smokey smith at centre ice

War over, time for some hockey.

Not that the NHL had paused any of its winter maneuvers during the early 1940s as the Second World War roiled, though there were annual discussions, early on, about whether it might be right for the league to suspend operations for the duration.

Now, hostilities among nations having ceased, there was, in 1945, a sense that real hockey was back for the first time in years.

“We’re in for our greatest season,” NHL president Red Dutton was enthusing 76 years ago this very week.” The boys are playing for keeps this season. It’s something we’ve never experienced before. You have a rugged bunch of boys back from the services, bent on proving they’re still the best hockey players in the world. You have another bunch of wartime-developed boys battling to prove they’re as good as the veterans. And you have some ambitious youngsters that don’t see any reason why they can’t keep pace with the older ones.”

On a Saturday of this date that October, Boston’s Bruins were in Toronto to open the first season of the new peace at Maple Leaf Gardens. It ended up a good one, for the Leafs, the season: the following April, they were Stanley Cup champions again, claiming their first title since 1942.

 For opening night, along with the traditional appearance by the massed brass and pipes of the 48th Highlanders, Conn Smythe’s Maple Leafs had arranged to host six of the 16 Canadian servicemen to have been recognized during the war with the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest military honour, conferred for extraordinary courage and devotion to duty.

That’s one of the distinguished guests here, the man who dropped a ceremonial to kick off the new season: 30-year-old Private Ernest “Smokey” Smith, a son of New Westminster, B.C., the only Canadian enlisted soldier to have won a V.C. during the Second World War. (More on Smith and his colleagues at MLG here.)

With Smith here, from the right, that’s Boston Bruins’ captain Jack Crawford (last seen in yesterday’s post) and Leafs’ chairman J.P. Bickell. Bob Davidson is the Leaf at left. In 1943, when Toronto captain Syl Apps went to war, Davidson assumed command of the hockey team. After two years, Apps was back with the Leafs, and early that October week, the Globe reported Davidson’s greeting to the team’s star centreman: “Welcome back, Syl, and I’m officially turning the team captaincy back to you.”

Apps was excused, however, from this Leafs’ opener. During one of the final preparatory scrimmages that week, he’d suffered a broken nose and a bad cut. The Toronto Daily Star’s Joe Perlove filed a report from the Gardens:

He was the same cyclonic Apps of pre-war days, if slightly breathless. He was still hammering away three minutes before game’s end when hit on the nose by Gaye Stewart’s stick which flew out of the latter’s hand as he was heavily bodied by Elwyn Morris.

X-rays disclose Apps suffered a broken nose. He needed a stitch to close a slash under his right eye. The classic Appsian schnozzle was not badly dented and he will still take fine pictures from either side.

Without him, the Leafs skated to a 1-1 tie. A crowd of 14,608 saw Bill Shill score for Boston; Davidson countered for the Leafs.

 

(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7084)

 

oilers > jets, 1972: there was nothing going smooth

It’s almost a half-century ago and whole other defunct league distant, but with the Edmonton Oilers set to open their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series tonight against the Winnipeg Jets, is it time to hearken back to when the teams met for the very time? It is. Yes, this is the old upstart WHA we’re talking about, which first took to the ice 49 years ago, in October of 1972, with 12 teams in two divisions, with Winnipeg’s Jets and the Alberta representing the north in the league’s Western Division. 

It was a Sunday night, October 15, when the Jets welcomed the Oilers to the Winnipeg Arena for their home opener. A month earlier, the building had hosted Game Three of the Summit Series, wherein Canadians and Soviets tied 4-4, under the gaze of Canada’s queen. A crowd of close to 10,000 jammed the building that night; the Jets attracted a modest 7,200 for their debut. The Jets had pried Bobby Hull away from the Chicago Black Hawks, but he wouldn’t actually get onto the ice for another month, concentrating on coaching the team for the first few weeks. Still, the Jets were looking good, having won their first two games of the season on the road, while the Oilers had gone 1-2 to begin their season. 

Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Jack McKeag was on hand to drop the inaugural puck that night: that’s him here between Jets’ captain Ab McDonald and Oiler skipper Al Hamilton. (Hull, in civvies, is lurking behind Hamilton.)

And the game, once the puck was in play? Vic Grant from the Winnipeg Tribune was on hand to see it and write it up for Monday morning’s paper. “There was no valid reason why Jets should lose 5-2 to Alberta Oilers,” he advised, “but they did, and the only excuse they can offer is stage fright.”

Coached by Ray Kinasewich, the Oilers jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Roger Cote and Val Fonteyne. The Jets would get goals from Dan Johnson and Christian Bordeleau, but the Oilers kept scoring, too: Ron Walters, Bill Hicke, and Eddie Joyal added to their tally. Ernie Wakely was in the Winnipeg net on the net, with Ken Brown guarding the Albertan goal.

“It was great seeing all those people out,” Hull said afterwards, “it’s just too bad the boys were tight. I can’t think of anything else but saying that they were tight before their first home crowd.”

“I wasn’t concerned when it was 2-0 and then I thought we were off when we scored and it was 2-1, but then we lost a couple of fac-offs and were dragging again. There was nothing going smooth. We couldn’t get anything in motion.”

The Oilers and Jets met again two nights later at the Edmonton Gardens, with the Albertans prevailing again, 3-2, on Walters’ overtime winner in front of a crowd of 3,285 hardy fans.

The Jets did, eventually, find their stride, finishing the season atop the Western Division, and making it to the WHA’s first championship final, which they ceded to the New England Whalers in May of 1973.