Category Archives: Conn Smythe

Reporting Live From The Press Box, Just Over From Foster And Bill

Tom at the Ryan Coke Experience suggested I do this and I thought about it and decided it might be fun. He said I should watch games from the Montreal Canadiens Memorable Games 10 DVD set, and report on them like they were live and had just happened.

So, live, from the press box in 1960, the game.

LEAFS NO MATCH FOR CANADIENS AS  A RECORD 5th CUP IS WON

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It’s a hustling, bustling night for scalpers outside the cathedral on Carleton Street as hockey fans, sensing history could be made, scramble to find a ticket to get in the door. And it seems that price is no issue as reports have come in that some are paying upwards of forty bucks for a seat, even high up in the greys, where it seems you’re watching from outer space.

And why are fans so anxious to witness game four of the Habs-Leafs clash tonight at the Gardens? Because the juggernaut which is the Montreal Canadiens, with four consecutive Stanley Cups already notched, are poised to win another, and fans feel it’ll be tonight. So the air is thick with excitement and anticipation, mixed with the feeling of resignation. Leaf fans know a home-team win might be asking too much.

And no wonder. The Canadiens rolled over the Chicago Black Hawks four straight in a lightening-fast semi final, and have won the first three against the Leafs in this final. It seems that this is a team that isn’t going to be stopped anytime soon. And they’re doing it with the aging and less-than-healthy Maurice Richard, who many feel will retire after this campaign.

My seat in the press box is just to the right of the Gondola, and I can see the father and son team of Foster and Bill Hewitt, poring over their notes and adjusting their microphones. Bill is the play-by-play man now, with Foster only adding colour, and although I can’t hear what they’re saying, I still glance from time to time to see their reaction to the game below. Foster was good, Bill’s even better, but neither of them can compare to Danny Gallivan in Montreal. But there’s no doubt, Foster Hewitt has seen a lot of hockey in his day. And down below, 14,000 fans sit and eat popcorn and read the Canadiens lineup in their programs, and yes indeed, know what is probably coming.

If the first period is any indication, Lord Stanley’s mug will certainly be hoisted tonight. The Canadiens are playing like they can taste it, and at the 8:16 mark, big Jean Beliveau, who’s proved time and again that he’s the heir apparent to the great Rocket, scores on a long shot that Toronto goalie Johnny Bower probably didn’t see. If he saw it, he would have stopped it, I’m sure. And then, just 27 seconds later, Habs defenceman Doug Harvey finds the twine in similiar fashion, with a long shot that also evades Bower.

Doug Harvey is in a league by himself when it comes to blueliners. He controls the game, as he is tonight, making those perfect passes, blocking shots in front of goalie Jacques Plante, and thumping when thumping is called for. There’s no defenceman in the world right now like Harvey, and it makes you wonder if somewhere out there, in some small Canadian town, a young guy may be learning his trade and will take over the crown which Harvey holds now. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone can become as good as Harvey.

Leafs’ coach and taskmaster George “Punch” Imlach must have had a lot to say to his team during the first intermission, because the boys in blue have come out in the second with more enthusiasm, more drive, hitting the post, storming Plante, but to no avail, and now, late in the period, Henri Richard, on a nice set-up from big brother Maurice, puts Les Habitants up 3-0, and certainly the partisan crowd knows now that the team in white, a powerhouse full of future Hall-Of-Famers, will be winning their fifth Stanley Cup on this night.

It’s just a matter of getting the third period over with. Beliveau, who I’m predicting will some day be captain of this great team, scores at 1:21 to make it four-nothing, and I know that somewhere in the depths of Maple Leaf Gardens, the Stanley Cup is being hauled out of its case and readied to hand over to league president Clarence Campbell, who in turn will give it to his old nemesis, the Rocket. 

The bell finally rings to end this affair, and the Leafs’ faithful give both teams a rousing applause. The Leafs have a nice team, with players like Frank Mahovlich, Tim Horton, Red Kelly, and Bob Pulford, but they’re no match for Montreal. Not this year, and not the previous four. Montreal was never going to be denied. It was in the stars. Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, Marcel Bonin line, all were sensational. Rocket, Pocket, and all-star Dickie Moore were dangerous on many occasions. Plante was spectacular, so was Harvey. The journeymen – Don Marshall, Claude Provost, Albert Langlois, Bob Turner and the rest, did their jobs magnificently. And Toe Blake stood behind the bench, fedora tilted back, and played his lines masterfully, like a great chess player.

I make my way down to the dressing room with Red Fisher, who’s been covering the Habs for five years now, and it’s bedlam as champagne is poured, toasts are made, players laugh and cry and hug their wives and kids, and much of my Brylcreem just got washed away when Geoffrion decides to give me a champagne bath. I have my stories, although Plante wanted to talk more about the toque he’d just knitted which he believes gives him inner powers, but on the whole, players just said they were happy and were going to savour things for a few days before they escape to their various homes throughout the country for a few months of well-deserved rest.

In the end, I walk out to Carleton Street, where the wind is blowing and rain falling, and make my way to my car. Tonight, there is no Cold War, no Krushchev or Eisenhower, no atomic bombs being tested, and no Elvis Presley corrupting our daughters with his voice and hips. No, tonight, everything is good. Everything is great. Tonight, the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup.

Boomer And Mr. Selke Make A Fine Couple

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Two legendary members of the Montreal Canadiens, Frank Selke Sr. and Bernie ‘Boom Boom’ Geoffrion pose in the old Montreal Forum in the early 1960’s.

Frank Selke left his longtime boss Conn Smythe and the Toronto Maple Leafs to join the Canadiens as managing director in 1946 and stayed with the Habs until his retirement in 1964. He was the one who wanted Jean Beliveau so much when the young star was playing for the Quebec Aces, that he bought the entire league to ensure he’d get him. He was in the thick of things during the Richard Riot in 1955, and urged the Rocket to go on radio and plead to the crowds to stop the nonsense on the street. And he was at the helm when the great Canadiens won five Stanley Cups between 1955 and 1960. But the organization didn’t lose a beat when Selke called it quits, as a young Sam Pollock would replace him in the top job.

The autograph you see pasted on his picture was obtained by me. My dad took me to the opening of the Hockey Hall of Fame at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition grounds, and in the crowd were many legendary figures. Besides Selke’s autograph, I also got Clarence Campbell’s, Foster Hewitt’s, Conn Smythe’s, and several others.

Boom Boom Geoffrion was one of the Canadiens true greats, a real character with a big shot, and the right winger was used by Toe Blake on the right point on the power play. So imagine, Montreal’s big line on the power play consisted of Beliveau at centre, Dickie Moore on left wing, the Rocket at right wing, with Doug Harvey and Geoffrion on the points. And behind them was Jacques Plante. It’s no wonder they won five in a row, and actually came very close to winning six or seven in a row.

All George Had To Do Was Use His Don Head

George Stephen figured he should probably just forget about it. No one had heard about it, and most didn’t believe him. I figured he had probably inhaled too many fumes from the Powell River mill. But George insisted he’d seen it, only now he was thinking he might be the only one on the planet who had.

 George would say often that one night, more than 40 years ago on Hockey Night in Canada, the Boston Bruins, in Toronto for a game against the Leafs, were issued a delayed penalty, and something odd happened. As soon as the referee raised his arm, Bruin goaltender Don Head, instead of skating to the bench for an extra attacker, smartly skated to the blueline, goalie pads and all, and played a short shift as a defenceman until a Leaf finally touched the puck, and back to his net Mr. Head went.

 Hmmm. Sure, George. The goalie played out on the powerplay? Maybe Foster Hewitt sang the national anthem. Maybe Conn Smythe took on Whipper Billy Watson in a pre-game wrestling match. What, the Bruins didn’t have a defenceman who could go out instead? C’mon!

 George insisted, though. When Chicago goalie great Glenn Hall came to Powell River, George asked him, but Hall had no idea what our man was talking about. A letter to the Hockey Hall of Fame garnered a reply. All they could say was they had no idea, but if it were true, it would make a great story. George even asked Powell River resident Andy McCallum, who had played with Head for the Ontario Senior Windsor Bulldogs, but all Andy could say was he wouldn’t be surprised because Head was such a good skater, even with goalie pads on.

 There was only one last thing George could do. Ask the man himself, Don Head. If he could find him.

 Through sleuthing that would do Dick Tracy proud, George discovered that Head was alive and well and living in Portland, Oregon, and on the phone he got. After mistakenly getting a few others of the same name in Portland first, the goalie was finally tracked down, and George asked that big nagging question. Did he leave his net and become a defenceman with his goalie equipment on?

 Head thought for a second, and gave an answer George wasn’t really hoping for. “I don’t remember ever doing that,” he said, and after a few more pleasantries, George politely said goodbye. He was even more convinced to just forget the whole thing.

 And that should be the end of the story.

 But the phone rang the very next night at George’s house, and sure enough, Don Head was on the line from Portland. “Hello George,” he said. “If I’m ever in a trivia game and need an answer, I’m phoning you.” George asked why, and Head continued. “You were absolutely right. My daughter and I went through my scrapbooks and found the write-up of me skating up the ice and playing the point on the power play. It was a Saturday night, Hockey night in Canada, and we beat Toronto 4-3. I’d forgotten all about that.”

 Head wasn’t finished there. He sent a copy of the news story to George and enclosed a little note that said: “Maybe this will convince everyone that you didn’t really inhale those fumes at the mill after all.”

 It took more than 40 years, but George Stephen finally has proof that he saw what he saw. All it took was asking Don Head himself. It was all true. The goalie played the point, pads and all.

It Sure Wasn’t Hard Becoming A Habs Fan

I’m asked from time to time why I cheer for the Habs and not the Toronto Maple Leafs, seeing that I grew up only an hour north of Toronto, in Orillia. The answer’s easy. The Montreal Canadiens were a gift from my dad.

My dad’s 87 now, and of course, still watches hockey. He’s been a hockey fan all his life, followed the Leafs when he was young, and he once wrote a letter in the 1930’s 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 a thank-you note to my dad in return.

But slowly, my dad began to turn. The Toronto Star and Telegram both plastered their papers with Leafs stories and my dad began to wonder about the almost invisible other teams. It was always “Leafs, Leafs, Leafs” as he used to say. Foster Hewitt was the definitive homer, and this rubbed dad the wrong way. And dad, being the introverted type, cringed when he read or heard about the goings-on of brash, loud, and arrogant Leafs owner Conn Smythe.

In the fifties, with television entering households, it was 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. Stanley Cups began to be won by the Habs on a regular basis beginning in 1955, and the Leafs just kept plodding along. The Canadiens had something the Leafs didn’t.

When I was a boy, my dad started a big Montreal Canadiens scrapbook for me. He helped me write fan letters to the the Rocket, and at one point, the Rocket sent me a Christmas card. He took me to Maple Leaf Gardens a couple of times, and once, when we were early and stood at the gate, the entire 1958 Montreal team walked right by us.

He bought me a hockey book which he mailed to Montreal asking for autographs in, and it was mailed back signed by the entire 1958-59 Habs – Richard, Plante, Toe Blake, Beliveau, Geoffrion etc, and the only one missing was Doug Harvey. When we went to a game at the Gardens, he brought the book with him, took it down the 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. My son has the book now.

So of course I became a Habs fan. They’ve been magical for me, and the magic has never gone away. It’s been a lifelong love affair.

And it’s all because of my dad.

It’s Only Been 41 Years Since The Leafs Didn’t Suck

Regardless of the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs have basically stunk every year since 1967, they still manage to somehow play well against the Habs. Who knows why? Maybe Conn Smythe instilled a voodoo hex on Frank Selke Sr. for leaving the Leafs and joining the good guys at the Forum. Maybe Toronto wants so much to be like the Canadiens that they turn in these weird efforts that they can’t muster against anybody else. habs-too.jpg     leafs.jpg

So a Montreal-Toronto tilt is usually a good, interesting tilt, for whatever reason. And there also would have been big interest in a Montreal-Toronto playoff series which could have happened if Toronto didn’t suck quite so badly this year and had sneaked into eighth place by the skin of their teeth.

A series between these two might even have brought back the oldtimers who say they lost interest in hockey after expansion, fights, the price of beer, less attractive rink chaperones, watered-down product, the Broad Street Bullies, Osama Bin Laden, shopping on Sundays,  the ozone layer, and the downhill slide of Shopsy hot dogs.

Yes, it would’ve been a good series. Even though Montreal would’ve kicked their asses all the way up Yonge Street, possibly all the way to Orillia.

The two teams meet again tonight and at this moment,  game time is still hours away. Leaf fans will now be gearing up, selecting their finest Yorkville ensembles, and preparing for when the Habs take the ice and memories come flying back from when the oldtimers still liked hockey and George Armstrong, even though he was the Leaf’s captain, was still learning to skate.

The Circus Is In Town: Montreal Takes On The Leafs

This might not be good for the Montreal Canadiens. They play the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night, and because the Leafs just got pasted 8-0 by the Florida Panthers, of all teams, they won’t be feeling good right now. This is a team in turmoil, has been all year, all decade, all several decades, and we’ve seen this scenario before. A team gets embarrassed, humiliated, laughed at, and dismissed, and comes out next game and plays like gangbusters.

The Leafs usually play well against the Habs anyway, so when I think about it, this game could smell. 

But it shouldn’t. The Habs are hotter than Angelina Jolie in heat, and are 16 points better than the Leafs, who are as cold as cold can be.

If I had a say in this, I’d want another 8-0 loss for the Leafs. I always have great evenings when Montreal scores a lot.

The Leafs in turmoil is part of being a Leaf. Even in the ’30’s, ’40’s, and ’50’s, Owner Conn Smythe was hiring and firing and mouthing off to the press about players like Busher Jackson and coaches like Dick Irvin and Billy Reay. There were the fights between Punch Imlach and various players such as Frank Mahovlich in the 1960’s. And Harold Ballard took turmoil to new heights in the 1970’s and ’80’s when he fought with Darryl Sittler and had his ‘C’ removed from his sweater, and when he ordered coach Roger Neilson to wear a paper bag over his head. (Neilson refused, thankfully.) Or Ballard going on about hating European players and how he wouldn’t let the Russians ever play at Maple Leaf Gardens. (He did anyway.)

Then there was the boardroom backstabbing, with Ballard trying to make his girlfriend Yolanda, who knew nothing about running a hockey team, a principle shareholder.

Frankly, I’ve never understood why King Clancy remained so faithful to the miserable old coot all those years.

Now, this year, GM John Ferguson Jr. has been fired, (probably rightfully so), and Cliff Fletcher has been brought in to restore some sanity to the asylum. Coach Paul Maurice’s job is hanging by a thread, and the Leafs’ best player, Mats Sundin, is the only one in the free world who thinks he’s staying put and not traded.

It’s all wonderful stuff.  And it’ll be even more wonderful if the Habs clobber them Thursday night.

Conn Smythe Was Only Sort-Of-A-Nice-Man

Conn Smythe, after building Maple Leaf Gardens and a successful franchise, the Leafs, was offered the presidency of the entire league so the other owners would finally have him out of the way. But Smythe said no way was he becoming a yes-man to the owners. So they hired Clarence Campbell, a name you know, who was the definitive yes-man and a guy the owners, especially Smythe, could manipulate like a puppet. 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 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?” So now 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 throughout the league and wanted him curbed. So you can bet your bippy that they had their puppet, Campbell, do their dirty work for them with that gigantic suspension.

When you see a single house being built that takes maybe a year to finish, think about this. Maple Leaf Gardens was built during the depression in five months. FIVE MONTHS! Smythe recruited several rich buddies to invest, and when the money fell short by several hundred thousand dollars, Smythe convinced the workers to trade twenty percent of their wages for shares in the Gardens. The thing got built and the workers’ shares, that were bought for a dollar a piece, quickly increased by a hundred-fold.

Smythe had a beautiful apartment built in the innards of the Gardens where he practically lived most of the time and where he called many Gardens employees to so he could fire them. I would have liked an office like this but I would have preferred the Forum. He also had his mansion, and a ranch where he raised prize racing horses.

Conn Smythe was instrumental in not giving in to the ideas of the players to form a players association (union) 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. He also lobbied for years to stop Harvey Busher Jackson, one of his 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 eventually 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 was sort-of-a-nice-man. I’m sure Lawrence will say he was a nice man and there’s two sides to every story. And one last thing for Lawrence. In the 1920’s Smythe’s amateur football and hockey teams played big games up in Orillia, my home town, and always got pummeled.