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

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, 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. (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