George Armstrong, who died this past weekend at the age of 90 after a storied career as a hockey player, coach, scout and assistant general manager, is remembered as a humble man. Solid, dependable, someone who would lead with humility, who was never boastful.
He was also well-known for his First Nation roots, so much so that the entirety of the staff and players of the Maple Leafs he played with – and everyone in hockey since then – called him ‘Chief.’
Though he went back and forth on how he felt about it – he enjoyed it from his teammates and people who knew him, but less so from strangers – the nickname was always there.
And while many would think it was the racist undertones of the name that made it so unpleasant, for Armstrong, it was the struggle he had with his own identity that made the label hard to bear.
Many Indigenous people have activism forced upon them. It is not a choice to represent the entirety of your race, to have to speak to the issues, dreams and challenges of your community and thousands of others who are completely different from you, but for sharing an Indigenous background.
You are expected to speak for all because you are the only one.
His struggle came from not feeling that he could truly understand the experiences of his community, because he had been spared much of the violence and abuse that many others experience and most of all, that he had never had to go to residential school.
His cousin did though and what happened to her is more than anyone, including her, could bear. She was grandmother to Ghislaine Goudreau, who is a professor at Cambrian College. Goudreau’s grandmother and her siblings went to residential school in Spanish and while there, their mother died. They began to spend the summers with their aunt, Armstrong’s mother Alice.
Armstrong saw the effects on his family and though he had certainly experienced racism as a child, it was nowhere near the devastation that affected others in his family.
“George saw the impact that these kids would have went through because they were living at the house during the summer when they weren't in residential school,” said Goudreau. “And so even though he didn't grow up with a lot of the culture, he saw the impacts of that. And I think it affected him a lot.”
Armstrong’s granddaughter, Kalley Armstrong, works to make hockey development and mentorship accessible to First Nations youth with her organization, Armstrong Hockey. She pursued the understanding of her grandfather’s identity struggles in her master’s thesis for the University of Western Ontario: “Life of a Half and Half: A Grandfather and Granddaughter’s Sharing of Story.”
In it, Armstrong discusses his identity and the reason he refers to himself as “half and half.”
“He talked about how, in some ways, he never had to endure what his cousin had to endure as an Indigenous person,” said Goudreau. “And so even though he took great pride in his culture, getting his status wasn't like a big thing for him, because in some ways, I think he didn't feel like he deserved it.”
Armstrong’s grandparents were trappers – an Algonquin mother and an Irish father – they did not live on reserve. And because Armstrong’s mother, an Algonquin woman who described her work in Falconbridge as “washing the floors for the bigshots,” married a non-Indigenous man — an Irishman who worked at the mine — she fell victim to the loss of her status, due to the gendered rules of the Indian Act.
He never felt like he belonged, even though he wanted to.
It was a heavy weight to hold, but it was never one that Armstrong let go. Despite his misgivings about speaking on behalf of all Indigenous people just because he was the only one many settlers knew, he was a leader at heart.
His nephew, Dan McCourt, a hockey player himself and NHL linesman for 25 years — and also called Chief, incidentally, as was his brother, Dale, and most of the rest of his family — said that it didn’t matter what he was doing, if someone came to his door to introduce a child to the captain of the Leafs, he would answer and chat.
He would take his mother and McCourt’s mother — Armstrong’s sister — to Sudbury Wolves games while Armstrong was scouting.
“He would give my mother and his mother a player number to watch, and he would saym ‘Keep an eye on their play and tell me about it after the game’,” McCourt said.
But McCourt added with a laugh that Armstrong may have just been keeping them busy so he could work.
McCourt also said Armstrong wanted to be a Maple Leaf from the moment he saw them play. Recently, McCourt received a video, shot in between periods in game three of the Stanley Cup finals in 1967. Parents of the players – Alan Stanley’s dad, and George Armstrong’s father were interviewed by Hockey Night in Canada host Ward Cornell.
Armstrong Sr. spoke of winning Leafs’ tickets in a raffle at Falconbridge:
“He said that an 11- or 12-year-old George sat on an orange crate in the backseat of the coupe on the way down. And ever since then, George wanted to be a Maple Leaf.”
Before he was a Leaf, he was a part of the Toronto Marlboros and played with them at the Allen Cup Championship, hosted that particular year in Alberta. When word got out in the area that Armstrong was Indigenous and was in the area, he was invited to visit the Stoney Plains Indian Reserve.
McCourt says that when he arrived, the team gave Armstrong a headdress.
“They named him ‘Chief Shoot the Puck’,” said McCourt, “and he wrote home to his mom to ask her if it was okay.”
But again, Armstrong was humble, quiet and focused on his dream.
And for Waubgeshig Rice, writer and journalist and member of Wausauksing First Nation, that dream will live on in the hearts and minds of millions of Indigenous people, whether Armstrong felt he fit the role or not.
“Everybody in my community knew who he was,” Rice said. “And I think he’s a big reason why so many Indigenous people especially in Ontario are Leafs fans today.”
Rice, who is not just a lifelong Maple Leafs fan but a second generation one at that, said that it’s empowering to know that one of the most iconic Toronto Maple Leafs was Indigenous.
“He was the captain of the last Leafs team to win the Stanley Cup,” said Rice. “He’s immortalized in hockey history in so many ways; to know that even as a young kid was really awesome, and it was a major point of pride as a hockey player, fan, and Anishinaabe person.”
And it is this representation that Rice feels contributed to the opening of doors in hockey, however slow or small the crack.
“I think just being present and active in pro hockey even after his playing and coaching years went a long way to influencing more Indigenous people to play and serve in different roles in organized hockey,” Rice said. “When you have key people at the higher decision-making levels, that makes a sport like hockey much more inclusive and representative.
When the Leafs retired Armstrong’s No. 10 in a formal ceremony on Oct. 15, 2016, Armstrong wore a beaded medallion.
“I was really happy and proud to see a hockey legend represent his culture like that,” Rice said.
For now, the veil of sadness will cover his family, as they mourn the loss of someone almost larger than life — though that’s not something he would ever say. Later, they hope to remember him with tears of joy rather than tears of sadness and it will begin with the stories of his personality, his quick wit and his love for his family.
For instance, a parting gift from McCourt, possibly one of the most unpleasant stories of hockey you have ever heard, unless you play hockey, then this could be tame by comparison.
Armstrong and Johnny Bower, another legendary Leaf, were roommates on the road and best friends for their entire lives. One night, Armstrong decided to switch teeth with Bower – he switched his falsies for Bowers as both men’s sets sat in glasses of water for the night.
While Armstrong had to go without teeth for the gag, he received his own gift for his effort, said McCourt. “He just laughed all day watching Johnny move those teeth around in his mouth, trying to figure out why they didn’t fit.”
There will be a small private ceremony later, for the immediate family. When it is possible, Armstrong’s ashes will be placed with his mother Alice, as was his wish.
Jenny Lamothe is a Local Journalism Reporter at Sudbury.com, covering issues in the Black, immigrant and Francophone communities. She is also a freelance writer and voice actor.