“Personal relations between Art Duncan and myself are of the best,” Toronto Maple Leafs managing director Conn Smythe was saying 89 years ago today, on another Friday of this same date, stepping up to announce his utmost and ongoing confidence in his coach. “I cannot speak too highly in praise of Mr. Duncan’s attitude since he has had the team.”
Actually, no, sorry, my mistake: fond as that speech sounds, Smythe was in fact firingthe man who’d been guiding his hockey team for just over a year. Five games into the new season, with the Leafs mired at the foot of the NHL’s four-team Canadian Section on a record of three losses and two overtime ties, Smythe had decided that Dick Irvin was the change that the Leafs needed.
Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Art Duncan had turned 40 in the summer of 1931. He was already a veteran defenceman when he came to the Leafs in 1927. A trade brought him in from the Detroit Cougars, with whom he’d served as playing coach before ceding the bench to Jack Adams.
Having headed up the syndicate that bought the Toronto franchise earlier in ’27, Conn Smythe would soon take over as manager and coach of the team, too. In 1930, after three years of guiding the team, Smythe decided that the time had come for him to fix his attention on getting a new arena built. Smythe had hoped that Frank Nighbor would succeed him, but when he couldn’t come to an agreement with the Pembroke Peach, he handed the job to Duncan.
This wasn’t Duncan’s first stint playing big-league hockey in Toronto: a decade earlier, during the First World War, he’d enlisted in the infantry with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and played for the 228th Battalion team during its brief tenure in the pre-NHL NHA.
After the 228th cut short its season in 1917 to deploy to France, Duncan transferred to Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. In 1918, as a lieutenant flying an S.E.5a fighter over Belgium and northern France, he was credited with shooting down 11 enemy aircraft. For “continuous gallantry and initiative,” Duncan was awarded the Military Cross and bar.
By the fall of ’31, Conn Smythe had done what he’d set out to: on November 12 that year, Maple Leaf Gardens opened in a blaze of pomp and ceremony. The Leafs couldn’t contribute a win to the festivities. Two weeks later, they still didn’t have one to their name.
Duncan’s last game in charge saw Toronto fall in Montreal, 3-2 to the Canadiens, on the night of Thursday, November 26. When he was fired next day, he had coached the Leafs in 47 regular-season games — the same number, as it happens, that the present coach, Sheldon Keefe, has overseen to date. (Keefe’s winning percentage stands at .400 to Duncan’s .250.)
Several reports of Duncan’s dismissal noted that he would remain on the Toronto payroll, though that doesn’t seem to have worked out over the longer term. In February of 1932, news reached the popular press that Duncan was suing the Leafs for several thousand dollars in pay, claiming wrongful dismissal and breach of contract. (I haven’t been able to determine how that was resolved, or wasn’t.)
Dick Irvin, who was 39, had also served with the CEF, with the Fort Garry Horse. He was already a veteran star of the Western Canadian Hockey League when he joined the expansion Chicago Black Hawks in 1926, becoming the team’s first captain.
After a fractured skull put an end to his playing career in 1929, he took over as coach the team. He didn’t last, but then not many coaches did, for long, in those torrid years when Major Frederic McLaughlin was the owner in Chicago.
After just a year-and-a-half on the job — and having beaten the Leafs on the way to the 1931 Stanley Cup final, where Chicago lost to Montreal — Irvin resigned his post with the Black Hawks in September of ’31.
He was back home in Regina in mid-November as the rumours circulated that he might be convinced to return to the Black Hawks. Smythe, though, was persuasive enough over the telephone from Toronto that Irvin decided his future lay in Toronto.
He wasn’t on hand to get it started right away, as it turned out. With the new coach en route from Saskatchewan, and not due to arrive on in Toronto until the following Monday, Conn Smythe stepped in to take command of the Leafs that Saturday, 89 years ago tomorrow.
He did fine, steering Toronto to a 6-5 decision over the Boston Bruins — the Leafs’ very first victory in their new building. Andy Blair scored the overtime winner.
Dick Irvin’s first game in charge was at the Gardens on Tuesday, December 1, when another overtime failed to unlock a 2-2 tie between Toronto and the New York Americans. It was another two games before the new coach got his first Leafly victory, a 4-0 home win over the Montreal Maroons.
Things got better and better from there, to the extent that in April of 1932, Irvin’s Leafs beat the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup.