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