under review: writing the good fight

 

A version of this review appeared in the December, 2021 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

Why did a couple of Zacks feel the need to shed their gloves that October evening in Edmonton in early October to fling fists at each other’s heads? Could be, I guess, that Zack Kassian, a winger for the NHL Oilers, disparaged Zack McEwen’s manhood, mother, or mien. It was the NHL’s pre-season still, so maybe McEwen, then a Vancouver Canuck, wanting to audition for his own coach, asked his rival for the pleasure of the punch in the time-honoured way of these things: “You wanna go?”

Was this a warning we were seeing, or maybe a dose of vengeance? Was it fulfillment of an arcane rite only understood by Zacks? There was some suggestion that Vancouver’s forwards had sinned by skating too close to Oiler goaltender Mike Smith, and so there was (in the parlance) a price to be paid, which required (as laid out, possibly, in the game’s opaque Code) a message to be delivered.

It’s easy to make light of hockey’s theatre of the brutally absurd, but in the quick chaos, Kassian lost his helmet, then his footing, fell, headfirst, to the ice, was knocked out. He revived, eventually, and left the ice under his own power, a towel pressed to his right temple. It was all over, then, except for the talking. “He’s got a pretty good bump on his head,” said Kassian’s coach, Dave Tippett. “It’s one of those ones that upsets you when that happens.”

“It’s scary, it’s terrible, it’s not cool,” said a young Vancouver defenceman, Quinn Hughes. “It probably didn’t need to happen.”

And that was mostly it, so far as further reckoning went. There was nothing, certainly, forthcoming from the NHL, which maintains both a rulebook and a Department of Player Safety.

According to the website hockeyfights.com, where these things are reverently logged and parsed, that Zack-on-Zack fight was the 39th (and counting) of Kassian’s 12-year NHL career, the 13th in four years for McEwen. Nowhere is there such a ready archive where you can look into the motives of any given hockey fight, no register of messages sent and received, no docket of damages done. In Canada, we’re so generally socialized to hockey’s culture of on-ice assault that October’s clash of Zacks made no more impression within the sport, the culture, or the Edmonton Police Department than the last time one hockey player punched another in the head. Will the next time be any different?

•••

Questions, questions, questions.

They hang in a haze over the NHL’s ice that never quite dissipates, though the fighting goes on.

Are hockey fights a good idea? Is the difference between a brawl on the street outside Edmonton’s Rogers Place and one that breaks out inside, on the ice, still sufficient to accommodate hockey’s proud exceptionalism? Do angry physical attacks really deserve a place in a game that purports to be for everybody? What do they say about our civil society? What about the potential for harm? Why use them to market the product you’re selling? Could it possibly be true that the blows that the punches that hockey players punch are (actually) a marvelous safety measure without which the game would teach us all the true meaning of mayhem?

Madison Mayhem: “The fight was a honey,” the New York Daily News reported in November of 1937 after New York’s Phil Watson collided with Dave Trottier of Montreal’s Maroons. “They ditched sticks in a hurry and began throwing punches.”

You don’t have to be especially timid or a paragon of moral rectitude to interrogate hockey violence, despite what some fighting enthusiasts in the public square might suggest. You should know that the search for answers might take you in unexpected destinations. The bookshelf, for example, as old-fashioned a resource as that might seem in the digital present.

And yet it is true that the sport’s library has added, over the years, a positive melee of memoirs by former — I was going to say goons, but won’t, since that’s considered a dire insult to the honest folk who put in the time to do the dirty work that others won’t, the keeping of the peace, the protecting of the honour, the delivering of the messages, the doing of time in the penalty box. You’d know this if you’d come across Don’t Call Me Goon: Hockey’s Greatest Enforcers, Gunslingers, and Bad Boys, an actual book, from 2013, by Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen, or if you’d spent weeks immersed in the prose of hockey’s rowdies, ruffians, heavyweights, tough guys, and policemen. Take note: the term of art preferred by the artisans themselves seems to be enforcer.

What exactly do hockey enforcers enforce? That’s not always easy to glean, whether you’re watching the game or reading about it. Not the rules, obviously. John Ferguson (52 fights) offers an explanation in his 1989 memoir Thunder and Lightning, in which he makes the case that he was the league’s original enforcer. His remit, as he understood it: beyond his regular workaday within-the-rules duties, he was to intervene “to maintain decorum if anyone tried to trifle” with Jean Béliveau (7 fights), or Bernie Geoffrion (6), or with “any of our other stars.”

Uh-huh. Of course, Ferguson is here using “maintain decorum” in the hockey sense, where it more commonly means “commit assault.” But if you pay any attention to the NHL at all, you’re used to the ways in which language abstracts the game’s violent tendencies.

There’s nothing particularly insidious in a broadcaster, rinkside reporter, Twitterer, or NHL executive resorting to arcane terms (donnybrook, fisticuffs) or euphemisms (dropping the gloves i.e. the mitts, squaring off, going at it, chucking the knuckles, in a boutthat may also be a tussle, scrap, scuffle, or maybe just someone was taking liberties, that’s what the extra-curriculars are all about, other than showing emotion, sending messages, & etc.). It’s normal, natural enough — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t downplay and normalize the bone-hard brutality of hockey fights, the injuries that result, the examples they set.

They’re a conservative bunch, the enforcers, until, sometimes, they’re not. Dave Schultz was the primary puncher for the Philadelphia Flyers when they ran roughshod to a pair of Stanley Cup championships in the 1970s. The Hammer they called him in the unruly years when he was bashing out new records for penalty minutes, throwing his weight into 164 fights. In 1981, a year after he retired from all that, Schultz enlisted Stan Fischler as his co-writer and published a memoir in which he all but renounced the life he’d been living, pondering withal what might be done to change the culture in which he and his Flyers thrived. He also accused his former captain, Bobby Clarke, of cowardice.

Clarke (36 fights) happens to have led a call for the NHL to abolish fighting in 1976, when he was head of the players’ association. (It wasn’t heard.) Champions of bellicose hockey like to point out that the game has always been violent, how can you possibly engineer it otherwise at this late date? Chris Nilan played 13 NHL seasons, helped Montreal win a Stanley Cup championship; the nearly 60 hours he spent in penalty boxes count as the fifth most ever to be accumulated in NHL history, and they include sanctions for 196 career fights. What would hockey be without fighting? “It is simply part of the game, deeply embedded in it, and at its core,” he wrote in his 2013 book Fighting Back, “and it provides hockey with so much of the emotion, spirit, and energy that make it special.”

•••

The first rule of the NHL’s fight club is that no-one in the league’s corporate structure really wants to talk too much about all the punching or its consequences. The worry is, I believe, that all those wolfish lawsuits that roam the land might hear, and circle closer, which just puts everybody in danger.

When someone like the league’s Commissioner, Gary Bettman, does speak up, the message to reporters and legislators and sundry detractors tends to come in same frame that Clarence Campbell carpentered in the 1970s, towards the end of his 31-year reign as league president. When he wasn’t telling critics to mind their own business, Campbell would settle back on his long expertise, advising (as he did in 1975) that, “I feel that the safest and most satisfactory reaction to being fouled is by retaliating with a punch in the nose.”

It was Campbell, too, who may have first come up with the formulation of hockey as some kind of steam-powered 19th-century industrial sporting locomotive whose machinery, which is ever in danger of overheating, has never been upgraded. With temperatures running so hot, of course you need a regulator. “Fighting on the ice is a safety valve,” Campbell explained in 1969. “Stop it and players would no doubt develop more subtle forms of viciousness.

Gloves Off: “The fight, or rather fights, were swell and snapped 5,000 dozing customers erect in their seats,” the New York Daily News advised after this Manhattan meeting between the local Americans and the Toronto Maple Leafs in March of 1940. Wearing #2 is Eddie Shore, along with (#6) teammate Charlie Conacher. Leafs’ Bob Davidson is their quarry.

The NHL has, it’s true, been beset by legal challenges in recent years. In 2018, the NHL arranged a US$18.9-million settlement with 318 former players who felt that the league has minimized the long-term risks of brain trauma. Hockey’s concussion crisis is separate from, if not unrelated to, the issue of fighting’s place in the game. The NHL doesn’t really want to talk about concussions, either, so that’s one area of overlap; another relates to what medical science has been steadily revealing about what can happen to brains that are battered in sports like hockey.

The brains of boxers have been showing signs of deep damage, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, going back to the 1920s. While post-mortem studies of the brains of football players confirmed the presence of CTE in 2006, the first hockey case wasn’t confirmed until 2009, following the death of a furious NHL enforcer from the 1960s and ’70s, Reggie Fleming (73 fights).

I’d contend that since then — post-Fleming — many of the default rationalizations that hockey leaders reach for when it comes to arguing that fighting is a necessity feel increasingly unconvincing. Less than plausible. Derek Boogaard (66 fights) died in 2011, followed by an appalling succession of other, too-young former fighters, some by suicide, other by “natural” causes: Wade Belak (136), Rick Rypien (38), Steve Montador (69), Todd Ewen (150).

Checking back in on Gary Bettman, he has at least updated the technological metaphor that his league uses to help stall on the status quo. “The threat of fighting,” he earnestly told a parliamentary committee in Ottawa in 2019, “has people believe it’s an important thermostat in the game.”

•••

Is there another sport with a literature so swollen with the memoirs of so many of its lesser talents? Can you name any other game that takes such serious interest in players whose main role and renown is in straying beyond the rules of play? Hockey’s goons are often, of course, beloved as teammates, fêted by fans. Tie Domi (278), Georges Laraque (142), John Scott (44), Bob Probert (242): all of them were celebrities in skates and out. Fans chanted their names, wore sweaters bearing their names and numbers; why wouldn’t they now buy the autobiographies the hockey fighters publish?

That they do is not surprising, or controversial. It’s not news that fans revere role players like Shawn Thornton, the latest heavily penalized NHLer, a puncher in 168 fights, to publish an autobiography. As Terry Ryan, an experienced hockey combatant in his own right (4 NHL fights) as well as a vivid storyteller, has written that hockey players who make a business of punching are “some of the most interesting, funny, charismatic players you’ll ever come across in sports,” as well as “the most genuine and charitable.” Do you have to deny that to wonder why it’s an argument in favour of keeping fighting in the game? You don’t.

•••

In his cocksure 2017 memoir Offside, Sean Avery (83 fights) tells how he once smoked a joint with actress Scarlett Johansson, also kissed her, and “gave her a bit of unexpected sass.” Tie Domi’s Shift Work (2015) explores the author’s views on manscaping, and divulges that he was the very first NHLer to own a Blackberry.

The literature of hockey enforcement, it’s fair to say, contains multitudes.

Some memoirs are livelier than others, more insightful, forthright, better-written. Georges Laraque’s self-titled 2011 foray, for instance. The son of Haitian immigrants, the former Edmonton Oiler winger reflects on the violence he faced from his own father and the racism that poisoned his childhood in Montreal. No-one he knew as a boy believed it was possible that he’d grow up to play in the NHL, “because of the colour of my skin, a colour that would never be suitable for the whiteness of the ice.” Hockeyfights.com tallies Laraque’s NHL combats at 142, and he spends plenty of time talking about those — when he’s not weighing in on why he’s vegan, his commitment to animal rights, or his time as deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada.

In The Grim Reaper: The Life and Career of a Reluctant Warrior (2019), Stu Grimson (207 NHL fights) offers a thoughtful and often surprising accounting of hockey violence — and of his Christian faith and the peace it’s brought him. “Not everyone could reconcile that I was a Christian whose job involved hurting others,” he writes. He never saw a contradiction: “Who better than Christian to take on the role of protector?”

Pain Killer: A Memory of Big League Addiction (2021) is a harrowing chronicle of the toll that hockey fighting took on Brantt Myhres (58 fights). He survived his addictions and built back a life, he tells us, which makes his book something of a companion to Boy On Ice, John Branch’s devastating 2014 account of the life of Derek Boogaard’s tragic trajectory that ended with his death, in 2011, from an overdose of painkillers and alcohol.

Sean Avery’s is as frank as any of the hockey-fighter memoirs, but if that’s a solace, it’s a sour one. Avery has many titillating tales to share in Offside, lots of disdain to distpense, scores to settle; what’s not entirely clear is what it was — ego? arrogance? — that curdled his personality and left him wandering the world as Not A Nice Person.

The further you trail back with these memoirists, the less defensive they are on the page. “Hockey’s a fast game and tempers flare real quickly,” the late Dave Semenko (73) explains in Looking Out For Number One (1989). “That’s when the fighting comes in. It only lasts a little while. You don’t see a lot of guys getting hurt from it. The majority of times you’ll get your equipment messed up and that’s about it.”

Other than Dave Schultz, these are authors without regrets. “If I could, I’d do it all over again,” Chris Nilan declares in Fighting Back. “Wouldn’t change a thing.” That’s right before he talks about “swimming in alcohol and burying myself in pills” to deal with the pain he still suffers, 29 years after he last played in the NHL.”

The enforcers don’t generally lash out at fighting critics, either. Rob Ray (248 fights) is one of the few to come out whingeing about people who don’t (as he writes) “get it.”

Ray punched people for a living, but he didn’t just punch people. How was it his fault if people watching NHL games didn’t bother to learn that hockey’s “intangibles don’t get printed on the scoresheet.” And hey, parents: it wasn’t his job to be a role model, or to teach kids the difference between right and wrong.

As might be seen to befit his blue-collar roots as an Irish kid from Oshawa, Ontario, Shawn Thornton isn’t blaming anyone, or shifting his focus too far beyond his own understanding of the value (and values) of hard work and personal responsibility. Thornton, who’s 44, played 14 NHL seasons, winning two Stanley Cup championships along the way. He seems like a stand-up guy, a stout family man, a good friend, great teammate. It’s easy to cheer for him, if only because, well, everybody’s doing it, all through the book. Plumped by fond tributes from many former colleagues Fighting My Way To The Top, published in the fall of 2021, often has the feel of a going-away card that’s made its way around the office ahead of the retirement of a cherished co-worker — supposing that at your office you now and then bare your knuckles over by the copier.

“I knew full well the job I signed up to do,” Thornton writes. “I did what I had to do.” Why? Because “the game is a pressure cooker, and fighting helps remove the lid and relieve some of that pressure.” Being a sous-chef in charge of crockpots wasn’t easy, Thornton explains in his entirely affable way. It was actually hard, kind of like being a cop, or working in a steel factory, sometimes the anxiety made it hard to sleep at night, sometimes a teammate got hurt, which meant Thornton had a duty to do, that he did, even if sometimes that meant fighting friends who played for other teams, who then got hurt, he hurt them, unfortunately, nobody wanted that, but, hey: “It was just part of the job.”

The reward? Well, Thornton was, of course, paid well, a handsome US$3-million for his last three seasons in the NHL, though that doesn’t come up in the book. Respect is the currency that he seems to value over most others, and he sounds satisfied that he earned his share as an NHLer.

Thornton doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to tutor the next generation, which, I guess, counts as some kind of progress. Because whether you’re an eager student or not, these books do, taken together, amount to some of kind of masterclass in hockey fighting. John Ferguson: “When I fought, I liked to keep my hands moving and get my legs set wide apart.” Bob Probert: “The fights I did best in were the ones I was truly mad and upset.” Dave Schultz: “My technique was predicated on getting my right arm free to swing at my opponent.” Sean Avery: “My strategy is to be tactical and to not actually get hit, but to show patience until BOOM you can catch your opponent with a solid punch after he’s thrown four or five wild ones and is starting to get tired.”

If it isn’t outlandish enough that sentences like those are a recurring feature of Canadian letters, wait until you get into what the fighters are writing about their own breakages and the prospects of what the future might hold.

“My situation went from bad to nightmarish when he connected with three left-hand jackhammer punches to my face,” Stu Grimson confides. Rob Ray: “I broke my knuckles fighting against Ottawa’s Dennis Vial in 1994. I had my jaw broken, and all the disks in my jaw are gone.” (Vial’s fight total, since we’re keeping score: 87.)

In some of the memoirs published since signs of CTE were discovered  in Reggie Fleming’s brain,  the enforcers gaze grimly into the future. “Getting hit repeatedly in the head is a bad thing that happens repeatedly,” Chris Nilan allows in the opening chapter of his Fighting Back. “The trauma has to do lasting damage.”

Tie Domi bustles by, quick as he can. “I am not one of those people who can weigh in on concussions or the other health issues that some guys in hockey are going through.” That’s Shawn Thornton’s line, too, more or less: “I see that some people express concerns about head trauma, concussions, CTE … But as I said earlier, we all sign up for this and we all get the benefits of being NHL players.”

Saddest of all might be Rob Ray, who published Rayzor’s Edge in 2007, when he was 39: “I try to hope that medical technology will have improved enough in the future so that they’ll be able to fix me up when I’m older.”

•••

Questions, questions.

If hockey’s fighting is so dreadful, why has it endured so long? Aren’t the fighters consenting adults? How come fans all leap to their feet every time the fists flurry? Doesn’t the violence sometimes enliven a team that’s lost its mojo; can’t a punch-up change the energy of a game?

I’ve heard the answers, mulled them. Do they contain compelling arguments for maintaining the status quo when it comes to fighting? I don’t see them. Any of those, for me, are superseded by the potential for harm that every bare-knuckle fight presents. No matter what messages need sending, there has to be a better way.

Does the NHL’s own Department of Player Safety have an opinion on this? Not to mention (may I just mention) the official NHL rulebook. If you’re dipping into the statutes contained therein at all, I’d suggest you bypass the five pages of hows and wherefores relating to Rule 46, the league’s official ordinance on fighting. Instead, I’d direct you to Rule 21, which governs match penalties. The latter is much more succinct in stipulating the fate of any player who attempts to injure another — out of the game, gone. Intent doesn’t figure in; you only need to be attempting to do harm. What is a punch in the head if not an attempt to injure? But no NHL fight, Zacks-only or otherwise, ends with match penalties, and no-one is surprised by — or even discusses — the league’s ongoing willful flouting of its own explicit regulations.

Earlier this year, in another NHL season, Zack Kassian missed 17 games after breaking a hand punching an Ottawa defenceman. In the aftermath of his more recent October fight, he was ready to ready to return to Edmonton’s line-up just a week after hitting his head on the ice.

“It’s an unfortunate injury,” shrugged his coach, Dave Tippett (1 NHL fight as a player). “You can get hurt with by a shot, you can get hurt in a fight. Injuries happen in hockey. Always, all different ways, not just fighting.”

Kassian himself was just grateful. “It’s an emotional game and things boil over,” he told reporters. “Obviously when you see pictures of my situation, first thing that comes to mind is stop fighting. But fighting’s been in the game a very long time, it’s what makes hockey unique.”

He owed so much to punching and being punched, Kassian said. “It’s one of my attributes that made me a unique player. It’s given my family a great life and it’s something I enjoy doing.”

Why.

Emptied Benches: A meeting of Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden during the 1977-78 NHL season.

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smokey smith at centre ice

War over, time for some hockey.

Not that the NHL had paused any of its winter maneuvers during the early 1940s as the Second World War roiled, though there were annual discussions, early on, about whether it might be right for the league to suspend operations for the duration.

Now, hostilities among nations having ceased, there was, in 1945, a sense that real hockey was back for the first time in years.

“We’re in for our greatest season,” NHL president Red Dutton was enthusing 76 years ago this very week.” The boys are playing for keeps this season. It’s something we’ve never experienced before. You have a rugged bunch of boys back from the services, bent on proving they’re still the best hockey players in the world. You have another bunch of wartime-developed boys battling to prove they’re as good as the veterans. And you have some ambitious youngsters that don’t see any reason why they can’t keep pace with the older ones.”

On a Saturday of this date that October, Boston’s Bruins were in Toronto to open the first season of the new peace at Maple Leaf Gardens. It ended up a good one, for the Leafs, the season: the following April, they were Stanley Cup champions again, claiming their first title since 1942.

 For opening night, along with the traditional appearance by the massed brass and pipes of the 48th Highlanders, Conn Smythe’s Maple Leafs had arranged to host six of the 16 Canadian servicemen to have been recognized during the war with the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest military honour, conferred for extraordinary courage and devotion to duty.

That’s one of the distinguished guests here, the man who dropped a ceremonial to kick off the new season: 30-year-old Private Ernest “Smokey” Smith, a son of New Westminster, B.C., the only Canadian enlisted soldier to have won a V.C. during the Second World War. (More on Smith and his colleagues at MLG here.)

With Smith here, from the right, that’s Boston Bruins’ captain Jack Crawford (last seen in yesterday’s post) and Leafs’ chairman J.P. Bickell. Bob Davidson is the Leaf at left. In 1943, when Toronto captain Syl Apps went to war, Davidson assumed command of the hockey team. After two years, Apps was back with the Leafs, and early that October week, the Globe reported Davidson’s greeting to the team’s star centreman: “Welcome back, Syl, and I’m officially turning the team captaincy back to you.”

Apps was excused, however, from this Leafs’ opener. During one of the final preparatory scrimmages that week, he’d suffered a broken nose and a bad cut. The Toronto Daily Star’s Joe Perlove filed a report from the Gardens:

He was the same cyclonic Apps of pre-war days, if slightly breathless. He was still hammering away three minutes before game’s end when hit on the nose by Gaye Stewart’s stick which flew out of the latter’s hand as he was heavily bodied by Elwyn Morris.

X-rays disclose Apps suffered a broken nose. He needed a stitch to close a slash under his right eye. The classic Appsian schnozzle was not badly dented and he will still take fine pictures from either side.

Without him, the Leafs skated to a 1-1 tie. A crowd of 14,608 saw Bill Shill score for Boston; Davidson countered for the Leafs.

 

(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7084)

 

leafs + canadiens, 1938: laying on a licking, avoiding a sand trap

Net Work: Canadiens threaten the Leaf net on the Sunday night of March 6, 1938, with Leaf goaltender Turk Broda down at left with teammate Gordie Drillon (#12) at hand. That’s Montreal’s Toe Blake with his back to the goal, while Toronto’s Red Horner reaches in with his stick. Canadiens Johnny Gagnon (deep centre) and Paul Haynes are following up, along with an unidentified Leaf. (Image: Conrad Poirier, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Quebec)

The Maple Leafs meet the Canadiens in Montreal tonight, which is as good a prompt as any to cast back to a Sunday night in 1938, March 6, to revisit another meeting of the two old rivals.

The NHL was an eight-team affair then. That year, like this one, there was a Canadian division, though for balance it included the New York Americans as well as the Leafs, Canadiens, and Montreal Maroons. Toronto was top of the section at that late-season juncture, with Montreal in second. Saturday night the Leafs beat the Maroons 2-0 at the Forum, with Turk Broda getting the shutout. The goals came from rookie winger George Parsons and centre Syl Apps.

Sunday night the Leafs and Canadiens played to the biggest crowd to gather that season at the Forum: “11,000 fans banked solidly up the Forum’s sloping sides,” the Gazette’s Marc McNeil reported, and as seen in the photographs here.

McNeil wasn’t so impressed by the Canadiens. To his eye, they came up with “one of their shoddiest and most impotent displays of the campaign.” The Leafs licked them 6-3, in the end; “to make matters worse they didn’t even score a goal until the game had been hopelessly lost, 6-0.”

The Leafs were led by winger Gordie Drillon, who scored a pair of goals, and would end up as the NHL’s top scorer by season’s end. App, who finished second in league scoring, had a goal on the night, along with Bob Davidson, Busher Jackson, and Buzz Boll. Scoring for Montreal were Toe Blake, Pit Lepine, and Don Wilson. Wilf Cude was in the Canadiens’ net.

Other highlights of the night:

• Toronto scored four goals in the second period to pad their lead, but the game was also delayed four times while (as Marc McNeil told it) “sand, thrown on the ice in small bags which burst, was scraped from the surface.”

• A Montreal fan tried to make his way to the ice. Identified as “head of the Millionaires,” the devoted followers who occupied the rush seats in the Forum’s north end, this would-be interloper was apparently intent on making a case to referees John Mitchell and Mickey Ion. He was stopped before he got to the ice — by none other than Frank Calder, who was aided by several ushers in apprehending him as he passed near the NHL president’s rinkside seat.

• Late in the third period, Montreal’s Georges Mantha lost his helmet in the Toronto end. “He finished the contest without it,” McNeil noted, “because Turk Broda picked it up and wore it for the rest of the game. Afterwards, the Toronto goalie returned it to the speedy left-winger.”

 

Banked Solidly Up The Forum’s Sloping Sides: A look at Wilf Cude in the Montreal goal on March 6, 1938, with Toe Blake (#6) chasing Toronto’s Gordie Drillon (#12) into the far corner. A good view here of the Forum’s seating here. Notice, too, the goal judge caged behind Cude. (Image: Conrad Poirier, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Quebec)

leafs in bud

Man of the Book: Ed Fitkin’s Kennedy bio appeared in 1949, five years after the man they called Teeder made his playoff debut as an 18-year-old.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs launching 18-year-old Nick Robertson into the NHL tonight — he’ll be in the line-up for the Leafs’ Stanley Cup Qualifier, making his big-league debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets — would we turn back for a moment to another youthful premiere in club history? Of course we would, and it would be a March night in 1944, when the great Ted Kennedy made his first playoff start for the Leafs.

The future Leaf captain and Hart-Trophy winner who’d go on to win five Stanley Cups with Toronto was, like Robertson, 18 when he played that first playoff game of his, though Kennedy was in fact younger on his debut than his modern-day counterpart by seven months or so.

Worth noting: Kennedy wasn’t the only 18-year-old in the Leafs’ line-up that night in the ’40s. Nor was he the youngest Leaf in the game.

This was wartime, of course, and with many NHL players having departed the league for military service, all six teams found themselves hard-pressed for manpower.

Desperate for skaters, the Leafs had signed a couple of 17-year-olds that season, including winger Eric Prentice, who (it so happens) grew up to be the father of the late federal cabinet minister and Alberta premier Jim Prentice. Prentice Sr. is still the youngest player to have played for the Leafs.

A bevy of 19-year-olds had seen Leaf service during the regular season in 1943-44, too, including a goaltender, Jean Marois, and winger Bud Poile, the future GM of the Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks whose son, David, is president and GM of the Nashville Predators.

To open playoffs that night in ’44, the Leafs faced the Montreal Canadiens, who’d finished the regular season atop the NHL standings, a full 33 points ahead of third-place Toronto.

Though he was making his first playoff start, 18-year-old Ted Kennedy had played almost the entire regular season for the Leafs, contributing 25 goals and finishing fourth in team scoring. Joining him at centre in blue-and-white was another veteran, 18-year-old Jack Hamilton, who’d played his first playoff game for the team a year earlier, when he was 17. Also at centre for the Leafs that night was 20-year-old Gus Bodnar; left winger Don Webster was 19.

The youngest Leaf on the ice that night was the other 17-year-old in the Leafs’ stable, defenceman Ross Johnstone. A year earlier he’d been playing for the OHA’s Oshawa Generals, coached by former Leaf titan Charlie Conacher, as they vied for (but lost) the Memorial Cup against the Winnipeg Rangers of the MJHL.

The oldest Leaf player that night in Montreal in 1944? Right winger Lorne Carr was 33 while left winger and team captain Bob Davidson had just turned 32.

The Leafs did get off to a good series start, all those 76 years ago, surprising Montreal in their own building and beating them 3-1.

“Spirit,” Leaf coach Hap Day explained afterwards, “is the quality that we have the most of, and that’s what paid off dividends.”

Not to jinx anything, but it was all downhill from there for Toronto. Montreal swept back to win the next four games and the series, before continuing on to beat the Chicago Black Hawks and win the Stanley Cup. In the game that decided the series against the fledgling Leafs, Montreal swamped them by a score of 11-0.

the happy gang

Joy Division: As the regular season wrapped up in March of 1938, many pundits thought it would be the New York Rangers playing the Boston Bruins when the playoffs reached their finals and the Stanley Cup was at stake. That’s not quite how it worked out, of course. The Rangers fell at the first fence, making way for the eventual champions from Chicago to forge ahead. As for the Bruins, who finished the season in first overall, they went out to a feisty Toronto team in a semi-final sweep that saw the Leafs take all three games in overtime. Above, some of those victorious Torontonians celebrate in their Boston Garden dressing following their series-clinching 3-2 win on March 29. At the back, from left to right that’s Busher Jackson, Leafs coach Dick Irvin, and Murph Chamberlain. Up front: Bob Davidson helps to hoist game-winning goalscorer Gordie Drillon — Syl Apps is on the other leg. Alongside are Reg Hamilton, Bill Thoms, and Pep Kelly. (Image: Acme)

leafs at training camp, 1935: king, red, happy and buzz, fido and flash, and the boys

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Camp Site: The Toronto Maple Leafs gathered in Kitchener, Ontario, in October of 1935 — this way for a full report. Above, players and coaches face the camera at Victoria Park. Back row, from left: Major Harold Ballantyne, Ken Doraty, Phil Stein, Mickey Blake, Pep Kelly, Flash Hollett, King Clancy, Red Horner, Bob Davidson, Frank Finnigan, unknown. Middle row: Eddie Powers, George Parsons, Norval Fitzgerald, Red Hamilton, Jack Howard, Chuck Shannon, Hap Day, Jack Shill, Nick Metz, Dick Irvin. Front row: Art Jackson, Andy Blair, George Hainsworth, Bill Thoms, Bill Gill, Buzz Boll, Joe Primeau, Fido Purpur, unknown — possibly Tim Daly.

onward and upward with the leafs (+ also downward)

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Staircasing: Leafs captain Sid Smith and goaltender Harry Lumley ride the new escalators at Maple Leaf Gardens in October of 1955.

O for the failures of Leafs yesteryears.

Heading into a new season in October of 1955, the Toronto Maple Leafs were just five years removed from their last Stanley Cup championship. That didn’t keep president and managing director Conn Smythe from an apologetic address to fans on this day, 61 years ago, as he presided over a Maple Leaf Gardens open house to show off a brand new set of escalators. Rest assured, Smythe told the gathered masses that day, the new hardware was not a ruse by management to distract from the Leafs’ lack of recent success.

Maple Leaf Gardens was 25 years old that year. To celebrate the anniversary, the Leafs invited Torontonians to a Wednesday-afternoon wander through the corridors of the home arena. Why not? The following day they’d be opening the season in Montreal against the Canadiens. Fans would be welcome to browse the dressing rooms, the press salon, hospital, ice plant, and engine room. Most of exciting of all: those who showed up just after noon would witness the solemn ceremony with which the Gardens’ four new escalators would be inaugurated.

They’d gone in over the summer at a cost of $200,000, two on the west side of the main Carlton Street entrance, two on the east, to raise fans up to the second-level seats. Captain Sid Smith was on hand to snip the ribbon, and he was joined by six of his predecessors, Ted Kennedy, Syl Apps, Bob Davidson, Red Horner, Charlie Conacher, and Hap Day, along with other Leaf alumni: Joe Primeau, Ace Bailey, Turk Broda, Andy Blair, and Busher Jackson.

“I hope the team goes the same way as the escalators — up,” Conn Smythe said, as you’d guess he might, to some of the estimated 20,000 people came through the doors that day. He couldn’t know, of course, that another seven years would pass before the Leafs won another Cup, and he was bullish about his team’s immediate prospects.

“We have spent a minimum of $100,000 on hockey players in the last five years,” he told Rex MacLeod of The Globe and Mail. “This year I think we’ll get some of that back.”

It was MacLeod’s article, and he gave himself the last word:

The Gardens’ escalators, by the way, are reversible. It is too early to say if Leafs are too.

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This Way Up: Donna Falconer, secretary to Gardens’ building superintendent Shanty MacKenzie, poses on the new escalators in October of 1955. Falconer would marry a Leaf, two years later: the first of the forwards named Dave Reid to play for the team.