peter gzowski’s arbitrary list of hockey’s all-time greats

 Archives de la Ville de Montréal 1920s

Stratford’s Own Streak: Howie Morenz in Hab finery in the 1920s. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.

These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.

There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.

It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.

Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.

This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).

In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.

To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.

Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.

The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.

And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.

Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.

The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:

Goal Scoring Ability
Strength (Roughness)
Speed
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
Flair (Color).

“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”

At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”

All of the nine wrote back.

“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.

“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”

King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.

Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.

I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.

I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.

Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:

Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.

Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”

Who else?

If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:

Red Kelly
Max Bentley
Bill Cook
Milt Schmidt
Eddie Shore
Dit Clapper
Harry Watson
George Armstrong
Bill Barilko.

Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.

Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:

My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.

Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?

Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:

I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.

Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”

I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.

I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.

Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).

When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:

  1. Howie Morenz
  2. Maurice Richard
  3. Bobby Orr
  4. Gordie Howe
  5. Bobby Hull
  6. Jean Béliveau.

fh

 

make way for the leafs

standwitness

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.

leaflet: george patterson scores a goal

g-pattersonWho scored the first Leaf goal? If you answered Tyler Bozak, well, yes, true enough, last night against the Florida Panthers he did do just that — but what about the first goal ever by a Leaf? Not this month, not this season — we’re talking here about 1927, when Conn Smythe and friends bought the team mid-season, transforming the club from one February day to the next from the St. Patricks they were to Maple Leafs we know today. If the name George Patterson doesn’t leap to mind — well, exactly.

Let’s review: the St. Patricks were 30 games into their 44-game schedule in mid-February of 1927 when Smythe did the deal that changed the complexion of hockey in Toronto. The Irish, as they were sometimes called, went to Detroit for their final game, which they lost by a score of 5-1 to the (pre-Red Wing) Cougars. It wasn’t much to see, judging by contemporary dispatches. Corb Denneny scored the St. Pats’ goal that night, the last in their history, in what sounds like an all-around dismal showing by both teams.

Other Toronto high(ish)lights: (1) Ace Bailey’s ongoing feud with Detroit’s Duke Keats was finally broken up by policemen on the penalty bench and (2) a winger by the name of George Patterson almost scored on a long shot at Cougar goalkeep Herb Stuart before stickhandling through to very nearly score another.

If Bailey remains a Maple Leaf legend, the same can’t be said of Patterson. Kingston, Ontario filmmaker Dale Morrisey is looking to change that with a new documentary, Hockey’s Lost Boy, which is just now making its way into wide release.

Patterson, who was 20 that winter and a Kingston boy himself, was in the first year of what would turn out to be a modest if incident-filled NHL career. His main claim on fame came two days after that dismal loss in Detroit when the newly minted Maple Leafs stepped out on home ice to take on the New York Americans.

In new duds, The Toronto Daily Star’s Bob Hayes wrote, “they looked like a lot of galloping ghosts in white;” more important, the home team didn’t let an early New York goal get them down, roaring back to win the game by a score of 4-1. And the very first Leaf goal, the one that started both the comeback on the night and a new era in Toronto hockey? George Patterson scored it, on a pass from Bill Brydge. “Lovely,” The Star rated it, with The Globe going a little deeper: Patterson’s “drive on the goal was so fast and well placed that [goaltender Jakie] Forbes hardly saw it.”

Morrisey’s thorough accounting of Patterson’s life and times includes interviews with former Leafs Doug Gilmour and Jim Dorey along with a host of distinguished hockey historians, including Bill Fitsell, Kevin Shea, Paul Patskou, and Mike Wilson. For more on Hockey’s Lost Boy, there’s a Facebook page, here.

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

maple-leafs-k-pkstrk

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.

Continue reading

a monkey wrench, a hardboiled egg: only missed my head by a foot

ross-a

Rossman: Coach and manager and spirit of the team, Art Ross shaped and led the Boston Bruins. Photographed here in the 1930s.

The legend as it’s been handed down goes something like this: the hockey game got so very testy that the Boston coach reached into the toolbox he happened to have on the bench with him, selected his sturdiest monkey wrench, and hurled it at his Toronto counterpart across the way.

That’s what writer and historian Eric Zweig knew, more or less, when he received the actual almost-lethal item itself as a gift this past summer, 90 years after it was flung. A week before NHL hockey begins in earnest, as beer-cans fly at baseball parks, maybe is it worth a look back at just what happened all those years ago?

Zweig, who lives in Owen Sound, is the esteemed and prolific author of novels along with many books of hockey history, including Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins (2015). It was through his work on his definitive biography that Zweig ended up with his unique memento, which was presented to him earlier this year by the Ross family.

The story behind the monkey wrench has a little more mass than to it than the legend, and a finer grain. A short review of it might start with Ross himself. As Zweig deftly shows on the page, he was a complicated man. Before he became a superior coach, motivator, and manager of hockey talent, prior to his invention of the team we know today as the Boston Bruins, Ross was one of the best hockey players in the world.

The best, if you want to go by the obituary that was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1918, when the rumour went around that he’d been killed in a motorcycle accident: “Ross stands out as the brainiest, most consistently brilliant player, over a long period of years, that the game has ever known.”

That stood him in good stead for the decades he went on to live, most of which were taken up with the NHL team in Boston, which he more or less hatched and nursed and taught to walk, and definitely infused with his own uncompromising and often contentious personality. The man was tough, Arthur Siegel wrote in The Boston Globe on the occasion of Ross’ actual death, in 1964, when he was 78, though that wasn’t to say he wasn’t affable and loyal, too; he was a man of “tenderness and vindictiveness, of bitter anger and jovial courtliness.”

Along with the stars he shaped and the Stanley Cups he won, Ross’s feuds feature prominently in hockey history, and Zweig pays them their due in book. Most famous, of course, was his battle with Toronto’s own domineering majordomo, Conn Smythe; another, not so well known, was with Smythe’s lieutenant, Frank Selke, who once wrote an article in the Leafs’ game program calling Ross “a sourpuss.”

All of which is to say, simply, that it’s not impossible for Ross, given the tools for the job, to have heaved a wrench at a rival’s head in the middle of an NHL game. Since it’s December of 1926 we’re talking about here — well, that was just before Smythe’s hockey reign in Toronto began, so if Ross was going to be wrangling with someone there, Charlie Querrie was the man.

He’d been a lacrosse star in his younger years, and a sportswriter, not to mention manager of Toronto’s original NHL rink, Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. When the NHA vanished in 1917 only to be instantly re-invented as the NHL, Querrie was offered the chance to buy the Toronto franchise for $1,200. Instead, he ended up buying an interest in the team in 1920, paying $400.  He was soon coaching, too, a job he continued on and off throughout the early 1920s, helping to steer the team that became the St. Patrick’s to its 1922 Stanley Cup championship.

On the bench again in 1926, Querrie was looking for a way out. Weary of the job, looking for a change — I don’t, exactly, the why of it, just that before Christmas he tried to buy forward Jack Adams from the Ottawa Senators to replace himself as coach. When that didn’t work out, he keep going. Not that Toronto’s team had long to live as the St. Patricks: in February of 1927, Smythe and partners would pony up and buy the team, changing its name and its colours in mid-season, and granting Querrie his freedom, which he took, along with a $50,000 profit on his $400 investment.

Back in December, though, Christmas coming, the team was still in green, still Querrie-coached, heading out on a three-game road trip. A dozen games into the season, Toronto was 3-8-1, lurking down at the bottom of the NHL’s five-team Canadian Division while the Boston, Toronto’s second stop, was just a little more respectable, fourth on the American side at 5-6-1.

The St. Pats won the game on December 21 by a score of 5-3 in front the Bruins’ smallest crowd of the year. Featuring that night was a stand-out performance from Toronto goaltender John Ross Roach, who stopped 73 Bruin shots. Of the three pucks he couldn’t stop, one was batted in by his own defenceman, Hap Day — a gesture of “true Christmas spirit,” as the Canadian Press logged it.

“Warmly contested throughout” was another CP drollery when it came to summarizing the proceeding. Boston captain Sprague Cleghorn was a key figure, as he so often was during his unruly career. Central to the drama for Toronto was the rookie Irvine (Ace) Bailey, usually recognized for his finesses rather than fisticuffing. He was going through a rowdy stage, apparently: in the St. Pats’ previous game, he’d fought Lionel Conacher of the New York Americans, for which they’d both been summarily fined in the amount of $15 apiece.

In the third period, Boston’s Percy Galbraith scored a goal that referee Dr. Eddie O’Leary called back for offside. Fans booed, tossed paper, tossed pennies. That stopped the game for ten minutes while the ice was cleared. Continue reading

onward and upward with the leafs (+ also downward)

f1257_s1057_it7455

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.

f1257_s1057_it7460

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.

leaf haul

piggyback

Carry Cases: Conn Smythe’s Toronto Maple Leafs gathered in Galt in October of 1937 to prepare for the NHL season ahead. With coach Dick Irvin at the helm, it would turn out to be a good one, if not quite good enough: the Leafs lost in the Stanley Cup finals to Chicago. Paired up, above, members of the Leafs and farm hands from the Syracuse Stars get in some work with the weights. Left to right, they’re: Busher Jackson and (atop) Charles (a.k.a. Beef) Corrigan; Red Horner and Jimmy Fowler; Gordie Drillon and Syl Apps; captain Charlie Conacher and Eddie Convey; Bud Jarvis and Bazel (a.k.a. Bummer) Doran.

Preparations for the season had started even earlier, in fact: back in March, just days after the Leafs fell out of the playoffs with a first-round loss to the New York Rangers, Smythe had the team and some of its young prospects back on the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens for a 10-day spring camp. Smythe joined them, as Bill Roche of The Globe and Mail took note:

All dolled up like Mrs. Astor’s horse in Leaf livery and wearing No. 5 on his back was Manager Smythe. His stick-handling and skating didn’t cause Referee-Coach Dick Irvin to do any enthusing; in fact, Rookie Smythe didn’t show a thing, but his roars over failure of the hired hands to provide him with enough passes were magnificent.

“If this bunch were half as good at giving passes as they are in getting passes from the box office, we’d still be in the Stanley Cup hunt,” said Smythe.

He was grinning, though, throughout this exchange, and eager to get a message through to the Leafs’ long-suffering followers:

“The fans gave us wonderful support this season, and we are starting out right now to show them that we appreciate it.”