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.

6 thoughts on “Smythe And Kid”

  1. Conn would have loved the GOP “Right to Work” legislation passed in half the lower 48……… The right to work for peanuts.

  2. The man whose idea it was to have the union workers accept Maple Leafs Garden shares was Smythe’s right hand man Frank Selke, the future Habs GM. Selke, a former (or then) certified electrition, had ties to different trade unions which helped make the notion of taking shares plausible to the workers. It was an unheard of practice in the day, and still is, because it is open to all sorts of corruptive ways, but Selke managed to convince the heads of several trade boards to meet and consider it. The story is well detailed in Selke’s biography Behind The Cheering. I no longer have the book, but if I recall well enough, some of the workers shares were much, much higher than 25%. Nonetheless, once it appeared than these Gardens stocks would maintain their value, or rise even, Smythe and the other rich Gardens investors back most of them back from the workers at even par.

  3. You sure can put together great stories Dennis. Excellent read! Thank you!


    Note to hobo – The so-called right-to-work laws of the south may be coming to Canada some day, if the Tar Party gets its way.


    I looked for an image of an original stock certificate from way back when the workers were offered shares by Conn Smythe but could only find a more recent one from 1990 which is quite valuable even as a piece of memorabilia:

    From Classic Auctions:

  4. Thank you, Robert. I still have Behind the Cheering, and maybe I’ll put it on my list of books to read again. The idea to sell shares to the workers was a good one, considering it was the Dirty Thirties. Although it’s a little surprising that the workers had some extra cash to fork over.

  5. Danno, I can only imagine what original Gardens stocks certificates would sell for, if any are out there. I also logged into Classic Auctions to see what the 1990 one went for and it was $150, which I think is good for a 1990 object. Building the Gardens must have been a true saviour for so many who were out of work at that time.

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