The Titans -- NHL Governors of the 1940s
by Milt Dunnell
It was almost as if the battling governors of the National Hockey League knew unprecedented prosperity, as well as unprecedented problems, were at hand as they convened for their final semi-annual meeting of the Dirty Thirties and geared up for what were to be a couple of tempestuous decades in pursuit of hockey’s most coveted prize, the Stanley Cup.
The Montreal Maroons were gone. That meant the league was reduced to seven clubs and the rumor already was out that Madison Square Garden would be denying a new lease to the New York Americans. So there no longer was need for a two-division schedule.
What actually was happening was that the NHL was approaching the six-team league, with no city farther away than an overnight train ride, which provokes outbursts of nostalgia to this day.
Less apparent to observers was that the twilight of the titans was setting in. Men who were pioneers of modern pro hockey, who had played the game, promoted the game and fought for the game, were growing old in the game. Within the next two decades, many of them would be gone — some retired, some fired, some, including Frank Calder, the league’s first president, dead.
These were the men who would battle each other at the drop of an adjective or a puck. But, as a group, they always felt they were right. As Conn Smythe, probably the most controversial of them, liked to say: “It’s our league and we’ll run it our way.”
It was Smythe’s arch-enemy, Art Ross, crusty general manager of the Boston Bruins, who seemed to be most aware of tougher and rougher competition coming up. Ross, who hadn’t spoken to Smythe socially in a number of years (he always referred to Smythe as the big wind off Lake Ontario) was annoyed with his own club, an easy winner of the American Division in the previous season, but a patsy in the battle for the Stanley Cup.
So Ross startled the hockey community when he sold famed goalie, Tiny Thompson, to Jack Adams, who ran the Detroit Red Wings for the elder James Norris, whose ample bankroll and love of the game had kept the NHL alive in some of its hungry years.
Ross took a lot of flack for dumping Tiny Thompson. Some of his own colleagues even hinted he was losing his grip. What they didn’t know was that Ross had spotted a young goalie named Frank Brimsek and that the era of Mister Zero was about to begin at the Boston Garden. It wasn’t long before Jack Adams discovered that Tiny Thompson wasn’t the answer to his problems, either.
Because they didn’t like each other much, these guys got special satisfaction out of outwitting each other in a deal. Frequently it was this business of barter that fuelled feuds. Smythe, for example, thought Ross had slickered him in the purchase of a player named Sailor Herberts, for whom Smythe had paid what was then the substantial sum of $15,000.
Feeling he had been taken by a supposed colleague in the mutual cause of improving the game, Smythe deemed himself justified in seeking adequate compensation.
“We were having a game in Detroit,” Smythe would reveal, much later, “and we got our players together. I told them frankly we were in danger of going broke and we had to sell Sailor Herberts. Just about everybody who got hold of the puck that night made a pass to Sailor Herberts. He seemed to have the puck all the time. After the game, we sold Herberts to Detroit for $12,500.”
That was before Jack Adams became complete boss in Detroit, of course. Otherwise, Smythe might not have got away with it. Although Adams and Smythe were not exactly palsy, either, they did business with each other in this build-up for the battles of the 1940s. Adams traded Bucko McDonald, a lacrosse player, to whom Smythe had taken a fancy, to the Leafs. Smythe’s smartest move, though, was at the expense of the long-suffering New York Americans, whose days in the league were numbered.
For quantity, Smythe got quality. He traded Harvey Jackson, one-time member of the famous Kid Line, along with Jimmy Fowler and Buzz Boll, both popular with Toronto fans, for Sweeney Schriner, who was recovering from surgery. Although he got bad press for the deal, Smythe, as usual, had it right. With the Leafs, Schriner became a Hall-of-Famer.
The season that followed was to become a favourite with trivia buffs. Which team was out of the playoffs? The Canadiens. Even the orphan Americans finished ahead of them. And who beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs? Why it was the New York Rangers. That made it a season to remember. A footnote worthy of mention, too, was a sporting gesture by Smythe, manager of the Leafs. He agreed to play the first two games of the final on successive nights in New York because Madison Square Garden had reserved dates for the circus.
Thus, New York’s faithful fans were denied the opportunity of seeing a Stanley Cup presentation ceremony for what was to be more than half a century. The Rangers did adequate celebrating in Toronto. One post-game picture every photographer had to get, if he favoured his job, was that of manager Lester Patrick, with sons, Lynn and Muzz, both of whom were in the lineup. Smythe, earlier, had done a personal scouting job on Lynn and had offered Lester $20,000 for Lynn’s contract. Lester, who knew a few things about publicity gigs, too, said he would give the offer his earnest consideration. He probably did.
Having shown the Rangers what a sportsman he could be, Smythe promptly got in their hair, early in the next season. At least, Bill Stewart, the long-time National League baseball umpire, hockey referee and coach, who had taken the Chicago Black Hawks to the Stanley Cup, beating the Leafs, in the spring of 1938, thought Smythe was harassing the Rangers by parading up and down behind their bench, during a game at Maple Leaf Gardens. Stewart threatened to have Smythe ejected from his own building.
Of course, there was a definite lack of cordiality between Smythe and Bald Bill. For one thing, Smythe had nice things to say about Major Frederic McLaughlin, owner of the Black Hawks. (At that time, they hadn’t changed to the one-word spelling). And McLaughlin had fired Stewart while Bill was still making speeches on his Stanley Cup victory.
Furthermore, Stewart and Smythe almost got into a fist fight before the first game of that heated 1938 Stanley Cup final. The Chicago team found itself minus a goalie because their regular guy, Mike Karakas, had a broken big toe and it wouldn’t fit into his boot. Stewart wanted permission to use Dave Kerr, of the Rangers. Smythe nixed that. Somebody found Alfie Moore, a minor leaguer, and Smythe approved him. Stewart didn’t. The Hawks didn’t. They threatened to bar him from the dressing room.
After a shaky start, Alfie Moore played like a grandson of Georges VÃ©zina. He was the star of the show as the Hawks beat the Leafs, 3-1. A week or so later, there was a big bash for Alfie in Chicago. They gave him an engraved watch. To make sure he wouldn’t do it again, league president Frank Calder declared him ineligible for the rest of the series.
That was the background of Stewart’s possible malice toward Smythe. As it turned out, Stewart was vindicated. The very next night, after the incident at the Rangers’ bench, Smythe hopped over the boards at Madison Square Garden, during a fight between Wally Stanowski of the Leafs and Rangers’ fiery Phil Watson.
Photographs next day plainly showed spats (who else wore them?) from beneath a tangle of bodies that included the referee, Mickey Ion. Told that he had been fined the standard fee of $100, Smythe said he wouldn’t pay it.
By September of 1942, the question had arisen: Could the league continue operations? Many players were already in military service and others were sure to follow. Smythe, himself, was one of the first to go. This was his second World War. He had been shot down and captured in the first one.
Frank Calder finally issued a statement, which read, in part: “The league, now approaching its fourth wartime season, is confronted with more difficulties of operation than have been present in the three preceding years. With the institution of selective national service, it, at first, was feared that suspension of operations for 1943-44 must follow. However, the authorities have recognized the place which the operation of the league holds in public interest and have agreed the league should carry on.”
Irony is not exactly new to hockey but who could have guessed that a rowdy Stanley Cup final, the previous spring, might contribute greatly to the government’s decision.
That was the series, between the Leafs and the Red Wings, in which the Leafs came back from the dead. At least they had been declared deceased by anyone who claimed to know the difference between a puck and a frozen potato. Having lost the first three games of the set, the Leafs supposedly were ready for burial and Jack Adams, a non-drinker himself, had the ceremonial champagne on ice for those who were not averse to a sip of the bubbly.
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