the alluring penalty shot: introducing hockey’s greatest thrill

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Conacher’d: In December of 1934, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers was the goaltender trying to stop Charlie Conacher from scoring the first penalty shot in Leafs’ history. He didn’t.

A little historical housekeeping: Charlie Conacher did indeed score the first penalty shot in the august annals of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it just wasn’t on this day in 1936, despite the anniversary announcements you may be seeing across sociable media.

A bit of the background: it was September of 1934 when the NHL’s braintrust added the penalty shot to the league’s rulebook. The meeting they did it at was in New York, but the rule came from way out west. While eastern Canada’s pre-NHL National Hockey Association had toyed with the concept in 1915, it was Frank and Lester Patrick’s Pacific Coast Hockey Association where the penalty shot made its official debut in 1921.

The PCHA faded away in the mid-1920s, of course; by 1934, Lester Patrick was running the New York Rangers while Frank presided as the NHL’s managing director.

“When a player is tripped and thus prevented from having a clear shot on goal, having no other player to pass than the offending player,” the new rule read, “a penalty shot shall be awarded to the non-offending side.” So: same as we know it now. But things were different then, too. For one thing, the penalty shot didn’t negate the penalty, which (until it was changed in 1941) the offending player also had to serve, whether the non-offender scored or not. The non-offender, I should say, didn’t necessarily have to be the offended player: a coach could appoint anyone to take the shot.

Also: from 1934 through to ’37, penalty shots were taken from a 10-foot circle situated 38 feet from the goal — so just in from the blueline, in what today we’d call the high slot. The shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, but otherwise he could do as he pleased, standing still and shooting, as though taking part in a future All-Star accuracy contest, or skating at the puck full tilt, as in the hardest-shot showdown. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.

“A rule must have merit,” Frank Patrick said as the new season approached that fall. “Before introducing any new rule, Lester and I argued over it and looked at it from all angles, and if we considered that it was good for hockey, we put it in our rule-book. The rules had to meet with the approval of the public, the press, and the players, but we never found one of our rules unpopular. Hockey has a certain sameness to it, and all these new rules have been for the purpose of giving the public new thrills. This is why I consider the penalty shot so alluring. I think it will be hockey’s greatest thrill.”

The debate about who might excel at penalty shooting began immediately. A consensus was quick to coalesce: Art Ross and Leo Dandurand, Newsy Lalonde, Jack Adams all agreed that Howie Morenz (mostly of Montreal, but soon to head for Chicago) was the man you’d want doing the job for your team.

Him or Rabbit McVeigh of the New York Americans, who happened to have been the west’s best in the PCHA. Chicago Black Hawks GM Bill Tobin remembered that. “McVeigh,” he said, “had a spectacular style. He would dash full speed down the rink, swerve about and come at the puck at a great clip. When he was skating toward the circle and while he shot the atmosphere in the rink would become so tense one could almost hear a pin drop.”

In October, when teams convened for their training camps, coaches made sure their players put in some penalty-shot practice. In Winnipeg, the Montreal Maroons saw promise in what Jimmy Ward was doing, while among Leafs in Galt, Ontario, King Clancy and Busher Jackson were said, initially, to shine. As camp went on and the team started into intra-squad scrimmages and exhibition games, Bill Thoms emerged as the team’s best designated shooter.

Once the season launched in November, the Leafs were the first team to face a penalty shot, in their second game, home to Montreal at Maple Leaf Gardens. Thoms was the designated delinquent in this case, hauling down Canadiens’ Georges Mantha. Armand Mondou took the first NHL penalty shot and … well, the Leafs’ George Hainsworth saved it. An interesting note on that: Hainsworth changed sticks before facing Mondou’s attempt, preferring a lighter paddle for the occasion over the heavier one he regularly wielded.

Ralph Bowman, a.k.a. Scotty, took care of the history Mondou failed to make the following week in a game between his St. Louis Eagles and Maroons. Montreal’s Stew Evans tripped Eagle Syd Howe, and Bowman stepped up to face Alec Connell. Or, sped up: he took the full-tilt route. The St. Louis Dispatch:

Bowman saw on which side Connell, Maroon goalie, was holding the stick, and fired the puck at the opposite of the net. The disc travelled, ankle high, like a bullet and Connell had no chance for the stop.

Rabbit McVeigh got his chance to show his stuff against Montreal’s Wilf Cude soon after that. He scored, but the goal was disallowed: he’d pulled the puck outside the circle.

Back with the Leafs, George Hainsworth got the better of Bun Cook of the New York Rangers on December 8. Best as I can see, Hainsworth continued to get the better of penalty-shooters for another year-and-a-half, stopping seven in a row before he finally saw Bert Connelly of the Rangers beat him in January of 1936 in a 1-0 New York win.

December 11 the Leafs met the Rangers again, this time at Madison Square Garden. The visitors won the game 8-4, with the turning point coming (said The New York Times) in the second period. The Leafs were leading 2-1 when Ching Johnson tripped … well, that’s hard to say. The Times says Charlie Conacher, the Globe Hap Day, the Toronto Daily Star Busher Jackson. Either way, Johnson headed for the box and Conacher stepped up. His shot hit beat the Rangers’ Andy Aitkenhead, hit the post, went in. Not sure whether Conacher took a run at the puck, but there was some doubt about the puck crossing the line. Only after consultation with the goal judge was Conacher’s penalty shot, the first in Leafs’ history, deemed good enough for a goal.

Conacher thereby made himself the Leafs’ go-to shooter. He did, however, fail in both of his next two attempts that ’34-35 season. Foiled by Chicago’s Lorne Chabot and then by Roy Worters of the New York Americans, Conacher had to wait until this every day in 1936, when the Americans came by the Gardens in Toronto again.

Worters was again in the net for New York. This time, defenceman Red Murray closed his hand on the puck to trigger the penalty shot in the first period of what turned out to be a 3-0 Leafs’ win. Here’s the Globe’s George Smith on Conacher’s successful method:

Sweeping in on the disc with three strides, Conacher drove one that fairly hissed as it sagged the net behind Worters. We didn’t see it on its netward career and we have an idea that Worters didn’t see it. Anyway, he good little netminder at the enemy end didn’t jump for it, didn’t budge; he gave every evidence of never having had his eye on the dynamited disc.

Toronto’s 1933-34 Maple Leafs. Back row, left to right: Benny Grant, Buzz Boll, Bill Thomas, Alex Levinsky, Red Horner, Andy Blair, Busher Jackson, Joe Prime, Charlie Sands, Baldy Cotton, trainer Tim Daly, George Hainsworth. Front: Hec Kilrea, King Clancy, Hap Day, coach Dick Irvin, managing director Conn Smythe, assistant director Frank Selke, Ace Bailey, Ken Doraty, Charlie Conacher.

 

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.

leafs at training camp, 1935: what’s a guy got to do?

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Squat Squad: Leafs and Stars line up in Kitchener’s Victoria Park with PT instructor Major Harold Ballantyne presiding at rear. Far row, in front of him, left to right: Andy Blair, Ken Doraty, Mickey Blake, Red Horner, Nick Metz, Joe Primeau, Pep Kelly. Middle row: Buzz Boll, Phil Stein, Chuck Shannon, Norval Fitzgerald, Bill Gill, Reg Hamilton, Jack Howard, Art Jackson (?), Normie Mann. Front row: Flash Hollett, Bill Thoms, George Hainsworth, Fido Purpur, Frank Finnigan, Bob Davidson, Hap Day, Jack Shill.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were the NHL’s best team in the spring of 1935 — everybody knew that, and said it, right up until the Stanley Cup finals, when they lost to the Montreal Maroons in three straight games.

Maybe that had something to do with the switch that Conn Smythe made, come the fall, when the Leafs headed to Kitchener to spend October preparing for the upcoming campaign — a new(ish) venue might do the team some good.

Since Smythe first conceived of subjecting his Leafs to a training camp in 1928, the team had wandered Ontario, ranging from Port Elgin up to Parry Sound and back down to Niagara Falls in the pre-season. They’d tried Kitchener already, in 1933, shifting to Galt, a little to the southwest, in 1934 — modern-day Cambridge — before this return.

There was a lunch, first, in Toronto, where Smythe addressed the troops. Then the team headed west. For the Leafs, it was the most populous camp in the team’s history, with 35 players making the trip. Some Assistant manager Frank Selke thought it might be the largest pro hockey training camp ever, which means he hadn’t read the papers: with Bruins and farm-hand Cubs on hand, Art Ross was watching over 41 players at the Boston camp in in Saint John, New Brunswick, while Canadiens coach Sylvio Mantha had 38 on the ice in Quebec City.

It was snowing in Winnipeg as Montreal’s other team, the Cup champion-Maroons, made their way west by rail. The train gained Billy Beveridge and Joe Lamb in Ottawa, and goaltender Alec Connell, who’d backstopped the Cup victory, was at the station to talk to manager Tommy Gorman, and there was talk that he’d changed his mind about retiring, but no, he was still on the platform when the train pulled out. Lionel Conacher and prospect Ken Grivel got on board in Sudbury. Toe Blake was waiting at Coniston, and Jimmy Ward, Earl Robinson, and Bob Gracie joined the journey at Kenora. Cy Wentworth was supposed to get on in Toronto, but he missed the rendezvous, and had to make his own way.

Lester Patrick’s New York Rangers were also training in Winnipeg in 1935. Captain Bill Cook showed up from his Saskatchewan farm in “tip-top shape.” “Burly” Ching Johnson arrived with “physique tuned up by horseback riding on his small California ranch.” All-star defenceman Earl Seibert stayed away, as he tended to do on an annual basis, waiting this year for the Rangers to agree to pay him $6,500 for the season ahead.

The Chicago Black Hawks were in Champaign, Illinois, where coach Clem Loughlin was searching for two solid right wingers to replace Billy Kendall and Lolo Couture, traded away in the summer. He’d bought helmets for all his Hawks and was telling his players they’d better get used to wearing them.

Equipment belonging to Red Dutton’s New York Americans’ arrived in Oshawa, Ontario, in early October, with his players getting in a few days later. Of all the NHL teams, only Jack Adams’ Red Wings stayed home, doing their conditioning in Detroit.

In New Brunswick, Art Ross barred the public from watching the Bruins skate. “He and coach Frank Patrick decided to keep the practice sessions private,” noted a dispatch in The Montreal Gazette, “in belief this policy would assist the training and eliminate any nervousness that the presence of critical fans might cause among prospects trying out for places with the teams.”

The worry for Canadiens was Aurel Joliat: he was back in Montreal, refusing to sign the contract business manager Jules Dugal had proffered.

For the Leafs, many of the stalwarts who’d almost won the Cup were back: captain Hap Day and King Clancy, Charlie Conacher and Joe Primeau, goaltender George Hainsworth. Pep Kelly was back, and Nick Metz. Other familiar names included Red Horner and Buzz Boll. A couple of veterans were gone, Hec Kilrea and Baldy Cotton, traded away to Detroit and the New York Americans respectively.

Mickey Blake and Jimmy Fowler and Fido Purpur were among the free agents and amateurs hoping for a break, George Parsons and Normie Mann, and Jack Markle looked like he might have a shot, last year’s International league scoring champion, and former University of Saskatchewan ace Jim Dewey, and the brilliant Sudbury junior Chuck Shannon, and Knucker Irvine, one of the best players in the Maritimes, and Norval Fitzgerald, too, and Busher Jackson’s little brother Art. Most of them were destined to play out the year as farmhands for the IHL’s Syracuse Stars. The Syracuse coach was in town, Eddie Powers, to lend a hand to Leaf boss Dick Irvin. Along with Tim Daly and his training staff, Major Harold Ballantyne was standing by to play the part of PT instructor.

Ballantyne, whose regular job was with the Kitchener school board as director of physical education, was the fourth soldier to take charge of getting Leaf teams into trim since Conn Smythe started sending his players away for the pre-season in 1928.

Twenty-nine players assembled in Kitchener’s Victoria Park to do his bidding on the morning of Thursday, October 17. King Clancy was missing yet, nursing an infected foot back home in Toronto, while Charlie Conacher was holding out for a better contract.

Of those who did take part, several ended up wounded by the end of the day. Normie Schultz, acquired from Detroit in the Kilrea deal, went down with a badly sprained ankle. Bill Thoms knocked his head on somebody’s knee and cut his lip in two places.

“Later on,” The Globe chronicled, “while catching a rugby ball, a finger on his right hand was dislocated.” Not to worry: coach Powers yanked it back into place. Buzz Boll bruised a thigh. Coach Irvin warned the players that Ballantyne was just warming up, and he didn’t rule out handing out bucksaws and sending the players to work on the woodpile — though “someone caught the coach passing that one off with a wink.”

Day two included an hour’s stay at the park. The Globe:

Major Harold Ballantyne sent his charges through a gruelling workout, including relay racing and football, aimed at building up stamina and wind. Members of the squad agreed today’s workout was more killing than any the Major staged when they were here two years ago.

Ballantyne had his favourites, and they were named: hardworking Normie Mann, Jack Shill, Art Jackson.

Clancy arrived on Friday, later on, and so did Fido Purpur. Conacher too, having agreed to a contract that was rumoured to be worth $7,000, the league limit. He denied he’d been holding — “other business” had kept him in town. Never mind that now, though: he’d arrived just in time to tee off with his teammates at the Westmount Golf Course. Later that night, the Leafs’ star was reported to be joining Major Ballantyne to aid in opening (unofficially) the local badminton season.

The players got the weekend off, with most of them heading home to Toronto. Before they left, though, they reported for a weigh-in, from which the news was soon transmitted to the wider world:

Conacher was the heftiest Leaf, at 203 pounds — a five-pound increase for him from a year earlier. Busher Jackson had added six pounds, which put him to 202. Lightest of the Leafs: Pep Kelly and Joe Primeau at 155 pounds apiece, and goaltender George Hainsworth at 153.

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toronto’s mammoth sports centre: steam shovels at midnight

The House That Conn Built*: Carlton Street and Maple Leaf Gardens, looking northeast, circa 1934. *(with the help of several thousand actual contraction workers)

The House That Conn Built*: Carlton Street and Maple Leaf Gardens, looking northeast, circa 1934. *(with the help of several thousand actual construction workers)

A big day yesterday for Toronto’s grandest Loblaws, which marked the occasion with a recall of select varieties of PC® brand hummus, which may contain the toxin produced by Staphylococcus bacteria.

Actually, I’m not entirely convinced that the hummus emergency has anything to do with the anniversary of the start of construction of the famous building that has housed the supermarket at 60 Carlton since 2011, but that doesn’t matter: either way, it’s 84 years since work began on the house that Conn Smythe decided to build, mid-Depression, on the land that Timothy Eaton sold him.

Which is to say, of course, Maple Leaf Gardens.

smythe 1931The Leafs had outgrown their 8,000-seat rink on Mutual Street, is how it all began. Smythe, managing director, wanted to up capacity to at least 12,000, not to mention create a destination for Torontonians to go in evening dress, from a party or a dinner, a venue with (as he wrote in his 1981 Scott Young-aided autobiography) “everything new and clean, a place that people can be proud to take their wives or girl friends to.”

The first site the Leafs looked at was on the waterfront; another was at up at Spadina and College. The T. Eaton Company offered a parcel of land on Church just north of Carlton — not a hundred yards from where Smythe was born. But Smythe wanted to right on Carlton, near the streetcar lines, and so the deal was done, for $350,000.

“We knocked down all the old buildings,” Smythe writes in If You Can’t Beat ’Em in the Alley, with what might be glee, “starting with the tobacco store right on the corner.” People laughed when he hired a watchman to keep an eye on the levelled property — was he afraid someone was going to make off with the site? Anyway, he was a distinguished sentinel, a young Marlboro prospect named Buzz Boll who later turned into a scoring left-winger for the Leafs, Americans, and Bruins.

A local contractor, Thomson Brothers, got the job when they came in with the lowest bid: $989,297, not including the cost of steel. When it looked like the Leafs wouldn’t have the money to go ahead, Smythe and his assistant, Frank Selke, convinced the labour unions to allow their men to be paid partly in Gardens’ stock.

On Saturday, May 30, 1931, the day after the contract with the Thomsons was signed, The Toronto Daily Star heralded the imminent start of the race to finish the building by November 1: “steam shovels will commence excavating at midnight Sunday.” Some 20,000 yards of earth needed shifting initially, and it was estimated that it would five weeks before any structure began to rise. “The work will be continued by day and night shifts as long as is necessary,” The Star noted.

“I don’t know how you would build Maple Leaf Gardens today in five months,” Smythe wrote in the 1980s, “but partly it was accomplished because the men who built it believed in what they were doing. After all, they were going to be shareholders in it, weren’t they?”

Apparently, it didn’t all start quite as promptly as promised. Believing, I guess, what they’d read in the newspaper, nearly 1,000 men hoping to be hired showed up at midnight at the work site at Carlton and Church. The Daily Star was on the scene: “Despite assurances by motorcycle policemen that work would not be started, [the crowd] did not disperse until one o’clock in the morning.”

Some jostling ensued, The Star reported, and so it was that before a brick was laid, Maple Leaf Gardens got a christening that, for a famous hockey rink-to-be, only seems apposite: “two of the unemployed started a fist fight.”

Leafs Rebuild: A Toronto Transit Commission photograph showing work on streetcar tracks in late June of 1931 with the MLG construction site in the background.

Leafs Rebuild: A Toronto Transit Commission photograph showing work on streetcar tracks in late June of 1931 with the MLG construction site in the background.

 (Photos: City of Toronto Archives)