“Guts, goals, and glamour” was the slogan that GM Hap Day Toronto Maple Leafs draped on his team in the mid-1950s and it was one that his coach Howie Meeker gladly took up when he took charge of the team for the 1956-57 campaign. But halfway through the season, with the Leafs cruising closer to the bottom of the NHL standings than the top, another not so melodious g-word was crowding into the phrasing: groins.
Toronto had gone nearly six years without winning a Stanley Cup, and ’56-57 wouldn’t be their year again. That March, not long after the team missed the playoffs, Day resigned his post, and while Meeker hung around for a little longer, Leafs president and managing director Conn Smythe fired him before the spring had turned to summer. Smythe himself was retiring that year after a lively 30 years helming the Leafs, though not before naming a new coach (Billy Reay) and installing a committee of GMs (it included his son Stafford and Harold Ballard, among others) to steer the team into the future.
Whatever the particular lacks and flaws of the ’56-57 Leafs might have been, injuries did play a significant part in their failure to launch. Hap Day was talking about that in a story that appeared on this very January day in 1957 in The Globe and Mail. “I can recall some pretty rough seasons but never one to equal the present campaign,” he told Red Burnett. “I don’t believe we’ve been able to put a full-strength team on the ice since the season started.”
Injured Leafs had by that point missed a total of 124 games — and they still had 27 games to play. Over the entirety of the previous season, they’d lost a total 66 man-games to injuries. (As of today, this year’s Mike Babcock-led edition of the Leafs have lost 50 man-games.)
Among the ’56-57 wounded were defenceman Hugh Bolton, who’d been out 27 games with a broken leg, and forward George Armstrong, 16 games on the shelf with torn ligaments. Bob Pulford (strained back), Gerry James (battered shoulder), Barry Cullen (charley horse + fractured hand), Marc Reaume (gammy foot), and Tod Sloan (shoulder separation) had all been absent.
For all that pain and damage, it was the ubiquity of one particular ailment that seems to have concerned Conn Smythe most. Defencemen Jim Thomson, Tim Horton, and Jim Morrison had all at some point gone down with groin injuries that season, along with forwards Rudy Migay and Ted Kennedy.
As the pair of memos shown here memorialize, Conn Smythe was on the case. Could his team of highly tuned professional athletes be failing to stretch properly before they threw themselves into the fray? And what about these nefarious stops and starts? Were theyto blame? On this day 62 years ago, he started his investigation with a phone message to GM Day, who duly answered.
“Fair and cold” was the forecast for Toronto on December 25, 1920, with a half-inch of snow due to fall. Mayor Tommy Church proclaimed a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a happy new year — “one full of sunshine, prosperity, success, and every blessing.”
NHL teams last played a game on Christmas Day in 1971, when 12 of the league’s 14 teams took to the ice, but the very firsttime was on a Saturday 98 years ago when the Toronto St. Patricks hosted the Montreal Canadiens before a crowd of some 4,000 at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. The season was still young, and both teams were looking for their first win, both having lost on the road when the NHL’s fourth season launched three days earlier. Toronto prevailed that Yuletide night, coming from behind to notch a 5-4 win.
A few notes of the night? While each team had just two substitutes on the bench, the St. Patricks effectively had only one, with injured forward Rod Smylie getting into the game for no more than a minute. The word in the papers (including some in Montreal) was that the Canadiens line-up was in poor condition, having skated as a team just three times that winter — four, if you wanted to count the opening game they’d lost in Hamilton.
Toronto’s Daily Star teased that Montreal’s “rolly-polly Canadien veterans” had arrived in Toronto accompanied by the rumour that they only had ten minutes of hockey in them, after which they’d fade out of the rink. But: “Rumour was a lying jade.” In fact, Montreal took the lead and held it for 37 minutes before the home team pulled in front, and even then the visitors never showed signs of quitting.
Goals by Didier Pitre and Newsy Lalonde put Montreal ahead before Toronto defenceman Harry Cameron loosed a “wicked” shot from beyond the Montreal defence that beat Georges Vézina to put Toronto on the board. Coming just before the close of the period, this goal (quoting The Gazette here) “proved a saving grace, instilling added pep and enthusiasm into the St. Patricks’ squad.”
Pitre scored again in the second, but Toronto wasn’t to be denied. Goals by Cully Wilson and Ken Randall tied the score at three before Mickey Roach put Toronto ahead to stay.
Babe Dye scored what would stand as the winning goal in the third. Bert Corbeau got one back for Montreal, but while Canadiens pressed in the game’s latter minutes, they couldn’t score. Toronto goaltender Mike Mitchell “looked like a smart net guardian,” despite having stopped an early shot of Lalonde’s that “almost took an ear off.” His head “buzzed:” the Star reported that he would have been replaced, except that the St. Pats had no substitute goaltender to stand in his stead.
In the Gazette’s opinion, Toronto showed improvements on their opening-night performance, though “their shooting was at times erratic.” Right winger Babe Dye “played a heady game and proved a thorn in the side of the ambitious Canadiens. He peppered shot after shot on Vézina and was finally rewarded with the first goal of the final period.” He also broke up several of Lalonde’s rushes with “a deceptive check.”
Toronto’s Reg Noble didn’t score but gave a good account of himself, I see; the Star’s verdict was that he alsoplayed “a mighty heady game all the way.” Cameron “contributed a few nice rushes, of the old time brand;” along with his goal, he got “a rap in the mouth that shook up his dentistry.”
For Montreal, goaltender Georges Vézina was a standout. “He stopped the proverbial ‘million’ and it was not his fault that the team lost,” the Gazette opined. “Had a less capable goaler been in the nets, they certainly would have been beaten by a bigger score.”
Lalonde? “Lalonde was the Lalonde of old, but he showed signs of strain at times.”
The Globe reported 37-year-old Didier Pitre to be “heavier than ever” — “but occasionally he showed speed that was amazing.”
While Toronto nosed ahead at the end of the second period, the Star reported, “the Montrealers did not lie down enough though Pitre was hanging over the fence like a piece of old wash and every time Mummery rushed he had to use the end of the rink to stop himself. He was so weak in the knees he couldn’t pull up any other way.”
This was Harry Mummery, of course, the hefty defenceman who’d once played for Toronto. In the third period, one of Dye’s shot caught him on the knee and put him out of the game. Before that, said the Star, he “bumped around like a baby rhino.” At one point he “created a barrel of fun by sitting on Babe Dye.”
“All the fans could see of Dye was his yell for help.”
Ted Green wasn’t much for the pre-season. “I never liked exhibition games,” the long-serving Boston defenceman wrote (with Al Hirshberg’s help) in a 1971 memoir, High Stick, “because of the chances of getting hurt before the regular season started.” As for shaping himself up for the long campaign ahead, he took care of that on his own time in the summer — late in August of 1968, for example, above, just ahead of his ninth year on the Bruins’ blueline.
“I kept myself in condition during the off-season at my home in St. Boniface, just outside Winnipeg, Manitoba,” he wrote. “The only reason I cared about training at all after I made the club was to get into skating shape, which never took more than a few weeks.
It was a year later, September 21, 1969 in Ottawa, that Green got into a grievous stick fight with Wayne Maki during an exhibition game with the St. Louis Blues. When it was over, Green went to hospital with a life-threatening compound skull fracture. After three brain surgeries and a year’s gruelling recovery, Green spent the summer of 1970 facing the law and his hockey future. Ottawa Police had charged both players with assault causing bodily harm, though after Maki was tried and acquitted, Green’s charge was reduced to common assault, of which he, too, was cleared.
Back in Boston, he went to work with a personal trainer, a Hungarian who’d trained Olympic boxers, and a new regime: “running on a treadmill, operating wall pulleys, riding a stationary bicycle, doing deep knee bends, push-ups, high kicks, chin-ups, arm stretching, tossing the medicine ball, forward and backward somersaults, 60-yard sprints, and working on a devilish contraption called the Swedish wall ladder.”
Training camp was in London, Ontario, that September. “I went,” Green wrote later, “not knowing if I could play hockey again or not.” He could: helmeted, now, he played another two seasons for the Bruins before jumping to the WHA, where he skated a further eight.
(Photo used with the permission of the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune fonds, PC 18-3786-001neg)
When Black Jack Stewart played his defence on the left side for the Detroit Red Wings, a lot of the time Bill Quackenbush was on the right. Sometimes (above, in 1946) Black Jack read the newspaper while Red Wings’ trainer Honey Walker gave him a rubdown. I’ll let him tell you where he got his nickname:
I bodychecked some fellow one night and when he woke up the next day in the hospital he asked who’d hit him with a blackjack.
He couldn’t remember the player’s name. In other tellings, it was his own dark visage and disposition that got him the moniker. He was a devastating hitter, says the hall of hockey’s fame. Also: complete package, rock-solid, poise, work ethic, excellent stamina, brute force, and subtle clutching and grabbing. He never argued with the referee. “I figured,” he said, “for every penalty I got I used to get away with around 19.” He carried one of the heaviest sticks at the time he played, in the 1930s and into the ’40s. He said,
A defenceman should bodycheck if possible, picking the proper spots and making sure that he gets at least a piece of the opposing player. But it isn’t wise to go in there with the sole idea of bodychecking everything on skates.
Some dates: born in 1917, Hall of Fame’d 1964, died 1983. His love of horses was nurtured in Pilot Mound, Manitoba, where he grew up on the family wheat farm. Later, after the NHL, he was a judge for the Canadian Trotting Association. He’d always remember the day a teenager showed up, fuzzy-cheeked, name of Gordie Howe, with no great fanfare. “We knew he had it all,” Black Jack said.
He showed spurts of being a really good one. But I think he held back a little that first year. He didn’t seem relaxed enough. But of course he overcame that after he’d had a couple of fights.
There weren’t too many ever got by Black Jack, someone said, who knew from trying. I guess he had a little bit of feud with Milt Schmidt: so he said himself. Something else he said was that every team had two players who were tough, for example for Chicago it was Earl Seibert and Johnny Mariucci.
Alertness on face-offs was, to him, a cardinal rule. As for conditioning, he tried to go walking as much as he could, over and above the regular amount of skating he did. “I eat foods,” he said in 1949, “that my system has been used to and at regular hours. I go easy on pickles and pastries. A steak dinner is the thing not less than three hours before playing a game. I aim at eight hours’ sleep nightly. As for alcoholic drinks, leave them strictly alone — the best they can do for you is ruin your health.” Smoking? “A boy who is really serious about coming a topnotch player will be wise to shun smoking until he has attained his 21st birthday.”
Summer ends, eventually, and that’s when the hockey starts. If the months before that happens seem to go on forever, what can you do but keep yourself trim? That’s Leo Bourgault, above, on the rowing machine, at Alberta’s Jasper Park Lodge in July of 1931. Born in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, he’d started his NHL career in Toronto in 1926 before moving on to the New York Rangers for five seasons. He played the 1930-31 season for the Ottawa Senators; later he joined Montreal’s Canadiens. Spotting him, golf club in hand, is Bud Cook, brother of the Rangers’ famous Bun and Bill. He’d spent the previous season starring at left wing for the Providence Reds before Boston manager Art Ross came calling to buy him for the Bruins. He only lasted a season there. His other NHL stints were in Ottawa and St. Louis before he settled in to a lengthy career with the farm-league Cleveland Barons.