In any other October, the NHL season would be just getting going instead of settling into the off-season … but then this is 2020, and everything’s bent out of shape. In 1928, when the NHL didn’t drop the puck on the new season until mid-November, October was the month teams stretched themselves in playing form. The Toronto Maple Leafs migrated to Port Elgin, on the Lake Huron shore, to get themselves readied in those years, as I wrote about once here and in the pages of The Globe and Mail. Taking charge of the team’s fitness regime that years as well as several subsequent others was Corporal Joe Coyne of the Royal Canadian Regiment, seen here standing over his Leaf charges. They are, starting in front, from the left: Ace Bailey, Art Duncan, Joe Primeau, Hap Day. Second row: Shorty Horne, Dr. Bill Carson, Art Smith. Third: Lorne Chabot, Jack Arbour, Gerry Lowrey. At the back: Alex Gray and Danny Cox.
Trade your skipper across the province to your bitterest cross-province rival? It happens, every once in a while, as Dion Phaneuf recalls. In October of 1930, Frank Clancy was captain of the Ottawa’s (original) Senators, one of the best players in the National Hockey League, when Toronto’s irrepressible Conn Smythe came calling with his chequebook. As today’s Leafs continue to prepare for the new season — they were skating in Halifax earlier this week, awaiting coach Mike Babcock to finish up with the World Cup — maybe would we revisit how it happened that the man they called King ended up donning the blue 86 years this fall? Answer: yes.
Going into his tenth NHL season, Clancy was, by then, one of the NHL’s brightest stars. Montreal’s formidable Howie Morenz said he was the hardest defenceman to get around. Andy Lytle of The Vancouver Province watched him skate as a guest of the Vancouver Lions in April in a post-season exhibition versus Boston’s touring Bruins. “Clancy is the greatest hockey player in the game today,” he pronounced, rating him “vastly superior” to Eddie Shore.
There is no theatrical by-play to Clancy’s work. Once that whistle blows, he forgets the crowd and all else, except that there is ice under his feet, a puck to be followed, and that he possesses a pair of super strong legs, a hockey stick, an eagle eye, and a vision that functions every second.
Frank Patrick was alleged to have said he was in a class by himself. Even the Bruins concurred, inviting to join them as they barnstormed down to California.
The New York Rangers had tried to buy him during the 1929-30 season. And even as Clancy kicked up his skates on the west coast, the rumour simmering back on the east was that Montreal Maroons were in with an offer.
Clancy’s contract was expiring: that was the thing. Plus (the other thing): the Senators were in a rocky financial straits. By August, Clancy’s availability was front-page news in the capital.
“It is well known that the team here has been operated at a loss for a number of years past,” was what Major F.D. Burpee was saying, the president of the Auditorium Company that owned the team. “This company cannot refuse to consider the sale of one or two of its super stars, providing the price offered, whether it be cash or cash combined with players, is sufficiently attractive. So far that has not been the case.”
The strength of the team was paramount, he said. But: “At the same time, the Auditorium cannot afford to continue a losing team, and must see that it at least carries itself if the club is to remain in this city.”
Clancy’s price was high. Maroons were said to be willing to offer $40,000. The season started in November in those years, and as fall came on, the Bruins were said to be in the mix too.
And Toronto. Leafs supremo Conn Smythe was desperate to improve his team. The team he’d bought and transformed in 1927 had yet to raise a Stanley Cup, and it was coming on ten years since the old St. Patricks had done it. Smythe’s problem as a shopper was that his board of governors was only willing to spend up to $25,000. Another potential hitch: Clancy was said to have vowed that Toronto was the one team he’d never play for.
Smythe wasn’t a man easily fazed.
First, in September, he went to the races. He owned an underperforming filly, Rare Jewel, that he’d entered in the first race of the season at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, the Coronation Stakes, where the rank outsider won. Smythe’s take on the day was more than $14,000. As Smythe tells it in his 1981 memoir, he had one thought as he collected his winnings: Now we can buy Clancy. Now we are going to win the Stanley Cup.
Next: he sent his assistant manager, Frank Selke, to Ottawa to ask Clancy about playing for the Leafs. Love to, Clancy said, if you pay me $10,000.
For the defenceman, it was a simple enough calculation. As he writes in Clancy (1997), the memoir he wrote with Brian McFarlane, his Senators salary paid $7,200 with a $500 bonus for serving as captain. He had a full-time job at the Customs Department and that paid $1,800, which brought his annual earnings up to $9,500 a year.
Smythe told him that he could only pay him $8,500 — but that if the Leafs had “any kind of year at all,” he’d add a bonus of $1,500.
As he considered the deal, Smythe sought other counsel, too — via prominent ads in Toronto newspapers, he polled everybody in town: what do you think?
Fans answered, by telephone, telegram, they dropped by in person at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, where more than 2,000 letters also showed up. The consensus? Go get Clancy.
The deal went through in October, and it was a blockbuster. The Globe suspected “that the reason Boston, Montreal and the New York Rangers did not take definitive action was because they did not believe that any other club would pay the price demanded by Ottawa. In this they erred, but Conny Smythe always did have the habit of crossing up the guessers.” Continue reading
In 1929 the Leafs took a pair of boxers with them to training camp, and my thought there was that Conn Smythe must have decided it was time for the team to learn proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. Turns out, no, though: seems, instead, that Frenchy Belanger and Billy Ayrton were there for their own benefit, taking advantage of the Leafs’ pre-season regimen. Though they did put on a punching exhibition for the team before they had to leave on a hunting trip. Ayrton was a bantamweight, Belanger a former world flyweight champion.
It was raining when the Leafs got off the train in Port Elgin that October, and the players were hungry, and went straight in to eat. Camp ended with a lunch a couple of weeks later, as it happens: when they got back to Toronto, they headed over to the Royal York for a welcome-back feed. Twenty players were on hand at the post-camp lunch, and the papers reported that they all looked fit. Everybody but goaltender Lorne Chabot had put on weight. They were eager to hit the ice.
On their Lake Huron retreat, they’d drilled under the eye of Corporal Joe Coyne of the RCR. They’d golfed, too, including the day they got in 27 holes and (as The Globe put it) Ace Bailey, Danny Cox, and Chabot “gave ‘old man par’ a stern argument.” Harold Cotton won the team tournament, with Cox and Ayrton tied for second place.
Andy Blair proved himself the team’s fastest sprinter, covering 100 yards in 10 seconds flat. Smythe and Cox teamed up to outduel Red Horner and Gordie Brydson at the horseshoe pit. In a softball doubleheader, the Leafs beat the Port Elgin Fraserites 26-4 (Brydson and Blair pitched) before dispensing with (Brydson was on the mound again) the Perkinites, 10-3. They beat a local team at basketball, too, 52-46.
Leafs’ manager Frank Selke said he’d never seen a more determined band of athletes. They went into everything with an aggressiveness and spirit that marked their play on the ice and they weren’t content unless they were going full out, according to him.
Historian Bill Fitsell sent a note from his home in Kingston, Ontario, pointing to this photo of the Leafs dropped down for push-ups in Port Elgin in 1928 under Corporal Joe Coyne’s command. Fitsell noted that when he’d included it in Hockey’s Hub, the 2003 history of Kingston hockey heritage he wrote with Mark Potter, a mislabelled archival print gave him the mistaken impression that it showed the Leafs four years later, when coach Dick Irvin brought them to Queen’s University for pre-season drilling. “Another photo depicting four Leafs playing doubles on a leaf-strewn tennis court puzzled me for years because I could never match the background with anything near the Queen’s tennis courts in 1932,” Fitsell wrote. Case corrected, then: the volleying Leafs below also probably date to Port Elgin in 1928. Over the net, below, that looks to be Art Duncan on the left with goaltender Lorne Chabot. I’m not so sure of who it is they’re up against in the closer court. Possibly Gerry Lowrey on the left? Wearing number 3, could be —looks like, I think? — Red Horner. (Maybe.)
Originally published in The Globe and Mail, on Saturday, September 27, 2014, on page S2.
In the famous photograph, the Leafs jig.
We can laugh, easy for us, but this is serious business, as it always is for Toronto’s hockey team this time of year, the season for the earnest, eternal calisthenics of trying to figure out how to get back into the playoffs. If that requires legendary Leafs with names like Day and Bailey to caper in full hockey garb when their skates and sticks are back home, a couple of hours away — who are we, really, to scorn that?
The year was 1928, and for the Leafs then it was the old story that’s still so familiar: in the spring, they’d missed the post-season again. In the year since Conn Smythe had become one of the team’s owners as well as manager and coach, they’d switched names (St. Patricks to Maple Leafs) and colours (green for blue). On the ice, injuries dogged the team’s season and despite a spirited March, the Leafs didn’t qualify to play for the Stanley Cup in April.
Smythe spent the summer retooling. That and running his sand and gravel business. On the non-aggregate side, he sent Butch Keeling to the New York Rangers for $10,000 and winger Alex Gray. To the defence he added Jack Arbour’s seasoned weight. He recruited junior stars Shorty Horne (a “clever and tricky” stickhandler) and tall Andy Blair, who reminded some of a young Hooley Smith.
Young Joe Primeau (“flashy centre ice man”) was tabbed for full-time duty. And just before the Leafs started jigging, Smythe traded goaltender John Ross Roach to the New York Americans, who sent back Lorne Chabot.
Returning veterans included Ace Bailey, Bill Carson, and the former University of Toronto pharmacy student who’d foregone a career as a druggist to captain the Leafs, Hap Day.
There was worry that August that he’d have to retire: in February, an errant skate had nearly severed his Achilles tendon. A heavy loss it would have been: Day was a dominant defenceman, and durable — Frank Selke said that because he didn’t smoke or drink or touch tea, coffee, or chocolate, he could play 60 minutes a game. He toiled hard over the summer, in the office at C. Smythe Limited by day, skating every evening at Ravina rink. By September, he was ready to go. Continue reading