Category Archives: Conn Smythe

Heroes and Dreams

001More than a hundred years of heroes and dreams. Of men donning the sweater and hitting the ice. The years of kids watching and reading about, dreaming and becoming. From the time Didier Pitre took a pass from Jack Laviolette and slid it over to Newsy Lalonde, little boys donned the sweater, the bleu, blanc, et rouge, and they became Pitre and Lalonde and all those who came later. kids-sweater1-150x150

From the days of Georges Vezina stopping pucks for Les Canadiens, little kids wanted to stop pucks too, on lakes and ponds and old rinks throughout, and when they wore the sweater, they made the saves with people cheering them, and for all those winter nights near their homes, they were Georges Vezina.

Like magic they became Howie Morenz and Aurele Joliat, Toe Blake and George Hainsworth. They wore the sweater on nights so cold it should’ve been illegal, slapping old rubber balls into snowbanks, stopping cow pies on slews, deking friends and sisters and little kids on the pond. wearing the red or white sweater with the simple and beautiful CH crest sewn on front.004

They became the Rocket, and Lach, Bouchard and Harvey, and they saw the game in their dreams. Behind the skaters they were Durnan and Plante crouched by the net, and when the time came, they were the Boomer and Big Jean scoring on the power play. It unfolded at the Forum and the Olympia and Conn Smythe’s old barn and the outdoor rink frozen in winter at the baseball field. And kids heard them on the radio and saw them in black and white and shuffled their bubblegum cards, wearing the sweater and becoming anyone they wanted to be, just when they wanted to be. 003

The wore the sweater when the Pocket Rocket wouldn’t give up the puck, when the Boomer boomed, and when the Gumper kicked out his pads. They opened boxes at Christmas and there was one to put on right away, and they were Ken Dryden and Lafleur and the Big Bird. And their kids and kid brothers wore the sweater when Patrick Roy and Carbo and then Kovalev and Koivu graced the ice. And now, new guard is in place, and kids are becoming them too.

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They said goodbye to the Forum and to the Rocket and all those others who went when it was time and when it wasn’t time, and they wiped little drops of tears from their sweater. And they smiled and clapped and looked above as they watched the sweaters of their heroes raised triumphantly to the rafters.

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Every night now, the Bell Centre is packed with young and old, still wearing the sweater of the Montreal Canadiens. It’s been a dream for more than a hundred years. We are Georges, Howie, the Rocket and Guy. We’re Patrick and Saku and Price and Gally.

We wear the sweater whether we have a sweater or not, and we continue to hope.002

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Papa Got A Brand New Team

I’m a Habs fan, born and raised in Orillia, Ont, which is Leafs country I suppose, considering it’s only an hour and a half north of Toronto. I’m a fan and my old man had a lot to do with it.

My dad, who served in the Canadian army overseas in WWll, was a hockey fan most of his life, although his enthusiasm waned as he aged, which I understand more and more. He followed the Leafs when he was young, and once wrote a letter in the 1930s to Ace Bailey, who lay in a hospital after Boston’s Eddie Shore clubbed him over the head, ending his career, and nearly killing him.

Bailey’s wife wrote back and thanked him.

Later though, my dad began to change his mind about his team. The Toronto Star and Telegram both plastered their papers with Leafs stories and my dad would complain. It was always “Leafs, Leafs, Leafs” he used to say. Broadcaster Foster Hewitt was the definitive homer, and this rubbed dad the wrong way. And pops was a quiet fellow and wasn’t crazy about the brash, loud, and arrogant Leafs owner Conn Smythe.

In the 1950s, with television entering households, it was usually only Leafs game shown, and when the Montreal Canadiens played in Toronto, my dad liked what he saw on his TV. There was the Rocket, Beliveau, Harvey, and Plante. Magical names. Stanley Cups began to be won by the Habs on a regular basis, and the Leafs just kept plodding along. The Canadiens had something the Leafs didn’t.

When I was a boy he started a big Montreal Canadiens scrapbook for me. He helped me write fan letters to the Rocket, and at one point, Rocket sent me a Christmas card. He took me to Maple Leaf Gardens a couple of times, and once, when we were really early and stood at the gate, the Canadiens players walked right by us.

He bought me a hockey book for Christmas which he mailed to Montreal asking for autographs, and it was mailed back signed by the entire 1957-58 Habs – Richard, Plante, coach Toe Blake, Beliveau, Geoffrion etc, with Doug Harvey’s as the only signature missing. Later when we went to a game at the Gardens, he brought the book with him, took it down to the Montreal dressing room corridor, saw Toe Blake standing there, and asked Blake if he would take the book into the dressing room and get Harvey to sign it.

Believe it not, Blake did just that.

Thanks dad.

Summer Windbag

May 20 – Mike Babcock leaves the Detroit Red Wings to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, with the deal calling for 50 million bucks over eight years. Seriously, that’s more than I made at BC Ferries.

Last year Toronto brought in a hot shot advanced stats guy, and now it’s this coach. We’re all screwed. The Leafs will probably be fantastic from now on. Unstoppable every year until the two of them retire. Leafs fans are lucky.

May 21 – Babcock mentions at his big press conference that the Leafs are “Canada’s team”.

May 25 – Today I’ve been thinking about what Babcock said about Canada’s team. I wanted to know who Canada is, the one the team belongs to, so I typed in Canada 411 and had a look.

The problem is, there are quite a few people in Canada named Canada, and I’ve no idea which one the Leafs belong to. There’s Graham Canada in Brampton, Vicki Canada in Vancouver, Gorving Canada in Toronto, Sheldon Canada in Alberta, and a whole bunch in Manitoba, including Mervin and Terry. Others too, including Catherine Canada in Quebec. And then there’s the parents and siblings. All these Canadas, and at least one of them owns the Leafs. Right now we don’t know which one, but I’m hoping it’s Mervin.

Whichever Canada it is, maybe his or her granddad was part of the crew that helped build Maple leaf Gardens and took shares from Conn Smythe instead of money. And if it’s one of the Manitoba Canadas like Mervin, the neighbours probably had no idea. They thought the Canada clan down the road were Jets fans.

May 27 – Guy Lafleur says Brendan Gallagher should captain the Canadiens. Guy says what he thinks, and I say good for him, he doesn’t keep things bottled up inside which could lead to ulcers. Last year he put the hammer down on Max and Tomas Vanek for having lousy post seasons, before that it was Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau’s handling of Alex Kovalev, and in 2007 he said the Habs were a team of 4th liners. I’m sure there were more.

Management must grit their teeth when they find out that the Flower has spoken again.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter what Guy or any of us think about who should wear the C. It should be put to a dressing room vote. They know each other. They have showers together. But call the vote when no one’s expecting so there’s no time for players to do some personal brown nosing to garner votes, like buying flowers for the other guys’ wives, or babysitting their kids.

And sadly, Carey Price’s name shouldn’t be on the ballot. You know, the goalie/captain thing. But if Price was a forward or d-man, it’s the captaincy for sure.

June 2 – Jeff Petry signs a new six year, $33 million contract with the Canadiens. I like the Habs blueline. You got yer P.K. and Petry and Beaulieu and Emelin and Pateryn and Tinordi. And yes, even Old Man Markov, who will be relying on smarts only from here on in, which is still good.

June 3 – The Stanley Cup Final featuring the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks begins. Canada’s team isn’t involved. Probably next year because they have the coach and the stats guy. Mervin or Graham, or whichever Canada it is that the team belongs to, will be cheering wildly from Manitoba or wherever.

June 4 – Something slightly unusual happens to me today.

 

 

R.I.P. Elmer

Lach

Elmer Lach has died at age 97, and like the old names slowly being removed from the Stanley Cup to make room for new, Elmer’s passing is another chapter closed.

He was a junior star in Saskatchewan, invited to Toronto so the Leafs could see what he was made of, and following a practice that Conn Smythe in particular wasn’t impressed with, Elmer hopped on a train and headed back to Moose Jaw to play senior hockey.

The Leafs weren’t thrilled about Elmer bailing out, and promptly traded his rights to the New York Rangers, who wrote Elmer and told him to bring his skates and make sure they were sharpened.

But Elmer didn’t go, he became a free agent instead, and signed with Montreal, the only team he would play with (from 1940 to 1953), and where he made his mark as part of the legendary Punch Line with the Rocket and Toe Blake.

The Punch Line. Crafty elder statesman Toe Blake. Scoring machine overdosing with desire, Maurice Richard. And hard-working, never give up, aggressive, sometimes dirty, always talented playmaker Elmer Lach, who scored the Stanley Cup winner against Boston in 1953, causing a jubilant Rocket to jump into his arms and break his nose. The hardest check I ever received, said Elmer.

Elmer was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966 and his (and Henri Richard’s) number 16 hangs from the rafters at the Bell Centre. Well deserved honours for this legendary Hab.

So long, Elmer. You’re gonna have a great time meeting up with the old gang again.

 

Cool Leafs Snub

As we make our way across the country, I thought I’d change things up slightly and do this instead.

The telegraph below is a tad difficult to read so I’ll type it.

It’s from the Leafs’ Conn Smythe to player Jackie Leclair, dated Sept. 15, 1952.

“You received instructions per your contract to report to the training camp September 14th. Have you any good reason why we should not suspend you for failure to report.”

telegraph 1

Jackie Leclair replied,

“Sorry, cannot report to camp. Still playing baseball. Be through on the 20th. Would rather stay in Quebec. Letter on the way.”

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Leclair never did report to the Leafs and later on, from 1954 to 1957 (3 seasons), he would play for the Montreal Canadiens where he got his name engraved on the Stanley Cup twice.

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The Writers Get Paid

From my collection, this original accounts payable sheet is from Frank J. Selke, signed at the bottom, to various writers who had contributed stories to the Maple Leafs Gardens program in 1938.

Frank Selke, before he became the iconic GM of the Montreal Canadiens from 1946 to 1964, was an assistant and right-hand man to Conn Smythe in Toronto, from 1929 until ’46, when he moved to Montreal.

The names on this sheet are extraordinary, and when you see a payment of $40 for example, according to the Consumer Price Index, $40 in 1938 is equivalent to $642.23 today. And $25 equals $457.42.

Here they are:

Bobby Hewitson, an NHL referee from 1920 to 1934, was the very first curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was sports editor of the now-defunct Toronto Telegram, a newspaper I delivered when I was 11 or 12. I had the final edition copy for years until my ex-wife threw it out.

Bill Grimes, legendary Boston sportswriter.

Elmer Ferguson, legendary sportswriter for the Montreal Herald and Montreal Star, which spanned 39 years. Elmer was also a radio commentator for the Montreal Maroons (1933-38) and the Canadiens (1938-67). He remains one of the greatest hockey writers of all time.

Tommy Munns, assistant sports editor of the Globe and Mail.

Victor O. Jones, sportswriter for the Boston Globe.

Ted Reeves, a true legend. Played on two Grey Cup Argos teams, and became a beloved sports writer with the Toronto Telegram and Toronto Sun. There’s even an arena named after him in Toronto. He used to write these rambling sports poems, one of which I have in an old program, and his nickname was “The Moaner.”

Fred Jackson, succeed Lou Marsh as sports editor of the Toronto Star.

Hal Straight, sports editor of the Toronto Sun, a man who taught Pierre Berton the ins-and-outs of the newpaper business.

Marc McNeil, sportswriter for the Montreal Gazette.

Bill Roche, sportswriter in Sarnia and Toronto, and hockey author.

Jim Hurley, sportswriter for the New York Daily Mirror.

Harry Scott, sports editor of the Calgary Albertan, who played two seasons for the Montreal Canadiens (1913-14, 1914-15), with Georges Vezina and Newsy Lalonde as teammates.

Please note: I couldn’t find any information about Boaxil O’Meara and John Buss. If anyone can fill me in I would appreciate it very much.

Dad, What The…?

My father was a Habs fan as far back as I can remember, but from reading his journal he once wrote about his childhood, it turns out he was a Leafs fan when he was a kid. He changed later on, and I wish he was alive so I could ask him about it.

All I know is, he used to complain about all things Leafs, including Foster and Bill Hewitt and of course Punch Imlach and Conn Smythe, and he’d go on about the sports section of the paper which was all Leafs, all the time, which, except for him, is understandable considering it was a Toronto paper.

But thankfully somewhere along the way, he became a Habs fan. If I had grown up a Leafs fan, I might have had to shoot myself.

Here’s a section of his journal:

“The Toronto Star used to come up on the train the day after it was published and as a rule, we could usually come up with the three cents it cost. We didn’t have a radio but I became a Toronto Maple Leafs fan through reading the sports pages of this paper. Almost every day of the hockey season, the sports section would carry a drawing of a player and these I would cut and paste in a scrapbook.

It was around 1932 when one of the Leaf players, Ace Bailey, was injured in a game against the Boston Bruins. While he was in hospital, I wrote him a letter and in due time received an answer from his wife along with an autographed picture of him. I dare say, I must have been the proudest kid in Trout Creek and I like to think I was the envy of all the other boys in town.”

 

 

Smythe And Kid

When you see a building being built that takes maybe a year to finish, think about this; Maple Leaf Gardens was built during the depression in just five months.

It takes me that long to build a fence gate.

Conn Smythe recruited several rich buddies to invest in the Gardens, and when the money fell short by several hundred thousand dollars, he convinced the workers to trade twenty percent of their wages for shares in the building. The thing got built and the workers’ shares, that were bought for a dollar apiece, quickly increased by a hundred-fold.

Smythe was one powerful hockey man. After building Maple Leaf Gardens and a successful Leafs franchise, he was offered the presidency of the entire league, basically so the other owners would finally have this loud and forceful bully out of the way. But Smythe said no way was he becoming a yes-man to the owners. So they hired Clarence Campbell, who was the definitive yes-man and a guy the owners, especially Smythe, could manipulate like a puppet.

Think about the St. Patrick’s Day riot in 1955 in Montreal, when Campbell suspended Rocket Richard for the remainder of the season, plus all of the playoffs. Owners, especially Smythe, had been fed up with the Rocket causing havoc with officials throughout the league and wanted him reined in. Happily for them, they had Campbell to do their dirty work for them, who turned around and handed Richard that gigantic suspension that we still talk about every St. Patrick’s Day.

Years later, someone asked Stafford Smythe, Conn’s son who succeeded dad as Maple Leaf president, why they didn’t get rid of Campbell, who would, from time to time, piss the owners off. Stafford replied, “Where would we find another Rhodes scholar, graduate lawyer, decorated war hero, and former prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, who will do what he’s told?”

Stafford seemed to be a man disliked by almost everyone who knew him. Howie Meeker punched him in the face during a disagreement about certain players when Howie was coaching the Leafs, and it seems whenever there’s mention of Stafford in various books, it involves bullying and manipulating, and it’s obvious the man had issues. Just not a nice person. Rude to the players’ wives. A tax evader, a fraudster, and a stealer of company funds.

Dad had more class than son.

Conn had a beautiful apartment built in the innards of the Gardens where he lived much of the time and where he called in many Gardens employees to yell at and often fire. How cool would that be? You don’t have to go out in the cold when you go to the games.

He also owned a thriving gravel pit where some of the Leafs worked, and a ranch where he raised prize racing horses.

Smythe held firm when it came to the players’ idea about forming a players association, and managed to prolong it for ten years, mostly by convincing all the teams to trade the main instigators, like Ted Lindsay and Doug Harvey, to other teams. He was very proud of this accomplishment. A union of course wouldn’t jive with Conn. He needed full control. He needed to be able to treat his players and coaches as he saw fit, and pocket much of the profits while being cheap about giving small raises to deserving players.

I wonder if Gary Bettman has a picture of him taped to the ceiling above his bed.

The old bastard also lobbied for years to stop Harvey Busher Jackson, one of his star players throughout the 1940’s in Toronto, from being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame because he disapproved of Jackson’s drinking and womanizing. Smythe would quit hockey completely when Jackson was finally inducted in 1971.

He also didn’t like Roman Catholics and was mortified when son Stafford fell in love with and married one.

Conn Smythe was a piece of work, but raised countless dollars for crippled children. So he had a good side of him, I suppose. Although it doesn’t excuse him for all the other stuff. And that includes fathering Stafford.

What Players Had To Do

I pulled cards from my 1954-55 set to show you examples of what players back then did for summer jobs, which you can see on the last line of each player description. This was long before a players association, when the game was much different, and there was no such thing as a wealthy player. The owners made millions, the players worked summer jobs, and if these stars-on-ice somehow incurred the wrath of Conn Smythe and other owners or general managers, they could be buried in the minors or cast adrift, rarely or never to be heard from again.

 

 

 

Selke Pays The Program Writers

From my collection, this original accounts payable sheet is from Frank J. Selke, signed at the bottom, to various writers who had contributed stories to the Maple Leafs Gardens program in 1938.

Frank Selke, before he became the iconic GM of the Montreal Canadiens from 1946 to 1964, was an assistant and right-hand man to Conn Smythe in Toronto, from 1929 until ’46, when he moved to Montreal.

The names on this sheet are extraordinary, and when you see a payment of $40 for example, according to the Consumer Price Index, $40 in 1938 is equivalent to $642.23 today. And $25 equals $457.42.

Here they are:

Bobby Hewitson, an NHL referee from 1920 to 1934, was the very first curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was sports editor of the now-defunct Toronto Telegram, a newspaper I delivered when I was 11 or 12. I had the final edition copy for years until my ex-wife threw it out.

Bill Grimes, legendary Boston sportswriter.

Elmer Ferguson, legendary sportswriter for the Montreal Herald and Montreal Star, which spanned 39 years. Elmer was also a radio commentator for the Montreal Maroons (1933-38) and the Canadiens (1938-67). He remains one of the greatest hockey writers of all time.

Tommy Munns, assistant sports editor of the Globe and Mail.

Victor O. Jones, sportswriter for the Boston Globe.

Ted Reeves, a true legend. Played on two Grey Cup Argos teams, and became a beloved sports writer with the Toronto Telegram and Toronto Sun. There’s even an arena named after him in Toronto. He used to write these rambling sports poems, one of which I have in an old program, and his nickname was “The Moaner.”

Fred Jackson, succeed Lou Marsh as sports editor of the Toronto Star.

Hal Straight, sports editor of the Toronto Sun, a man who taught Pierre Berton the ins-and-outs of the newpaper business.

Marc McNeil, sportswriter for the Montreal Gazette.

Bill Roche, sportswriter in Sarnia and Toronto, and hockey author.

Jim Hurley, sportswriter for the New York Daily Mirror.

Harry Scott, sports editor of the Calgary Albertan, who played two seasons for the Montreal Canadiens (1913-14, 1914-15), with Georges Vezina and Newsy Lalonde as teammates.

Please note: I couldn’t find any information about Boaxil O’Meara and John Buss. If anyone can fill me in I would appreciate it very much.