NHL hockey ended its season in April of 1945, but the war still had some fight in it. Reds In Heart of Berlin was the main headline one day in The Globe and Mail, just above the news of Huns Routed in Italy. Inside, the same edition that carried news that Major Conn Smythe’s Toronto Maple Leafs had beaten the Red Wings in Detroit to secure the Stanley Cup also counted 45 Canadians in the Today’s Casualties column: Dead 10, Missing 29, Prisoner 6.
It was all over, of course, by the time hockey rolled around again that October. The Boston Bruins were in Toronto to open the season at Maple Leaf Gardens on Saturday the 27th, and the news in that day’s Globe was that the Toronto Scottish, the first Canadian Army battalion to have deployed to England at the start of the war, had arrived back home in Halifax.
For the hockey game, the Leafs mobilized the brass and pipes of the 48th Highlanders, as they’d done every on opening night since 1931 (and have continued to do up to and including tonight’s meeting with Montreal). They’d also invited to the game six of the 16 Canadian servicemen to have received the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest military honour, given for extraordinary courage and devotion to duty.
Major David Currie was there, along with Majors Paul Triquet, Fred Tilston, and John Mahony, and Corporal Fred “Toppy” Topham. They had, variously, organized at great personal risk a defense against German armour at the Falaise Gap (Currie) and, in Italy, showed “superb contempt for the enemy” in the face of fierce attack during which they encouraged their men with the words “Ils ne passeront pas” (Triquet) and (again in Italy), against a vastly superior enemy force, crawled forward to save a section of their company despite having been wounded in the head and twice in the leg and refusing medical aid in order to continue to direct the defence of a bridgehead (Mahony) and (Tilston) led C Company of the Essex Scottish Regiment in an attack on German positions in the Hochwald Forest, on the Rhine, “calmly moved in the open through the heavy enemy fire from platoon to platoon organizing the defence,” while also (six times) braving intense enemy fire to fetch ammunition, despite having been grievously wounded in the legs and (Topham) parachuted in as a medical orderly as part of an Allied assault on the east bank of the Rhine where, despite being shot through the nose, continued to aid and extricate companions under heavy German fire, including rescuing three soldiers trapped in a burning gun-carrier despite an officer warning him to stay away.
The sixth man showing his V.C. that evening was Private Ernest Smith — “Smokey” — the only private soldier to have won the medal during the Second World War. He was the man the Leafs brought out to centre ice to drop a ceremonial puck almost a year to the day after he’d been in Italy with his regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders, trying to cross the Savio River.
Smith, who was 30, had enlisted in 1940. Like Major Mahony, he hailed from New Westminster, B.C. As the newspapers told it when he went to Buckingham Palace to receive his medal from King George VI, Smith had almost single-handedly held off a German counterattack, turning back three Panther tanks, a pair of half-tracks, and some 30 infantrymen. The V.C. citation describing his efforts is worth reading — it’s here, along with those for the rest of the recipients mentioned above.
“Here’s a little present from me to you,” the King is supposed to have told him at the investiture.
“I couldn’t help doing what I did,” was what Smith said after he’d received his medal, “after seeing my buddy after he was wounded.” The Ottawa Citizen:
He saw “red” at that point and “didn’t give a hoot” so long as he avenged his pal.
Otherwise, he preferred to keep quiet. “It’s okay to kill men when you have to,” he said, “but there’s no sense talking about it later.”
After Smith died in 2005 at the age of 91, his body lay in state at the House of Commons in Ottawa. In 1945, was fêted across Canada and lent his fame to the campaign to sell War Bonds. The government granted him a gratuity: each March and September, they’d send him $25, for life.
At Maple Leaf Gardens, he and Major Currie talked about how much weight each man had added since leaving active duty. Currie said he’d gained 35 pounds, while Smith only admitted to 15, “in the wrong place.”
The game ended in a 1-1 tie in front of 14,608 spectators — one of the largest crowds the Leafs had seen at a home-opener, the papers agreed. Bill Shill scored for Boston before Bob Davidson tied it up. Paul Bibeault was the Boston goaltender; Baz Bastien guarded the Toronto end.
Private Smith said it had been so long since he’d seen hockey that he’d forgotten how the game was played.