The Titans -- NHL Governors of the 1940s (p. 2)
by Milt Dunnell
It’s one of the famous Cup’s most recited sagas that Smythe (he was in the army but never out of touch) and coach Hap Day shook up the Leafs by benching two of their most reliable workmen, Bucko McDonald and Gordon Drillon, in order to get youth and speed into the lineup.
Much later, Day told a somewhat different version, in confidence. The Red Wings, he said, played a game of dumping the puck into the Toronto end of the rink and often beating his team to possession. Smythe declined to allow Day to play the same game. He insisted it wasn’t entertaining hockey. After three straight defeats, he became more tolerant.
Whatever the reason, the Leafs proceeded to win four in a row after losing three, the first time it had been done in Stanley Cup competition. The series had turned ugly in the fourth game at Detroit. The Red Wings became frustrated when it was obvious they were not going to deliver the knockout punch.
Adams, never a gracious loser, invaded the ice at the end of the game to heckle referee Mel Harwood. League president Calder, who was on hand, probably expecting to present Adams with the Stanley Cup, suspended him instead — indefinitely. Two Detroit players, Don Grosso and Eddie Wares, were fined $100 each.
The ruckus, plus the seeming revival of the Leafs, made the series front-page stuff — and, needless to say, created deploring editorials. When the Leafs finally captured the Cup, with a 3-1 victory on home ice, the attendance of 16,218 was described as the biggest crowd ever to see a hockey game in Canada. The government undoubtedly took notice.
Clubs based in U.S. cities endured the paradox of increased demand for their product, accompanied by their inability to keep up the quality. They had no trouble selling tickets. Their problem was finding qualified people to fill the uniforms. Even the Black Hawks, perennially talent-starved, established an attendance record of 20,004 in February of 1946, while losing a game to the Bruins.
These were things which were not lost on the league’s new president, Clarence Campbell, a Rhodes Scholar, a lawyer, and a former referee, who had returned from overseas to accept the job, which Red Dutton had occupied, strictly as a caretaker, since the death of Frank Calder. He had suffered a heart attack while chairing a league meeting in January of 1943.
As the 1940s wound down, new talent, that would produce some of the finest games in Stanley Cup history during the next decade appeared. Newsy Lalonde, himself, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, had spotted Maurice Richard, when he came up to Canadiens in 1942. Newsy predicted The Rocket would be one of the game’s greatest stars — an understatement, as it turned out.
Doug Harvey arrived, as a raw rookie, five years later. In Detroit, Jack Adams was proclaiming that a slope-shouldered, shy kid from the Canadian West, named Gordie Howe, already was the best young player in the league.
Jim Norris, Jr. and his associate, Arthur Wirtz, had taken over the Chicago club from the estate of Frederic McLaughlin but Norris had made their position clear. He said: “We’re willing to spend money, as long as we can get some players to make this club respectable until we can develop some players of our own.” It was too soon for Norris to know that players such as Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita were on the way. But players were made available to Norris. It was one of the best moves the old horse-traders, such as Smythe and Frank Selke, who had moved on to become general manager at Montreal, when Smythe returned from overseas, ever made.
Smythe, who had disliked James Norris, Sr. was very friendly with Jim, Jr., possibly because both were interested in thoroughbred racing. Norris, Jr. was the biggest promoter in boxing at the time, as president and owner of the International Boxing Club, which his critics, especially in New York, called Octopus Unlimited.
The Leafs had dominated Stanley Cup competition during the 1940s, winning the Cup five times, including three straight, starting in 1946-47, the first time that had been accomplished since the NHL took over.
Sensing that Syl Apps, the Leafs’ great center player, was nearing retirement, Smythe made one of the most unusual deals in hockey history with Bill Tobin, who was operating the Chicago club between the death of Major McLaughlin and the take-over by Jim Norris. To acquire Max Bentley, Smythe gave up five players -– a full team, minus a goalie: Bob Goldham, Ernie Dickens, Bud Poile, Gus Bodnar and Gaye Stewart. Bentley, one of the game’s great stick-handlers, played an important role in the Leaf Stanley Cup victories of 1947-48 and 1948-49.
Boston and Toronto relations had not improved. In the 1948 semi-final, Leaf coach Hap Day and player Garth Boesch were roughed up by fans as they proceeded to the dressing room. Even King Clancy, a standby referee, who was famous for never having won a hockey fight, was charged with assault – dismissed, of course. Club owner Weston Adams went to the Leaf dressing room – possibly to express regrets. Smythe ordered him out.
Entering the 1950s, the Stanley Cup never had enjoyed such esteem. Never had so many millions been aware of its annual spring rites. Never had so many people paid to see those rites.
With the situation in Chicago stabilized, the league now had six solid clubs. The old titans, advised by their new president, realized the importance of defending the tremendous gains that had been made, despite the difficulties imposed by a world war.
Some of the players who had returned to their clubs were getting long in the tooth but the flow of fresh talent had been expedited.
One of the most important changes was that scouting staffs had been expanded. No longer would a player like the great Howie Morenz be discovered by a referee who was officiating in a railway league game. Morenz was playing for the Stratford railway shop apprentices in Montreal at the time.
The junior amateur teams, many now sponsored by NHL teams, played longer schedules and more playoff games. Players who came from those teams had been coached by people who knew the systems of the parent clubs. At the NHL level, players were much better conditioned and were required to play longer schedules, in order to raise salaries, making professional hockey a desirable career.
What no one could foresee, entering the 1950s, was how completely two teams — Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings — would command possession of the Stanley Cup. Dick Irvin, with three Cup victories in Montreal, to go along with one in Toronto, had departed for Chicago to assist in the rehabilitation there, in the mid-1950s. Toe Blake had taken his place.
At Detroit, there was a new figure — quiet and less flamboyant Tommy Ivan — behind the bench. With one notable exception, the Canadiens and the Wings monopolized Lord Stanley’s bowl for the entire decade. In 1951, Joe Primeau, a rookie coach with the Leafs, beat Canadiens in the tightest final series up to that time. The Leafs won four games to one and every game went to overtime.
The final game became even more memorable because big Bill Barilko, a popular Toronto Leaf scored the winning goal. He left by plane, shortly afterward, on a fishing trip and never was seen again.
Comparing the fabulous Montreal and Detroit clubs which kept the Stanley Cup practically to themselves in the 1950s, the one exception being Joe Primeau’s brief reign of glory in 1951, became a national obsession and is likely to be the cause of arguments as long as the game is played.
Not even Maple Leaf Gardens was big enough for Smythe and his loyal aide, Frank Selke, after Smythe returned, badly wounded, from overseas. They had spent many eventful years together and Selke had played an important role in the construction of Maple Leaf Gardens by persuading the various unions, whose members were mostly unemployed anyway, because of the Depression, to accept part of their pay in Gardens stock.
As general manager of Montreal Canadiens, Selke had started a painful job of restoring the fortunes of the Habs. His finished product was one of the finest teams the sport had seen. It just happened that, in the same period, Selke’s old rival, Jack Adams, was doing a similar rebuilding job with the Red Wings.
Until he went to Chicago, prior to the 1955-56 season, Dick Irvin was Selke’s coach. Irvin was a taciturn, dedicated career hockey man, who recalled how his first playing contract with Portland paid $700. The top salary in the league at the time was $1,250. Irvin came to the NHL in 1926, when the Portland club moved to Chicago, lock, stock and goal stick.
As a coach, Irvin was a stickler for conditioning. He used to say he could look at his outstanding center ice ace, Elmer Lach and tell him: “You’re one pound over 165. Take it off.”
Adams’ coach, until he also took off to participate in the rehabilitation job at Chicago, was Tommy Ivan. He left a sparkling record of three Stanley Cup winners in five seasons behind the bench.
During most of the decade, these two superably talented teams battled each other for acceptance as the best clubs that ever had gone to war in the spring. And wars, some of their encounters became. Irvin’s last Stanley Cup final with Canadiens was a bitter one. He felt there had been discrimination against his club when his great star, Rocket Richard, was suspended and prevented from taking part in the playoffs, following the infamous Boston incident in which the Rocket was charged with attacking Boston player Hal Laycoe with his stick and striking linesman Cliff Thompson.
A few nights after that incident, league president Clarence Campbell was pelted with garbage during a league game at the Forum. A smoke bomb was thrown and the building was evacuated. Out in the street, vandals staged a wave of destruction which had little connection with the game but got world-wide attention.
Without Richard, the Montreal club was given little chance against the powerful Red Wings but the experts were wrong. True, the Habs didn’t win but they took the Red Wings down to a seventh game.
When the Red Wings won the Cup in 1951-52 without losing a game — and
without having a goal scored against them on home ice — Adams promptly called his club the best he had seen in the league. Selke, while giving full credit to the Red Wings, quietly told those who would listen: “From what I see in our farm system, we may have a team that will force Jack to revise his ratings before long.” Inasmuch as Canadiens hadn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1946, this sounded like a brash prediction, especially from an executive who was not renowned for running off at the mouth, as they say at the racetrack.
But Selke had made an accurate appraisal of the talent which “Sad Sam” Pollock, later to become a legend in the league, had accumulated for Montreal Canadiens juniors and for the Montreal Royals, playing in a senior league.
He didn’t bother to remind Jack Adams that Jean Béliveau had scored 45 goals that same season of 1951-52 for the Quebec Aces and that he would be joining the Habs as soon as the idea appealed to him. At the moment, he was enjoying what he was doing. Within five years, he would win the Art Ross Trophy, as scoring champion of the NHL, along with the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. In the Stanley Cup games, he would score 12 goals, to tie the existing record.
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