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.