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.

fellows wrestle to the ice, time after time, in hockey, with no one hurt (though not this time)

Sling Shot: Toronto captain Ted Kennedy on a call at Boston’s Hotel Sheraton Plaza on January 2, 1953, the day after his run-in with with Bruins’ counterpart Milt Schmidt.

Milt Schmidt had his version of what happened, and the gist of it was this: not his fault.

New Year’s Day, 1953, Toronto was in Boston. The Leafs ended up yielding to the Bruins by a score of 5-1. “A sprightly display,” one of the local papers decreed, despite a couple of “accidents.” The view from Toronto wasn’t so bright. “One of the most vicious games at the Garden in years,” The Toronto Daily Star assessed it. Some in Boston concurred: a local columnist declared that the Garden hadn’t seen a brawl so wild since October 15, 1950.

This time, for Boston, the win cost them centreman Dave Creighton, whose fibula broke under duress from Leaf defenceman Fern Flaman.

Toronto captain Teeder Kennedy, 27, was gunning, in the parlance, for his 200th NHL goal. He’d have to wait. In the second period, he met up with his Boston counterpart, Milt Schmidt, at the Toronto blueline, and what the Star called a fracas ensued.

While Schmidt punched Kennedy’s face, Boston’s Leo Labine and Warren Godfrey wrestled Leafs Jimmy Thomson and Ron Stewart, respectively.

Schmidt and Kennedy were separated once but clashed again when Toronto defenceman Tim Horton came to his captain’s aid. The Star:

The powerful Bruins’ leader, with a half-swing, half-flip, threw Kennedy to the ice. Ted’s head hit the ice and he was knocked cold.

Back in Toronto next morning, this all showed up on the paper’s front page. Suffering from a broken collarbone and torn ligaments as well as a “slight” concussion, Kennedy was said to be ruled out for at least five weeks. Creighton was gone, the thinking was, for the rest of the season.

While the Leafs headed back to Toronto on the train, Kennedy rested in hospital. Kennedy, who didn’t drink, downed the brandy they gave him there (“made me woozy,” he said later) before flying home next day to Toronto for surgery in the company of the team’s own Dr. Hugh Smythe, and Mrs. Smythe, too.

“It was one of those things,” Kennedy told reporters. “I don’t remember too much about it, except that Schmidt and I tussled, were separated, and were squaring off again.” Next thing he knew, Leafs’ trainer Bill Smith was waving smelling salts in his face. “And I had a sore shoulder and a sore head.”

Milt Schmidt? Kennedy absolved him. “They tell me Milt began calling for a doctor, and made no attempt to hit me after we landed on the ice. I certainly appreciate that, because I can think of a number of others in the league who would have taken advantage of a situation like that to get in some licks. I certainly don’t bear any grudge or animosity towards Schmidt.”

The Bruins’ captain was relieved to hear it. “It was one of those things,” he told The Toronto Star. “Fellows wrestle to the ice, time after time, in hockey, with no one hurt. This time, unfortunately, Kennedy had tough luck. It could have been me just as easily. I’m sorry it had to be a great competitor like Teeder.”

Schmidt’s account of what happened went like this: “We were throwing some leather, were separated, and the next thing I knew we were at it again.”

“Kennedy had his arm around my neck, which, by the way, was sore before we started. I had to get out from the headlock, twisted, and grabbed him, and we fell to the ice with him on top. His head hit the ice and he went limp. I got an awful scare, because the whites of his eyes were showing. I lifted his head and called for a doctor.”

Doreen Kennedy was on hand to meet her husband’s plane when it landed at Malton Airport. Even with a stopover in Buffalo, the flight beat the Leaf-laden locomotive back to Toronto by half-an-hour. Kennedy sported a cast on his shoulder, and a slight bump on the head, under his fedora.

“It’s the rub of the green,” he reiterated to the reporters who were waiting. “There was nothing dirty about it. Schmidt and I were battling, and they tell me I landed heavily on the ice on my shoulder and side of my head. They also told me Milt took one look and called for aid from the Leaf bench. It could have happened to him, instead of me.”

“This is the first such injury I’ve had in hockey,” Kennedy said, “and also the first liquor I’ve had. I don’t think much of either.”

The captain was the third Leafs’ center to go down, joining Max Bentley (lower back strain or, as one report put it, “twisted spine”) and Rudy Migay (torn knee ligaments) on the sidelines. Kennedy didn’t think his absence would affect the team’s playoff hopes. “We have other players,” he said. He was right about that, but wrong about the playoffs: for the first time in seven years, the Leafs would end the regular season on the outside looking in.

Back in Boston, Milt Schmidt was giving the local Daily Globe a slightly different version of events from the one Toronto readers were seeing.

The truth? It was all Tim Horton’s fault.

“He hit me with his elbow and I went back at him,” was Schmidt’s version of how he and Kennedy had come to blows in the first place. Score settled, they’d separated. But before the peace could take hold, Horton, boisterous Leaf rookie, riled it all up again.

“The fight was all broken up,” Schmidt explained, “when that fresh little mug stuck in his two cents worth. That started it all over again. I’d have punched him in the face except that he wears contact lenses.”

cast and crew

dave creighton

Cast And Crew: On the bright side, 22-year-old Boston center Dave Creighton scored two goals on the first day of 1953, when the Bruins beat Toronto 5-1 at the Garden, and he was named the game’s first star when it was all over. He’d been stretchered off by then: in the third period, Fern Flaman dragged him down and fell on him, breaking his right fibula near the ankle. Dr. Thomas Kelley plastered it up in the rink and sent him to spend the night at home in Newton. Next day (above) he was in at the Somerville Hospital for an x-ray. That’s teammate Ed Sandford with him, on the left, alongside Dr. Walter Whitaker; Bruins’ goaltender Sugar Jim Henry; and Dr. Kelley.

The game’s other casualty was Toronto captain Teeder Kennedy, 27. He got into a fight in the second period with Boston captain Milt Schmidt, sparking a scene that The Boston Globe described as “the biggest free-for-all in more than two years.” A Donnybrook, a tussle, a melee, the tumult, take your pick. “Schmidt got across a couple of stiff jolts to Kennedy’s face,” The Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald wrote, “and it looked like the officials were going to gain control, when diversions set in.”

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