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Dave Feschuk is a columnist for The Toronto Star who has written on a variety of sports, from hockey to hoops. His work on hockey has been nominated for a National Newspaper Award, cited in The Best American Sportswriting and included in The Way It Looks From Here: Contemporary Canadian Writing on Sports. Michael Grange is a sports reporter for The Globe and Mail and an award-winning magazine writer, writing in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for much of his 14-year tenure at Canada’s national newspaper, the New York Times, and ESPN.
“The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and I thought the only way I’ll probably see a Stanley Cup in my lifetime is if I write it.”
—Mike Myers, writer, director and star of The Love Guru, a box-office bomb of a comedy wherein the Leafs finally win
Imagine a little kid growing up in a dilapidated row-house in a joyless city crowded with horse-drawn carriages and pony-carts. His father is a teetotalling vegetarian and failed businessman. His mother has drunk herself to death at the tender age of thirty-eight. The kid is a scrapper and a go-getter. No, this is not the opening chapter of a long-lost Charles Dickens novel. It is the childhood of Leafs patriarch Conn Smythe.
The Smythe family lived on North Street, a stretch of road north of Bloor that is today part of Bay Street, only a few city blocks up the hill from where the Air Canada Centre now sits. Far removed from the luxury suites and on-demand shrimp of the pampered generations to come, Smythe’s was a hardscrabble existence in a hard era. “The greatest fight I ever saw was one day going home from school when a fight started between three St. Mike’s kids,” Smythe enthused in his autobiography, referring to the Catholic boys’ school. “One fought the other two up a lane and then along street after street, always with his back to the wall, or he never would have been able to hang on. It was a lesson I didn’t forget: if you looked after your rear, you could keep going. It works in fights, war, business.” Smythe’s trademark phrase would come to be among the most famous quotations in hockey history. “If you can’t beat ’em in the alley,” went a mantra that doubled as the title of his posthumously published memoir, “you can’t beat ’em on the ice.”
Clawing to carve out a legacy and a fortune, Smythe left marks you could still see long after he died in 1980. Smythe didn’t drink, citing his mother’s addiction as his reason for abstinence. Maple Leaf Gardens, perhaps at least partly because of the great builder’s feelings on the evils of the sauce—and certainly because of Toronto’s well-earned reputation as a conservative burg that tolerated fun only in small doses—didn’t serve beer until 1993. If today’s Leafs crowds are castigated for their sit-upon-hands reserve, blame Smythe for setting the tone. In a time before the sideboards were topped with Plexiglas, Smythe was said to strut along them in his spats, peering down and inspecting the wardrobe of the season-ticket holders and generally ensuring order. But then, his walkabouts may have been no more than keeping an eye on the rabble. During the years when Smythe ruled the Gardens, a Toronto police officer once told a newspaperman that illegal activity declined significantly on the nights of Leafs games. The implication seems to be that if the people running the Gardens were a bunch of crooks, so were the fans.
If he came off as holier-than-thou—and almost everything you can read about him suggests he was among the more insufferable and self-righteous men to occupy a seat of power in the sports sphere—politely acknowledge your respect for his sacrifice as a veteran of both World Wars. He was captured by the Germans in the First World War and wounded badly in the Second, absorbing a burst of shrapnel that caused him no end of pain until his dying day. He was also the benefactor of a charitable foundation that still raises boatloads of money to help children with disabilities. The Conn Smythe Dinner remains a fixture on the social calendars of the Toronto sports community.
But Smythe had warts that belonged to his era just as much as his heroism and philanthropy. He, like all NHL owners of his day as a rule, underpaid his players while pocketing massive profits. “I never shared things well with anybody, all my life,” he once admitted, albeit referring to his sister, for whom he had little time. He wasn’t above cheating; he acknowledged in his memoir that he’d once been a party to attempting to fix a horse-race at Toronto’s old Hillcrest racetrack. He had a fear and disdain of Jews and Catholics that makes Don Cherry’s hate-on for French Canadians and Europeans seem downright quaint. “We sincerely believed if we were captured by the priests, we’d never be seen alive again,” Smythe wrote in his autobiography.“I’ve always thought that Catholics have it pretty easy—do anything they like, then confess, and be forgiven. It’s the opposite of, ‘as ye sow, so shall ye reap.’ I know that there is no such thing as being forgiven.” And indeed, he held grudges. Long of the opinion that one of his best players, Busher Jackson, was a disgrace to the game because Jackson was said to enjoy women and alcohol more than most, Smythe lobbied tirelessly to keep Jackson out of the Hall of Fame, going as far to resign as the Hall’s president when Jackson was finally inducted.
Armed with only limited experience with a handful of amateur hockey teams for which he’d played and coached, Smythe landed the GM’s job with the New York Rangers in 1926 on little more than a friend’s recommendation. Smythe used his knowledge of the Canadian hinterlands to put together a roster that would win the Stanley Cup in 1928, but not before the Rangers would relieve him of his managerial duties in favour of Lester Patrick. Smythe took his severance pay along with some gambling winnings and cobbled together a group of investors to buy the Toronto St. Patricks.
Legend has it that he also talked the previous ownership out of accepting a higher bid from a buyer that intended to move the team to Philadelphia by appealing to the Torontonians’ civic pride (whether the pre-Smythe owners did Toronto a favour or a disservice depends on your outlook). Either way, showing civic pride meant showing a remarkable profit. The four men who sold the team to Smythe’s group—one of whom, J.P. Bickell, retained his stake in the club—had bought it a few years earlier for a measly $5,000. On February 14, 1927, they allowed it to be taken off their hands for $160,000. Precisely two years later, seven gangsters in Al Capone’s Chicago would be gunned down in a mass slaying that would become known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Call the sale of the St. Patricks, with its 1,600 percent cash return, a plain old St. Valentine’s Day Killing. From the beginning, Toronto’s NHL franchise has carved out a reputation for providing its overseers with exponential riches.
Smythe, with money on his mind, understood the team needed a more universally appealing image, one that wasn’t so specifically catholic in origin. In short order, he changed the colours from green and white to blue and white, and changed the name to the Maple Leafs (leaving it to generations of parents to explain to their kids why their heroes weren’t “Leaves”—though often a target of rival fans’ mockery, the name was already in use by other Toronto sports teams; Merriam-Webster’s dictionary even today considers “leafs” a valid pluralization of “leaf ”). He also understood the necessity of a grander stage than the 8,000-seat Mutual Street Arena in which the St. Pats (and their previous incarnation, the Arenas) had played since the NHL’s founding in 1917. A few years into his tenure as the team’s owner, he undertook the unlikely project of building what would become, for a couple of generations, the country’s best-known building. Maple Leaf Gardens was built in a flurry in the throes of the Dirty Thirties against almost all logic and a backdrop of grim prognostications.
As Foster Hewitt, the game’s very voice, would later write: “When Maple Leaf Gardens was only an idea the critics said, ‘You can’t finance it.’ When the plans were drawn the doubters declared, ‘You can’t have it ready for opening night.’ When the building was completed the pessimists prophesied, ‘You can’t fill it.’ But every prediction was false, for on November 12, 1931, the largest crowd in Toronto’s history to witness an indoor event of any kind packed into the new ice palace.”
The story goes that Smythe coveted a bedrock player to build a champion around. He recognized that King Clancy, the gutsy defenceman who’d been at the heart of the Ottawa Senators’ Stanley Cup wins in 1923 and 1927, was that man. Smythe also knew he was short of the cash that would be required to secure Clancy. By this time, the irascible owner had gone from simply betting on horse races to owning racehorses. He had a filly, Rare Jewel, running in the Coronation Futurity at Woodbine and, in a gamble to meet the Clancy price, he bet heavily on her despite the fact that she was a 100-to-1 shot. Whether it was improbably good luck, or another instance of the uncanny Smythe arranging the outcome at the racetrack, as he was not above doing, Rare Jewel won the race, Smythe won almost $15,000, and Clancy became a Leaf. Perhaps it was both good luck and shrewd planning. What’s for sure is that Smythe, as the controlling owner and effective general manager, had more luck or skill or both at building Maple Leaf rosters than almost every other man who’d inhabit the role.
The Clancy-led Leafs—teamed with Red Horner, Hap Day, Lorne Chabot, et al, and with Dick Irvin as coach—won the Cup in Clancy’s second year in Toronto, the team’s first season at the Gardens. The teams Smythe governed would win six of ten Stanley Cups from 1942 to 1951, and plenty of glorious lore would be etched in the winning. The 1942 Leafs, for instance, coached by Day and captained by Syl Apps, became the first pro sports team to ...