the last goal he ever scored (won the leafs the cup)

North Star: March 25 was a Friday in 1927, the day that iconic Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko was born in Timmins, Ontario. He played just five NHL seasons before he scored the goal that Gord Downie would come to immortalize in song, beating Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil in overtime on Saturday, April 21, 1951 to win the Leafs their ninth Stanley Cup. Barilko died later that summer in a plane crash. He was 24. Hoisting the hero in the moments following his heroics are Leafs (left) Cal Gardner and Bill Juzda. To their right, that’s Howie Meeker alongside Ray Timgren, whose stick partly obscures … Jimmy Thomson? Joe Klukay is farthest to the back.

 

(Image: Michael Burns, from A Century of NHL Memories: Rare Photos from the Hockey Hall of Fame, used with permission)

working for the honour, on and off the ice

Born in Winnipeg on a Wednesday of this date in 1927, Jim Thomson was starting his 12thseason working the Toronto Maple Leafs blueline when he was named captain of the team in the fall of 1956. At 30, he was a four-time Stanley Cup-winner by then, and twice he’d been named to the NHL’s Second All-Star Team. Coach Howie Meeker recommended his promotion to the captaincy ahead of the new season, succeeding Sid Smith. “This being a young team,” Meeker wrote to Leafs’ supremo Conn Smythe, “I think more than ever we should have a captain who can set an example on and off the ice for the kids.” Thomson had proved himself to be the Leafs’ best defenceman at training camp, the coach continued. And: “He is the only one of the possible captain candidates working for the honour on and off the ice.”

And so it was that Thomson, pictured here with his wife, June, proudly showing off his C’d sweater, took up as the Leafs’ on-ice leader. The season, unfortunately, didn’t go so well: the team stumbled from the start, and ended up out of the playoffs. By time it was all over, Smythe had accepted responsibility for what he called “a year of failure” — while summarily axing Meeker and long-serving GM Hap Day. As for Thomson, he signed on during the season as secretary for and Leafs’ representative to Ted Lindsay’s fledgling players’ association. When the players went public in February of 1957, Thomson soon found out what his boss thought of the whole business. Benched and stripped of his captaincy, Thomson was soon sold into exile, joining Lindsay and others on the NHL’s island of Broken Toys, a.k.a. the Chicago Black Hawks. “I find it very difficult to imagine,” Smythe railed, “that the captain of my club should find time during the hockey season to influence young hockey players to join an association that has no specific plans to benefit or improve hockey.”

Thomson played a year for the Black Hawks for he hung up his skates in 1958. He died in 1991 at the age of 64.

room service

Sew, Now: Toronto Maple Leafs trainer Tim Daly takes pre-game needle-and-thread to captain Teeder Kennedy’s hockey pants in this 1951 Franklin Arbuckle painting that adorned the cover of Maclean’s magazine in March of that year. A little over a month later, a memorable overtime goal by Bill Barilko dismissed the Montreal Canadiens and won the Leafs the Stanley Cup. Also seen here: right wing Howie Meeker takes a seat while, and next to him (number 20), that’s centre John McCormack. I’d say it’s left winger Sid Smith beside him, watching Daly’s handiwork. (Image: Franklin Arbuckle)

below the belt: the great leaf groin crisis of 1957

“Guts, goals, and glamour” was the slogan that GM Hap Day Toronto Maple Leafs draped on his team in the mid-1950s and it was one that his coach Howie Meeker gladly took up when he took charge of the team for the 1956-57 campaign. But halfway through the season, with the Leafs cruising closer to the bottom of the NHL standings than the top, another not so melodious g-word was crowding into the phrasing: groins.

Toronto had gone nearly six years without winning a Stanley Cup, and ’56-57 wouldn’t be their year again. That March, not long after the team missed the playoffs, Day resigned his post, and while Meeker hung around for a little longer, Leafs president and managing director Conn Smythe fired him before the spring had turned to summer. Smythe himself was retiring that year after a lively 30 years helming the Leafs, though not before naming a new coach (Billy Reay) and installing a committee of GMs (it included his son Stafford and Harold Ballard, among others) to steer the team into the future.

Whatever the particular lacks and flaws of the ’56-57 Leafs might have been, injuries did play a significant part in their failure to launch. Hap Day was talking about that in a story that appeared on this very January day in 1957 in The Globe and Mail. “I can recall some pretty rough seasons but never one to equal the present campaign,” he told Red Burnett. “I don’t believe we’ve been able to put a full-strength team on the ice since the season started.”

Injured Leafs had by that point missed a total of 124 games — and they still had 27 games to play. Over the entirety of the previous season, they’d lost a total 66 man-games to injuries. (As of today, this year’s Mike Babcock-led edition of the Leafs have lost 50 man-games.)

Among the ’56-57 wounded were defenceman Hugh Bolton, who’d been out 27 games with a broken leg, and forward George Armstrong, 16 games on the shelf with torn ligaments. Bob Pulford (strained back), Gerry James (battered shoulder), Barry Cullen (charley horse + fractured hand), Marc Reaume (gammy foot), and Tod Sloan (shoulder separation) had all been absent.

For all that pain and damage, it was the ubiquity of one particular ailment that seems to have concerned Conn Smythe most. Defencemen Jim Thomson, Tim Horton, and Jim Morrison had all at some point gone down with groin injuries that season, along with forwards Rudy Migay and Ted Kennedy.

As the pair of memos shown here memorialize, Conn Smythe was on the case. Could his team of highly tuned professional athletes be failing to stretch properly before they threw themselves into the fray? And what about these nefarious stops and starts? Were theyto blame? On this day 62 years ago, he started his investigation with a phone message to GM Day, who duly answered.

danny lewicki, 1931—2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

strategy sesh

Café Society: Howie Meeker turns 94 today, so happy returns are in order, along with (why not) a photo from the middle (though possibly late-isa) 1940s. Meeker (left) shares a coffee and a laugh with Leaf teammates Vic Lynn (middle) and Joe Klukay. There’s no way to confirm it, of course, but take a moment to study those cups: is it possible that Klukay’s is harbouring a frothy latte? On the menu behind, a Sirloin Steak is a pricey $1.20. Pie and Ice Cream? A very reasonable 20 cents.

a good game of growl

September’s calendar in 1972 made a Friday of September 22, just like ours today. Back then, Canadians and Soviets were playing hockey again after a two-week hiatus. Maybe you remember: the upstart Communists had dominated the Canadian leg of the eight-game series, winning two, losing one, tying another. Home in Moscow, they scored five third-period goals in a 5-4 win at the Luzhniki Palace of Sports.

As many as 3,000 Canadians had travelled with the team to cheer them in Moscow. If you were back home watching in the rec room, you might have had in hand Hockey Canada’s Official Home TV Program. The 16-page brochure included handy summaries, line-ups, and stats from the series to date, along with uplifting messages from the likes of NHLPA executive director Alan Eagleson and Team Canada coach Harry Sinden. “I’ll say this,” the latter assured fans on their couches: “I have complete confidence in the ability and determination of our players. I firmly believe they are the finest team ever assembled in the world. As we open the series in Moscow, I sincerely hope all Canadians share this confidence with me.”

Broadcasters also weighed in (above) on what they saw for the final four games. Johnny Esaw would, of course, be disappointed along all the rest of Canada: Bobby Orr wasn’t ready for any action, let alone lots of. Brian McFarlane got it just about right: Canada’s final edge could hardly have been sliced slighter. Most interesting, though, is Howie Meeker having his tetchy say. Nothing in here about winning. Ever the teacher, he just hoped for a Team Canada that would be returning home smarter about how to play the game we so desperately like to claim for our own. Hard to say, still, 45 years later, whether he got his wish.