leafs in bud

Man of the Book: Ed Fitkin’s Kennedy bio appeared in 1949, five years after the man they called Teeder made his playoff debut as an 18-year-old.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs launching 18-year-old Nick Robertson into the NHL tonight — he’ll be in the line-up for the Leafs’ Stanley Cup Qualifier, making his big-league debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets — would we turn back for a moment to another youthful premiere in club history? Of course we would, and it would be a March night in 1944, when the great Ted Kennedy made his first playoff start for the Leafs.

The future Leaf captain and Hart-Trophy winner who’d go on to win five Stanley Cups with Toronto was, like Robertson, 18 when he played that first playoff game of his, though Kennedy was in fact younger on his debut than his modern-day counterpart by seven months or so.

Worth noting: Kennedy wasn’t the only 18-year-old in the Leafs’ line-up that night in the ’40s. Nor was he the youngest Leaf in the game.

This was wartime, of course, and with many NHL players having departed the league for military service, all six teams found themselves hard-pressed for manpower.

Desperate for skaters, the Leafs had signed a couple of 17-year-olds that season, including winger Eric Prentice, who (it so happens) grew up to be the father of the late federal cabinet minister and Alberta premier Jim Prentice. Prentice Sr. is still the youngest player to have played for the Leafs.

A bevy of 19-year-olds had seen Leaf service during the regular season in 1943-44, too, including a goaltender, Jean Marois, and winger Bud Poile, the future GM of the Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks whose son, David, is president and GM of the Nashville Predators.

To open playoffs that night in ’44, the Leafs faced the Montreal Canadiens, who’d finished the regular season atop the NHL standings, a full 33 points ahead of third-place Toronto.

Though he was making his first playoff start, 18-year-old Ted Kennedy had played almost the entire regular season for the Leafs, contributing 25 goals and finishing fourth in team scoring. Joining him at centre in blue-and-white was another veteran, 18-year-old Jack Hamilton, who’d played his first playoff game for the team a year earlier, when he was 17. Also at centre for the Leafs that night was 20-year-old Gus Bodnar; left winger Don Webster was 19.

The youngest Leaf on the ice that night was the other 17-year-old in the Leafs’ stable, defenceman Ross Johnstone. A year earlier he’d been playing for the OHA’s Oshawa Generals, coached by former Leaf titan Charlie Conacher, as they vied for (but lost) the Memorial Cup against the Winnipeg Rangers of the MJHL.

The oldest Leaf player that night in Montreal in 1944? Right winger Lorne Carr was 33 while left winger and team captain Bob Davidson had just turned 32.

The Leafs did get off to a good series start, all those 76 years ago, surprising Montreal in their own building and beating them 3-1.

“Spirit,” Leaf coach Hap Day explained afterwards, “is the quality that we have the most of, and that’s what paid off dividends.”

Not to jinx anything, but it was all downhill from there for Toronto. Montreal swept back to win the next four games and the series, before continuing on to beat the Chicago Black Hawks and win the Stanley Cup. In the game that decided the series against the fledgling Leafs, Montreal swamped them by a score of 11-0.

trials and tribulations, tiny thompson edition

Bobby Bauer shot the puck, backhanded, and Tiny Thompson stopped it, with his eyebrow.

Without that errant puck, hoisted by a teammate, and the damage it caused (that’s it, above), who knows how the fortunes of the Boston Bruins might have turned out in 1938? If he’d stayed intact, Tiny Thompson might have kept the Boston net, as planned, rather than ceding it to young Frank Brimsek. Of course, if that had happened, would the Bruins have gone to win the Stanley Cup the following spring?

This is a story that doesn’t answer that question, because it can’t. All it really aims to navigate is what happened to Tiny Thompson, who was born this week in 1903 in Sandon, British Columbia, in the first weeks of the 1938-39 NHL season. Also? How his circumstances coincided — collided? — with those of another distinguished goaltender, Normie Smith, who decided, in the end, that maybe he didn’t want to be a goaltender after all.

At the end of October that year, with the new season was a week away, Art Ross’ Boston Bruins were preparing for the campaign ahead as the consensus favourites to win the Stanley Cup. They’d come close in the spring, but not close enough, losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoff semi-finals. Chicago had taken the Stanley Cup.

Manager Ross hadn’t had to do much in the way of reloading. The veterans of his line-up included captain Cooney Weiland and defencemen Dit Clapper and Eddie Shore, and the young forwards of the Sauerkraut line were back, Bauer, Milt Schmidt, and Woody Dumart.

In goal, Thompson, who was 35, had been defending the Bruin net for ten years. He was up at the top of his game, having just won his fourth Vézina Trophy, the only goaltender in NHL history at that point to have won so many. Asked that very fall to name a team of the best NHLers he’d ever seen, New York Americans’ manager Red Dutton chose Thompson as his goaltender — the only active player in an elective line-up that included forwards Bill Cook, Dick Irvin, and Aurèle Joliat along with defencemen Eddie Gerard and Sprague Cleghorn.

Other Thompson claims to fame: he was the first NHL goaltender to have been pulled for an extra attacker (in 1931) as well as the pullee of record (probably) when the trick actually work out for the first time and a goal was scored (in 1937).

Back to 1938. For all the veterans in his line-up, Ross wasin the renewal business, as hockey managers have to be. He liked what he was seeing from young forwards Mel Hill, Pat McReavy, and Roy Conacher. Towards the end of training camp, he also acquired right winger Harry Frost, who’d led the U.S. amateur champion Hershey Bears in scoring a year earlier.

In goal, Ross had Frank Brimsek standing by. Just turning 23, he’d been serving his apprenticeship in the Internal-American Hockey League. Now he seemed ready enough for the big stage to spark a rumour that Ross was going to trade Thompson to Toronto in exchange for defenceman Red Horner. Ross did no such thing: with the season approaching, he made clear that Thompson would be the Bruins’ first-choice backstop, with Brimsek minding the nets for the IAHL Providence Reds, while also spelling off Thompson through the season. The writing that seemed to be on the wall still seemed to be off in the distance: as The Pittsburgh Press reported it, just before the season got underway “Ross believes Brimsek will have Thompson’s job in the Bruin cage in another year.”

He barely had to wait a month, as it turned out — and that Bobby Bauer backhand was the start of it.

The Bruins were finishing up two weeks of preparation in Hershey, in Pennsylvania, as October drew to its end. From there they travelled to Pittsburgh for an exhibition game against the (Larry Aurie-coached) Hornets of the International-American League. Art Ross was feeling good, declaring that the Bruins had enjoyed “the best training season in history.”

“If we can just get past Pittsburgh without any mishaps,” he said, “Boston fans are going to see a Bruins team in the best shape it has ever been [sic] at this time of year.”

“We must have set some sort of record for this training season,” he went — making a point of knocking wood as he did so. “We didn’t have a single injury. Not a player missed a single practice session, and the results are apparent in the way the boys are flying. From Eddie Shore down to our new kids, every one of them is ready to go.”

The Bruins won in Pittsburgh, and handily, 8-2. Roy Conacher collected a hat trick and Milt Schmidt scored two of his own. That was the Saturday. Sunday they arrived back in Boston for a final exhibition game, this one at the Boston Garden against the amateur Boston Olympics.

The Bruins prevailed by a score of 7-2, with Porky Dumart collecting a hat trick. The coach’s son, 21-year-old Art Ross Jr., was vying for a place on the Olympics’ roster and he took the net for the third period, but that doesn’t appear to have fazed his father’s employees — Dumart put two by him and Jack Portland added another.

At the other end of the rink, Tiny Thompson came through okay — it was after the game that he was wounded. The Bruins stayed on the ice to scrimmage and that’s when the goaltender, sprawled on the ice, stopped Bobby Bauer’s backhand with his starboard eyebrow.

Bruins’ physician Dr. Marty Crotty sewed five stitches. His opinion? He didn’t think it would keep Thompson out of the season opener, Thursday in Toronto. “As a precaution, though,” Herb Ralby wrote in the morning-after Boston Daily Globe, “the Bruins will hold on to Frankie Brimsek.”

Monday: Thompson insisted on practicing with the team, though the eye was swollen almost shut. “Tiny may be ready to play by Thursday night,” Ross was saying, “but we won’t take the slightest chance of his hurting it again.” Brimsek wasn’t needed in Providence before the weekend. “So he may as well come along with us.”

Also going to Toronto would be Bruins’ new “Baby Line,” featuring Conacher, McReavy, and Hill. “There’s only one way to put the kids to the test,” said Ross, “and that’s out on the ice.”

Not wanted on the voyage — or at least not getting on the train at Boston’s South Station — was Eddie Shore. Having started training camp, Shore now stopped to make the point that he wasn’t satisfied with what the Bruins were paying him. A couple of years earlier, he’d been the NHL’s highest-paid player, making a reported $10,000 a year. Injured and not so effective, he’d taken a cut in pay the year before — possibly as much as $4,000. Now he wanted his old salary back — and refused to sign his contract until he got it.

So Art Ross called up Jack Crawford to take his place in Toronto.

Born and raised in Eveleth, Minnesota, Frank Brimsek had never yet played a game in Canada. He’d only ever travelled north of the border once before. Thursday night , Ross started him in net as the Bruins beat the Leafs 3-2.

Brimsek kept the net for the Bruins’ next game, in Detroit, and he was superb in Boston’s 4-1 win there in which Normie Smith guarded the Red Wing goal, bravely but in vain.

Thompson played his first game in New York, which ended with the Bruins losing to the Americans. Nothing to panic about, of course, though the first goal was one that Thompson, as they say, would have liked to have had back. Napping was a word that appeared in The Boston Daily Globe’s account of what Thompson may have been doing when Lorne Carr sent the puck at him from out by the blueline — “a slow, knee-high shot that found a place in the corner of the net.”

Thompson redeemed himself next a game in a 1-1 overtime tie in the Bruins’ home opener against Toronto, which he preserved with what the Globe called “one of the most remarkable stops of his long career.” Eddie Shore was a spectator. Unable to make any headway with their star, Bruins’ management had put the matter in NHL President Frank Calder’s hands, but Shore still wasn’t signed.

With Thompson seeming to have claimed back his net, Boston beat Detroit and their new goaltender, Harvey Teno, 4-1. Thompson then beat the New York Rangers 4-2. With just a single loss in seven games, the Bruins seemed to be rolling, even without Shore in the fold. The fans hadn’t forgotten him: even as the Bruins piled up the wins, they were chanting his name.

Tiny Thompson was in goal again when Boston beat the New York Americans, 8-2. That was a Thursday, the last week of November. It was Thompson’s last game as a Bruin. By Monday, he’d been sold to Detroit, where the Red Wings had been living through a goaltending drama of their own. Normie Smith was their mainstay, had been for three years, during which he’d won a Vézina Trophy while helping his team win two Stanley Cups.

For all that past glory, the 1938 season had begun badly: the Red Wings lost their first four games. The Rangers were responsible for the last of those, in New York. Later that same night, Smith failed to return to his room at the Piccadilly Hotel and in the morning, when his teammates caught the train for Montreal, Smith missed that.

Adams fined him $150 and announced that he was calling up 24-year-old Harvey Teno from the IAHL Hornets. This was the first fine imposed on a Red Wing in years, Doc Holst of The Detroit Free Press explained:

Since 1935 Adams has had a strict rule on the club forbidding even one glass of beer. There is a $50 fine for its violation. The club now is the only one in the league that forbids players beer after hockey games. Serious trouble experienced by Adams players in the old days brought about the strict rule.

Not that he was suggesting anything in particular regarding Normie Smith: he, Holst insisted, had a reputation for “strict sobriety.”

Smith made it to Montreal in time to play. He explained that he’d been staying with friends on Staten Island and had simply overslept. Adams heard him out, but gave Teno the start. Smith watched from the stands as the Red Wings won 7-1. That made it easier, I suppose, for Adams to decide that he was sending to Smith to Pittsburgh to punish his peccadillos.

So Teno played in Boston, facing Tiny Thompson and Eddie Shore, too: he was back on defence after having agreed to what was reported to be a $12,000 contract. Returned to his perch as the NHL’s best-paid player, he sparked the Bruins to a 4-1 win. Thompson also starred.

That didn’t dampen the rumours. One of them reached Montreal’s Gazette, who had it that with (i) Brimsek’s ascendance and (ii) the fact that Thompson didn’t get along with Eddie Shore, Art Ross was (a) about to accept Jack Adams’ offer of $15,000 cash for Thompson, unless he (b) already had.

He hadn’t, though. Word from Boston was that fans were outraged at the notion of losing Thompson, and several sportswriters added their doubts to the debate.

The lobbying seems to have registered with Art Ross, if only up to a point. As Doc Holst told it, Ross had turned Adams down four times before changing his mind at 3 a.m. on the morning of Monday, November 28. With Eddie Shore’s new contract to pay for, Ross told Adams he’d take his $15,000, along with either Normie Smith or IAHL Pittsburgh goaltender Jimmy Franks.

“We regret that we were forced to dispose of Tiny,” Ross told reporters later on that morning. He was soon quelling an insurrection within his remaining roster. “First they took Marty Barry,” defenceman Dit Clapper was quoted as saying, “and now it’s Tiny. Well, I’m going to ask Art Ross to sell me, and I don’t care where I go.”

Clapper stayed, in the end. As for Thompson, Ross gave him a $1,000 “bonus” as he prepared to leave town. The goaltender was pleased, too, to be headed for a new opportunity, he said. “I should last a few more years there than I would in Boston.”

Boston had no choice but to cull their crowded crease, Jack Adams said. Brimsek, he felt, would be ensconced there now for 14 years. “Thompson,” he said, “should be good for five more years.”

It was a stint that Thompson started well, notching a 4-1 win with Detroit over the Stanley-Cup-champion Black Hawks. “Thompson,” went the Detroit Free Pressdispatch from Chicago, “did everything with grace and ease and directed the defence as calmly and coolly as though he had been in the Detroit nets his entire career.”

As for Normie Smith, he’d played a single penitent game with Pittsburgh for Larry Aurie’s Hornets, a 5-0 loss away to the Hershey Bears. The Pittsburgh Press reported “a most amusing goal” that got by him:

Normie Smith had stopped Wally Kilrea’s shot at the goal mouth, and feeling that he had cleared sufficiently, he paid no more attention, leaning against his goal net and chewing gum. Sammy McManus, sparkplug of the Hershey Bears, coming up halfway between the face-off spot and the crease, flicked the puck in for Hershey’s fourth goal. The crowd laughed for more than half a minute.

That can’t have helped Smith’s mood, much less his confidence. That had been suffering for a while, according to Doc Holst. The Red Wings had had a rough 1937-38 season and with the poor start to the new season, the fans in Detroit had been booing the goaltender. “Smith, normally good natured and philosophical,” Holst noted, “has taken the criticism as the natural course of events until recently, when it was observed that it had begun to more than just get under his skin.”

After the Hershey loss, Smith returned to Detroit, where he and Teno both practiced with the team ahead of the Red Wings’ Thanksgiving game against Chicago. With Teno playing so well, Adams said, it was hard not to stick with him. Smith, he decided, would head back to Pittsburgh for at least one more game.

But Smith wasn’t having any of it. “I won’t play minor-league hockey,” he said. “I am either good enough to play for the Red Wings or not at all. I told Jack at the start of the season that when I had to play minor-league hockey, I was through. And I am. Detroit is my home and my living is here and I intend to stay.”

And so, aged 30, Normie Smith called it quits. He had a job — “a responsible position,” the Free Presssaid — at the Ford Motor Company, and so he dedicated himself to that. “I intend to keep in shape and if Jack ever needs me to play in the nets in an emergency, I will play. I want to be a Red Wing or nothing.”

He remained unmoved a few days later when he heard that he may have been traded to Boston. He wanted no part of them, either.

“I can’t make him go if he doesn’t want to,” Adams said. Jimmy Franks doesn’t seem to have made it to Boston, either — in the end, as far as I can determine, it was a straight cash deal.

Regarding the longevity of Adams’ new goaltender, his forecast was a little off. Thompson played just two seasons with Detroit before he was supplanted by Johnny Mowers. He left to coach the AHL Buffalo Bisons.

As for Brimsek, he began his Boston career by backstopping the Bruins to the 1938-39 Stanley Cup. He lasted five years with the team before signing up to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard for the duration. After the war, he returned for four more Bruin seasons before a final one in Chicago in 1949-50.

Normie Smith did make it back to the Red Wing net, eventually. After four years out of the NHL, he returned to the only team he ever wanted to play for, appearing in six games over two seasons from 1943 through 1945.

 

(Top image © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography, photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)

leafs in springtime: nobody is going to give us anything

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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 said it was “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 once 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