A Maple Leaf by Any Other Name Would Smell
by Spencer Maybee
Last Saturday night my buddy Darren (not related) and I stayed up watching the Leafs-Habs game, drinking a few beers. He was
in Halifax, I in Winnipeg. He moved there in August on a fellowship to do his masters in philosophy, but on the phone we
mostly philosophized about sports.
I just started watching sports again for the first time in three years. After watching the NFB film Manufacturing Consent I
gave up watching sports entirely. I couldn't refute Noam Chomsky's argument that huge amounts of media space were being
wasted on sports, which, he added, ultimately don't mean anything. That is to say, the fortunes of the Florida Panthers do
not affect our ability to make democratic decisions, which is undeniably a sacred office of the press, and moreover, they
impede it by preventing other, more meaningful information from getting to our democratic little ears and eyes.
Is the function of the sports section, then, to give hope to those whose lives really don't mean anything? (Vanity alone
prevents me from answering that.)
Darren and I discarded the ultimate meaning of sports with the empties of Pilsner and Moosehead. We focused instead on the
function of meaning in determining how cool a team is. Our conversation revolved tightly around hockey, though occasionally
it drifted into the orbit of the other major North American sports.
Meaning in team branding—lack thereof—has been a pet peeve of mine since the Anaheim Mighty Ducks joined the NHL and the
Toronto Raptors joined the NBA. These two team names were adopted to profit from the spillover success of two very bad
movies. Why not call them the Anaheim Sundance Kids and the Toronto Corleone's? No raptor ever set foot in Toronto and the
ducks of Anaheim are, I'm sure, no mightier than the ducks that winter in Alaska at 40ƒ Celcius.
Meaning in a team name is important because it gives the fans something to believe in. If the team name is a joke, no one
will take the team seriously and that is the worst thing an organization can do to its fans—even worse, as the Leafs of the
80s proved, than losing thoroughly and consistently for decades at a time.
I'm not going to play on the Good-Ol'-Days fiddle, but there was a time when pride in belonging to a team or being one of its
supporters was important. Maybe not in the greater scheme of democracy, but at least for those (of us) complacent enough to
give a damn about the home team. More important anyway, than marketing sales to kids with no scruples about spending their
parents' money. A raptor might get eight-year-old Johnny to spend his Christmas bonus on a backpack, but when
eighteen-year-old Johnny gets some damn sense, he'll realize that raptors never dared near Southern Ontario and think,
"Damn that's a stupid team name. I was such a sucker."
* * * * *
The teams Darren and I were watching on Saturday are examples of well-branded teams, deeply rooted in the history of the
people they represent. The Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs (note not Leaves). These two teams
go all the way back to the 1920s in terms of history, so they've had 80 years to create their own meaning, but their team
names date back even further.
Montreal takes the name Canadiens from the French term applied to French-speaking colonials who lived in Quebec as far back
as the mid-1700s. Their nickname, represented officially by the small ŒH' inside the ŒC' on their crest, les habitants, or
the Habs, means the same thing. The preferred name of the fans has bounced around a bit during times when politics made
Canadien a bad word, but the fact is that the French were the first to be called Canadians, or Canadiens.
There was other NHL competition in Montreal in the early days, most notably an English-speaking team called the Montreal
Wanderers. Anti-French sentiment doesn't last long in Montreal, and neither did the Wanderers.
The Toronto Maple Leafs started in the NHL as the Toronto Arenas. They changed their name and played as the Toronto St.
Patricks from 1919 to 1926 when Conn Smythe changed their name for the last time. Smythe chose the Maple Leaf because of the
weighty significance of the symbol to English-speaking Canadians. The history of the Maple Leaf as a symbol of English Canada
dates back to the 1750s.
In 1755 King George II chartered the first North American regiment to fight for Britain in the French and Indian Wars, which
lasted until 1763. They were a band of rangers under Robert Rogers and they were completely unorthodox in their manner of
fighting. They wore green coats while almost all of the British wore red. They had target practice while most of the British
commanders chose to save money on ammunition. They wore moccasins instead of boots. The British military elite was shocked to
find that Rogers employed Indians and freed slaves in his band of regulars. Rogers Rangers were also the first combatants in
modern Western warfare to use camouflage, tucking willow switches in their bandoliers and covering their caps with maple
Though they were chartered in New Hampshire, the Rangers were Loyalists and affiliated with the British rule when it moved
north. In the First World War, when the Canadians fought together as Canadians for the first time, they distinguished
themselves in such battles as Vimy, Ypres, Paschendaele and the Somme all the while sporting British uniforms with Maple Leaf
patches on the shoulders.
Forty years before it ended up on the flag, Smythe chose the Maple Leaf because it was a symbol of Canadian integrity,
tenacity, and victory.
Then John Bitove comes around and names the Toronto NBA team the Raptors. He could have named them the Huskies after the old
Toronto basketball team‹the team who launched the first season of the NBA predecessor, the Basketball Association of America
against the New York Knickerbockers on November 1, 1946 (losing, by the way, 78-76) and who occupied the bottom of the league
with the Minneapolis Lakers before they moved to L.A.
And how about those Knicks? A knickerbocker, as the term came to mean, is a Dutch descendant in New York, or simply a native
New Yorker. First settled by the Dutch and once called New Amsterdam, New York retains some of its Dutch heritage in the
basketball team name and the borough of Harlem, named for Harlem in Holland. The word knickerbocker comes from Diedrich
Knickerbocker, the pseudonym author Washington Irving (of Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame) took when writing his History of New
While not every pro sports team name is going to have a history as involved as these, team names that refer to a people like
the Maple Leafs (indirectly), the Habs, the Knicks and all the others‹the Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton and Houston Oilers,
Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Islanders, San Francisco's Œ49ers, named for the gold-rushers of 1849, the dislocated Vancouver
Canucks, named for the New England nickname given to French Canadian settlers‹are much cooler than the weak names of many
expansion teams‹the Predators, Thrashers, Panthers and their ilk. Even the Sacramento Gold Miners, of the CFL American
expansion days, could have become cool if they stuck around long enough (except, of course, they were an American team in the
There are the few teams who have made an effort to be at least geographically correct in the distribution of their chosen
mascot animals, the Pheonix Coyotes, the San Jose Sharks, the late Vancouver Grizzlies. Even the Carolina Hurricanes can
claim some pride in being victims‹rather, survivors of climatic abuse, though their logo looks remarkably like a raging
Originality is often important in team branding, but not always. For example, I loved the Roughriders-Rough Riders scenario
in the CFL. When it wasn't a game to see who were the roughest riders, it was always fun trying to remember which team went
with which city. The only other league I can think of that has two teams with the same name is the American Hockey League
with the Norfolk and Milwaukee Admirals. The Chicago White Sox and the Boston Red SoxŠ I don't know‹nor do I give‹a sweet
green turd about baseball, but I can only assume that there's a history there, something to do with sox maybe.
Meaningless team branding, however, extends beyond team names to team colours and logos. If the team colours change every
year, then they cease to mean the team. Look at the Cleveland Browns‹their name is synonymous withŠ well, brown. Named for
Paul Brown, the popular coach, their uniform hasn't changed more than a stripe here or there since 1948. The same commitment
should apply to any team's colours, and, better yet, to any city's colours.
Toronto, before the Raptors, was a blue and white city. The Leafs, Blue Jays and Argos all wear blue and white.
While the Argonauts are an ancient Greek mythological reference to a bunch of sea-faring horn-dogs, the football team evolved
from a rugby team by the same name, established in 1873 when oarsmen from the Argonaut Rowing Club on Lake Ontario sought
another way to keep fit.
As far as the Blue Jays go, well, you know how much I know about baseball, but there appears to be a bird theme in the game,
just as there's a mammal thing in most other sports with the odd fish or reptile.
The L.A. sports scene is made mostly of teams borrowed from elsewhere: the Lakers from Minneapolis; and the Dodgers were
taken from Brooklyn, where the streetcar tracks were so ubiquitous the team was called the Trolley Dodgers and later
shortened. Mercifully, the team's first nickname, the Bridegrooms, for seven of the players who married so closely together,
didn't last out of the 1890s.
The Lakers still sport what used to be the L.A. Kings' colours also, before they "turned yellow" and dropped the purple and
gold for the lame black and silver combo. They've attempted to recover some face by reincorporating purple into the uniform,
but it was the thrilling contrast of the purple and gold that made the uniform scream, "I dare you to fight me, bitch." The
Kings' luke-warm team name will always be overshadowed in West Coast hockey history by the former California Golden Seals.
Other cowardly fashion moves include the New Jersey Devils' switch from their more unique and bold red and green uniforms to
the cliché black-red-white business, and the old Minnesota North Stars' adoption of black as their secondary colour in the
late Œ80s, demoting yellow to a tertiary background piping shade.
The Devils, however, do sport a clever logo and a good name. The Colorado Rockies, formerly coached by Don Cherry himself,
were sold to New Jersey in 1982 where they took the name Devils for the local legend of Springheeled Jack, a horned,
cloven-footed demon said to haunt the woods of New Jersey and spoken of frequently in the times of Nathaniel Hawthorne and
the Salem Witch Trials.
The North Stars were forced to lose their groovy ŒN' logo when they moved to Dallas. They passed up an excellent opportunity
to call themselves the Dallas Lone Stars, being the lone NHL team in the Lone Star State, thereby incorporating historical
allusion in the team brand and becoming more cool. Instead, they settled for the boring old Stars. This may have increased
their nation-wide popularity in the merchandise market, but it failed to include a whole state of people who might actually
come to a game and increase their popularity in the hockey market.
These two concepts seem to be chief in determining the team brand. In my humble opinion, any team whose name is a fad and
means nothing is ripping off their fans by not including them. Ticket prices being what they are‹damn near the cost of an
airline ticket‹I'd rather fly home and be with my peeps than watch a bunch of people who mean nothing to me skate around and
Big D, wish you were here.
* * * * *
Other interesting team brand histories:
Detroit Red Wings were the Cougars from 1926 to 1930 when they changed their name to the Falcons. Two years later, the team,
who wore red, officially adopted their nickname, the Red Wings, incorporating the local industry in their logo of the Winged
Chicago Blackhawks take their name from the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion of the U.S. Army 85 Division, with whom their
founder, Frederic McLaughlin fought in WWI, who called themselves Black Hawks in honor of the Sauk Chief who sided with the
British in the War of 1812.
The St. Louis Blues take their name from a W.C. Handy song, and reflect the musical history in their logo of an eighth note.
The St. Louis Eagles preceded them, but lasted only a year.
The Ottawa Senators were wisely named for the former Ottawa team, thereby inheriting a Stanley Cup history, which no other
expansion team can boast.
The Calgary Flames inherited their name from the Atlanta Flames, so-called after the great fire of 1864 when Union General
William T. Sherman ordered the city burned.
Some rules to live by when branding a team:
Team names that refer to a local creature are acceptable: Phoenix Coyotes, Arizona Diamondbacks. Team names that refer to a
made-up creature (i.e. not the stuff of legend), like the Worcester IceCats of the AHL, are not.
Team names that refer to local legends or history are a good idea: Atlanta Flames, New Jersey Devils, New England Patriots.
Team names that refer to bad movies (Anaheim Mighty Ducks) are not acceptable, while team names that refer to good movies
(Charlestown Chiefs) are.
The Importance of Plurality:
When naming a team, name them something plural. There is a trend lately of giving teams a singular team name: the Colorado
Avalanche, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Minnesota Wild.
Singular team names deprive individual players of a sense of belonging without the presence of, or reference to the group,
forcing them to efface themselves in the name of the whole: "I'm a Colorado Avalanche." Ok, then I'm a San Francisco Rainbow!
Um, no. "I'm a Wild." Try again.
One can say, "I'm a New Jersey Devil," and the reference calls for recognition of the individual as belonging to a group,
which is somehow psychologically important.
Of course, none of this really affects team play; the Avalanche beat the Florida Panthers in the 1996 Stanley Cup. Success of
singular named teams, however, is an exception, as we all know that the Avalanche are just the Quebec Nordiques on a Rocky
In basketball, the Miami Heat get a cool waiver because of the allusion to cops and the complimentary, yet seemingly
unrelated popularity of the TV series Miami Vice (directed by cool director Michael Mann, who also, to bring this full
circle, directed the cool movie, Heat).
Footnote on Uniforms:
Go brave or go home.
Team Brand Draft Picks
The new Minnesota Wild have attempted to bring green back into the league, but they lack the bold contrast of the former
Minnesota North Stars' yellow and end up looking like L.L Bean catalogue rejects.
The Colorado Avalanche colours are a surprisingly successful pro sport departure from the Hugo Boss fall catalogue, but they
lose points for the goofy looking bigfoot on their sleeve. Like the Kings, the Avs, as they've come to be called (see note
above on plurality), would likely get their asses kicked in a fight with their basketball team, the Denver Nuggets, who sport
one of the bravest team names in sports.
(Disclaimer: I played on an intramural team called the Steamin' Beavers. We wore yellow and our logo featured the word
Œsteamin' across the top and ŒBeavers' below with a large ŒV' and a beaver's head seated with his buck-teeth centered in the
wedge. I named the team and designed the logo admittedly with the double-entendre in mind, but also after my favourite boat
in Victoria's Inner Harbour, the S.S. Beaver, a replica steamship. The original S.S. Beaver conducted the hydrological
surveys of the Inner Harbour and the Selkirk Waters. It was made of African Elm and took two days of wood cutting to fuel for
an eight-hour ride. The crew hated the damn thing and finally ran it aground off Point Grey.)
Any of the Original Six teams (Leafs, Habs, Bruins, Wings, Rangers and Blackhawks) for their intrinsic historical
significance and overall style.
New York Knickerbockers for their name alone.
Hershey Bears of the AHL who sport maroon and silver uniforms and possibly the most innocuous logo of all time, but still
manage to be cool, not only inspite, but perhaps because of that.
The former Washington Bullets if for nothing else then for their honesty.
The L.A. Lakers for their colours and for keeping the team name.
The Cleveland Browns for their enduring brown and orange uniforms and their brown-sounding name that makes me think of
Cleveland. Any team that shares a name with a condition of having wet farts that mark your underwear is brave enough to be on
my top ten.
The Denver Nuggets. Like the having the browns, only not so wet.
Spencer Maybee is First-Option Blitzing Linebacker and Senior-Outside Hitter for
the undefeated Forget Rough.Riders®