neo conn

Conn Man: Jean Béliveau with the silverware he accumulated on a Saturday of this date in 1965, when his Canadiens won their 13th Stanley Cup and the Montreal captain was chosen as the inaugural winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. (Archives of Ontario)

“General opinion in these parts is that NHL governors should be herded to the saliva box if they fail to name Montreal’s master craftsman Jean Béliveau for the new Conn Smythe Trophy and the loot that goes with it.” Easy (if not entirely sanitary) for columnist Vern DeGeer to write, as he did in the Montreal Gazette on a Saturday of this same date in 1965 ahead of the game that would decide the winner of that year’s Stanley Cup. By the time it was over, the hometown Canadiens had dismissed the Chicago Black Hawks by a score of 4-0 to win the seven-game series and claim the 13th Cup in franchise history. Sure enough, when NHL president Clarence Campbell stepped up to announce the winner of the inaugural Conn Smythe, recognizing the playoff MVP, it was the Montreal captain’s name he spoke. Fifty-five years ago tonight, Béliveau, who was 33, won the handsome new trophy and its accompanying loot of $2,000 (about $16,000 in 2020 dollars), half of which was awarded by the NHL, half by the Canadiens.

It’s true that Chicago’s Bobby Hull had been in the Conn conversation, earlier in the series, when there were also fleeting mentions that Montreal defenceman J.C. Tremblay deserved a chance. Hull did end up as the playoff scoring leader, gathering ten goals and 17 points in 14 games to Béliveau’s eight and 16 in 13 games. The Montreal captain’s showing in the latter days of April sealed the deal: he recorded two goals, including the winner, as well as a pair of assists in Montreal’s 6-0 game-five win. May 1 he again scored the game-winner, and later added an exclamatory assist.

If nobody really disputed Béliveau’s worthiness, there was a brief hue and cry in the days leading up to the decision. The new trophy, which cost $2,300, had been donated by the Toronto Maple Leafs in honour of their influential president, coach, and manager, who was also an honorary NHL governor. While NHL’s other individual awards were decided by a poll of sportswriters, by Smythe’s own request it was decreed that the winner of the new award would be annually voted by the league’s governors.

There were six of them, at the time, august names all, adorned with initials to prove it. From Toronto there was C. Stafford Smythe, Conn’s son; Bruce A. Norris stood for Detroit while his half-brother, James D. Norris, represented Chicago. The New York Rangers had William M. Jennings. Weston W. Adams was Boston’s man, and from Montreal it was J. David Molson.

The arrangement was this: at the conclusion of the final game of the finals, the jurors would file their ballots with Clarence Campbell and he would duly announce the winner. I’ve seen a single reference suggesting that the governors would decide on a shortlist of three names before they did their voting, with points awarded on a 5-3-1 basis, but I don’t know whether that’s how they actually proceeded, in ’65 or the years that followed — there’s no public record that I can find of finalists or voting tallies.

The hue that was cried was, mostly, Jim Vipond’s. Another leading columnist of the day, he was sports editor at the Globe and Mail, wherein he lit a small rocket on Thursday, April 29, 1965, under the headline “Smythe Trophy Vote a Farce.”

His issue? Three of the NHL governors — Boston’s Adams, New York’s Jennings, and Norris of Detroit — hadn’t attended a single game of the final round. Chicago’s Norris and Montreal’s Molson had been at all five games to that point; Toronto’s Smythe had seen four.

“Each absentee delegated authority to an executive member of his organization who is probably more qualified than his boss,” Vipond allowed. “But this was not the intent nor the meaning of the terms of reference.”

“The missing governors are at fault on at least two counts. First, they should have been in attendance out of respect for the man after whom the trophy was named. Second, this is the world series of what they loudly refer to as major league sport. By their absence they depreciate the league they represent.”

He continued:

“Considerable thought was given to the method of selecting the winner. Managers, coaches, and newspapers all were rejected.

“Obviously the system in use is a poor one and if the governors are really interested in advancement of hockey they should consider a better scheme before next year.”

Vipond liked an idea floated by Ron Andrews, the NHL’s publicity man and chief statistician. “It is his proposal that the league invite six former players, one from each team and stars in their own day, to attend the playoff as guests of the NHL. There would be three at each game of the semi-finals, will all six at all games of the finals. They would cast a ballot after each game with the league president counting the votes at the end of the series.”

“That would produce a worthy winner and would be far better than a remote control system operating out of Florida or some other place far removed from playoff action.”

I don’t know how the governors reacted to Vipond’s reproach — or if the three absentees were sufficiently stung to fly in to see the final game of the series. There was no official response, and no change to the system.

That didn’t come for another six years. Since 1971, the winner of the Conn Smythe has been voted by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. They picked Montreal’s goaltender, Ken Dryden, that spring, after his Canadiens won their 17th Cup. By then, the league loot accompanying the Conn Smythe seems to have grown to $1,500 (about $10,000 in today’s money). And while I’m not clear whether Canadiens were matching that figure, it is the case that Sportmagazine stepped up to give him a car for his efforts.

For Béliveau, the 1971 Cup was the tenth and final one he won as a player: he announced his retirement later that summer.

A Stitch In Time: Toronto artist and editorial designer Nadine Arseneault’s embroidered rendering of Béliveau and his ’65 Conn Smythe. You can find her on Instagram @nadine.design.

boston for the win

An exercise in “humanitarian concern,” writer Jack Batten called it. “It will do no less than head off the threat of brain fatigue, emotional delirium, heart murmur, incipient alcoholism, and all the other dread symptoms annually associated with following the spectacular ups and downs of a National Hockey League season.”

I don’t know whether Canadian hockey fans truly appreciated the mission of mercy that Batten and his editors undertook on their behalf at Maclean’s magazine nearly 50 years ago, or whether they only indulged it as an entertaining lark. To spare the faithful the time-consuming and oh-so-stressful trouble inherent in following a season’s worth of NHL hockey, Maclean’s decided they’d get in ahead of the season and ask a computer to figure out how it was all going to play out — a “$500,000 computer,” no less.

If this seems all very Stanley Kubrick, well, it was 1970, a mere two years after 2001: A Space Odyssey made its debut in movie theatres.

Looking back, the magazine’s “bloodless and coolly scientific” effort to determine just how the 1970-71 NHL season would end might be best remembered as the novelty act it was. But it also offers a fascinating glimpse into the state of NHL stats at the time, and just how fancy they were getting.

Leaving the pundits to muddle in their guesswork, Maclean’s arranged early in 1970 to gather up a pile of NHL statistics from the ’69-70 season and drive them out to Scarborough, Ontario, for a visit to the offices of Honeywell Controls Limited, then billing themselves as “The Other Computer Company — or, as Batten puts it, Avis to IBM’s Hertz.

How big a pile? “A staggering load” is Batten’s measurement. For these raw numbers, Maclean’s looked to NHL statistician Ron Andrews, not a household name, to be sure, but an important one in hockey history. A former Canadian Press reporter with (as Batten puts it) a “special numerical curiosity,” Andrews was digging deeply into the numbers the game generates and thinking about how they might be used to analyze how it’s played long before NHL President Clarence Campbell hired him in 1963 to collect and organize the league’s statistics. Calling him Andrews a pioneer of plus-minus may not be the compliment it once was, but no-one did more to build the foundation of hockey analytics than he did. With his 1970 Maclean’s cameo, Andrews, who died in 2003 at the age of 67, offers a view into the sophistication of his operation — including a list of 22 offensive categories, “not all but many” of those he and his hunter-gatherers around the league made it their business to track for each NHL player.

While Andrews provided the league’s ’69-70 stats to Maclean’s, he wasn’t in on the computing. He takes his bow early, with a bit of a growl. “The only trouble with all our statistics,” he says, “is that most fans and writers don’t know how to interpret them properly.”

Uh-huh, says Batten. Who doesknow how to read them?

“Coaches do. They understand the best way to judge a player is to watch him perform on the ice. But they use the figures as a backup, as a confirmation of their own ideas. They use them to work out problems, like which players to put together on the same line. That makes sense.”

Anyone else?

“The computer,” Andrews says. “A computer knows what numbers mean.”

Honeywell’s was a Series 200 Model 1250 — “called Foster by its friends,” Batten writes. The company had a crew of three assigned to the Maclean’s job, including a forecasting expert and a programmer responsible for loading the NHL’s hockey data onto punch-cards to feed to Foster.

This, the project’s lead told Batten, was by no means a blind operation. “We attached different weights to the different factors, so that some pieces of data, goals scored, say, were given more significance than others — minutes in penalties, for instance. We helped the computer along by making judgments from our own intuitive understanding of hockey. After all, the computer’s never seen a game.”

The programming took weeks — “several” of them, Batten says. “We don’t accept the computer’s programming forecasts right off, the Honeywell man tells him. “We look at the trends it’s showing, and we compare them with what we know is actually going on in the real world. Then we adjust our programming accordingly, and feed everything back into the computer again. It’s a continuous process. For example, if the computer started to show a trend favorable to the Buffalo Sabres, we’d know we’d have to make adjustments, right?”

When all was said and done — once Foster had “memorized, digested, juggled, and computed the data” — by then, it was “a bright afternoon early in September,” and the computer “presented on its spinning tape a scientific view” of how the season ahead would unfold.

Foster’s regular-season forecast had Boston finishing first in the East, followed by Montreal, while in the West Chicago would prevail ahead of Minnesota.

Eastern teams had swept past their western rivals three years in a row to win Stanley Cups in the late 1960s. In a bid to make the upcoming ’70-71 finals more competitive, the NHL rejigged the playoff format to bring eastern and western teams together in the semi-finals. With that in mind, Foster saw Boston ousting the Minnesota North Stars at that point, and Chicago bettering Montreal.

This latter scenario, one of the programmers told Maclean’s, was all about Foster’s thinking on the Black Hawks’ youth and vigor. “The computer knows that Montreal, with its older guys, is not going to finish the season as fresh and healthy as Chicago. That’s how the Black Hawks get the winning edge.”

It wouldn’t last against Boston, come the finals. The Bruins, of course, had won the Cup in 1970, with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk leading the way. They’d do it again in 1971, Foster felt.

“It couldn’t be any other way,” one of his Honeywell handlers explained. According to the computer, the outcome wouldn’t even be close. “I’d have to call it a slaughter.”

It’s worth noting that Maclean’s saw fit to bolster Foster’s findings with an accompanying column by Harry Sinden. He wasn’t what you’d call an entirely disinterested party, having taken his (temporary) retirement after coaching the Bruins to the 1969-70 championship. For him, Honeywell’s Series 200 needed no correcting. “The Bruins,” Sinden computed, “will ultimately whip everybody for the Stanley Cup.”

History, of course, gets the final say. It shows that while Boston did in fact finish top of the 1970-71 NHL regular-season standings, the Bruins foundered early in April when they ran up against a young goaltender named Ken Dryden in the first round of the playoffs. Having adjusted Boston’s and Foster’s programming accordingly, Dryden’s Montreal Canadiens went on to defeat Minnesota and Chicago to win the Stanley Cup they couldn’t convince Honeywell to hand over.