make way for the leafs

standwitness

Toronto’s upstart Maple Leafs head into tonight’s game with the Washington Capitals with a five-game winning streak in hand, but the real news may be the optimism and glad-heartedness attending the team in the wake of Sunday’s outdoor overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings feels like something of a new commodity in the city. The surging Leafs have their fans talking about making the playoffs for the first time in four years, even as they bask in the lustre of the bright youth of Connor Brown, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and the incandescent Auston Matthews.

Toronto has, in fact, seen the hope before. It was this very time of the year in 1992, for instance, when GM Cliff Fletcher orchestrated the ten-player trade that brought in Doug Gilmour from the Calgary Flames.

A new day dawns for the team that forgot how to win

was the headline in Toronto’s Financial Post on this day 25 years ago, while in The Windsor Star, columnist Lloyd McLachlan wrote about the notion of Gilmour as, “if not the second coming of Dave Keon, at least a playmaking Moses possibly capable of helping inspire a miracle escape from the wilderness.”

Twenty years further back, Stan Fischler’s 1975 book Make Way For The Leafs outlined an end for another era of Toronto hockey woe. Once, he wrote in opening his thesis, the Leafs had been Canada’s own New York Yankees: “the supreme professional sports organization.” By the end of the page, he’d outlined the glories composed by Conn Smythe, emphasized the success of his teams, the colour of its characters, the team’s toughness, his material proof of which cited Bingo Kampman,

a defenceman of such herculean strength he would win bets that he could lift heavy dinner tables just by placing a side of the table top between his teeth and then hoisting the table using sheer mouth power.

Fischler’s quick sketch of Toronto’s downfall centred mostly on GM Punch Imlach. His account of the team’s ongoing resurrection got going in chapter two with Imlach’s sharp young successor, Jim Gregory, along with the savvy coach he hired in Red Kelly, and a cadre of “youthful skaters” like Darryl Sittler, Rick Kehoe, and Lanny McDonald.

Fischler pegged the start of the Leafs’ “rebirth” to the opening of the NHL’s 1973-74 season — just as, it so happens, team president Harold Ballard was getting out of prison after serving a sentence for theft and fraud.

Ballard isn’t everyone’s idea of a hero, of course. Fischler called him “the most intriguing and one of the most engaging personalities in Toronto sports,” framing him as “a hard man in what he feels is a hard world.” In ’73, Fischler said, Ballard believed the Leafs were three years away from establishing a Stanley Cup-winning team.

They did get to the semi-finals in 1978, losing there to the eventual champions from Montreal. That was as good as it got, though: what the Leafs had to look forward to beyond that were the grim ’80s. Was the team’s wilderness ever so deep and dark as it was in that decade in which they traded away McDonald and Sittler, and squandered one draft pick after another?

The legacy of those years under the Ballard regime lingered a long time. It’s what Cam Cole was alluding to in ’92 as Doug Gilmour arrived from Calgary, and it’s something that Leaf-loving hearts trust is history of a kind that doesn’t repeat itself.

Players turn to mush in Loserville North

Cole’s Edmonton Journal column that January morning was headlined, and it carried on in a key that even, now, still, in these heady times of Marners and Matthewses, can send a shudder through a city:

For reasons not clearly understood to this day, good players turn to mush instantly upon contact with Toronto. It may be the acid rain. Veteran star, proven role player, promising draft pick — you name it, the Leafs can ruin it.

hockey for castro’s cuba (baseball is our main winter sport)

f1257_s1057_it4903

So, no, that wasn’t Fidel Castro attending his first post-revolutionary hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens. As I wrote in this space back in 2012, it couldn’t have been, based on Castro’s having bypassed Toronto on his 1959 visit to Canada. But I wasn’t able, at the time, to identify the Castro-looking fan in the good seats at MLG.

Staff at the City of Toronto Archives cleared the case for me this weekend, as news carried from Havana that Castro had died at the age of 90. Touring Toronto in April of 1959 (above, in uniform) was the Cuban revolutionary government’s own Director General of Sports, Captain Felipe Guerra Matos.

He was a former rice-mill manager turned rebel, 32, wounded three times as a comrade of Castro’s in the long fight to oust the government of President Fulgencio Batista that had only come to its end in January of the year.

Like Castro, Matos had started his North American journey in the United States, dropping in to New York to see Mickey Mantle’s Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox 3-2 in their American League home opener April 12.

Travelling on to Toronto, Captain Guerra was pencilled in as the starting (ceremonial) pitcher as the local (not-hockey) Maple Leafs opened their International League season against the Havana Sugar Kings. Ontario Lieutenant-Governor J. Keiller Mackay ended up tossing the opening pitch, from what I can tell, with Matos as his catcher: the Toronto Daily Star judged it weak. Leafs won, 6-5, in front of 14, 268 fans. Honest Ed Mirvish was on hand to present Captain Guerra with a gift the Leafs wanted the Cuban people to have: a tractor.

It was later the same evening that Captain Guerra dropped by Maple Leaf Gardens, along with (to Guerra’s right) Bobby Maduro, who owned the Sugar Kings, and (to his left) the team’s road secretary, Ramiro Martinez.

Hockey’s Leafs had finished their season a week-and-a-half earlier, losing in the Stanley Cup final to Montreal. But the Cubans were just in time to catch the Whitby Dunlops take the Allan Cup from the Vernon, B.C. Canadians, and that’s who they’re watching here.

8-3 was the score, which meant that the Dunnies won the series four games to one. Doesn’t sound like it was great finale: “a dreary conclusion,” the Star’s Jim Proudfoot adjudged. Over and above Cubans, only 1,952 spectators showed up to watch Whitby captain Harry Sinden raise Canada’s senior amateur trophy.

Three of the Dunnies’ goals that night were scored by Sid Smith, the former Leaf captain. At age 34, he’d decided to hang up his stick and skates for good. “Working at a job and playing hockey as well becomes too tough a grind,” he told Proudfoot. “This is it for me. I’m going out with a winner.”

On and off the ice, Proudfoot attested, Smith had proved himself a big leaguer every minute of his distinguished career. “With the Maple Leafs he scored nearly 200 goals and played on three Stanley Cup teams. Returning to top-level amateur competition as Whitby player-coach, he helped win the 1958 world championship and now the national senior title. What more can he do?”

No word on just whether Captain Guerra took possession of any further farm machinery. I don’t think so. He did sit down during his time in Toronto with Star columnist Lotta Dempsey, with whom he chatted about his wife and sons; youth fitness; and whether the revolutionary executions of five or six hundred Batista murderers and torturers really mattered in light of the indifference with which the world had regarded the unspeakable cruelties of the former regime.

Back at Maple Leaf Gardens, The Globe and Mail’s Ken McKee wondered, having spent most of the previous three years in Cuba’s Oriente mountains with Castro, what did Captain Guerra think about hockey?

He was very impressed, he said (via Ramiro Martinez, who translated), “by the speed and hard body contact.”

In fact, his office was very interested in bringing hockey to the people of Cuba, most of whom had never seen it before.

Harold Ballard was in the house, president of Toronto’s junior Marlboros and a member of the Maple Leafs’ management committee. He said there might be interest in taking a couple of junior teams down, so long as there was money in it.

What about a league of North Americans playing in Cuba? Bobby Maduro put the chances of that at “very remote.”

“We bring ice shows in for a week or so,” he said, “and would operate a hockey tour the same way. Baseball is our main winter sport. Hockey would be a spectacle.”

 (Image: City of Toronto Archives,  Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4903)

27 x 10 (+ 40)

It’s 40 years tonight that Darryl Sittler, 65 now, went on his famous bonanza at the expense of the Boston Bruins and their permeable goaltender, Dave Reece. Sittler, as Lance Hornby of The Toronto Sun put it so delicately, made Reece “look silly” on the night of February 7, 1976 as he compiled six goals and four assists in an 11-4 Leaf routing.

1970s me, harshly reviewed by the passport office

1970s me, harshly reviewed by the passport office

I was there with my dad that night, a not-quite-ten-year-old. As I’ve written before, here, it was a noisy occasion on which I did not too badly on the quiz in the back of the Maple Leafs program. I don’t remember much more than that. I can recall the general outlook from our seats — reds, maybe? — looking down on the ice from the southwest corner of the rink. There’s no doubt that I would have been thrilled just to be in the building for an NHL game, and that I would have repeated the names of favoured players — Salming, Turnbull, Ratelle — as though to work a spell. I think I remember standing up for all the ovations we gave Sittler and, being small, having my view swamped by all the joyous Leaf-loving adults around us.

The Leafs are the road today, so the team celebrated Sittler’s feat early, in word online and in deed ahead of their home game last Thursday against the New Jersey Devils. Dave Reece was in on the celebrations, invited up from his home in Vermont to pay tribute to the man who tormented him out of the NHL all those years ago. For a man whose NHL fame is fixed on his worst night in the net and who never played another game in the league, he seems to have a kept his sense of humour about him. He told Lance Hornby that he wasn’t aware at the time that a record was in the making. “All I knew was the fans were going berserk and this guy keeps scoring. I’m thinking: How many goals does he need?

A couple of other anniversary notes:

• Bert Olmstead’s name seems to have gotten a little lost in this week’s excitement. Maurice Richard was the first, it’s true, to establish the record that Sittler broke in 1976: the Rocket scored five goals and added three assists in a 9-1 Canadiens win over Detroit on December 28, 1944. But as much of the media coverage has failed to acknowledge, Olmstead, who died in November, matched that mark in a 12-1 Montreal win over Chicago on January 9, 1954. The long, lean winger, The Globe and Mail called him that night: he had four goals and four assists. Richard couldn’t get a goal, but he did contribute five assists, and managed to tint if not entirely overshadow Olmstead’s feat of scoring.

Richard had published a newspaper column that week criticizing NHL president Clarence Campbell and the Forum crowd showed up prepared to voice their support of the beloved winger. Fifteen plainclothes’d policemen were on duty to help keep the peace. When the president showed up (late) to take his regular seat, Dollard St. Laurent had just scored to make it 3-0 Habs, but the cheers turned to boos as fans saw Campbell.

The Canadian Press:

The crowd of 13,930 booed the league president lustily between cheers for goal after goal, gaped at him between periods and at the end gave up a few yells of “go home, Campbell, go home.”

Occupying his usual box-seat in the south end of the Forum, Campbell took it all in stride and didn’t appear in the least flustered. He was not molested personally and the crowd, happy over the mounting score, was not openly belligerent.

• I’ve wondered, as the Februarys have passed, whether my memory had made up or exaggerated the brass blare from the Gardens’ loudspeakers that heralded Sittler’s goals in 1976. Milt Dunnell’s Toronto Star column from the Monday following suggests I didn’t. A great night it may have been in Leafland, but remember who ruled the kingdom: Harold Ballard. Maybe the owner was trying to channel the call-to-arms of British cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo, Dunnell mused:

Ballard’s bugler assaulted the eardrums of friend and foe alike with a canned version of “Charge” that had been wired into the sound system. No one seems to know who the bugler is. Maybe it’s just as well. This town has enough homicides already.

Dunnell also recounts that only that morning, Sittler had invited his parents to the game — Leaf teammate Greg Hubick had extra tickets — and while the Sittlers thought they were busy to make it, they did in the end make the trip from St. Jacobs, Ontario.

It’s not surprising that Harold Ballard was largely scrubbed from this week’s commemorations of Sittler’s big night — why sour the celebrations? — but the Leaf despot’s pre-game rant is worth a mention all these years later. A day before Sittler ran amok, Ballard had told reporters of his determination to find “a sensational centre” to play between wingers Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson. “We’d set off a time bomb if we had a hell of a centre in there,” he said.

Sittler, of course, was asked about this after the Boston game. The Star’s Frank Orr took down his answer:

“Undoubtedly, Mr. Ballard will figure his little blast inspired me to set the record but it just isn’t that way,” Sittler said.

“Maybe now he won’t have to hunt quite so hard for that centre he wants.”

see change: did bob nevin ever find his contact?

contacts

Readers write and what they want to know, many of them, has to do with the scene depicted here. Just this: did Bob Nevin ever find his contact lens that night in Chicago in 1962?

No, never did.

And it wasn’t Jack Evans who knocked it out, either. Time, then, for an update.

It was March and Toronto was at the old Chicago Stadium to play the Black Hawks. The game that ensued was “brisk, boisterous” (The Globe and Mail) and/or “tough, nasty” (Toronto Daily Star). On his way to scoring 50 goals for the first time in his career, Chicago winger Bobby Hull put away his 44th on the night. A teammate, meanwhile, defenseman Reggie Fleming, got into a post-game fight with three already-fighting fans, which led to the rest of the rest of the Hawks joining in to help. For the Leafs, winger Bert Olmstead was knocked out just before that when, to quote a Globe and Mail account, he “plunged into the boards, head first, near the end of the game after firing a shot at the Chicago goal.” Revived, he went to the hospital for x-rays of his head and shoulder, which revealed that he’d cracked his acromion. (“Ed. note,” advised the Globe’s Rex MacLeod — “everybody has one.”) He’d be back in two weeks, for the playoffs.

The Leafs won the game, 3-2. First to score was Nevin, in the third minute of the opening period. Six minutes into the second, he was detached from the contact lens he was wearing in his left eye. That’s according to the Star; The Chicago Tribune thought it was both lenses (and that there should have been a penalty):  

Dollard St. Laurent, Hawk defenseman, first caught Mr. Nevin in the corner, lined him up, and then gave him a body slam. As Nevin started to collapse, Dolly landed a short left hook that Referee Eddie Powers didn’t see, and then collapsed on the prone Nevin — knees first.

Play continued after Nevin arose, but the swift Toronto right winger just stood in one spot motionless, yelling for help. Time was called and players from both teams dropped to hands and knees searching for the lenses. They never were found, and Nevin groped thru the remainder of the game.

The Star would commemorate the moment in cartoon a few days later, while also noting that Nevin was one of the NHL’s most improved players of late. “Bob’s improvement,” Red Burnett wrote, “goes back to the time that general manager and coach Punch Imlach started to use him as a penalty killer with Bob Pulford and moved him on the line with Pulford and the injured Bert Olmstead. It seems Nevin thrives on extra ice time.”

For his part, Harold Ballard, Leafs’ VP and chair of the team’s hockey committee, mourned the cost of Nevin’s lost eyewear. “There goes another $100,” he said.

nevin contact

In other sundry NHL contact news from the 1960s:

• Centreman Eddie Joyal was leading the Los Angeles Kings in scoring in January of 1969 when he collided with an Oakland Seals’ defenseman, Bryan Watson, and the contact in his left eye “shattered.” The Associated Press reported that while Joyal suffered a corneal laceration, “a medical doctor said there is no permanent damage.”

Dr. Robert Kerlan said Joyal will wear a heavy bandage over the left eye and miss four games or more.

How he’d play without his lenses was a question Joyal was asked back in ’62 when he was playing in the minors. “If I lose ’em,” he said, “there’d better be a seeing-eye dog that can wear skates.” For the Kings, he did return, finishing the season with 52 points. That was well back of Phil Esposito’s Art Ross-winning total of 126, but still good enough to lead Los Angeles. 

• Also in 1969, Ottawa Citizen columnist Jim Coleman wrote about 40-year-old Leaf defender Tim Horton, who just happened to have scored the second goal in that game in Chicago in 1962:

When admiring team-mates are discussing Horton’s physical distinctions, the conversation smacks of a menagerie because, when they speak of Horton, they say: “he’s as strong as a buffalo and he’s as blind as a bat.”

Horton is notorious in the NHL for his allegedly poor eyesight. Ever since he was a youngster, he has worn spectacles off the ice. When he went to [in 1949, AHL] Pittsburgh, his employers insisted that he should equip himself with contact lenses so he could see the puck.

Twelve years ago when the Leafs were training at Sudbury, Tim forgot to take his contact lenses to camp.

“I’ve been playing without them for the last 12 years,” Horton says. “I’ve been hoping that no one would notice.”

For a 40-year-old with allegedly weak eyesight, Horton is doing okay. Gordie Howe and Horton probably will be the first two men to play regularly in the NHL at the age of 50.

thirty seconds in september

For the Russians, the vast Ukraine-like wheatlands of Manitoba and a rather dour crowd of 10,000 provided what Coach Vsevolod Bobrov described as “the most suitable environment yet.”

“We are very happy with Winnipeg. We found the people much like our own.”

• Tim Burke, Montreal Gazette, September 7, 1972

September 6 was a Wednesday in 1972. Four days had passed since the Saturday when Canada’s hockey team lost, shockingly, to the visiting Soviets in a rout. They’d redeemed themselves, a little, to the west, with a Monday win in Toronto. Now the teams had moved on to Winnipeg, where they were preparing to meet again under the gaze of the world’s largest rink-portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

Tuesday, in Munich, at the Olympics there, eight Arab terrorists had made hostages of 11 men from the Israeli team. After long hours of violence and blood, false hopes and failed negotiations, rescue efforts that didn’t succeed, the Israelis were dead.

The sports went on. Tuesday morning, even as the crisis continued, the International Olympic Committee’s American president, Avery Brundage, announced that the Games would continue as planned. “Canoe racing had already begun,” Red Smith wrote in his New York Times column. “Wrestling started an hour later. Before long, competition was being held in 11 of the 22 sports on the Olympic calendar.”

Not until 4 p.m. did some belated sense of decency dictate suspension of the obscene activity, and even then exception was made for games already in progress. They went on and on while hasty plans were laid for a memorial service tomorrow.

Wednesday morning 80,000 people filled the Olympic Stadium to mourn and pay tribute. “This service,” said an IOC statement issued beforehand, “should make clear the Olympic idea is stronger than terror and violence.”

I don’t know that there was any talk of cancelling the hockey game in Winnipeg. There was a discussion about how the hockey players might honour those who’d died in Munich. A minute’s silence before the puck dropped seemed like an appropriate gesture. A couple of directors from Hockey Canada wanted to go further: Maple Leaf Gardens president Harold Ballard and Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, decided that Team Canada should wear black armbands. Ballard hoped all the players would. “But I don’t know,” he said, “if the Russians will go for it.”

Ballard had other plans, too. He was going to organize some kind of trophy, or plaque. “It’ll have the names of the Israelis engraved on it,” he told Dick Beddoes for The Globe and Mail. “I’d like to have Mark Spitz dedicate it for the Hockey Hall of Fame before the first Leaf game in the Gardens this fall.”

Georgi Guzinov was the Soviet team’s trainer. The day before the first game in Montreal, he’d predicted that after three games the teams would have a win each to their credit along with a tie. He was right, of course: in Winnipeg the score was 4-4.

Paul Henderson blamed himself. “I blew three chances,” he said afterwards. Tim Burke wrote in The Gazette that if not for the goaltenders, Canada’s Tony Esposito and Vladislav Tretiak for the USSR, the score might have been 10-10.

Canada’s assistant coach, John Ferguson, said he was relieved “to settle for half a loaf.” Canada had been leading by 3-1 before they surrendered two shorthanded goals in the second period. Canada’s scorers were J.P. Parise, Jean Ratelle, Phil Esposito, and Paul Henderson while Vladimir Petrov, Valery Kharlamov, Yuri Lebedev, and Alexander Bodunov got the Soviet goals.

The Munich tribute didn’t go quite as planned. A few hours before the game, officials from the two teams met to discuss the armbands. Canadian coach Harry Sinden announced the outcome: there wouldn’t be any. “We decided that as one group of athletes paying tribute to another group of athletes, the minute’s silence was sufficient.”

He was half-right, anyway. On the ice, so as not to interfere with timing for the TV broadcast, that hushed minute was cut down to 30 seconds.

As for Ballard’s trophy, not sure what happened there. Mark Spitz was absent when the Leafs opened their season at home to Chicago on October 7, as was the Leafs’ Moscow hero, Paul Henderson, who was day-to-day (The Globe suggested) with aches and emotional drainage.

I’m not even sure that Ballard was at the game. But then he did have a lot on his mind that fall. He’d been convicted in August of fraud and theft, and he watched Canada and the Soviets play while he was free on $50,000 bail. Lawyers had agreed to postpone sentencing until after the all-important series was over. It wasn’t until October 20 that he learned he was going to a penitentiary for three years.

ghost coach

 I know, I know: the reason that the Toronto Maple Leafs say that Mike Babcock is the team’s 30th coach rather than the 31st is that they can’t count. Sorry: they can’t count Dick Duff, or don’t, won’t. The Leafs discount him, count him out, and so should everybody — which, fortunately, they’re already doing.

It’s not that Duff, 79 now, isn’t a good guy/former revered left-winger /six-time Stanley-Cup winner / Hall of Famer. He’s all that. Nor does the fact the Leafs lost the two games in 1980 when he ran the bench as a ghostly caretaker have anything to do with his exile.

The thing is, he was never formally appointed head coach. Unlike Babcock this morning, he wasn’t unveiled in a giddy city at a press conference even as the southerly breezes blew in Buffalo’s bitterness and Detroit’s disappointment.

Here’s how it went for Duff. The Leafs’ 1978-79 season ended when they lost to Montreal in the second round of the playoffs. Owner Harold Ballard had fired GM Jim Gregory and coach Roger Nielson’s contract was expiring. Ballard didn’t want him back anyway, unless he couldn’t find another coach, in which case, maybe, he would let Nielson stay. (“I may have to eat crow,” he said. “It’s not a very nice meal when you get to the feathers.”)

Ballard had his eye on both Don Cherry and Scotty Bowman but when they got away on him and he settled on bringing back an old Leaf hand, Punch Imlach, as his GM. In July of 1979, Imlach hired Floyd Smith to coach the team.

A week later, Imlach augmented Smith’s staff. “I asked Smitty when I hired him whether he’d like some assistant coaches,” the GM told The Globe and Mail. “He said yes.”

He got two: Johnny Bower, who’d been scouting for the team, would tutor the goaltenders, while Duff said so long to (as The Globe noted) the furniture business to help out with the forwards and defencemen.

Forward, fast, to the following season. The Leafs were in (ho-hum) turmoil. Imlach was feuding with/trying to humiliate Darryl Sittler. In what seemed to be part of his plan to undermine Sittler, Imlach put Ian Turnbull and Lanny McDonald on waivers. When he brought in Carl Brewer to play on defence, some of the players thought he was an Imlach spy, and in his first game back Borje Salming refused to pass him the puck. McDonald was traded to Colorado. Sittler cried.

Then in March, 12 games left in the regular season, coach Smith was driving on a Friday night from Toronto to his home in Buffalo when he crossed the median near St. Catharines, Ontario, and crashed head-on with another car. A woman in that car died and the driver went to hospital with serious injuries. (He would die of his injuries three days later.) Smith broke a kneecap and suffered (The Star) severe lacerations and abrasions.

The accident occurred, as the newspapers noted, no more than a mile from the place where Leaf defenceman Tim Horton died in 1974. “That stretch of highway,” said Imlach, “has caused me a great deal of grief and sorrow.”

Hockey, as it does, went on. Saturday night the Leafs were hosting the New York Rangers. That morning, Imlach visited the dressing room after the team’s morning skate to let the players know how Smith was doing and to announce that Duff would be in charge for the Ranger game.

“I told the players that Duff had absolute control of the team,” Imlach told the reporters afterwards, “and I wanted them to do exactly what he told them.”

“I told them that the best medicine they could give Smitty was to play well and win a few — and I think these players will do just that.”

The Leafs lost, 4-8. Nobody blamed Duff. Nobody knew who’d be coaching the next gam, though it did look like Smith wouldn’t be back that season. Imlach was evaluating the situation. Duff was happy to help in whatever way he could. “There are some mechanics behind the bench — changing lines, things like that — that I’ll need a few games to get down pat,” he said. “I’m willing, and I’d like to stay on the job, but that will be up to Punch.”

Monday night the Atlanta Flames paid a visit. Duff would be in charge again, though Imlach said he hadn’t made any decisions beyond that. The Leafs lost 1-5. The Globe: “The way the Leafs played, it wouldn’t have mattered who was coaching the team. They lacked zip, giving away the puck several times and refusing to forecheck in the Atlanta end.”

“I don’t know what it is with them,” Imlach grouched. “Maybe they’ve decided not to try because the trading deadline has passed. But I have a long memory. “They have three weeks to show that they want to stay here and play hockey. If they don’t show that, they’re saying to me that they’re looking to be traded.”

Wednesday was the next game, at home again, against the Winnipeg Jets, the league’s worst team. Tuesday Imlach announced his decision: he would himself be taking over as coach.

The Toronto Star reported how he broke the news to the players:

His first words as coach: “All I expect from you bastards is effort and I’d better get it.” Then he slammed the door and walked out of a film session. There was no applause from the players and no comment either.

With Dick Duff patrolling again as an assistant, the Leafs beat the Jets 9-1. Did it feel, maybe, like he’d never been coach at all?

the ship they sailed out on

Sail, Past: The Canadian Pacific steamship (and conveyor of Europe-bound hockey teams) SS Montcalm makes a mid-channel turn in April of 1937.  (Photos: Top, Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-063360)

Sail, Past: The Canadian Pacific steamship (and conveyor of Europe-bound hockey teams) SS Montcalm makes a mid-channel turn in April of 1937.
(Photos: Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-063360)

Canada opened the IIHF World Championships on Friday and they played another game today. In both cases, this year’s team did what Canadians usually do when the tournament is played in Prague: they skunked a lesser hockey nation. On Friday it was Latvia, we crushed (Sportsnet), downed (CBC), levelled (The Score) and/or piled on (Hamilton Spectator) by a score of 6-1. Today it was Germany we steamrolled (IIHF.com), routed (National Post), dominated (CBC.ca), and/or trumped (Hockey Canada). The score this time was 10-0.

I’m exaggerating, of course: we haven’t always made a clobbering debut in Prague. In fact, with today’s win, we’re only just now up to 50 per cent in terms of initial Euro-whuppings in the Czech capital. The breakdown looks like this: of the ten occasions the competition has been played there since 1930, Canada has been in attendance eight times. Those have indeed included some smoking starts, with keelhaulings of Germans (5-0 in 1933), bushwhackings of Poles (9-0, 1959) and fricasseeings of East Germans (9-1, 1985). But we’ve also only lightly pan-fried Swedes (3-2, 1938) and barely deglazed France (4-3, 1992), while in 1978 we — somehow; wait, what? — Canada actually lost to Finland (4-6).

The last time the world played in Prague, 2004, Canada opened its account by rallying to tie Austria, 2-2. Though not to worry: we did eventually win gold that year, as we’d done before in Prague, in 1959 and 1938.

The first time the world went there to play hockey was in February of 1933. Canada was represented by the Toronto Nationals, who’d earned the trip by winning the 1932 senior hockey championships, beating Fort William to claim the Allan Cup. That’s how it worked in those years, mostly, the Allan-Cup winner taking up the cause of the maple leaf on European ice — except when the runners-up went, as they did (for instance) in 1934, when the Saskatoon Quakers went to Milan in Italy to play.

With a name like Nationals the 1933 team seemed perfectly suited to the job they were taking on, but there was more to their name than plain patriotism. Sponsored by Toronto’s National Yacht Club, the Nats were known colloquially as the Yachtsmen or, more often, the Gnats. That they owed to their full and not-to-so-mighty-after-all name: the Toronto National Sea Fleas.

See Flea: Ready for racing, a sea flea on the water at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition in September of 1929.)

See Flea: Ready for racing, a sea flea on the water at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition in September of 1929.

The team’s manager was a fan of marine parasites, I guess — no, sorry, the actual story is that he was a keen racer of the small outboard hydroplanes — early jet-skis, sort of — that enjoyed a bit of a heyday in the 1920s and ’30s across North America and Europe. So that’s why Canada’s national hockey team went to the world championships in ’33 with a logo on their red sweaters that looked like a rising torpedo or a … speedy cucumber? While teams before and after them donned new national-team sweaters for the world tournament, the Sea Fleas were satisfied to play in their regular duds.

Wearing those in 1932, they’d claimed the Dominion championship in Montreal, beating Fort William (a.k.a. the Forts and/or Thundering Herd) in two straight games. Harry Watson was the Flea coach for that, a star of the Toronto Granites team that won gold at the 1924 Chamonix Olympics and a subsequent Hall-of-Famer. (Unlike another, later Hall-of-Fame Harry Watson who won five Stanley Cups, mostly with the Leafs, this earlier Watson never played in the NHL.)

That was a good year to be a hockey fan in Toronto: on the night of the April day that the Sea Fleas arrived back in town with their cup, the Maple Leafs beat the New York Rangers to win the club’s first Stanley Cup. When in May the Leafs threw themselves a banquet at the Royal York, they were good enough to include not only the triumphant Sea Fleas in the festivities but a raft of other accomplished local teams, including O.H.A. junior Marlboros and National midgets as well.

Mayor William James Stewart regretted that city bylaws prevented him giving gifts to the professional Leafs, but he was pleased to lavish the senior Fleas with wrist-watches.

Harry Watson didn’t return as the coach the following year, though most of the players stayed on. There some ongoing question about who would replace Watson before the team’s hydroplaning manager decided to take the bench. Beyond his interest in boat racing, he had experience in international hockey, having served as assistant manager with the 1928 University of Toronto Grads when they won Olympic gold at St. Moritz in 1928. He was 32, scion of a sewing-machine and skate manufacturer. His name was Harold Ballard.

On the domestic front, the team fell out of the 1933 Allan Cup early on, a failure that did free them to head off to Europe in plenty of time to get to their Prague appointment. On February 2, Ballard and his ten players caught the 10.45 p.m. train from Toronto’s Union Station for Halifax.

Two days later the team took ship and sailed away. It was the Canadian Pacific steamship SS Montcalm they were aboard, a lucky ship for Canadians on their way to win hockey titles, as might or might not have been noted as they headed out in the Atlantic chop: she’d borne Harry Watson’s Granites to Europe in 1924.

Tomorrow: Sea Fleas in Czechoslovakia