Wartime Wing: Ken Kilrea was born in Ottawa on a Thursday of this date in 1919. He followed his older brothers Hec and Wally to the NHL, making his debut as a 20-year-old with the 1938-39 Detroit Red Wings. Hec, 31, was in the Motor City line-up that year, too, though Wally, who was 29, had departed the team at the end of the previous season. (Legendary junior coach Brian Kilrea was a nephew, son of the eldest Kilrea brother, Jack.) Young Ken, a left winger, played parts of five seasons with the Red Wings; he’s pictured here in his last campaign, 1943-44, when NHLers doubled as billboards for U.S. war bonds. Kilrea’s other war service included a stint with the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps that saw him skate (and win a 1943 Allan Cup) with the Ottawa Commandos on a team that also featured the talents of Sugar Jim Henry, Ken Reardon, Mac and Neil Colville, and Bingo Kampman. Ken Kilrea died at the age of 70 in 1990.
The RCAF Flyers proved themselves to be Canada’s best senior hockey team in 1942 when they won the Allan Cup. The Flyers benefitted from what might be classed a wartime windfall: among the Ottawa-based airmen at their disposal that season were all three members of one of the NHL’s most effective forward lines, the erstwhile Krauts (and Boston Bruins) Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer. When another stacked military team succeeded the Flyers as Allan Cup champions the following year, it was thanks, in large, part to goaltender Sugar Jim Henry. After winning the 1941 Allan Cup with the Regina Rangers, Henry had played his rookie year in the NHL with the New York Rangers. Inducted into the Canadian Army in the summer of ’42 (above, to the right), he was posted to Canada’s capital where he suited up (above, left) for the Ottawa Commandos. Replacing the Ottawa Senators in the Quebec Senior Hockey League, the Commandos had their wings clipped a little when, to begin the season, the league decreed that teams could only ice four players with NHL experience in any given game. (That limit was later raised to six.) The Commandos had plenty of options: along with Henry, the former NHLers they iced that season included Montreal Canadiens’ veteran Ken Reardon, brothers Mac and Neil Colville (New York Rangers), Jack McGill (Bruins), Alex Shibicky (Rangers), Gordie Bruce (Bruins), Joe Cooper (Rangers and Black Hawks), Bingo Kampman (Maple Leafs), Polly Drouin (Canadiens), Gordie Poirier (Canadiens), and Ken Kilrea (Red Wings). The team the Commandos beat in the Allan Cup finals was a military one, too, Victoria Army, and they boasted a bevy of erstwhile NHLers, too — including Nick Metz (Maple Leafs), Joffre Desilets (Canadiens), and Bill Carse (Rangers and Black Hawks) — but not quite enough.
Come for the views from bygone days deep inside the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room, stay for the priceless glimpse of Frank Nighbor out on the pond, schooling the youngsters in the lost art of stealing pucks from charging forwards.
Hot Ice is a short Canadian-government confection from 1940, a meandering piece of propaganda that American director and writer Irving Jacoby devised to congratulate Canadians on the “national folk dance” they practice on skates, with sticks. Morley Callaghan contributed “extra commentary,” the credits say; I guess we can forgive him that. “Wherever they are, whatever they’re doing,” our narrator innocently blathers, “whenever Canadians get together, hockey is news. Good news — good enough to bring us from the fireside, crowds of us — gay, hopeful, good-natured crowd, with faith in their own spirit.” Yay for us, I guess — though the us depicted, it’s worth noting, is so very white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, male. Still, the hockey footage is fascinating. Guided into the Leafs’ dressing room, we find the self-conscious players getting into gear, Red Horner and Sweeney Schriner, Gordie Drillon with some stagey rough-housing, Turk Broda padding up. Here’s trainer Tim Daly showing off his cabinet of salves, and Tommy Nayler at the skate-sharpener — and coach Dick Irvin taping up Syl Apps’ sore shoulder. Conn Smythe prepping the troops before battle! Or pretending to. The final minutes of Hot Ice take us out onto Maple Leaf Gardens’ ice for Foster Hewitt narrating the Leafs and the New York Rangers having at it. Alf Pike! Bingo Kampman! Muzz Patrick! Ott Heller! Referee Bill Stewart! All of them, and (for some reason) a series of cutaways to fake fans for their insights on the action — and incitements to attack the Ranger goaltender. “Why don’t they hit [Dave] Kerr in the head with a brick?” you’ll hear amid the chatter, should you choose to endure it.
The best part, for me? Back before we get to Leafs and Rangers, at the nine-minute mark or so, there’s a 40-second cameo by a 47-year-old Frank Nighbor. Yes, the Hall-of-Famer just happens to be passing by the old frozen slough where the kids are out playing, and yes, the Peach has his skates on, and his stick — and he just happens to be wearing his old striped sweater from when he helped the 1927 Ottawa Senators win the Stanley Cup (this very one). It would be great to hear Nighbor’s voice here, instead of the narrator’s, droning on, but never mind: Nighbor is about to show the boys his sweep-check. Pay attention — the demonstration lasts just a few seconds. The sweep may only have been the second-best of Nighbor’s legendary defensive weapons (after the hook-check), not to mention mostly obsolete by 1940 as an effective hockey utensil — still, though, make no mistake, this is like a visit with Monet at Giverny, meeting the artist as he quietly deigns to show you a masterpiece.
In the months leading up to D-Day, preparing for the battle the would sweep the enemy from northwestern Europe, Canadian troops did what Canadians do: they played hockey.
This was 1944, end of February. The troops of the 3rd Canadian Division and supporting units were, as the security-conscious datelines read on the dispatches that fed the newspapers back home, “Somewhere In England.” On the specific ice of the Sports Stadium at Brighton, the Canadian Army Overseas championships got underway with a set of brassy special guests in the stands: joining Lieutenant-General Kenneth Stuart, the acting commander of the First Canadian Army, was the man in charge of all British and Commonwealth forces for the upcoming invasion, General Sir Bernard Montgomery.
The opening game of the best-of-three finals was played on a Tuesday night, pitting the Cameron Highlanders against B Group, Canadian Reinforcement Unit. They didn’t have a name to romance the imagination, maybe, but the CRU team dominated on the ice, posting an 8-4 victory.
Leading the way was the man a Canadian Press correspondent called “a fast-skating private with a deceptive shift:” H.W. Proulx scored three times and collected two assists. He had some big-name help in a trio of former NHLers. Captain Gordie Poirier, 29, and Corporal Ken Reardon, 22, had both played for the Montreal Canadiens, while 24-year-old Lieutenant Gordie Bruce was a Boston Bruins alumnus.
These three had only been in England for a few weeks, though they were, all three, veterans of military hockey success. They’d helped the mighty Ottawa Commandos to an Allan Cup championship in 1943 on a team that had counted goaltender Sugar Jim Henry along with NHLers Bingo Kampman, Neil and Mac Colville, Polly Drouin, Alex Shibicky, and Joe Cooper.
In England, the Reinforcements won the second game, too, the following night, to take the series. Six thousand Canadian soldiers were in the building to see it. The score this time was either 8-2 or 9-2 — both showed in subsequent press reports, possibly to confuse the enemy. Did General Montgomery attend both games? Maybe so; again, the record isn’t crystally clear. He was certainly at the Wednesday game, at which he was reported to have spent “most of the evening hanging over the boards.” Brighton’s rink was small — 25 feet shorter than most Canadian rinks, by some accounts — and a military reporter noted that this made “both teams look fast enough to burn down the rink.” Proulx was a stand-out again: “the equal of NHL players, and faster.”
Featuring for the disappointed Camerons was Terry Reardon, 24, Ken’s elder brother. He’d played in the NHL, too, before he’d enlisted, for Boston and then Montreal. In the effort to stymie the CRU he’s said to have stayed on the ice for the full 60 minutes — two nights running. This gave him time to fight with his brother — “a real go,” according to one witness, who reported that Ken gave Terry a black eye.
Monty had seen worse. At least, when the time came to award medals to victors and runners-up alike, he said, “This is one of the cleanest game I have ever seen.” He also took the opportunity to remind the men of their greater purpose. “If we can produce the team spirit when the Second Front starts,” he said, “we should not be long about it.”
That’s what he was there for, of course, rallying the troops, boosting morale. Ahead of the invasion, he was in the middle of a four-day visit to Canadian troops under his command. He’d commanded Canadian troops in ’43 in Sicily and before that, too, in England. “I am always delighted to have Canadians around,” he’d say later. He’d even played a bit of hockey, in his time — well, field hockey.
Ross Munro of the Canadian Press went along with him this time and sent word back to Canada of how, “on a dozen village greens,” he “met and talked to thousands of Canadian invasion troops” in a get-acquainted tour.
In a special train with Royal priority, the commander of the British group of armies for the Western European invasion sped from one second-front camp area to another and several times a day he spoke to groups of several thousand Canadians.
In battledress, standing atop a jeep,
he told them he wanted to see them and wanted them to see him — that they were going to fight together and should get to know each other. The talk was simple, clear and sprinkled with humor and joshing.
As impressed as he might have been by the display of Canadian hockey, Montgomery knew that it wouldn’t serve as a metaphor for a wider British audience. Later in March, he stepped up to stir the nation with this solemn statement:
We are preparing to take part in the biggest tug-of-war the world has ever seen, and if anyone should let go of the rope, then we lose the match.
How long will the pull last? No-one can say for certain. It may last a year, it may take longer. But it will be a magnificent party and we shall win. It will be a proper job for proper men.”
He had a battle-cry to suggest, too, “for the nation:”
“Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.”
Toronto’s upstart Maple Leafs head into tonight’s game with the Washington Capitals with a five-game winning streak in hand, but the real news may be the optimism and glad-heartedness attending the team in the wake of Sunday’s outdoor overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings feels like something of a new commodity in the city. The surging Leafs have their fans talking about making the playoffs for the first time in four years, even as they bask in the lustre of the bright youth of Connor Brown, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and the incandescent Auston Matthews.
Toronto has, in fact, seen the hope before. It was this very time of the year in 1992, for instance, when GM Cliff Fletcher orchestrated the ten-player trade that brought in Doug Gilmour from the Calgary Flames.
A new day dawns for the team that forgot how to win
was the headline in Toronto’s Financial Post on this day 25 years ago, while in The Windsor Star, columnist Lloyd McLachlan wrote about the notion of Gilmour as, “if not the second coming of Dave Keon, at least a playmaking Moses possibly capable of helping inspire a miracle escape from the wilderness.”
Twenty years further back, Stan Fischler’s 1975 book Make Way For The Leafs outlined an end for another era of Toronto hockey woe. Once, he wrote in opening his thesis, the Leafs had been Canada’s own New York Yankees: “the supreme professional sports organization.” By the end of the page, he’d outlined the glories composed by Conn Smythe, emphasized the success of his teams, the colour of its characters, the team’s toughness, his material proof of which cited Bingo Kampman,
a defenceman of such herculean strength he would win bets that he could lift heavy dinner tables just by placing a side of the table top between his teeth and then hoisting the table using sheer mouth power.
Fischler’s quick sketch of Toronto’s downfall centred mostly on GM Punch Imlach. His account of the team’s ongoing resurrection got going in chapter two with Imlach’s sharp young successor, Jim Gregory, along with the savvy coach he hired in Red Kelly, and a cadre of “youthful skaters” like Darryl Sittler, Rick Kehoe, and Lanny McDonald.
Fischler pegged the start of the Leafs’ “rebirth” to the opening of the NHL’s 1973-74 season — just as, it so happens, team president Harold Ballard was getting out of prison after serving a sentence for theft and fraud.
Ballard isn’t everyone’s idea of a hero, of course. Fischler called him “the most intriguing and one of the most engaging personalities in Toronto sports,” framing him as “a hard man in what he feels is a hard world.” In ’73, Fischler said, Ballard believed the Leafs were three years away from establishing a Stanley Cup-winning team.
They did get to the semi-finals in 1978, losing there to the eventual champions from Montreal. That was as good as it got, though: what the Leafs had to look forward to beyond that were the grim ’80s. Was the team’s wilderness ever so deep and dark as it was in that decade in which they traded away McDonald and Sittler, and squandered one draft pick after another?
The legacy of those years under the Ballard regime lingered a long time. It’s what Cam Cole was alluding to in ’92 as Doug Gilmour arrived from Calgary, and it’s something that Leaf-loving hearts trust is history of a kind that doesn’t repeat itself.
Players turn to mush in Loserville North
Cole’s Edmonton Journal column that January morning was headlined, and it carried on in a key that even, now, still, in these heady times of Marners and Matthewses, can send a shudder through a city:
For reasons not clearly understood to this day, good players turn to mush instantly upon contact with Toronto. It may be the acid rain. Veteran star, proven role player, promising draft pick — you name it, the Leafs can ruin it.