The Toronto Maple Leafs were the NHL’s best team in the spring of 1935 — everybody knew that, and said it, right up until the Stanley Cup finals, when they lost to the Montreal Maroons in three straight games.
Maybe that had something to do with the switch that Conn Smythe made, come the fall, when the Leafs headed to Kitchener to spend October preparing for the upcoming campaign — a new(ish) venue might do the team some good.
Since Smythe first conceived of subjecting his Leafs to a training camp in 1928, the team had wandered Ontario, ranging from Port Elgin up to Parry Sound and back down to Niagara Falls in the pre-season. They’d tried Kitchener already, in 1933, shifting to Galt, a little to the southwest, in 1934 — modern-day Cambridge — before this return.
There was a lunch, first, in Toronto, where Smythe addressed the troops. Then the team headed west. For the Leafs, it was the most populous camp in the team’s history, with 35 players making the trip. Some Assistant manager Frank Selke thought it might be the largest pro hockey training camp ever, which means he hadn’t read the papers: with Bruins and farm-hand Cubs on hand, Art Ross was watching over 41 players at the Boston camp in in Saint John, New Brunswick, while Canadiens coach Sylvio Mantha had 38 on the ice in Quebec City.
It was snowing in Winnipeg as Montreal’s other team, the Cup champion-Maroons, made their way west by rail. The train gained Billy Beveridge and Joe Lamb in Ottawa, and goaltender Alec Connell, who’d backstopped the Cup victory, was at the station to talk to manager Tommy Gorman, and there was talk that he’d changed his mind about retiring, but no, he was still on the platform when the train pulled out. Lionel Conacher and prospect Ken Grivel got on board in Sudbury. Toe Blake was waiting at Coniston, and Jimmy Ward, Earl Robinson, and Bob Gracie joined the journey at Kenora. Cy Wentworth was supposed to get on in Toronto, but he missed the rendezvous, and had to make his own way.
Lester Patrick’s New York Rangers were also training in Winnipeg in 1935. Captain Bill Cook showed up from his Saskatchewan farm in “tip-top shape.” “Burly” Ching Johnson arrived with “physique tuned up by horseback riding on his small California ranch.” All-star defenceman Earl Seibert stayed away, as he tended to do on an annual basis, waiting this year for the Rangers to agree to pay him $6,500 for the season ahead.
The Chicago Black Hawks were in Champaign, Illinois, where coach Clem Loughlin was searching for two solid right wingers to replace Billy Kendall and Lolo Couture, traded away in the summer. He’d bought helmets for all his Hawks and was telling his players they’d better get used to wearing them.
Equipment belonging to Red Dutton’s New York Americans’ arrived in Oshawa, Ontario, in early October, with his players getting in a few days later. Of all the NHL teams, only Jack Adams’ Red Wings stayed home, doing their conditioning in Detroit.
In New Brunswick, Art Ross barred the public from watching the Bruins skate. “He and coach Frank Patrick decided to keep the practice sessions private,” noted a dispatch in The Montreal Gazette, “in belief this policy would assist the training and eliminate any nervousness that the presence of critical fans might cause among prospects trying out for places with the teams.”
The worry for Canadiens was Aurel Joliat: he was back in Montreal, refusing to sign the contract business manager Jules Dugal had proffered.
For the Leafs, many of the stalwarts who’d almost won the Cup were back: captain Hap Day and King Clancy, Charlie Conacher and Joe Primeau, goaltender George Hainsworth. Pep Kelly was back, and Nick Metz. Other familiar names included Red Horner and Buzz Boll. A couple of veterans were gone, Hec Kilrea and Baldy Cotton, traded away to Detroit and the New York Americans respectively.
Mickey Blake and Jimmy Fowler and Fido Purpur were among the free agents and amateurs hoping for a break, George Parsons and Normie Mann, and Jack Markle looked like he might have a shot, last year’s International league scoring champion, and former University of Saskatchewan ace Jim Dewey, and the brilliant Sudbury junior Chuck Shannon, and Knucker Irvine, one of the best players in the Maritimes, and Norval Fitzgerald, too, and Busher Jackson’s little brother Art. Most of them were destined to play out the year as farmhands for the IHL’s Syracuse Stars. The Syracuse coach was in town, Eddie Powers, to lend a hand to Leaf boss Dick Irvin. Along with Tim Daly and his training staff, Major Harold Ballantyne was standing by to play the part of PT instructor.
Ballantyne, whose regular job was with the Kitchener school board as director of physical education, was the fourth soldier to take charge of getting Leaf teams into trim since Conn Smythe started sending his players away for the pre-season in 1928.
Twenty-nine players assembled in Kitchener’s Victoria Park to do his bidding on the morning of Thursday, October 17. King Clancy was missing yet, nursing an infected foot back home in Toronto, while Charlie Conacher was holding out for a better contract.
Of those who did take part, several ended up wounded by the end of the day. Normie Schultz, acquired from Detroit in the Kilrea deal, went down with a badly sprained ankle. Bill Thoms knocked his head on somebody’s knee and cut his lip in two places.
“Later on,” The Globe chronicled, “while catching a rugby ball, a finger on his right hand was dislocated.” Not to worry: coach Powers yanked it back into place. Buzz Boll bruised a thigh. Coach Irvin warned the players that Ballantyne was just warming up, and he didn’t rule out handing out bucksaws and sending the players to work on the woodpile — though “someone caught the coach passing that one off with a wink.”
Day two included an hour’s stay at the park. The Globe:
Major Harold Ballantyne sent his charges through a gruelling workout, including relay racing and football, aimed at building up stamina and wind. Members of the squad agreed today’s workout was more killing than any the Major staged when they were here two years ago.
Ballantyne had his favourites, and they were named: hardworking Normie Mann, Jack Shill, Art Jackson.
Clancy arrived on Friday, later on, and so did Fido Purpur. Conacher too, having agreed to a contract that was rumoured to be worth $7,000, the league limit. He denied he’d been holding — “other business” had kept him in town. Never mind that now, though: he’d arrived just in time to tee off with his teammates at the Westmount Golf Course. Later that night, the Leafs’ star was reported to be joining Major Ballantyne to aid in opening (unofficially) the local badminton season.
The players got the weekend off, with most of them heading home to Toronto. Before they left, though, they reported for a weigh-in, from which the news was soon transmitted to the wider world:
Conacher was the heftiest Leaf, at 203 pounds — a five-pound increase for him from a year earlier. Busher Jackson had added six pounds, which put him to 202. Lightest of the Leafs: Pep Kelly and Joe Primeau at 155 pounds apiece, and goaltender George Hainsworth at 153.
When camp re-convened, the casualties mounted. Shill pulled a leg muscle during calisthenics, Jimmy Fowler tore a shoulder ligament. On the ice, Busher Jackson collided with Bill Gill and Reg Hamilton, cutting his eyebrow — “but it was reported not serious,” assured The Ottawa Journal. No-one was safe from the hazards of Kitchener: trainer Tim Daly burned his arm on a hot-water pipe.
Surveying his skaters at their drills, Dick Irvin had this to day: “I don’t see anything in the newcomers likely to disturb the regulars much.”
Conn Smythe, meantime, was asked about his hopes for the season ahead. “The trouble is,” he mused, “that if we lose too many we all get fired. And if we win too many all the players want an increase. So there you are. We are between the devil and the deep blue sea. If we win as many as last year, everybody should be pretty well satisfied.”
Starting to scrimmage, the players were divided up into teams, Blues (coached by Irvin) and Whites (Powers). The plan for the last week of camp took them on the road around Ontario for a four-game tournament.
In Hamilton, October 25, the two squads tied 3-3. There were no fights, but close. Three days later in Midland, Irvin’s Whites beat the Blues 6-4. Buzz Boll scored a hattrick for the winners, while Charlie Conacher notched all four goals for the losers.
Back in Kitchener, Irvin’s team won again, 6-3, with Conacher scoring another two goals. George Hainsworth crashed in Red Horner during a soccer game on Monday, October 28 (“one rib broken, another one badly bent” was The Globe’s diagnosis), so a Brampton goaltender, Odie Core, took the net for the Powers’ team. With an 8-7 win in the final game of series, Irvin’s charges won the championship they’d been pursuing, the Ace Bailey Trophy.
Smythe sold Fido Purpur and Bill Gill to St. Louis of the International League as October wound down. With the new season approaching, the Leaf line-up looked more or less set. Up front, Dick Irvin was counting on the famous “Kid Line” featuring Conacher, Primeau, and Jackson to lead the charge, although the latter was still only thinking about signing his contract. Conn Smythe liked the look of the new “Infant Line,” which had Art Jackson, Nick (a.k.a. Red) Metz, and Pep Kelly skating together. Bill Thoms, Frank Finnigan, and Buzz Boll were slated for the third (nameless) line, with Andy Blair pencilled in as utility forward. He was also prepared to sub in on defence if King Clancy wasn’t ready to go; assuming he was, the Leaf blueline would see Clancy and Horner paired together while Hap Day would skate with Flash Hollett.
“The team is all right,” Dick Irvin said, as fog enveloped Kitchener on the last day of October. “That Boll-Thoms-Finnigan line will be heard from regularly. The rest of the team is first-class.”
Irvin didn’t like the idea of motoring in the murk, so the team delayed its trip west. They did make it to London eventually and there, on Noevmber 1, the Leafs beat a combined team of London Tecumsehs and Syracuse Stars by a count of 7-1. Hainsworth was back in net, with Odie Core now sidelined with a finger broken by a shot of Charlie Conacher’s.
November 3 the team travelled to Buffalo to play with — and lose to, 1-0 — the International League Bisons.
With the season set to open November 9, Busher Jackson decided he wasn’t going to sign his contract until Conn Smythe agreed to pay him what he asking. “I’m not asking too much,” Jackson said, absenting himself from further practice and taking the negotiations to newsprint as he laid out the whole situation for The Daily Star’s Andy Lytle.
If people thought that he was getting the league limit in years past, well, no, not so, the Leafs were paying him $5,700. So this year, yes, he’d asked for $7,000, which Smythe refused to pay: $5,750 was as high as he’d go.
“Don’t you think I’m right?” Jackson wondered. “What’s a guy got to do to get $7,000? I’ve been chosen on the all-star line-up every year for the past four. What’s a guy got to do?”
Jackson had missed some time the previous year — “I got cut on the leg while playing with some kids on a pond” — and Smythe had told him that his absence had cost the Leafs $1,000. “Well,” Jackson reasoned, “if I’m worth that for a few games, surely I’m worth more than $5,750 over a season of play.”
He was going to talk to NHL president Frank Calder, that’s what he was going to do. He wanted to find out — well, “if players have rights or if they are obliged to take what is offered or stay out of hockey.”
When the two me met, Calder told Jackson to accept what he’d been offered. “If you don’t sign this week you’ll get less next week. And so on each week you remain out of it.”
No, Jackson told him: not going to sign. “You and Seibert better open up your own league,” Calder reportedly said.
Jackson: “Maybe we will.”
Smythe brought in Jack Shill to take Jackson’s place on opening night, wherein the Leafs ended up in a 5-5 overtime tie with the New York Americans.
Jackson talked again to Frank Calder and whatever the president told him, it was enough: the winger was in at Conn Smythe’s before the Leafs’ next game against the New York Rangers. “The amount of the salary was not made public,” Mike Rodden advised, The Globe’s sports editor, “but Jackson is satisfied, and that is all that matters.”
The Leafs won that game 1-0, though Jackson was judged slow and “in especially poor shooting form.” New York was lacking Earl Seibert on defence. The league’s “most stubborn holdout,” The Ottawa Journal called him. One report had Lester Patrick’s offer as low as $4,500, though others pegged it at $6,000. Either way, Seibert was back home — in Kitchener. Maybe he’d go to England, he declared, to coach.
November was almost through when he finally agreed sign, after missing the Rangers’ first eight games. Terms weren’t disclosed, of course, but the speculation in the papers was that he’d taken a pay cut.
(Top photo courtesy of Don Pillar)