Toronto Star columnist, Walter Stefaniuk answered this question in his YOU ASKED US column in the May 28, 1999 issue. Maple Leafs as it refers to a organization or sports franchise is considered a proper noun and not bound by normal rules of grammar and spelling. Proper nouns identify and specify the subject whether it is a person’s name or the name of an organization.
Con Smythe and Hugh Aird purchased a hockey club called the Toronto Arenas in 1927 and the team was renamed the Toronto Maple Leafs. Maple Leaf Gardens was built and the new team began to play there in the 1931 and 1932 season. In this first season in the new building the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup by beating the New York Rangers.
Why did Mr. Smythe chose the Maple Leafs as a name for his hockey club? No one knows for certain but there are some interesting theories. Perhaps he thought that a single player would be called a Leave not a Leaf which implies a negative perception. Perhaps his school teachers had impressed the use of proper grammar upon him. maybe he chose the Maple Leaf as a symbol of the strength and resilience of his country.
Con Smythe was a patriotic Canadian who attained the rank of Major in World War 1. Major Ed Bickle another veteran and board member was also an original investor in Maple Leaf Gardens. The 48th Highlanders Regiment Band of the Canadian Armed Forces played at the opening of Maple Leaf Gardens at the personal request of Mr. Smythe. The Band has played at every single Toronto Maple Leafs home opener at both Maple Leaf Gardens and the Air Canada Centre.
The Maple Leaf was a recognized symbol of Canada. In 1860, the Maple Leaf was incorporated into the badge of the 100th Regiment (Royal Canadians). In World War 1, the Maple Leaf was included in the badge of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Since 1921 the Royal Arms of Canada had included three maple leaves as a distinctive Canadian emblem. Between 1786 and 1901 it appeared on all Canadian Coins.
Maple Leafs was not a new name to sports. There was a Hamilton Maple Leafs baseball team as far back as the 1880’s.