below the belt: the great leaf groin crisis of 1957

“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.

danny lewicki, 1931—2018

Head Leaf honcho Conn Smythe liked the look of the young left winger he was watching at Toronto’s training camp in September of 1949. Eighteen-year-old Danny Lewicki was fast, impossible to hit, a great stickhandler. “He looks to me,” the Leafs’ managing director said, “more like Aurèle Joliat than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Born in what was then Fort William, Lewicki died in Toronto on Monday. He was 87. His NHL career, which spanned nine seasons, included stints with the Leafs, the New York Rangers, and Chicago’s Black Hawks. There’s memorial news of that here and here, though not all of it entirely accurate. The assertion that Lewicki was the last surviving member of the Toronto team that won the 1951 Stanley Cup will be news to 95-year-old Howie Meeker. (Update, September 26: CBC.ca has amended its story to acknowledge Meeker’s survival.)

Working on a training-camp line, in 1949, with another young junior star, George Armstrong, Lewicki had Smythe thinking of some great old Leafs, too. “They’re the best pair I’ve seen together since Charlie Conacher and Harvey Jackson,” he said.

All of which boded well for the here-and-now Leafs, but for one small catch: Lewicki had no interest in playing for the Leafs. He had, it’s true, signed a contract as a 16-year-old indenturing himself to the team, but as he wrote in his 2006 autobiography, From The Coal Docks To The NHL, Lewicki felt he’d been duped. Rather than report to the Toronto’s Junior-A Marlboros as the Leafs wanted, Lewicki preferred to return to the team in Stratford where he’d played previously. “I don’t like Toronto,” he told reporters. “It’s too big.”

Smythe stood fast: Lewicki could either play in Toronto or he could play nowhere at all. He eventually did join the Marlboros in time to help them win the 1950 Allan Cup.

Graduating to the Leafs the following year, he skated on a line with Joe Klukay and centre Max Bentley. Bentley told him that it was the second-best line he ever played on, next to the so-called Pony Line on which Bentley had previously prospered in Chicago alongside brother Doug and Bill Mosienko. Lewicki finished third in the voting that year for the Calder Trophy for best newcomer, behind Detroit’s Terry Sawchuk and teammate Al Rollins. And then there was, too, of that Stanley Cup the Leafs won in the spring of ’51, beating Montreal in five games. Not a bad way to start an NHL career in the city he’d done his best to shun.

No Go: As this (slightly gleeful?) headline from Winnipeg recalls, Lewicki’s dispute with the Leafs was national news in September of 1949.

 

bob baun’s broken leg, 1964: pain on the parade

Easy now, after the fact, to point to Monday’s Bob Baun anniversary as a propitious one for the 2018 incarnation of the doughty defenceman’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Harder to prove that Baun’s heroic goal 54 years ago might have powered the modern-day Leafs to their game six win, but I’ll listen if somebody wants to argue the case.

April 23, 1964 was a Thursday, and the Leafs had already made it all the way to game six of the Stanley Cup finals by then. They were up against the Red Wings, as you’ll maybe remember, with Detroit leading the series three games to two as the teams met at the Olympia. The game was tied after two periods, 3-3. In the third, Gordie Howe took a shot that hit teammate Larry Jeffrey’s stick before it struck Baun’s right ankle. That’s what Baun says in Lowering The Boom, the memoir he wrote in 2000 with Anne Logan’s aid, though at the time, Dick Beddoes of The Globe and Mailidentified Alex Delvecchio as the shooter. Didn’t matter to Baun, of course: “I felt a sharp pain.”

A couple of shifts later he went into the corner with Andre Pronovost, and that hurt some more. Next up: he took a defensive-zone face-off (as defencemen often did in those years), beating Howe but, almost immediately, going down. “I heard something pop and my leg just caved in underneath me.”

He couldn’t get up. He tried and failed, left the ice on a stretcher. The Leafs’ Dr. Jim Murray took a look, along with an orthopedic surgeon (and Leaf fan) from Chicago who happened to be on hand, Dr. Bill Stromberg. “They suggested taping and freezing it,” Baun blithely recounts, “determining that it was unlikely that I would hurt it further.”

So they did that and Baun was back on the bench for overtime. He was back on the ice for the second shift, which was when he let a fluttery shot go from the point, which (maybe) hit the stick belonging to Red Wing defenceman Bill Gadsby and (positively) beat goaltender Terry Sawchuk to win the game.

Baun subsequently refused to get the ankle x-rayed ahead of game seven: “I was afraid they might find out something that I didn’t want to know; besides, after the seventh game I’d have all summer to recover!”

Dr. Murray suspected that Baun has sustained a hairline fracture of the fibula. If Baun insisted on playing (he did), the doctor prescribed more taping and further freezing.

So Baun skated out for that seventh game — it was this very night in 1964, it so happens, at Maple Leaf Gardens. Leafs won, 4-0, to earn their third Stanley Cup in as many years. I don’t want to get too far ahead of this year’s curve, so I’ll hold back on elaborating on just how raucous the victory celebrations got.

There was a parade, I will mention, on April 27. The weather was moist and a little chilly. That could have had something to do with the meagre size of the crowd. Or was there, alternately, a time in Toronto’s history when its citizens were actually growing bored of winning Stanley Cups? In 1962, some 100,000 had turned out to cheer the champions. A year later, it was 60,000. In 1964? The Globe’s estimate was a paltry 8,000 — “predominantly small children and teen-agers.”

In his book, Baun says that he still hadn’t had the leg examined and thought it best to pass on the parade altogether. But that’s at odds with the reporting from the day itself. As the Globeand Toronto Starhad it, Baun was there, ready to process, and only happened to be knocked out of action on his way to the party.

“While stepping into a convertible to join his teammates in the parade to the City Hall,” reporter the Globe’s Jack Marks wrote, “he slipped and fell, further injuring his tender leg.”

It’s not clear whether he went to hospital then and there, but he did miss the mayor’s reception. Baun says in the book that when the leg was finally x-rayed, he learned that he had broken “a small bone on the outside of [the] leg, just above the ankle.” I guess it doesn’t really matter whether that break came on the ice on the way to winning the Cup or by the Cadillac as he prepared to celebrate it — to injure yourself at a parade held in your honour with the Stanley Cup nearby still rates as premium hockey lore.

The Star reported two others casualties on the day: a pair of teenaged girls fainted as Leafs’ captain George Armstrong carried the Cup up the steps of Toronto’s old City Hall. They were fine. As Baun had done earlier in the week and then didn’t that day, Sharon Skrepnek and Ruth Dworking were tended to and soon returned to the line-up.

 

(Image: Topps 1964-65 Bob Baun card courtesy of HockeyMedia/The Want List)

wings nuts

Go Wings Go: Toronto’s 2017 Leafs skate in Detroit tonight to renew an old rivalry. In February of 1961, when the Red Wings paid a visit to Maple Leaf Gardens, the crew of winged-wheel fans who made the trip from Michigan included, from left, Rose Marie Galitz, Andrew Sorovetz, and Jack Walker. The game they witnessed would have been a disappointment, with the home team skating to a 4-2 victory. Detroit’s defence was “slipshod,” by one report, leaving goaltender Terry Sawchuk to fend for himself. The Leafs got goals from Bon Nevin, George Armstrong, Ron Stewart, and —“untouched and skating like a gale” down the length of the rink — Eddie Shack. Detroit’s goals came from Vic Stasiuk and Marcel Pronovost. (Photo: Michael Burns)

the five leaf retirements of george armstrong

Born this day in 1930, George Armstrong turns 87 today. He remains, of course, the most recent captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs to have hoisted the Stanley Cup in victory.

That was in May of 1967. Armstrong was 36, with four Cups to show for his 16 NHL seasons. In June, he announced a decision he’d made. “I’m retiring,” he said. “That’s it. It’s taken all my guts to quit. I wasn’t too happy with my year. Sure I played well at the end, but does one month make up for seven bad months?”

There was some question whether would be protecting in the summer’s expansion draft: that was another factor. Still, Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach was said to be shaken by the news. “I don’t accept his resignation,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I don’t even know about it.”

Four days later, after Los Angeles and California, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh had plucked Terry Sawchuck, Bob Baun, Kent Douglas, Brit Selby, Al Arbour, and others from the champions’ roster, Imlach did end up shielding Armstrong, and by September, when the Leafs headed to Peterborough, Ontario, for training camp, the captain was back in the fold.

He admitted to being a little embarrassed. “To say you’re going to quit is easy,” he told Louis Cauz. “It’s harder to do it, especially when hockey has been your whole life.”

He’d been thinking on it all summer. “I can’t pin it down to one day when I suddenly made up my mind. About a month ago, I started watching my weight. Maybe I made up my mind then and I didn’t know it. Subconsciously my mind was made up, though. You’d have to be a psychiatrist to figure it out.”

He played the season and, points-wise, improved on his 1966-67 numbers. He was back at camp in September of ’68, preparing for the new season when he called it quits again. He just didn’t think he could help the team.

The Leafs told him to take some time. “I guess they hope I’ll change my mind,” Armstrong said. “I could. The easiest thing in the world is to change your mind. But right now my mind is more or less made up — I’m through.”

He wasn’t. He ended up rejoining the Leafs in early December.

“When I said I was retiring, I meant it,” he insisted after he’d made his comeback. “I said I was going into the hotel business, but I didn’t try that hard to get into it. I missed hockey and Punch kept asking me to come back.”

Summer of ’69, he decided again that he was finished — no, really.

It didn’t take, though. “I got bored,” he said, back in Peterborough again, come September. “When you’re a hockey player, you don’t lose interest until you die.”

“My mind was more made up to stay retired last year,” he said, “than it was this year.”

He didn’t mind that the Leafs’ named a new captain that fall, Dave Keon. “The C is on the guy who should be wearing it,” he said. After all, Armstrong was only going to play that one last year.

The Globe had lost count of Armstrong’s unsuccessful retirements by the time the 1970 rolled around, announcing that he was ending his third retirement to rejoin the Leafs that fall when in fact it was his fourth.

Never mind. He signed a one-year contract in November, played out the year.

Do I even need to say that he was back getting ready for a new campaign in the fall of ’71? “I feel good,” he said, “and am enjoying camp.”

Coach John McLellan wasn’t making any promises, though. “The Chief is a tremendous guy to have around,” he said, “great with the younger players.”

“But he has to beat out a young guy and right now that looks like a rough job.”

He was still in the picture as the new season approached. “He is skating every day in Toronto,” the coach said, “and would be ready if we called him.”

It didn’t work out, in the end. It was mid-October when the Leafs announced that George Armstrong would be packing his skates away for a fifth and final time, and joining Leafs’ management as a scout.

(Image, from 1963: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505690)

leafs 6, canadiens 1

18 Jan. 1964  Credit: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505695

M is for Mauling: “Canadiens, flying in recent weeks, were not up to their previous standard,” a Toronto paper reported next day. Final score, when all was said and done that January night at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1964: Toronto 6, Montreal 1. Frank Mahovlich was the star for the Maple Leafs, scoring what one reporter called the game’s “best goal” and assisting on three (lesser) others. Henri Richard scored Canadiens’ only goal. With the win, Toronto climbed into a tie for second place in the NHL with Montreal, just back of Chicago. The two Canadian teams would meet again in the playoffs in ’64, with Toronto again prevailing in seven games to advance to the Stanley Cup finals, which they won, beating the Detroit Red Wings. Above, Leafs’ goaltender Johnny Bower turns away Canadiens’ captain Jean Béliveau while defencemen Carl Brewer (near) and Bob Baun (farther adrift) look on. Leaf captain George Armstrong cruises, double-shadowed, in the middle distance, just ahead of teammate Gerry Ehman. The far Hab is (best guess) Bobby Rousseau. (Image: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505695)

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