the almost leafs

The Toronto St. Patricks team up in 1926-27, the season they turned into the Maple Leafs. Back row, left to right: coach (short-lived) Mike Rodden, unknown. Middle: Bert McCaffrey, Ace Bailey, Bill Brydge, Danny Cox, coach and manager Charlie Querrie, John Ross Roach, Butch Keeling, trainer Tim Daly, unknown. Front: Bill Carson, Carl Voss, Hap Day, Bert Corbeau, Corb Denneny, Leo Bourgeault.

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

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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

tell all the people of ottawa that I’ll never forget them

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King Comes To Town: Clancy shows off his new Leaf togs at training camp in Parry Sound, Ontario, in October of 1930.

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.

Clancy agreed.

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?

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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

hitman

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Bashful: The Toronto Maple Leafs thought that a young defenceman named Leo Boivin might be the man to replace Bill Barilko on their blueline after Bashin’ Bill went missing in the summer of 1951. Andrew Podnieks says when 19-year-old Boivin didn’t crack the Leafs’ line-up that fall, he decided to quit the game and head back to his hometown of Prescott, Ontario, to drive a truck. Conn Smythe talked him out of it and the following season he was a regular in Toronto. “The little man of iron,” coach Hap Day was calling Boivin, who was barely 5’8’’. “When you’re built low, you hit ’em low, and I like to hit,” Boivin happily told The Globe and Mail’s Al Nickleson. “When you hit a fellow good, you feel good.”

He was traded to Boston after two seasons — Bill Ezinicki went the other way — and it was there that he ended up spending the majority of his 19-year Hall-of-Fame NHL career. Above, in 1955, he took to the Garden ice with his wife and daughter at the Bruins’ annual Christmas party.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

seeing red

There are uglier hockey photographs, bloodier, brutaller. But this intimate image of Red Kelly lashing out at Toronto’s Vic Lynn in Detroit in 1950 has to be one of the most intense portraits in the archives of raw hockey rage. The fact that it’s not quite in focus only adds to the rush of the moment, and the danger. It’s a hard photograph to study without flinching: Kelly might just follow through and hit you. And of course what we’re looking at is likely only the half of it, in terms of rage: the camera doesn’t show the extent of Lynn’s ire, much less any of the general rancor and violent feeling that had filled up the Olympia that night.

It was the end of March, 1950, and the Leafs and Red Wings were playing their second game in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Toronto had won the first game in Detroit by a score of 5-0. This game went the other way, 3-1. A subhead in next morning’s (Toronto) Globe and Mail:

Detroiters Bludgeon Way To Boisterous Victory In Mean-Mannered Game

It wasn’t just the loss motivating the Red Wings. That first game was the one in which 21-year-old Gordie Howe was grievously injured. Trying to hit Toronto Leaf captain Ted Kennedy, he, Howe, fell into the boards. The Globe and Mail called it a mishap, reporting that he’d suffered a “stiff concussion” along with a shattered cheekbone and a broken nose.

Detroit GM Jack Adams told it this way, later, to Trent Frayne from Maclean’s:

Toronto’s Ted Kennedy was carrying the puck near the boards. Howe sped toward him, cutting diagonally across the ice. A fraction of a second before the impact, Kennedy drew himself up, and Howe crashed headlong into the boards. Gordie lay limp on the ice, bleeding from his nose and eye. Later, in hospital, there was every indication that he was dying. He was unconscious, vomiting, had a broken cheekbone and nose, and a brain specialist operated, boring a hole into his skull to remove fluid pressing on the brain. We paced the corridor all night. Even the next day his condition was critical.

The Red Wings said it was Kennedy’s dirty fault. They said that Kennedy had butt-ended Howe.

Why did Kennedy pass by the Detroit bench to say sorry? That, for Red Wings coach Tommy Ivan, was all the confession he needed. “If he didn’t hit Howe with his stick, why did he skate over and apologize? I’m not saying it was deliberate, but it was a check made with the butt-end of Kennedy’s stick. He isn’t the only player in the league who checks with the butt. Lots of them do.”

Kennedy testified: “I was skating in to shoot when Howe and Jack Stewart of the Wings converged to check me. I got by them all right and never touched Howe. The first I knew of it was when a teammate shouted to me that Howe was down on the ice.”

The Leafs’ Garth Boesch offered, helpfully, that he thought that maybe Stewart might have inadvertently clipped Howe with his stick.

Kennedy: “I saw Howe lying on the ice with his face covered with blood, and I couldn’t help but think what a great player he was and how I hoped he wasn’t badly hurt. Then Detroit players started saying I did it with my stick. I knew I hadn’t and as I have always regarded Ivan as a sensible, level-headed man, I went over to the Detroit bench and told him I was sorry Howe was hurt, but that I wasn’t responsible.”

Sid Abel said what he had to say on the ice, chopping at Kennedy’s ankle when the game resumed. He took a slashing penalty for that. After that, Leaf coach Hap Day kept Kennedy on the bench.

NHL president Clarence Campbell, who was at the game, made it known that he was looking into the incident. He talked to both teams and called the game officials to his hotel for a two-hour confab, referee George Gravel and stand-by Butch Keeling, linesmen Sammy Babcock and Ernie Le Maitre. The first three gave formal statements; Le Maitre said he didn’t see what happened. Then Campbell gave a press conference: the first ever in league history, he said, to be called to discuss an injury to a player.

Campbell’s version: Jack Stewart started up the ice with the puck. Kennedy checked him, took the puck the other way. Stewart tried to waylay him, failed. Just as Kennedy crossed the blueline, Howe cut toward him, skating fast. Kennedy passed the puck, backhand. Brushing Kennedy slightly, Howe crashed heavily into the fence, fell to the ice. Stewart fell on top of him as the play continued.

Campbell said he believed the evidence showed that it was physically impossible for Kennedy to have hit How with the butt of his stick. He chided Tommy Ivan, but understood, assuming he’d accused Kennedy “in a fit of anger.”

Campbell said he was keeping the investigation open: “We are willing to hear evidence from any interested parties and will not make any final decision until we talk to Kennedy and Howe. It may be that one of the player’s statements would offer other facts that would throw an entirely different light on the case.”

Doctors weren’t sure, at this point, whether Howe’s career was over. They were reluctant to say.

Gordie’s mother had a sunnier outlook. “He seemed just like my old Gordie,” Mrs. A.C. Howe told the newspapermen after visiting her boy at Harper Hospital. She’d flown in from Saskatoon with her daughter, Gladys. “His first words were, ‘Why, mom, what are you doing here?’”

Another terribly head-injured hockey player was asked for an opinion. “Helmets are not necessary,” Ace Bailey said. “Hockey players carry so much armor already, they can’t bear any more.”

Toronto’s mayor, Hiram McCallum, phoned Ted Kennedy in Detroit to say the things that mayors say. The people were behind him. They knew he was blameless. “They are 100 per cent behind you all the way and know you will go on and continue to play wonderful hockey.”

“We regret very much the injury to Howe,” he continued, “as he is a great player, but at the same time know that he was the aggressor in attempting to crash you on the boards.”

So that’s the background. The Wings had vowed that they’d win the second game on March 30 for Howe, and they did that, but while the teams played some hockey, mostly in the first period, the second and third were the ones to generate the next day’s headlines: Blood-spilling Contest (The Globe and Mail), Pier 6 Brawl Fiasco (Toronto Daily Star), Free-For-All Fights Bring 19 Penalties as Detroit Six Evens Play-off Series (New York Times).

In the second period, with his team leading 3-0, Detroit defenceman Lee Fogolin tripped Ted Kennedy. As referee Butch Keeling whistled a penalty, Ted Lindsay showed up to cross-check the Leaf captain. Leaf Gus Mortson: flew at Lindsay. Sid Abel: rushed in, fists flying. Grabbing Kennedy and holding him to help out the Wings: an irresponsible fan. Wing Leo Reise: bludgeoned Jim Thomson across the head and shoulders with his stick. Jim Vipond from The Globe and Mail called it “a donnybrook of the worst order and a black mark against organized hockey.”

He went on:

This writer has often avowed that no player would intentionally injure another, but not after tonight. There could be nothing more brutal and deliberate than the Detroit players’ attempt to even a trumped-up injustice to one of their mates.

Out of it all, Reise and Thomson drew majors and Lindsay, Kennedy and Fogolin two minutes each. Abel escaped scot free, as did battler Mortson.

The Leafs scored in the third, but it was the last-minute melee that got all the press. To start, Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki exchanged a few wallops. Everybody piled in then, including Red Wings’ usually even-tempered defenceman: Red Kelly. He started a separate feud with Vic Lynn, which gets us back to that original image. Is it possible that the photographer was on the ice, standing just behind Lynn? Probably not. Below, we see, remarkably, what would seem to be the instant of Kelly’s onslaught from behind. Vipond says that Kelly’s victory was decisive: Kelly “tossed Lynn to the ice, straddled him and threw his punches.”

The referee wasn’t impressed — or not watching. “Again Keeling was lenient to the extreme. He pinned minor sentences on Ezinicki, Juzda and Lindsay, sending them to their dressing rooms. It is doubtful if Keeling saw the Kelly-Lynn preliminary bout.”

Ted Kennedy wasn’t talking much afterwards. “The game’s over,” he said. “They won it.”

“Such violence hardly seems possible in sport. Yet there it was.” The next day, The Globe and Mail devoted its lead editorial to lament, excoriating the Red Wings for their outrages, the referees for not punishing them properly, the NHL for not taking a tough enough stand: For The Good of the Game was the headline.

Tommy Ivan insisted he hadn’t instructed his players to go after anyone. “I can only repeat that I did not have any thought of my players seeking revenge. You can confirm this statement by talking to my players. Responsible lads like Red Kelly will back me up.”

Clarence Campbell warned that the feuding had to stop. If it continued, he said, there would be fines and suspensions. Also, for the third game, he was putting an extra referee on the ice in place of one of one of the linesmen. And any player bickering on his way to the penalty box would receive a misconduct.

“Hockey is a tough and rugged game at the best of times,” Campbell said, “but the stick-swinging which took place … has no place in the game at any time.”

That seemed to help: for the third game, in Toronto, lapsed back to hockey. “In contrast to the blood-letting, brawls and bickering of the initial two tilts in Detroit,” Al Nickleson wrote in The Globe and Mail, “only three minor penalties were issued, two to Leafs, in a sparkling, close-checking display.”

The Wings won the one after that. By then, Howe was ready to speak up. A week after his brain surgery, his doctors had removed the No Visitors Allowed sign from the door of his hospital room, and he was free to tell reporters what he knew. It wasn’t a whole lot. “All I remember is chasing after Kennedy. I don’t remember being struck or hitting the boards.”

“Kennedy is too good a hockey player to deliberately injure another player.”

On the subject of his future, he promised he’d be back. “Sure, I’ll be playing next season — a player has got to expect a few bumps.”

The Red Wings ended up winning the series in seven games. By the end of April, they’d won the Stanley Cup, their fourth, beating the New York Rangers in seven games. When Clarence Campbell handed the trophy to Wings’ captain Sid Abel, the fans in the rink called for goaltender Harry Lumley to join him. Then they insisted on GM Jack Adams, coach Ivan, and vice-president Jim Norris. Finally the cry arose: “We want Howe,” and Gordie Howe walked out on the ice in his street clothes.

Red Notice: In a view from the other side of the ice, Red Kelly, wearing 4, at left, unleashes on the Leafs' Vic Lynn.

Red Notice: In a view from the other side of the ice, Red Kelly, at left, unleashes on the Leafs’ Vic Lynn.

 

 

post-war puck-drop: there’s no sense talking about it later

Private Practice: Smokey Smith tosses the inaugural puck of the 1945-46 NHL season for

Private Practice: Smokey Smith tosses the inaugural puck of the 1945-46 NHL season for the Leaf Billy Taylor and Boston’s Milt Schmidt. King Clancy is the referee.

NHL hockey ended in April of 1945, but the war still had some fight in it. Reds In Heart of Berlin was the main headline one day in The Globe and Mail, just above the news of Huns Routed in Italy. Inside, the same edition that carried news that Major Conn Smythe’s Toronto Maple Leafs had beaten the Red Wings in Detroit to secure the Stanley Cup also counted 45 Canadians in the Today’s Casualties column: Dead 10, Missing 29, Prisoner 6.

It was all over, of course, by the time hockey rolled around again that October. The Boston Bruins were in Toronto to open the season at Maple Leaf Gardens on Saturday the 27th, and the news in that day’s Globe was that the Toronto Scottish, the first Canadian Army battalion to have deployed to England at the start of the war, had arrived back home in Halifax.

opening game 45For the hockey game, the Leafs mobilized the brass and pipes of the 48th Highlanders, as they’d done every on opening night since 1931 (and have continued to do up to and including tonight’s meeting with Montreal). They’d also invited to the game five of the 16 Canadian servicemen to have received the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest military honour, given for extraordinary courage and devotion to duty.

Major David Currie was there, along with Majors Paul Triquet and John Mahony, and Corporal Fred “Toppy” Topham. They had, variously, organized at great personal risk a defense against German armour at the Falaise Gap (Currie) and, in Italy, showed “superb contempt for the enemy” in the face of fierce enemy attack during which they encouraged their men with the words “Ils ne passeront pas” (Triquet) and (again in Italy), against a vastly superior enemy force, crawled forward to save a section of his company despite having been wounded in the head and twice in the leg and refusing medical aid in order to continue to direct the defence of a bridgehead (Mahony) and parachuted in as a medical orderly as part of an Allied assault on the east bank of the Rhine where, despite being shot through the nose, continued to aid and extricate companions under heavy German fire, including rescuing three soldiers trapped in a burning gun-carrier despite an officer warning him to stay away (Topham).

The fifth man showing his V.C. that evening was Private Ernest Smith — “Smokey” — the only private soldier to have won the medal during the Second World War. He was the man the Leafs brought out to centre ice to drop a ceremonial puck almost a year to the day after he’d been in Italy with his regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders, trying to cross the Savio River.

Smith, who was 30, had enlisted in 1940. Like Major Mahony, he hailed from New Westminster, B.C. As the newspapers told it when he went to Buckingham Palace to receive his medal from King George VI, he’d almost single-handedly held off a German counterattack, turning back three Panther tanks, a pair of half-tracks, and some 30 infantrymen. The V.C. citation describing his efforts is worth reading — it’s here, along with those for the rest of the recipients mentioned above.

“Here’s a little present from me to you,” the King is supposed to have told him at the investiture.

“I couldn’t help doing what I did,” was what Smith said after he’d received his medal, “after seeing my buddy after he was wounded.” The Ottawa Citizen:

He saw “red” at that point and “didn’t give a hoot” so long as he avenged his pal.

Otherwise, he preferred to keep quiet. “It’s okay to kill men when you have to,” he said, “but there’s no sense talking about it later.”

After Smith died in 2005 at the age of 91, his body lay in state at the House of Commons in Ottawa. In 1945, was fêted across Canada and lent his fame to the campaign to sell War Bond. The government granted him a gratuity: each March and September, they’d send him $25, for life.

At Maple Leaf Gardens, he and Major Currie talked about how much weight each man had added since leaving active duty. Currie said he’d gained 35 pounds, while Smith only admitted to 15, “in the wrong place.”

The game ended in a 1-1 tie in front of 14,608 spectators — one of the largest crowds the Leafs had seen at a home-opener, the papers agreed. Bill Shill scored for Boston before Bob Davidson tied it up. Paul Bibeault was the Boston goaltender; Baz Bastien guarded the Toronto end.

Private Smith said it had been so long since he’d seen hockey that he’d forgotten how the game was played.

At Ease: Maple Leafs coach Hap Day chats with Private Smith.

At Ease: Maple Leafs coach Hap Day chats with Private Smith.

leafs in springtime: nobody is going to give us anything

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Conn Smythe would have called it “Bastille Day:” Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan delivered his verdict on the year just ended on Sunday, when he fired GM Dave Nonis, coach Peter Horachek, and nearly 20 other members of the team’s hockey staff. Yesterday, winger Joffrey Lupul called it “a wasted season” while captain Dion Phaneuf called it “the toughest year” of his career. In a press conference, Shanahan looked to the future. “We need to have a team with more character and one that represents this city the way it deserves,” he said. If you were looking for cruel vituperative fun on an altogether sombre day in and around the Air Canada Centre, there was always Rosie DiManno’s column in The Toronto Star, which I’ll just boil down here to a dozen or so key words and phrases she used to describe the team and its effort:

unlamented, unloved, misery, big whoop, defunct, blighted, arse-over-teakettle, implode, benumbed, laughable, how many times and how many ways can you say: Oh. My. God. irrelevant, plague of inertia, ignominy, moribund, the team’s loutish character, comedia del hockey

This isn’t the first time the Leafs have missed the playoffs, of course, even if it is among the ugliest cases in recent memory. Counting back to 1917 and the dawn of the franchise, Toronto teams have avoided the playoffs about a third of the time, 32 of 97 seasons, or more than twice as often as they’ve won Stanley Cups. Actually, in fact, Toronto is the playoffs-missingest team in the history of the NHL: no team has fallen short more than they have — though the New York Rangers are a close second, with 31 futile campaigns to their credit.

With that in mind, before Shanahan’s future takes hold, there’s just time to review what lies behind, in the past, in the Leafs’ forlorn history of not being good enough.

In 1957, Leafs’ majordomo Conn Smythe took sole responsibility for his team’s — I don’t know what you want to call it, demise? downfall? collapse? Anyway, Toronto missed the playoffs that year for the first time in four years, and just the fourth in 27 seasons. “A year of failure,” Smythe called it at a “flamboyant” press conference he felt the need to hold in New York, where the NHL governors were meeting while the Leafs played out their season.

They still had a couple of games left, but Smythe wanted to get a headstart on the post-season turmoil. He’d already left his captain at home in Toronto, defenceman Jim Thomson, because treachery: he’d had the gall to be trying to help organize a players’ association.

“Next year,” Smythe thundered in New York, “our players will have to understand that they owe 100 per cent loyalty to the team.”

He didn’t fire his rookie coach that day, Howie Meeker, nor the GM, Hap Day, though many of the newspapermen had come expecting one or both to be sacrificed.

Smythe was willing to say that just maybe the Leafs would have to change the way they played. “We have a Spartan system,” he mused, “and we may be out of date. We prefer the body … we have stressed the defensive and not the offensive … Our system may be open to question.”

The very first year the Leafs were Leafs, they missed the playoffs. That was 1926-27, the year Conn Smythe took control of the team with a group of investors and in mid-season exchanged an old name (St. Patricks) and colour (green) for news. The team had three coaches that year and ended up bottom of the Canadian Division. They played their final game at home, hosting Montreal. Only a small crowd showed up, most of whom had come to see Howie Morenz and the Canadiens. But the Leafs played as if life depended on it, The Daily Star said, and ended up winning by a score of 2-1, with Bill Carson playing a prominent role along with, on the Leaf defence, Hap Day.

So that’s a plus.

In 1930, the club wanted to send the players off to their summers in style one the games were over, with a banquet, but it was hard to organize. Charlie Conacher, Red Horner Ace Bailey, and Busher Jackson were off in Montreal, watching the Maroons and Bruins in their playoff series as guests of a “Toronto hockey enthusiast,” while back in Toronto, the rest of the team was packing up for home. I don’t know whether they ever got their meal, but the Leafs returned to the playoffs the following year. The year after that, they won the Stanley Cup.

Just to be keeping it positive.

It was 14 years before they ended their season early again and while there’s no good reason, really, to be ranking the years of disappointment one above another, dropping out the year after you’ve won a Stanley Cup would have to smart, wouldn’t? 1946 Toronto did that with Hap Day now presiding as coach. (It happened again, though not until 1968.)

If only, wrote Jim Coleman in The Globe and Mail in ’46, the Leafs had a goaltender like Durnan, and defencemen of Reardon’s and Bouchard’s quality, maybe a front line resembling the likes of Lach, Blake, and Richard — well, then they’d be the Canadiens, of course, who did indeed end up winning that spring.

For solace, at least, the Leafs triumphed in the last two games they played that season, whupping Detroit 7-3 and 11-7. And that had to have felt pretty good.

Still, it was time to clean out the old, sweep in the new. It was a particularly poignant day, once the whupping was over, for a couple of long-serving Leafs who’d scored a bunch of goals over the years. Sweeney Schriner and Lorne Carr were retiring — though they did mention as they prepared to head home to Calgary that they’d be happy to listen to any other NHL teams who might be willing to make them an offer. (None were.)

As the spring playoffs went ahead without his team, Conn Smythe was feeling — surprisingly? — peppy. If nothing else, he noted for anyone who wanted to hear, the Leafs had rights to and/or options on a veritable mass of hockey talent for the year coming up, 82 players.

“We’re definitely,” he advised, “on the upswing.”

True enough: the Leafs did take home four of the next five Stanley Cups.

I’m not going to trudge through every season the team failed — where’s the fun in that? But back to 1957 for a minute. It is, if nothing else, a bit of a watershed. Teeder Kennedy, 31, retired that year for a second and final time, having returned to the ice midway through the year before deciding that it was time to make way for the next generation. Former Leafs captain Sid Smith, also 31, decided he was quitting, too, until Smythe talked him into returning for one more year. Continue reading