conn brio

Hats Off: Born on this date in 1895, when it was also Friday, Constantine Falkland Cary Smythe. “Young Constantine hated the name from the time he was old enough understand it,” Kelly McParland writes in his 2011 biography, The Lives of Conn Smythe, and soon he made a change. Connhe borrowed from an ancient Irish king, “hero of a hundred battles.” In 1927 Smythe headed the syndicated that bought the Toronto St. Patricks and re-invented them as the Maple Leafs. Here he’s seen at the age of 54 on the night of Saturday, April 16, 1949. That’s Leafs’ coach Hap Day with him, of course; the dressing-room salute follows their team having swept to a third successive Stanley Cup championship, the sixth of Smythe’s tenure to that point. Toronto defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens on the night to take the Cup in four games.

(Image: Globe and Mail Fonds 1266, Item 132809, City of Toronto Archives)

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.

 

 

 

charlie conacher: many happy returns of … tomorrow?

First To The Fight: Charlie Conacher leads his Leaf teammates to the ice at the Boston Garden in 1936. Following behind that’s (possibly) Pep Kelly and (certainly) captain Hap Day. Bring up the rear (I’ll guess) might be Red Horner. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Charlie Conacher was just 28 when he announced his retirement from hockey in January of 1938. Most in the media agreed with The Ottawa Journal’s assessment: the Leaf captain was “the game’s hardest shooter” and had been, for years, “one of its most compelling figures.” Injuries to knees and kidneys, wrists and back had worn him down: it was on the advice of Leafs’ physician Dr. J.W. Rush that he was making his exit. By columnist Walter Gilhooly’s account, the news hit the NHL like a bomb, and would severely impair Toronto’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe wasn’t about to argue that: “It’s a terrific blow to us,” he said.

Conacher’s retirement didn’t last: he made his return to the rink the following season as a Detroit Red Wing, where he played for a season before heading to New York, where he was an American for another two years before he (definitively) hung up his skates in 1941.

While Conacher’s initial 1938 retirement didn’t stick, it did allow for an extended period of career memorializing as teammates and coaches and sportswriters summed up and celebrated his years as (quote) a bruiser in action and one of the strongest men in hockey. Before Conacher made his NHL debut in 1929, Bill Cook of the New York Rangers was said to be the best right winger in hockey. Now, retired and coaching, Cook weighed in to name his all-time all-star team. George Hainsworth was the best goaltender he’d ever seen, Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson the best of defencemen. For forwards, he anointed Howie Morenz at centre, Aurèle Joliat and Conacher on the wings.

Alec Connell had stood in Conacher’s way many times in his years tending goal for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. “He was the best right wing I ever saw,” Connell said of Conacher, who weighed in close to 200 pounds. “He was as fast on his skates as a 150 pounder and there was never anyone with a more wicked shot. He drove them at you like a bullet. On top of his size and his strength and his speed, he was brainy. You never knew how he was coming in on you with the puck. One time he’d play you one way. The next time he’d come down on you in an entirely different way. He was a fellow that it was almost impossible to get set for, and then he had that blazing shot.”

Across nine NHL seasons, Conacher had scored an even 200 regular-season goals by then, another 14 in the playoffs. Five times he was the NHL’s leading goalscorer; twice he led the league in points. He wouldn’t add substantially to those numbers in his three subsequent non-Leaf years, but his totals are still impressive. In 459 NHL games, he collected 225 goals and 398 points. In 53 playoff games, he scored 23 goals and 43 points. He helped the Leafs win the 1932 Stanley Cup, and in 1961 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Charlie Conacher died of throat cancer on December 30, 1967. He was 58.

For all the facts and figures we can readily summon to delineate his life and times, the date of his date of his birth remains elusive. Is today the day we should be observing his arrival at Toronto’s Salvation Army Maternity Hospital in 1909, or should we be saving the greetings and salutations for tomorrow?

Many of the standard hockey references actually give Conacher’s birthdate as Monday, December 20, 1909. If you’re at the library and you haul down Total Hockey off the shelf (be careful), that’s what you’ll see listed in the NHL’s fat 1998 official encylopedia (and its 2000 second edition, too). Nowadays, the league keeps its records online, and that’s the date you’ll see too if you click over to Conacher’s file at NHL.com. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Conacher page says the same, as does the researcher’s go-to resource, Hockey Reference. Also: Wikipedia.

But not everyone agrees. Back at in the stacks, reach for The Complete Encylopedia of Ice Hockey, a venerable old tome compiled by Zander Hollander and Hal Bock in 1970, and you’ll find Conacher’s date of bath given as December 10, a Friday. Another voluminous online source, hockeydb.com, concurs.

Another click will find you a third possibility: the Conacher file at the Society for International Hockey Research has it that the man they’d come to call the Big Bomber was in fact a Thursday’s child, made his worldly debut on December 9, 1909. (I’m a member of SIHR, so if you’re not, you’ll have to trust me on this — or else take out a membership.)

December 20, 10, 9: which is it, then?

December 20 is the easiest to dispense with: I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up.

SIHR’s December 9 seems the most promising, at least from a documentary perspective. The Conacher biography there cites as its source Conacher’s birth certificate, and that would seem to close the case, such as it is. But if you go out on your own to search for this, what you’ll find is … not quite that.

Conacher’s parents don’t seem to have certified his birth in 1909. Thought they had, hadn’t? Meant to but forgot? Don’t know. On January 18, 1922, when Charlie was 12, his mother did see fit to get the paperwork done to confirm his existence. On that day, Elizabeth Conacher filled out and signed a Declaration to let the Province of Ontario and thereby the Dominion of Canada officially know about her son. The form itself explains that it’s “Registering a Birth which has not been registered in accordance with Section 22 of THE VITAL STATISTICS ACT, 1919.” As well as giving some family information and the basic facts of Charles William himself, she signed her name under the boilerplate about this being a “solemn declaration” that she “conscientiously” believed to be true, “knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.”

The boy’s birthday, she said, was “December 9th1909.”

Could she have made a mistake?

It’s not for me to presume that she did, and I’m sorry if it seems rude to doubt a mother’s word. (It does; I see that.) It’s just that, well, Conacher himself seems to have understood that his birthday fell on December 10.

I don’t have this from him directly, mind you, or anyone in his family — I’m going on, as one does, what old newspapers tell me. They’re not infallible, of course. The Globe and Mailcould very well have, it’s true, messed up on December 10, 1936 when they printed this in their sports pages, not far from the latest edition of Conacher’s own column (“Hockey Discussed by One of The Game’s Greatest Players”):

Is it possible, too, that the Globe erred again, 31 years later, in a short, sad note published on Monday, December 11, 1967, just a few weeks before his death? I guess so. “Charlie Conacher, right wing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kid Line of the 1930s, celebrated his 57th birthday in the Toronto General Hospital yesterday,” that item began. The fact that it was his 58th birthday doesn’t exactly proclaim its credibility, I realize, but that on its own doesn’t discredit the birthdate reported.

All in all, I’ll tend towards December 10 as Charlie Conacher’s birthday, I think. For those who prefer to celebrate it today, here’s to you, and him.

UPDATE: Further fodder to bolster the case for December 10: in 1949, when Charlie Conacher was coaching the Chicago Black Hawks, the team went to Montreal for a early winter visit that ended 1-1. Reporting the news of that Saturday, December 10 game on the following Monday, December 12, here’s the Gazette’s Dink Carroll:

It was Charlie Conacher’s birthday on Saturday and early in the day, Bill Tobin, president of the Black Hawks, wired Doug Bentley, team captain, that a win would be a nice birthday present for the club’s coach. Charlie was lucky to get away with a tie.

bruins + leafs, 1931: swing and a miss

One wintry meeting between Leafs and Bruins deserves another, so here’s this scene from 88 years ago or so, when the two teams clashed at Boston Garden during the 1930-31 season. What I can’t say with complete certainty is which Leaf visit this was, of the two they paid their old Massachusetts rivals that year. Guessing, I’d have to go with the second game (March 10, 1931) over the first (December 2, 1930), if only because Benny Grant tended the Leafs’ goal in the latter while in the former it was Lorne Chabot who, to my squinted eye, seems to be the man in the net in the photograph here.

Other Leafs? Battling for the puck behind the net is Toronto’s number 4, Hap Day. Out in front — well, Day’s usual partner in those years was King Clancy, though I don’t think that’s him, so it’s either Red Horner or Alex Levinsky. Skating for centre is surely Ace Bailey, whose linemates that year tended to be Baldy Cotton and Andy Blair. As for the Bruins, wearing number 7 is Cooney Weiland with Dit Clapper (5) hovering nearby. Together with centre Dutch Gainor those two played on Boston’s “Dynamite Line” around this time, so let’s say that’s Gainor digging for the puck with Day.

The game (if it is the second one) ended in a 3-3 tie that overtime couldn’t change. Bailey and Blair scored for the Leafs, as did Charlie Conacher; Weiland got two of the Bruins’ goals, with George Owen adding the third.

Other notes of interest: according to the Boston Globe, the game was a high-spirited affair, on the ice and off. In overtime, King Clancy “tried to punch a spectator through the wire screen behind the Toronto goal, something which one would not expect such a brainy person to do.”

Before that:

At the end of the first period, Art Ross, the Bruin manager, and Connie Smythe, the chief moving spirit behind the Leafs, had a verbal altercation in the lobby, with Ross swinging but missing the jaw of Smythe. This drama was repeated at the end of the second stanza, when Smythe ventured to inquire how Ross liked being behind.

(Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

the alluring penalty shot: introducing hockey’s greatest thrill

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Conacher’d: In December of 1934, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers was the goaltender trying to stop Charlie Conacher from scoring the first penalty shot in Leafs’ history. He didn’t.

A little historical housekeeping: Charlie Conacher did indeed score the first penalty shot in the august annals of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it just wasn’t on this day in 1936, despite the anniversary announcements you may be seeing across sociable media.

A bit of the background: it was September of 1934 when the NHL’s braintrust added the penalty shot to the league’s rulebook. The meeting they did it at was in New York, but the rule came from way out west. While eastern Canada’s pre-NHL National Hockey Association had toyed with the concept in 1915, it was Frank and Lester Patrick’s Pacific Coast Hockey Association where the penalty shot made its official debut in 1921.

The PCHA faded away in the mid-1920s, of course; by 1934, Lester Patrick was running the New York Rangers while Frank presided as the NHL’s managing director.

“When a player is tripped and thus prevented from having a clear shot on goal, having no other player to pass than the offending player,” the new rule read, “a penalty shot shall be awarded to the non-offending side.” So: same as we know it now. But things were different then, too. For one thing, the penalty shot didn’t negate the penalty, which (until it was changed in 1941) the offending player also had to serve, whether the non-offender scored or not. The non-offender, I should say, didn’t necessarily have to be the offended player: a coach could appoint anyone to take the shot.

Also: from 1934 through to ’37, penalty shots were taken from a 10-foot circle situated 38 feet from the goal — so just in from the blueline, in what today we’d call the high slot. The shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, but otherwise he could do as he pleased, standing still and shooting, as though taking part in a future All-Star accuracy contest, or skating at the puck full tilt, as in the hardest-shot showdown. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.

“A rule must have merit,” Frank Patrick said as the new season approached that fall. “Before introducing any new rule, Lester and I argued over it and looked at it from all angles, and if we considered that it was good for hockey, we put it in our rule-book. The rules had to meet with the approval of the public, the press, and the players, but we never found one of our rules unpopular. Hockey has a certain sameness to it, and all these new rules have been for the purpose of giving the public new thrills. This is why I consider the penalty shot so alluring. I think it will be hockey’s greatest thrill.”

The debate about who might excel at penalty shooting began immediately. A consensus was quick to coalesce: Art Ross and Leo Dandurand, Newsy Lalonde, Jack Adams all agreed that Howie Morenz (mostly of Montreal, but soon to head for Chicago) was the man you’d want doing the job for your team.

Him or Rabbit McVeigh of the New York Americans, who happened to have been the west’s best in the PCHA. Chicago Black Hawks GM Bill Tobin remembered that. “McVeigh,” he said, “had a spectacular style. He would dash full speed down the rink, swerve about and come at the puck at a great clip. When he was skating toward the circle and while he shot the atmosphere in the rink would become so tense one could almost hear a pin drop.”

In October, when teams convened for their training camps, coaches made sure their players put in some penalty-shot practice. In Winnipeg, the Montreal Maroons saw promise in what Jimmy Ward was doing, while among Leafs in Galt, Ontario, King Clancy and Busher Jackson were said, initially, to shine. As camp went on and the team started into intra-squad scrimmages and exhibition games, Bill Thoms emerged as the team’s best designated shooter.

Once the season launched in November, the Leafs were the first team to face a penalty shot, in their second game, home to Montreal at Maple Leaf Gardens. Thoms was the designated delinquent in this case, hauling down Canadiens’ Georges Mantha. Armand Mondou took the first NHL penalty shot and … well, the Leafs’ George Hainsworth saved it. An interesting note on that: Hainsworth changed sticks before facing Mondou’s attempt, preferring a lighter paddle for the occasion over the heavier one he regularly wielded.

Ralph Bowman, a.k.a. Scotty, took care of the history Mondou failed to make the following week in a game between his St. Louis Eagles and Maroons. Montreal’s Stew Evans tripped Eagle Syd Howe, and Bowman stepped up to face Alec Connell. Or, sped up: he took the full-tilt route. The St. Louis Dispatch:

Bowman saw on which side Connell, Maroon goalie, was holding the stick, and fired the puck at the opposite of the net. The disc travelled, ankle high, like a bullet and Connell had no chance for the stop.

Rabbit McVeigh got his chance to show his stuff against Montreal’s Wilf Cude soon after that. He scored, but the goal was disallowed: he’d pulled the puck outside the circle.

Back with the Leafs, George Hainsworth got the better of Bun Cook of the New York Rangers on December 8. Best as I can see, Hainsworth continued to get the better of penalty-shooters for another year-and-a-half, stopping seven in a row before he finally saw Bert Connelly of the Rangers beat him in January of 1936 in a 1-0 New York win.

December 11 the Leafs met the Rangers again, this time at Madison Square Garden. The visitors won the game 8-4, with the turning point coming (said The New York Times) in the second period. The Leafs were leading 2-1 when Ching Johnson tripped … well, that’s hard to say. The Times says Charlie Conacher, the Globe Hap Day, the Toronto Daily Star Busher Jackson. Either way, Johnson headed for the box and Conacher stepped up. His shot hit beat the Rangers’ Andy Aitkenhead, hit the post, went in. Not sure whether Conacher took a run at the puck, but there was some doubt about the puck crossing the line. Only after consultation with the goal judge was Conacher’s penalty shot, the first in Leafs’ history, deemed good enough for a goal.

Conacher thereby made himself the Leafs’ go-to shooter. He did, however, fail in both of his next two attempts that ’34-35 season. Foiled by Chicago’s Lorne Chabot and then by Roy Worters of the New York Americans, Conacher had to wait until this every day in 1936, when the Americans came by the Gardens in Toronto again.

Worters was again in the net for New York. This time, defenceman Red Murray closed his hand on the puck to trigger the penalty shot in the first period of what turned out to be a 3-0 Leafs’ win. Here’s the Globe’s George Smith on Conacher’s successful method:

Sweeping in on the disc with three strides, Conacher drove one that fairly hissed as it sagged the net behind Worters. We didn’t see it on its netward career and we have an idea that Worters didn’t see it. Anyway, he good little netminder at the enemy end didn’t jump for it, didn’t budge; he gave every evidence of never having had his eye on the dynamited disc.

Toronto’s 1933-34 Maple Leafs. Back row, left to right: Benny Grant, Buzz Boll, Bill Thomas, Alex Levinsky, Red Horner, Andy Blair, Busher Jackson, Joe Prime, Charlie Sands, Baldy Cotton, trainer Tim Daly, George Hainsworth. Front: Hec Kilrea, King Clancy, Hap Day, coach Dick Irvin, managing director Conn Smythe, assistant director Frank Selke, Ace Bailey, Ken Doraty, Charlie Conacher.

 

top gear

Alex Levinsky was in his mid-20s by the time he joined the Chicago Black Hawks in the mid-1930s, a veteran defenceman whose adjectives included big and bumping and hardrock, and whose headgear here — I don’t know, looks to me like it’s a borrowed football helmet rather than bespoke hockey apparatus. Born in Syracuse, New York, Levinsky grew up in Toronto, on Markham Street, where he was living in his parents’ house when he made his NHL debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the winter of 1931. He’d been all-round star athlete at the University of Toronto, won a Memorial Cup with the Toronto Marlboros in 1929, enrolled at Osgoode Hall with a mind on a law career. Leafs’ majordomo Conn Smythe talked him into sticking to the ice. Levinsky was the league’s only Jewish player when he joined the Leaf defence, though not the first in NHL history: Charlie Cotch, Sam Rothschild, and Moe Roberts preceded him, possibly others. Joining Hap Day, Red Horner, and King Clancy on the Leaf blueline, Levinsky won a Stanley Cup in 1932. He was New York Ranger briefly before he ended up with Chicago. When Bill Stewart took up there as coach in the fall of 1937, he quietly set aside Major Frederic McLaughlin’s mandate for an all-American roster along with the uniform that Levinsky’s wearing here. That may or may not have had something to do with the surprise the Black Hawks sprang the following spring, surprising Levinsky’s old team from Toronto to win the Stanley Cup.

 

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.