1930: 10-1 loss to Detroit Falcons in Detroit (what a Christmas gift!)
December 25, 1935: 6-2 win over Montreal Canadiens in Montreal
December 25, 1937: 1-1 tie with Detroit Red Wings at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto
December 25, 1939: 4-1 loss to New York Rangers in New York
December 25, 1940: 3-2 loss to Detroit Red Wings in Detroit
December 25, 1941: 2-0 win over Boston Bruins at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto
December 25, 1943: 5-3 loss to New York Rangers at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto
December 25, 1944: 6-4 loss to Detroit Red Wings in Detroit
December 25, 1945: 6-3 loss to Detroit Red Wings in Detroit
December 25, 1946: 2-1 win over Detroit Red Wings in Detroit
December 25, 1947: 3-0 win over Montreal Canadiens in Montreal
December 25, 1948: 2-1 win over Detroit Red Wings at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto
December 25, 1948: 3-1 loss to New York Rangers in New York
December 25, 1954: 3-2 loss to Detroit Red Wings at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto
December 25, 1955: 1-1 tie with Detroit Red Wings in Detroit
December 25, 1957: 5-4 win over Montreal Canadiens at Maple Leaf Gardens
December 25, 1958: 2-0 win over Detroit Red Wings in Detroit
December 25, 1960: 4-1 win over Boston Bruins in Boston
December 25, 1961: 3-3 tie with Chicago Black Hawks in Chicago
December 25, 1962: 2-1 loss to Detroit Red Wings in Detroit
December 25, 1963: 5-1 win over Boston Bruins in Boston
December 25, 1964: 3-3 tie with Chicago Black Hawks in Chicago
December 25, 1965: 5-3 win over Chicago Black Hawks at Maple Leaf Gardens
December 25, 1966: 4-2 win over Boston Bruins in Boston
December 25, 1967: 3-1 win over Detroit Red Wings in Detroit
December 25, 1968: 4-3 win over Chicago Black Hawks in Chicago
December 25, 1970: 6-3 loss to Minnesota North Stars in Minnesota
December 25, 1971: 5-3 win over Detroit Red Wings at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto
In that final Christmas Day game, the Leafs’ Billy MacMillan collected a hat trick in the Toronto win.
The National Hockey League Players’ Association legislated that players would no longer play on Christmas Day starting with Christmas 1972.
The franchise owns a record of 15 wins, 14 losses and 4 ties on Christmas Day games. Through the 100-year history of the franchise, Toronto only played at home ten times on Christmas Day.
Christmas Day games were just another game for the Leafs. During 1970-71, his rookie season, Darryl Sittler played in the Christmas Day game against the Minnesota North Stars. “I was just a young buck starting out then,” he recalled. “I was the only single guy on the team. It was tougher on the guys who were married with kids.”
And what kind of special Christmas dinner or celebration did the team hold? “The hotel was empty. The restaurant was closed.”
Sittler played with the Maple Leafs in the Christmas Day game again in 1971, as did Gerry O’Flaherty, who played just two games with Toronto, with his first on that Christmas Day, replacing Paul Henderson, who was out with an injury.
Do players miss the Christmas Day tradition? Not at all, suggests O’Flaherty, who told Vice Sports, “I think it’s a special day for families and they should be together.”
Darryl Sittler agrees: “There are enough other days in the year when you can play.”
What most Maple Leaf alumni remember with great fondness , though, are the traditional Christmas parties for the players and their families held at Maple Leaf Gardens on an afternoon leading up to the holiday. In the 1940s, trainer Tim Daly played Santa Claus, while Hall of Fame goaltender Johnny Bower assumed the role in the 1960s.
Merry Christmas to all of you!