Canada's Hockey Experience

Life on the farm

The farm system has been crucial in building some of the Maple Leafs’ greatest teams.

At the centre of development have been the Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey Association, St. John’s Maple Leafs of the American Hockey League, and St. Michael’s Majors who fed the Marlboros.

On top of these minor league squads the Maple Leafs have gone through 21 franchises in which they have built up players in their system.

At times the Blue and White have drawn from two or three organizations including the American Hockey League, Pacific Coast Hockey League, Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League.

Some squads have been from communities close to Hogtown, including the St. Catharines Saints or London Panthers.

However, some have come from as far away as Hollywood, California, where legendary defenceman Bill Barilko played for the Wolves. Other distant hockey centres include Tulsa in Oklahoma, Phoenix in Arizona and Dallas, Texas.

Toronto Ravinas of the Canadian Professional Hockey League were the Buds’ first-ever feeder team from the 1927–28 season until the Marlboros officially replaced them. Hall of Famer Joe Primeau got his start there as did coach Frank J. Selke.

The Marlboros first provided the Maple Leafs with a steady flow of players from the Ontario Hockey League between the years 1927 and 1967. Included among them were future Leaf greats George Armstrong, Harvey “Busher” Jackson, Bob Pulford, Carl Brewer, Bobby Baun and Charlie Conacher.

Some of the players from the Marlboros also had deep roots in Toronto, attending St. Michael’s College School. Alumni included Primeau, Frank Mahovlich and Tim Horton.

Those players skated with the Majors franchise before joining the Marlboros. The Majors were a member of the Ontario Hockey Association from 1906 to 1962. After winning the Memorial Cup in 1961 and the J. Ross Robertson Cup in 1962, St. Michael’s College put an end to their program.

Leafs’ boss Stafford Smythe, reading the writing on the wall, created the Metro Junior A League to fill the farm-system void left by St. Michael’s departure.

After almost 20 years of dipping into the WHL and CHL for players, the Leafs re-entertained another farm system under their ownership.

The origins of hockey in Newfoundland arose from that initiative in 1982 with the St. Catharines Saints. That squad moved to Newmarket in 1986 and then eventually packed up the bus and headed to Newfoundland.

Thus the St. John’s Maple Leafs were born. From 1991 to 2005 the baby Leafs helped produce players like Kyle Wellwood, Yanic Perreault, Nathan Dempsey, Shawn Thornton and Chris Snell.

When travel costs became a factor and with the Maple Leafs-owned Ricoh Coliseum at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds sitting empty, St. John’s moved back to T.O.

The result was the rejuvenation of the Toronto Marlies name.

In five seasons as the Leafs minor league organization, the new Marlies have made the playoffs three times, including a deep run for the Calder Cup in 2007–08.

As the American Hockey League affiliate for the Leafs, it has provided players like Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg, James Reimer, Staffan Kronwall, Nazem Kadri and Jiri Tlusty who have skated for the NHL team.

Thus the Leafs have come full circle, drawing once again from the name that started the farm.

Sponsored by The Canadian Experience and Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment, “Canada’s Hockey Experience: The Sport of a Country” is a unique, 20-week online series on the history of hockey.

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