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Honoured Players Process Different For Leafs

The 1990s symbolized a new era for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Leafs alumni. The Leafs embraced and welcomed Leafs alumni like never before. Together, the Leafs and Leafs alumni have since worked more closely together for the good of the community and in recognizing distinguished Maple Leafs from all generations.

During the initial phases, the Leafs organized discussions with various Leafs alumni members and Leafs management that culminated with the establishment of the policy regarding the honouring of players.

It was felt that not retiring player sweaters gives the Leafs the flexibility of honouring more of these individuals than would be the case if the Leafs took the sweater numbers out of circulation.

The consulting group determined that the former player’s number would be deemed an "Honoured Number" but remain in circulation. As a means of adding significance to this, the sweater of the current Maple Leaf that has the "Honoured Number" wears a special shoulder patch with the honouree's name inscribed for the balance of that season. The special banner for the honouree remains on permanent display at Air Canada Centre.

The Leafs historically only retired numbers of distinguished players that have died or had their career shortened due to tragic or catastrophic circumstances while being a member of the team. Irvine (Ace) Bailey (No. 6) and Bill Barilko (No. 5) are the two represented in this category.

The Leafs formally recognized both men, posthumously, with a special ceremony at Maple Leaf Gardens on October 17, 1992 in which family and associates represented each individual.

Then on October 3, 1993, Syl Apps (No. 10) and Ted (Teeder) Kennedy (No. 9) were the initial honourees chosen as part of the new approach. The Leafs believed they wanted to celebrate the careers of these esteemed Leafs while they were still living. Apps was in failing health at the time of his ceremony but was represented by his family.

Perhaps one of the most stirring ceremonies occurred on February 8, 2003 when Darryl Sittler was honoured and his No. 27 banner took its permanent place at Air Canada Centre.

The event was originally to have taken place on October 3, 2001 as part of a dual tribute to with Toronto’s first great No. 27, Frank Mahovlich. While The Big M’s ceremony went ahead as planned, Sittler cancelled to be with his wife, Wendy, who was dying of colorectal cancer.

Fittingly, Wendy’s name is inscribed on Darryl’s banner.

"We were married for 30 years and were together since we were 17 years old," Sittler said the night of his ceremony. "She’s the most influential person in the lives of our children. So she’s a big part of this ceremony."

Arm-in-arm, Sittler, and his children, Meaghen, Ashley and Ryan, stood at centre ice, as they watched the banner rising. What ran through his mind as he witnessed that?

"I guess to be thought of so highly by the fans, the media and the organization," he said that night. "I mean, you’re making a mark in history because that banner will be there forever. I’m in great company, in a great organization. And Wendy’s name (signature) is on the banner, which is the right thing to do because it should be there. She’ll be remembered up there just as I was. It’s a feeling that will never go away."

-- by John Iaboni
Leafs Game Day, Issue No. 3, 2005-06

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