In 1929 the Leafs took a pair of boxers with them to training camp, and my thought there was that Conn Smythe must have decided it was time for the team to learn proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. Turns out, no, though: seems, instead, that Frenchy Belanger and Billy Ayrton were there for their own benefit, taking advantage of the Leafs’ pre-season regimen. Though they did put on a punching exhibition for the team before they had to leave on a hunting trip. Ayrton was a bantamweight, Belanger a former world flyweight champion.
It was raining when the Leafs got off the train in Port Elgin that October, and the players were hungry, and went straight in to eat. Camp ended with a lunch a couple of weeks later, as it happens: when they got back to Toronto, they headed over to the Royal York for a welcome-back feed. Twenty players were on hand at the post-camp lunch, and the papers reported that they all looked fit. Everybody but goaltender Lorne Chabot had put on weight. They were eager to hit the ice.
On their Lake Huron retreat, they’d drilled under the eye of Corporal Joe Coyne of the RCR. They’d golfed, too, including the day they got in 27 holes and (as The Globe put it) Ace Bailey, Danny Cox, and Chabot “gave ‘old man par’ a stern argument.” Harold Cotton won the team tournament, with Cox and Ayrton tied for second place.
Andy Blair proved himself the team’s fastest sprinter, covering 100 yards in 10 seconds flat. Smythe and Cox teamed up to outduel Red Horner and Gordie Brydson at the horseshoe pit. In a softball doubleheader, the Leafs beat the Port Elgin Fraserites 26-4 (Brydson and Blair pitched) before dispensing with (Brydson was on the mound again) the Perkinites, 10-3. They beat a local team at basketball, too, 52-46.
Leafs’ manager Frank Selke said he’d never seen a more determined band of athletes. They went into everything with an aggressiveness and spirit that marked their play on the ice and they weren’t content unless they were going full out, according to him.
Just before they left town the players attended a special church service at Port Elgin United, where Reverend Dr. Cowan gave them a sermon on athletics and their relationship to the work of the Church.
That was the Leafs’ last year in Port Elgin. Come the fall again, they shifted up to Georgian Bay. After that, over the next ten pre-seasons, they wandered all over Ontario, from Niagara Falls and St. Catharines to Galt and Kitchener and Kingston.
In 1930, the Leafs upheld their reputation as softball players in Parry Sound. The weather was wet. The ball was heavy. Hap Day pitched to start the game, until Joe Primeau arrived. (He’d been golfing.) The local batters couldn’t do much with his “tricky slants,” so it’s said: Leafs won 7-5.
Art Duncan and Lorne Chabot tussled at the bridge table, while Conn Smythe and Frank Selke spent a long cold day hunting on the bay, bagging three ducks.
Most of the players drove their own cars as far as Orillia that year, and took the train from there. They were lodged at the Kipling Hotel, where Mr. and Mrs. O’Neill looked after them. A local jeweller named Fred Laird loaned his new Philco radio to the team for the duration of their stay.
Andy Blair came late, having had two troublesome teeth removed under gas. Club physician Dr. Rush thought a few days of country air and light conditioning would be just the thing. He was underweight, though, and Smythe was concerned that he wouldn’t be ready of the start of the season. Did that mean there was an opening at centre for Howie Grant or Shrimp McPherson? Maybe.
Joe Coyne was still in charge of the training, although he was a sergeant now. The Daily Star: “Drillmaster Coyne has centred his training ‘spasms’ in the morning around road work, in which there is nothing better to develop muscles and improve the wind.”
King Clancy had joined the team, and he was “tickled” to be a Leaf, though he later complained that Hap Day walked too fast when he led the players on their three-mile hikes through the bush.
It snowed one day when the boys were out on what The Globe called “a dog trot” — a “baby blizzard” overtook them. “Drillmaster Coyne staged a short run over the hill back of the hotel, and then raced his charges to the local rink, where body exercises were in order.”
The weather didn’t last: the golfers and the hunters got out after lunch. Charlie Conacher shot a 40 over 9 holes.
Baldy Cotton and Ace Bailey were bridge champions; trainer Tim Daly was the rummy king.
The Leafs got free movie tickets that year at the local theatre, and there was a banquet in their honour that businessmen in town put on at the Masonic Hall.
In St. Catharines in 1931 the team weighed in with — well, a weigh-in. Coach Art Duncan was the heavy at 207 lbs. with goaltender Chabot next in line at 191. Joe Primeau tipped the scales at 153 1/2 lbs. The team had a new taskmaster, Sergeant Jack Cusack, who was impressed by the “ginger” with which the players went at “the usual Swedish drill.” He had them playing rugger, which they enjoyed, and also they got in some box lacrosse. A “biff-bang” game is what The Globe wrote; Ace Bailey and Charlie Conacher impressed their mates with their skills.
Golfing at Lookout Point, Hap Day and Bailey beat Primeau and Chabot. Conacher, Harvey Jackson, and Hal Cotton headed out toward Niagara Falls to hunt pheasants, which didn’t work out so well: Cotton saw one, but it was a hen, and therefore off-limits.
The Leafs all got shaves that night before heading for Niagara Falls to watch boxing and wrestling in an exhibition hosted by the Knights of Columbus.
King Clancy was an invited speaker at Thorold High School’s commencement that year, while the rest of the team stopped by Ridley College to watch the football game against Upper Canada. The Welland House put on a dance for them, too, and they saw a football movie in St. Catharines one evening.
Twenty-one Leafs went to Kingston in 1932. The gymnasium at Queen’s University delighted coach Dick Irvin. Even more inspiring? The fine spirit of the people. Sergeant-Major O’Regan from the staff of the Royal Military College was in charge of P.T. The Globe said that he put the players “through the most strenuous drills they have ever had.”
Although — the year after that, in Kitchener, coach Irvin had this to say: “I find the team in better condition right now than it was at this time last year. The players are all taking it more seriously than they did a year ago and the improvement is evident.”
They were on the ice that year, though the local rink too small-surfaced for Irvin to introduce any new plays. He said that “detail work” would have to wait until they got back to Toronto.
1934: 23 players attended camp, including Baldy Cotton and Art Jackson, who went out together hunting one day and came back with seven rabbits.
In 1935, in Kitchener, there were 36 players in camp, Leafs and minor-league Syracuse Stars, and they relay-raced to build up stamina, with Harold Ballantyne running the show, the physical director of Kitchener’s public schools. Standouts for their enthusiastic drilling were left winger Jack Shill and centre Art Jackson. Charlie Conacher was the best of the badminton players.
Injuries. There were plenty of those, of course, over the years. In 1929 Conn Smythe stopped Eric Pettinger on the basketball court — with his jaw, according to The Globe. He went down hard, “turning a few loops and nose spins.” That was the year, playing softball, an undisclosed Leaf swung on a pitch and the bat got away on him and flew and hit winger Rolly Conacher in the knee, put him out for a week. He seems to have made the team as a “useful substitute,” but the injury was a painful one and he still wasn’t skating when the Leafs got back to Toronto. I don’t know if there were other reasons, but he didn’t end up playing a game that year (or ever) in the NHL.
The crack Hap Day took the right forearm playing lacrosse in 1931 was serious enough to affect his golf game. Harvey Jackson arrived in camp worse for wear: a few days before the team headed to Niagara, the car he was driving skidded and overturned on the Dundas Highway. His passenger went to hospital with bad lacerations on his head; Jackson had a bad arm and a few cuts. He was grateful, he said, not to have walked away. The car was a total loss.
In 1935, centre Norm Schultz turned his ankle on the ice while Jack Shill was ordered to rest after pulling a leg muscle in calisthenics.
Winger Bob Davidson suffered a six-stitch gash on his left leg in 1938 when he fell on Bill Thoms’ skate in a pre-season pile-up.
Art Jackson had a poisoned leg in 1934. It was a mystery to everybody — the skin wasn’t broken. The Globe: “He is expected to be out for training shortly, the ailment being due, it is believed, to a tight shoelace.”