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.

fab four

Born in Parry Sound, Ontario, on a Saturday of this same date in 1948, Bobby Orr turns 72 today. He was already a phenom at 16 when Trent Frayne went to watch him play for the OHL Junior A Oshawa Generals for a 1965 feature for Maclean’s. “A crew-cut, blue-eyed, well-adjusted, polite, medium-sized boy,” is what Frayne encountered, one with the potential to “become the finest offensive defenceman since Doug Harvey.” Talking to  Lynn Patrick, Frayne heard the Boston GM say this about his eagerly awaited top prospect: “He amazes me every time I see him. The way he can anticipate what’s going to happen is sometimes uncanny. You know, sensing where the puck is going to be and moving there even before the puck does. I never saw a promising player.”

Orr was 18 when he played his NHL game for the Bruins in October of 1966 against the Detroit Red Wings. “I think it’s wonderful, but I can’t help being a little anxious,” his mother, Arva, told the Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald from Parry Sound on the eve of her boy’s debut. “I guess it’ll be the same as always. I’ll be biting my nails until it’s over and we hear how it comes out on the late news.”

The tidings that reached north were good: the Bruins won, 6-2, with Orr assisting on Wayne Connelly’s second-period marker. “Although he did not score a goal,” Fitzgerald reported, “the boy with the blond whiffle did everything else expected of the best at his position. Bobby demonstrated that the critics who doubted his defensive savvy were dead wrong. He played the position like a veteran; was very tough in dislodging opponents around the net; blocked shots; and made adept moves in moving the puck from his own end.”

Interviewed in the Detroit dressing room after the game, a Red Wing elder was asked for his assessment of the rookie. “The kid’s all right,” said a 38-year-old Gordie Howe. “He’ll do, for sure.”

(Image by Gypsy Oak. Follow him on Twitter @gyspyoak)