a man called moose: toronto’s triple threat

Wall of Fame: Head up to Section 302 at Scotiabank Arena, follow the ventilation pipes past the Men’s washroom, and you’ll find the portrait gallery honouring the men who’ve captained Toronto’s NHL teams. Well, some of them … 22 out of the 25 men who’ve led the team. When this photo was taken in 2019, the newest captain, John Tavares, hadn’t been added, and Moose Heffernan and Jack Adams were missing.

It’s been a while since I wandered the halls of Scotiabank Arena, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, more than a year, so I don’t know whether they’ve updated the portrait gallery by the men’s washrooms adjacent to Section 302. The last time I was there and roaming free it was a jostling, pre-pandemic time, October of 2019, and the then-presiding-Stanley-Cup-champions St. Louis Blues were in town, four games into John Tavares’ tenure as the latest of Leaf captains.

Tavares’ C was new enough, then, that the team still hadn’t gotten around to adding his handsome face to the photographic assemblage that constitutes its Section 302 Captains Wall. A photo may have gone up in the meantime; I don’t have good information on that.

But Tavares, as I was reminded back in 2019, wasn’t the only absentee. As then constituted, the Wall honouring those who’ve lead the franchise through its 103-year-history on NHL ice only depicted 22 of the 25 men to have been so privileged.

Also missing from the line-up? Two of the first four men to captain Toronto teams in the NHL.

I don’t know why. I’m assuming that the modern-day Leafs haven’t retrospectively revoked or renounced the captaincies of Jack Adams and Frank Heffernan. My guess is that it’s a case of nothing more nefarious than ordinary oversight. It’s sloppy and unbecoming of a team with a heritage that’s as rich as its corporate resources, if not exactly surprising. The Leafs don’t tend their history with the care it deserves.

A 1919 New York notice of Heffernan’s new job in Toronto.

Jack Adams, of course, is mostly remembered as a coach and manager, the man who built the Detroit Red Wings into an NHL powerhouse. As a player, he was a skilled centre who turned pro in 1918 with Toronto’s original NHL team, the plain old Torontos, helping them win a Stanley Cup that spring. Ken Randall was the captain that year, but Adams got the job when he returned to the team in 1922, by which time they’d rebranded as the St. Patricks. It was during that second stint in Toronto that Adams also served briefly as the team’s playing coach — even if (speaking of oversights) the Leafs don’t acknowledge him in their ledger of coaches.

But let’s leave Adams for another day and focus here on Frank Heffernan, who happens to have died on a Wednesday of yesterday’s date in 1938, when he was 46.

Moose, they called him, when he played. His career stats as an NHLer are scanty: he played just 19 games all told, scoring no goals and compiling one single assist to go along with his ten minutes of penalty time.

But Heffernan can claim a distinction so rare that it’s never been matched in Toronto or (I’m going to dare to venture) NHL history. Like Adams and another doughty early star, Reg Noble, Heffernan played for Toronto’s NHL entry while both coaching and captaining the team. He remains the only man to have coached, captained, and co-owned the team.

He was born in 1892 in Peterborough, Ontario: that’s worth saying, if only for those of us who also hail, proudly, from Peterborough.

Heffernan started his hockey career in his hometown as an OHA junior before going on to play university hockey in Ottawa. Look him up in newspapers from those years and you’ll find him described as huskyand sturdyand a sensational coverpoint, which is to say he was stout and effective, played defence.

By 1913 he was starring for the Toronto Rugby and Athletic Association team in the OHA’s senior loop. Pro teams came calling: the Montreal Wanderers of the National Hockey Association wanted to sign him, and so did the Ottawa Senators. “Big, a good stick-handler, and a speedy skater,” an Ottawa newspaper rated him at that time. “He is proficient in using the body, almost a lost art to the Ottawa team.”

He didn’t, in the end, turn pro, opting instead to stick to the amateur game, at least in name. In 1915, he took his talents to New York, where he seems to have worked in book publishing while playing for the local Crescents and, subsequently, the Wanderers. Back in Toronto in 1918, he suited up again an OHA senior, anchoring the defence for the Toronto St. Patricks.

The NHA had given way to the NHL by this time. In the new league’s second season, the team representing Toronto was called the Arenas, though not for much longer. In the fall of 1919, a syndicate headed by Fred Hambly, chairman of Toronto’s Board of Education, bought the team. Briefly rebranded as the Toronto Tecumsehs, the team ended up going Irish, seizing on another true and tried moniker, and, lo, the NHL’s green-shirted Irish-themed edition of the St. Patricks.

Charlie Querrie was a partner in the new ownership group as well as serving as what would today be called the team’s GM. The word was that the man he was after to steer the team was Art Duncan, the former Royal Flying Corps fighter ace who’d come home from the war to star for the PCHA’s Vancouver Millionaires. While Duncan did eventually end up, years later, as Toronto’s coach, this wasn’t his time.

Enter Heffernan, who was turning 27 that winter. Querrie brought him on as coach and captain 101 years ago this month, succeeding Dick Carroll in the former role and Randall in the latter. I don’t know the details of the stake Heffernan took in the team’s ownership, but that was part of the deal, too: he became a playing partner of the team he was leading on the ice.

The reviews as he took up his new NHL posting were nothing but glowing. “He has had his fling at amateur hockey,” the Globe declared, “where he always conducted himself as a gentleman and made a name for himself as one of the best defense men ever developed in the OHA.”

“The most flashy and spectacular defense man in the business,” Ottawa’s Journal affirmed. “Heff is a big chap with a [Jack] Laviolette turn of speed. Unlike most fast men, he is a superb stickhandler and has the knack of nursing the puck close to his skates.”

The NHL was a four-team league that year, with a schedule divided into two 12-game tranches. Toronto had some talent in the line-up, including Noble and Babe Dye, Harry Cameron, and Corb Denneny, but they couldn’t keep up to the mighty Ottawa Senators, who ended dominating both halves of the schedule and going on to beat the Seattle Metropolitans for the Stanley Cup.

It’s not entirely clear how Heffernan’s tenure played out. We know that Harvey Sproule, another partner in the team, took over as coach for the second part of the schedule that year, if not why — was it Heffernan’s own decision to concentrate on playing or maybe Querrie’s? The Globe reports that as 1919 was turning to ’20, he actually took on another job, as coach of the OHA’s Parkdale Canoe Club.

Heffernan’s first season in the NHL was his last. In the fall of 1920, he was reported to have lined up — and maybe even signed — with the Canadian Hockey Association, Eddie Livingstone’s effort to launch a new league to rival (and/or overthrow) the NHL. Heffernan quickly denied it, though. The archival record that I’ve seen is murky on just how it all went down, but before the new NHL season got going, Heffernan and Harvey Sproule both sold their shares in the St. Patricks to their partners, who included the Hambly brothers, Fred and Percy, Charlie Querrie, and Paul Ciceri.

There was a report in the winter of 1921 that he might be joining the Montreal Canadiens, but it didn’t pan out. Almost a year to the day that it began, Moose Heffernan’s NHL career was over.

Toronto’s St. Patricks pose outside the Mutual Street Arena in January of 1920.

black friday, 1931: the leafs fire a flying ace

Conn and Coach: Managing director and all-round Leaf overlord  Smythe at Boston Garden at some point in the 1930s with Leafs’ coach Dick Irvin. Irvin steered Toronto to a Stanley Cup in his first year with the team, and took them to six more Finals thereafter. In his nine seasons with the Leafs, his teams never missed the playoffs . (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

“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.

Fly Guy: Art Duncan depicted by Jimmy Thompson in 1930, his first year as Leaf coach.

drill bit: the leafs fall in, 1928

In any other October, the NHL season would be just getting going instead of settling into the off-season … but then this is 2020, and everything’s bent out of shape. In 1928, when the NHL didn’t drop the puck on the new season until mid-November, October was the month teams stretched themselves in playing form. The Toronto Maple Leafs migrated to Port Elgin, on the Lake Huron shore, to get themselves readied in those years, as I wrote about once here and in the pages of The Globe and Mail. Taking charge of the team’s fitness regime that years as well as several subsequent others was Corporal Joe Coyne of the Royal Canadian Regiment, seen here standing over his Leaf charges. They are, starting in front, from the left: Ace Bailey, Art Duncan, Joe Primeau, Hap Day. Second row: Shorty Horne, Dr. Bill Carson, Art Smith. Third: Lorne Chabot, Jack Arbour, Gerry Lowrey. At the back: Alex Gray and Danny Cox.

men o’ the north: the most talked of hockey outfit in the world

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At Ease: One of the 228th Battalion’s junior teams turned out for inspection. Standing in as coach, centre rear, is Captain George McNamara, Dynamite Twin, who played for the professionals. (Image: Discovery North Bay Museum)

A version of this post appeared on page B11 of The New York Times on December 31, 2016.

In Canada, the kinship between hockey and war is implicit. Our understanding of the relationship may be more intuitive than fully reasoned out. Both (of course) stoke patriotic pride, and there’s the recognition (maybe) that the vivid game that remains closest to the national heart reflects the confusion and desperate violence of the battlefield, while also (somehow) naturally honouring warrior values of bravery and perseverance.

Today’s NHL teams regularly celebrate the service of military men and women. Armored cars invade pre-game ice, players take warm-ups in camo. In 1916, war and hockey intersected as closely as they ever have in an episode without parallel in professional sports, before or since. A hundred years ago this winter, an active infantry battalion on its way to the front competed in a league with the world-champion Montreal Canadiens and other well-established teams.

Taking the ice, the hockey-soldiers of the 228th Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force wore khaki-colored uniforms, just like their brothers-already-at-arms along the bloodied Somme River in France. Known as the Northern Fusiliers or just plain Soldiers, the 228th was, briefly, one of hockey’s best teams.

It didn’t quite work out: after skating against the storied likes of Newsy Lalonde, Frank Nighbor, and Georges Vézina, the 228th had to retreat from the rink halfway through the season, in a welter of lawsuits and unhappy generals. But if they never quite got to play for the Stanley Cup, the ructions arising from their 1916-17 campaign did contribute to the demise of one league and the rise of another: the NHL.

For Canadians, another carnivorous year of war started in 1916 with a new year’s address from Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden. “Already we have learned the full meaning of sacrifice,” he intoned from Ottawa, vowing to double the size of Canada’s army to 500,000 men.

Major Archibald Earchman, 33, was one officer called on to help fulfill that promise. He’d already been to France when he was promoted and, that February, charged with raising a new battalion, 800-strong.

Headquartered in North Bay in Ontario’s near-north, the 228th quickly filled its ranks. “Probably the most diversified unit ever recruited in Canada,” Toronto’s Globe romanticized, “including such picturesque types as hunters, trappers, guides, prospectors, Hudson Bay company employees and Cree Indians from the James Bay district.” Flocking to enlist, some were said to have paddled for days on “swift rivers of the great northland;” others tramped 250 wilderness miles to reach a railway station.

It would have been impossible, in Canada, for the unit not to absorb hockey players, picturesque or otherwise. Some military minds thought they had the ideal fighting stuff. A 1916 book suggested that boys used to handling hockey sticks were naturals with rifles: “Firing for hours during a hot and sustained engagement does not fatigue them as it otherwise would. In the rough work of the bayonet charge, they keep their heads ….”

When high-profile hockey players joined the 228th in May, future Hall-of-Famers among them, the news crossed the country. Rising star Duke Keats was aboard, and the brothers McNamara, doughty defensemen known as “The Dynamite Twins.” Goldie Prodgers, meanwhile, had scored the goal that secured Montreal’s Stanley Cup championship that spring.

By July, the 228th was at Camp Borden, an open plain 65 miles north of Toronto where 50,000 men from 40 battalions were living under canvas. Like everybody else, the men of the 228th practised their marching, complained about dust and mosquitoes, suffered from poison ivy and heat exhaustion. They also gained mascots — a cat dubbed Kitty Borden along with a friendly red fox — and signed up for every sport their officers could think of to keep the boredom at bay: soccer, lacrosse, cricket, baseball.

Beyond camp lines, questions of just how sports should be conducted in wartime kept pressing. Did hockey leagues divert precious resources (e.g. young men) from duty or were they vital to morale? In early 1917, with the United States about to join the Allied cause, baseball’s leadership wondered how to proceed. Yes, said the president of the American League, certainly the New York Yankees should incorporate military drills into spring training — he also pointed out, politely, that nobody had asked for batting to cease during the Spanish-American War.

The first hint that the 228th might be angling to play pro hockey came as summer waned and military planners pencilled the 228th for transfer to winter quarters in the southern Ontario city of Hamilton — or maybe nearby St. Catharines? Problem: it would be hard to play professional hockey if they were going to be stationed down there. Colonel Earchman soon convinced his superiors to shift the battalion to Toronto, where they occupied two public schools. The Arena was an easy march away.

Players were plentiful enough in the ranks for the battalion to enter five teams in amateur competition. If the National Hockey Association was surprised by the 228th’s application for a franchise, the eight-year-old league quickly saw the advantages of granting it. With a history of erratic ownership and contract spats, plagued by “rowdyism” — a.k.a. brutal violence — the now six-team league was not only welcoming some of the nation’s best players back into its rinks, it was adding a fine patriotic finish to its profit-minded enterprise.

Lieutenant-Colonel Earchman okayed the battalion’s major-league hockey operations with his superiors. Sort of — with some of them. He made the case that a team as good as his would surely bolster recruiting; exposing shirkers to their quality would, no question, “induce eligible men in the audience to see their duty more plainly.”

The players took to the ice in early November. First, though, the 228th did what pro teams do: chased free agents. They helped themselves to Art Duncan, a star defenceman from the west coast, and enlisted a brilliant centreman, Eddie Oatman.

Afternoons in November, the Soldiers worked out at the YMCA, supervised by another new recruit, trainer Frank Carroll. They did some soldiering, too, joining the battalion in a parade of Army might that put 10,000 men on the march into Toronto’s streets. A few days after that, the 228th turned out for maneuvers through neighbourhoods on the city’s northwest fringe, Blue Army attacking White, 5,000 men in all, infantry, artillery, cyclists.

Hostilities commenced at 11 a.m. By the fight wrapped up at 2.30, the 228th had played a decisive role in a White victory. “It was the greatest and biggest sham battle ever staged,” The Toronto Daily Star exaggerated, “which carried with it all the grimness and realism of actual warfare.” Well, maybe not all: “Had it been real warfare, the casualties would have been appalling.”

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The Canadiens were favourites to top the NHA’s 20-game schedule, with the 228th next in the betting. They showed why as they opened the schedule at home to Ottawa just after Christmas. Fans paid a war tax of two cents on their 50-cent tickets, which also bought intermission performances by the battalion’s brass and bugle bands.

The score, as reported in next day’s paper, past the page commemorating three more Toronto men killed in action in France: 228th 10, Ottawa 7.

“The soldiers,” advised The Toronto World, “were a little loose around their own goal.”

They worked on that, and for the next three games, the 228ths were unstoppable. They overran Montreal’s Wanderers, drubbed Toronto’s team, the Blueshirts. A crowd of 5,000 saw that game, or didn’t, through the fog of war: despite a strict no-smoking policy, cigarette smoke shrouded the ice.

Keys to the Soldierly success? They were fitter, faster. And while Sergeant Goldie Prodgers may have broken an ankle playing summer ball, he’d mended sufficiently to score 12 goals in three games.

Correspondents covering the team did their best not to overdo the battlefield allusions. When they lapsed, the team comprised gallant troops who fought gamely in a battle royal by means of raids on entrenchments.

It was the Canadiens who finally stopped the Soldiers, which is to say they spiked the artillery of the fusiliers. Another loss came in a bad-tempered meeting with Ottawa, which saw Captain Howard McNamara charge from the defence to wrestle with referee Cooper Smeaton, who wrestled back. The goal that McNamara was disputing stood, and so did the fine imposed.

Falling 10-4 to the Wanderers, the Soldiers lacked dash; perhaps, the papers suggested, their bands should be rehearsing dirges.

Still, halfway through the schedule, the Northern Fusiliers stood third in NHA standings, behind Canadiens and Ottawa. But even as the Ottawa Journal was celebrating “the most talked of hockey outfit in the world,” military officials began to wonder if in pursuing its pucks, the 228th might be neglecting its training.

In February, the Soldiers returned to Ottawa, only to be trounced, 8-0. “No fighting spirit,” a local paper diagnosed. Was the rumour true that they were headed for France? It was. Orders came through clear: “This Battalion is warned for Overseas.”

They played their twelfth and last game on a Wednesday, losing 4-3 to Toronto. By Friday, news of the 228th’s imminent departure vied in the pages of Toronto papers with urgent appeals for public donations of socks: while the hockey players may have been well-supplied, other ranks were sorely lacking.

The 228th shipped out next day. Instead of travelling to Quebec to play the Bulldogs, the hockey team deployed to the 3 p.m. train for Saint John, New Brunswick. Six days later, the unit sailed for England aboard S.S. Missanabie. Unwilling to abandon their hockey gear, the players would get in one more game, in London, at a tiny, quirky rink in Knightsbridge, the Prince’s Club, where Sergeant Keats’ team beat Sergeant Prodgers’ in front of an attentive tea-drinking audience.

Hockey carried on, as it does, in Canada. The NHA had to adjust itself for the remainder of the season, and did so, shedding the Toronto team in the process (nobody liked the owner). Come spring, the Montreal Canadiens would end up NHL champions — even though they lost their hold on the Stanley Cup, to the Seattle Metropolitans.

The papers made their farewells to the 228th fond: there was a greater, grimmer game underway, after all, in France. The battalion’s role in it was shifting: they soon transformed from the infantry into a railway construction unit, spending the rest of the war laying track to keep men and supplies on the move to the front lines.

It’s probably only in retrospect that changing identity seems like something you’d do as a fugitive trying to shed your shady past. But the 228th’s stirring legacy of on-ice exploit was giving way to talk of misconduct and even, in the press, scandal.

Several Soldiers were reported to have been turfed from the battalion before it sailed to war. Eddie Oatman was ready to tell all: he’d never been a recruit, had only acted the part to play hockey, for which he’d been promised $1200. Where was his money?

There was more, too: the NHA was soon demanding $3000 as redress for the Soldiers’ sudden withdrawal from the league. Military authorities received this news with surprise and, in private, outrage. Whose permission did Colonel Earchman have to be running the team? Army inspectors also learned that ticket profits had somehow detoured from battalion accounts to the players themselves. Several non-skating officers lodged complaints, itemizing irregularities they’d witnessed, from hockey players being excused from parades to Earchman’s highly improper habit of gambling with the men.

Military authorities weren’t pleased. If Earchman wasn’t disciplined — continuing in his command, he went on to win medals for his unit’s railway work — was it maybe just easier to forgive the 228th’s excess of hockey enthusiasm?

Though the battalion’s hockey accounts weren’t the only ones in disarray.

The 228th had departed without paying many Toronto bills. William Nielson & Co. was owed $899 for ice cream, Vogan’s Cakes $40.63. Claims dating back to summer piled up, from peeved brewers, printers, tobacconists. A Toronto music store sought $1874.21 for flutes and clarionets sold to the band. Toronto Wet Wash wanted $150: “This unit left here leaving unpaid their laundry account.”

No surprise, then: A.G. Spalding & Bros. reported that the 228th hadn’t paid for its hockey sticks.

The stars of the 228th hockey team all survived the war. Art Duncan transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, where he was twice decorated for conspicuous aerial gallantry. Back in hockey, he would coach Detroit’s initial NHL team, the Cougars. Wounded in 1918, Goldie Prodgers recovered to return to a six-year NHL career. Others turned up, post-war, in the new league: Howard McNamara, Howie Lockhart, Amos Arbour.

Further ownership squabbles would see the NHA dissolve in November of 1917 — right before it reincarnated, later the same day, as the NHL. The legacy of the 228th would linger longer. It was 1918 before a court dismissed the old league’s claim against the battalion outright, deciding that war was more important than hockey — and, anyway, it wasn’t entirely clear that the Soldiers were even properly enrolled in the league in the first place.

War ended, peace took weary hold. The trustee liquidating the 228th’s debts finally got the news in 1920 that the government would write off the last of what was owed at public expense. The amount charged to the nation was $452.43 — the cost, more or less, of the gear that Spalding’s had contributed to hockey’s war effort.

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Band Camp: Members of the 228th bands regularly entertained spectators at hockey gams through the winter of 1916-17. (Image: Discovery North Bay Museum)

 

 

tell all the people of ottawa that I’ll never forget them

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King Comes To Town: Clancy shows off his new Leaf togs at training camp in Parry Sound, Ontario, in October of 1930.

Trade your skipper across the province to your bitterest cross-province rival? It happens, every once in a while, as Dion Phaneuf recalls. In October of 1930, Frank Clancy was captain of the Ottawa’s (original) Senators, one of the best players in the National Hockey League, when Toronto’s irrepressible Conn Smythe came calling with his chequebook. As today’s Leafs continue to prepare for the new season — they were skating in Halifax earlier this week, awaiting coach Mike Babcock to finish up with the World Cup — maybe would we revisit how it happened that the man they called King ended up donning the blue 86 years this fall? Answer: yes.

Going into his tenth NHL season, Clancy was, by then, one of the NHL’s brightest stars. Montreal’s formidable Howie Morenz said he was the hardest defenceman to get around. Andy Lytle of The Vancouver Province watched him skate as a guest of the Vancouver Lions in April in a post-season exhibition versus Boston’s touring Bruins. “Clancy is the greatest hockey player in the game today,” he pronounced, rating him “vastly superior” to Eddie Shore.

There is no theatrical by-play to Clancy’s work. Once that whistle blows, he forgets the crowd and all else, except that there is ice under his feet, a puck to be followed, and that he possesses a pair of super strong legs, a hockey stick, an eagle eye, and a vision that functions every second.

Frank Patrick was alleged to have said he was in a class by himself. Even the Bruins concurred, inviting to join them as they barnstormed down to California.

The New York Rangers had tried to buy him during the 1929-30 season. And even as Clancy kicked up his skates on the west coast, the rumour simmering back on the east was that Montreal Maroons were in with an offer.

Clancy’s contract was expiring: that was the thing. Plus (the other thing): the Senators were in a rocky financial straits. By August, Clancy’s availability was front-page news in the capital.

“It is well known that the team here has been operated at a loss for a number of years past,” was what Major F.D. Burpee was saying, the president of the Auditorium Company that owned the team. “This company cannot refuse to consider the sale of one or two of its super stars, providing the price offered, whether it be cash or cash combined with players, is sufficiently attractive. So far that has not been the case.”

The strength of the team was paramount, he said. But: “At the same time, the Auditorium cannot afford to continue a losing team, and must see that it at least carries itself if the club is to remain in this city.”

Clancy’s price was high. Maroons were said to be willing to offer $40,000. The season started in November in those years, and as fall came on, the Bruins were said to be in the mix too.

And Toronto. Leafs supremo Conn Smythe was desperate to improve his team. The team he’d bought and transformed in 1927 had yet to raise a Stanley Cup, and it was coming on ten years since the old St. Patricks had done it. Smythe’s problem as a shopper was that his board of governors was only willing to spend up to $25,000. Another potential hitch: Clancy was said to have vowed that Toronto was the one team he’d never play for.

Smythe wasn’t a man easily fazed.

First, in September, he went to the races. He owned an underperforming filly, Rare Jewel, that he’d entered in the first race of the season at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, the Coronation Stakes, where the rank outsider won. Smythe’s take on the day was more than $14,000. As Smythe tells it in his 1981 memoir, he had one thought as he collected his winnings: Now we can buy Clancy. Now we are going to win the Stanley Cup.

Next: he sent his assistant manager, Frank Selke, to Ottawa to ask Clancy about playing for the Leafs. Love to, Clancy said, if you pay me $10,000.

For the defenceman, it was a simple enough calculation. As he writes in Clancy (1997), the memoir he wrote with Brian McFarlane, his Senators salary paid $7,200 with a $500 bonus for serving as captain. He had a full-time job at the Customs Department and that paid $1,800, which brought his annual earnings up to $9,500 a year.

Smythe told him that he could only pay him $8,500 — but that if the Leafs had “any kind of year at all,” he’d add a bonus of $1,500.

Clancy agreed.

As he considered the deal, Smythe sought other counsel, too — via prominent ads in Toronto newspapers, he polled everybody in town: what do you think?

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Fans answered, by telephone, telegram, they dropped by in person at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, where more than 2,000 letters also showed up. The consensus? Go get Clancy.

The deal went through in October, and it was a blockbuster. The Globe suspected “that the reason Boston, Montreal and the New York Rangers did not take definitive action was because they did not believe that any other club would pay the price demanded by Ottawa. In this they erred, but Conny Smythe always did have the habit of crossing up the guessers.” Continue reading

developing muscles, improving wind: a short history of the leafs in pre-season

Leafs in Fall: Getting ready for the season in 1931 are (1) a beslinged Harvey Jackson recovers from a car accident; (2) Harold Cotton, Red Horner, Charlie Conacher, and Hap Day on course; and (3) Ace Bailey unleashes a 200-years drive.

Leafs in Fall: Getting ready for the season in 1931 are (1) a beslung Harvey Jackson in recovery from his car accident; (2) Harold Cotton, Red Horner, Charlie Conacher, and Hap Day on the lacrosse field; and (3) Ace Bailey unleashes a 200-yard drive.

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.

The 1929-30 Leafs, with Corporal Joe Coyne in the middle row, second from the right, between Frank Selke and Lorne Chabot.

The 1929-30 Leafs, with Corporal Joe Coyne in the middle row, second from the right, between Frank Selke and Lorne Chabot.

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court case

Leafs in Port Elgin

Historian Bill Fitsell sent a note from his home in Kingston, Ontario, pointing to this photo of the Leafs dropped down for push-ups in Port Elgin in 1928 under Corporal Joe Coyne’s command. Fitsell noted that when he’d included it in Hockey’s Hub, the 2003 history of Kingston hockey heritage he wrote with Mark Potter, a mislabelled archival print gave him the mistaken impression that it showed the Leafs four years later, when coach Dick Irvin brought them to Queen’s University for pre-season drilling. “Another photo depicting four Leafs playing doubles on a leaf-strewn tennis court puzzled me for years because I could never match the background with anything near the Queen’s tennis courts in 1932,” Fitsell wrote. Case corrected, then: the volleying Leafs below also probably date to Port Elgin in 1928. Over the net, below, that looks to be Art Duncan on the left with goaltender Lorne Chabot. I’m not so sure of who it is they’re up against in the closer court. Possibly Gerry Lowrey on the left? Wearing number 3, could be —looks like, I think? — Red Horner. (Maybe.)

tennis 1928

training camp 1928: quoits and trout, jerks and pranks

Physical Jerks: The Leafs in Port Elgin, Ontartio, in October of 1928. That's Corporal Joe Coyne of the RCR in command at the fore. First row, left to right: Ace Bailey, Art Duncan, Joe Primeau, Hap Day. Middle: Shorty Horne, Dr. Bill Carson, Gerry Lowrey, Art Smith. Back: Lorne Chabot, Jack Arbour, Alex Gray, Danny Cox.

Physical Jerks: The Leafs in Port Elgin, Ontario, in October of 1928. That’s Corporal Joe Coyne of the RCR in command at the fore. First row, left to right: Art Duncan, Ace Bailey, Joe Primeau, Hap Day. Middle: Shorty Horne, Dr. Bill Carson, Gerry Lowrey, Art Smith. Back: Lorne Chabot, Jack Arbour, Alex Gray, Danny Cox. (Photo: Imperial Oil-Turofsky/Hockey Hall of Fame)

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, on Saturday, September 27, 2014, on page S2.

In the famous photograph, the Leafs jig.

We can laugh, easy for us, but this is serious business, as it always is for Toronto’s hockey team this time of year, the season for the earnest, eternal calisthenics of trying to figure out how to get back into the playoffs. If that requires legendary Leafs with names like Day and Bailey to caper in full hockey garb when their skates and sticks are back home, a couple of hours away — who are we, really, to scorn that?

The year was 1928, and for the Leafs then it was the old story that’s still so familiar: in the spring, they’d missed the post-season again. In the year since Conn Smythe had become one of the team’s owners as well as manager and coach, they’d switched names (St. Patricks to Maple Leafs) and colours (green for blue). On the ice, injuries dogged the team’s season and despite a spirited March, the Leafs didn’t qualify to play for the Stanley Cup in April.

Smythe spent the summer retooling. That and running his sand and gravel business. On the non-aggregate side, he sent Butch Keeling to the New York Rangers for $10,000 and winger Alex Gray. To the defence he added Jack Arbour’s seasoned weight. He recruited junior stars Shorty Horne (a “clever and tricky” stickhandler) and tall Andy Blair, who reminded some of a young Hooley Smith.

Young Joe Primeau (“flashy centre ice man”) was tabbed for full-time duty. And just before the Leafs started jigging, Smythe traded goaltender John Ross Roach to the New York Americans, who sent back Lorne Chabot.

Returning veterans included Ace Bailey, Bill Carson, and the former University of Toronto pharmacy student who’d foregone a career as a druggist to captain the Leafs, Hap Day.

There was worry that August that he’d have to retire: in February, an errant skate had nearly severed his Achilles tendon. A heavy loss it would have been: Day was a dominant defenceman, and durable — Frank Selke said that because he didn’t smoke or drink or touch tea, coffee, or chocolate, he could play 60 minutes a game. He toiled hard over the summer, in the office at C. Smythe Limited by day, skating every evening at Ravina rink. By September, he was ready to go. Continue reading