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.

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

Pro and Conn: Leaf boss Smythe congratulates Bill Barilko after his overtime goal won Toronto a Stanley Cup. "We just out-Irished them,” Smythe said at the time, alluding to Leaf luck in a tight series.

Pro and Conn: Leaf boss Smythe congratulates Bill Barilko after his overtime goal won Toronto a Stanley Cup. “We just out-Irished them,” Smythe said at the time, alluding to Leaf luck in a tight series.

Bill Barilko still hadn’t disappeared on April 21, 1951, and there was no mourning for his memory, yet, just as there were no songs about him and (for a few more hours at least) no famous photographs of him falling to ice as he scored the goal that won the Toronto Maple Leafs their seventh Stanley Cup.

They were close-fought, those Finals, that year: “five consecutive sudden-death overtime heart buster” is how The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond wrote it. This last one, the Leafs’ Tod Sloan tied the score at twos with 32 seconds remaining in the third period, goaltender Al Rollins on the bench.

Barilko’s goal came at 2.53 of overtime. You can hear Foster Hewitt’s frantic call at CBC’s Digital Archives, here. James Marsh, founding editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia, attended the game as a seven-year-old, deciding early on, before the goal, that Barilko was going to be his favourite player — I’d read about that, if I were you, here.

barilko parkhurst

Referee Bill Chadwick supervises in the 1951-52 Parkhurst card based Turofsky’s famous photo.

As for the songs, I’ll leave you to spin, repeatedly, The Tragically Hip’s “Fifty Mission Cap” at your leisure — but have a listen, too, to “The Bill Barilko Song” by (NDP MP) Charlie Angus and The Grievous Angels. You’ll find it here.

As for the photographs, the best-known is the Turofsky, snapped (most likely by Nat rather than Lou) from behind, with the puck already in the net though Barilko is still falling. “It’s a flawless image, of course,” Andrew Podnieks writes in Portraits of the Game (1997), his fond celebration of the Turofskys’ rich hockey archive, though I have to say I prefer the view from the front, as caught by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns from the opposite side. (At first glance, I thought that must be one or other of the Turofskys in the corner, but of course it can’t be, the sightline isn’t right.) I like the handsome hopeful look on Barilko’s face that I’m glad to see in the Burns. In the Turofsky, as Podnieks notes, none of the spectators has realized yet that it’s a goal. They’re still in a time before the Leafs have won.

Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil knows, though, I think, even though he’s got his eyes closed.

Won The Leafs The Cup? Barilko looks to see if he's scored in this view by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns.

Won The Leafs The Cup? Barilko looks to see if he’s scored in this view by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns.

This is another Burns, below, I’m assuming. It shows the moment of Barilko’s arising from the ice, just before he’s mobbed by teammates.

Game Over: A few fans have begun to celebrate. On the ice we see, from the right, referee Bill Chadwick. Behind the net, Habs' defenceman Tom Johnson (10) tussles at Howie Meeker. Gerry McNeil sits while Bill Barilko arises. Butch Bouchard stands in front, looking lost, while Leaf Harry Watson (4) makes for the goalscorer. In the far corner, Cal Gardner (17) lifts his stick while Maurice Richard mimics Barilko's heroic moment. Hard to say who the fifth Hab is, far left.

Game Over: A few fans have begun to celebrate. On the ice we see, from the right, referee Bill Chadwick. Behind the net, Habs’ defenceman Tom Johnson (10) tussles at Howie Meeker. Gerry McNeil sits while Bill Barilko arises. Butch Bouchard stands in front, looking lost, while Leaf Harry Watson (4) makes for the goalscorer. In the far corner, Cal Gardner (17) lifts his stick while Maurice Richard mimics Barilko’s heroic moment. Hard to say who the fifth Hab is, far left.

Danny Lewicki was a 19-year-old rookie for the Leafs that year. He recalls the aftermath in his 2006 autobiography, From The Coal Docks to the NHL: A Hockey Life:

The roar of the crowd was deafening. I have never heard, nor probably will ever hear such pandemonium. What an unbelievable series! …

The next hour was a blur. We skated around the ice in glee. We posed for pictures. I hugged so many people and shook so many hands that I was sore. But I felt no pain. We went into the dressing room to change into civies [sic] and the Stanley Cup was carried by Ted Kennedy into the Maple Leafs’ dressing room. They brought the Cup in and then they just whisked it out. I didn’t even get the chance to touch it.

Kevin Shea later collected Gerry McNeil’s unhappy view of things for Barilko: Without A Trace (2004). “It’s been my claim to fame,” the old goalie said before his death in 2004. “I still get a lot of mail from that goal — people asking me to autograph their picture of the Barilko goal.”

It wasn’t a hard shot, he said.

“I just simply missed it. You have a sense on most goals of the puck coming and you get ready, but on this one, I don’t know what happened. I had to look at pictures after. It surprised me — I don’t know how the puck got in. At the time, I didn’t even know who shot it — I never knew who scored most of the goals that were scored against me. But there was Barilko. He was right at the face-off circle.”

“It was just a shocker. It was an awful disappointment.”

leafs in springtime: nobody is going to give us anything

IMG_1596

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

fatally flawed, no-mojoed, flabbergasted: what would shakespeare say?

Howie Meeker, Leaf of a happier era

Howie Meeker, Leaf of a happier era

“Maple Leafs stay hot by crushing Ducks,” was a headline in The Toronto Sun once, a long time ago, in mid-December. Things have been not so good of late: heading into tonight’s game in New Jersey, the team is in its worst losing streak in 48 years, having won just one of 13 games in January. Following, to help navigate the woe, a sampler of headlines from selected Toronto media over the last month:

December 31

2014: An unforgettable year the Leafs would like to forget
(The Globe and Mail)

January 4

The Maple Leafs’ core is fatally flawed
(The Globe and Mail)

January 6

Randy Carlyle fired as Toronto Maple Leafs coach: ‘Our team was not trending in the right direction’
(The National Post)

Randy Carlyle’s firing was long overdue
(The Globe and Mail)

January 7

Toronto Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel on criticism: ‘I don’t really care’
(The National Post)

Toronto overrates its teams, sets expectations ‘too high,’ Flyers’ Bob Clarke says after Maple Leafs fire Randy Carlyle
(The National Post)

Jim Thomson

Jim Thomson

January 8

Leafs now on outside looking in at playoff picture
(The Globe and Mail)

January 15

Toronto Maple Leafs shut out again in loss to Anaheim Ducks
(The National Post)

January 16

James Reimer outstanding but Toronto Maple Leafs still lose to San Jose Sharks, 3-1
(Toronto Star)

‘No pity party’ for Leafs: Coach Peter Horachek
(Toronto Sun)

Moribund Leafs have lost their mojo, and identity: DiManno
(Toronto Star) Continue reading