Monthly Archives: February 2015

Rebuilding in Toronto

Monday, March 2nd at 3 pm Eastern marks the NHL trade deadline. Everyone seems to be in agreement that the Toronto Maple Leafs are now fully committed to rebuilding around youth, although the general consensus is that they’ll be better off waiting until this summer if they plan to trade players such as Phil Kessel or Dion Phaneuf. We shall see…

Everyone also seems to be in agreement that this is the first time the Maple Leafs have fully committed to a youth movement. That’s not entirely accurate. Though this does appear to be the beginning of the first true rebuild since the introduction of the NHL Entry Draft (originally the Amateur Draft) in 1963, it’s certainly not the first one in team history.

After giving up day-to-day control of the Maple Leafs while serving in the Canadian army during World War II, Conn Smythe resumed full charge of the team for the 1946–47 season. Toronto had won the Stanley Cup in 1945 only to fall out of the playoffs the following season, so Smythe and coach Hap Day decided a complete overhaul was necessary. Seven of 21 Leafs players from 1945-46 were traded, released or encouraged to retire. Another four were sent to the minors. The team would go with youth, and though Smythe couldn’t guarantee success, he promised that no team in the NHL would work harder than the new crew he assembled.


Unlike today, how to find and properly develop this new young talent wasn’t much of a concern for Conn Smythe. With no draft and only six NHL teams, it was easy enough for him to rebuild around youth because of the sponsorship of junior and minor league teams that allowed NHL clubs – particularly the wealthier ones; Toronto, Montreal and Detroit – to stockpile young players. (Boston tried the same thing after World War II, but Art Ross didn’t have the financial resources that Smythe did.)

Conn Smythe admitted that he was critical of the 1945–46 version of the Maple Leafs not because they’d missed the playoffs a year after winning the Stanley Cup, but because they had the fewest penalty minutes in the NHL. He vowed that would never happen again under his watch. In his 1980 autobiography, Smythe wrote that he couldn’t remember when he first uttered his famous motto, “If you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you can’t beat ’em on the ice.” He also wrote that his motto was often misunderstood, stating that he didn’t want his players to be bullies, he simply wanted them to refuse to be bullied. Still, while no newspapers appear to quote him using the “alley” expression during the rebuild in 1946, it became pretty obvious that Smythe wanted tough guys in his youth movement.

Smythe “told his players he wanted a fighting team filled with the desire to mix it with anyone,” wrote Jim Vipond in the Globe and Mail on September 27, 1946 as training camp got under way. “He further stressed the importance of team spirit and co-operation.” Gordon Walker of the Toronto Star wrote that same day of Smythe’s “brief, forceful address on club policy,” quoting Smythe directly: “If they start shoving you around, I expect you to shove them right back, harder. If one of our players should get injured by illegal tactics of the enemy, I expect the players on our team to see that the man responsible doesn’t get away with it.”

To reshape his team in the image he wanted, Smythe turned to the young players he already had in his farm system, which had been built by Frank Selke, who was now in Montreal after falling out with his longtime boss. Smythe reasoned that if the Leafs had to lose he’d rather lose with youngsters than with veterans and so on September 20, 1946, a week before training camp opened in St. Catharines, Ontario, the Leafs held what would now be called a “prospects camp.” The best from that group were invited to the main camp and were there when Smythe delivered his forceful address.


From that prospects camp emerged Bill Barilko (though he would begin the season in the minors), Gus Mortson and Howie Meeker, who would all be a part of four Stanley Cup–winning teams in Toronto over the next five years. Jimmy Thomson’s brief appearance with the Maple Leafs in 1945–46 had already earned him a spot at the main camp, where he too made the team and won four titles in the next five years. Three-time Cup-winners Garth Boesch and Vic Lynn also came out of the prospects camp, as did Tod Sloan although he needed a few more years to develop into the star he would become in 1950–51. Sid Smith hadn’t been there, but did make a brief debut in the NHL in 1946–47 before breaking out as a star a few years later. (There was, in fact, so much young talent in Toronto that Smythe would deal five players to Chicago the following season to land veteran Max Bentley.)


Smythe was confident entering the 1946-47 season that he’d put together a team he might win with a year or two down the road. Having Syl Apps and Turk Broda back in pre-War form, and with twenty-one year old Teeder Kennedy already entering his fourth season, certainly helped, but with six rookies among 12 new faces on the 18-man roster, Smythe down-played his expectations. “The Maple Leafs will suffer plenty of defeats this season,” he admitted. But he couldn’t completely hide his optimism: “We’ll win plenty, too!”


With a team that refused to back down from anyone, the Maple Leafs finished a surprising second behind the Canadiens in the regular-season standings. Frank Selke was critical of Toronto’s style all season, and early in the year he accused Maple Leafs defensemen of using “wrestling tactics.” There was plenty of rough stuff when the two teams met in the Stanley Cup Finals … which Toronto won to launch the club’s first dynasty.

It’s unlikely the rebuild will go quite as quickly this time!

The Odds on Pete Rose

Last week, USA Today reported that Pete Rose is hopeful the new Major League commissioner will meet with him to discuss his ban from baseball. Rose has already been cleared to take part in some of the All-Star festivities in Cincinnati this summer.

I came across the story below from the January 11, 1984 edition of the Montreal Gazette a little while back and found it very interesting. Particularly now. (Coincidentally, given my story two weeks ago about about the new Red Army film, the Gazette was also reporting that day that Canadiens GM Serge Savard was preparing for an upcoming trip to the Sarajevo Winter Olympics and was hopeful that Vladislav Tretiak would return to Montreal with him to play in the NHL after the Games. Tretiak, of course, never received the permission he needed from Soviet officials to join the Canadiens.)

Back in 1984, Pete Rose was a free agent after five years with the Philadelphia Phillies, which had followed his 16 seasons with the Cincinnati Reds. Rose would turn 43 that April, and his batting average had dropped from .325 in 1981 to .271 in 1982 to .245 in 1983. Still, with 3,990 career hits, he was just 201 behind Ty Cobb’s all-time record at the time and there was little doubt he was going to sign with someone. The Expos and the Seattle Mariners were the only teams on record as showing any interest. Ian MacDonald wrote that Rose expected to know if he had a deal to come to Montreal within the week. (He signed with the Expos on January 20.) What I found most interesting is what MacDonald wrote next:

And a guy who picked both National Football League playoff games Sunday – and was “nine-for-twelve in the bowls” is worth heeding when he predicts that an announcement may be imminent.

Rose clip

Obviously, nobody had a problem with Rose’s gambling at this point! To insiders (though certainly not to fans like my 20-year-old self) Rose was known to be a big gambler, and was often seen at horse races.

Rose got his 4,000th hit with the Expos early in the season, but was traded to Cincinnati in August and became the Reds’ player-manager. He broke Cobb’s record the following year, on September 11, 1985. Rose gave up playing after 1986 but was still managing the Reds in 1989 when his gambling problem became known to all. That August, he was banned from baseball for life for gambling on the game. He denied for years that he’d bet on baseball, but Rose finally came clean in 2004 … though he says he only ever bet on his own team to win.

Despite the many records he holds (some of which are listed below), Rose remains ineligible for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is no indication yet that Commissioner Rob Manfred plans to change this. For more on whether or not Rose should be in Cooperstown, you can read a couple of interesting stories that appeared in The Atlantic in March and August of 2014.

Rose pic

Major League Records
• Most Career Hits 4,256
• Most Games Played 3,562
• Most AB’s 14,053
• Most Singles 3,315
• Most Total Bases Switch Hitter 5,752
• Most Season 200 or more hits 10
• Most Season 600 or more AB’s 17
• Most Season 150 or more games played 17
• Only Major League Player in History to Play 500 Games at 5 Positions

National League Records
• Most Doubles 746
• Longest Consecutive Game Hitting Steak (44 Games) 1978
• Batting Champ 1968-1969-1973

Hockey Nerd – Part II: Radio Active

Back in December, I titled a story Hockey Nerd in Canada – Part I. One of my nerdiest hockey nerd interests is the early history of hockey broadcasts on the radio – which I pursue as if someone’s going to give me a prize if I finally push it right back to the beginning!

For me, this pursuit began several years ago with confusion over the date of Foster Hewitt’s first game. Hewitt himself had long claimed that his first broadcast was a senior OHA semifinal playoff at Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena. He said the game was between Kitchener and the Parkdale Canoe Club to determine who would face the Toronto Granites for the Eastern championship. He said the date was March 22, 1923 … but on March 22, 1923, the Toronto Granites defeated the University of Saskatchewan in Winnipeg to claim the Allan Cup as the senior amateur champions of all of Canada. So, how could Hewitt have called the game he said he did on that day?

Obviously, Hewitt was wrong. Turns out, his first broadcast was actually made on February 16, 1923, on Toronto radio station CFCA (which was owned by the Toronto Star, where Hewitt was employed). It was a game between the Kitchener Greenshirts and the Toronto Argonauts. Hewitt never flat out claimed (at least I don’t think he did) that his broadcast had been the very first, but he certainly didn’t discourage people from thinking that either! In truth, CFCA had actually been on the air eight nights earlier, on February 8, 1923, with Norman Albert of the Toronto Star handling the play-by-play. (For more on all this, see the story I did for the Star on the 90th anniversary of that game.)

Star Broadcast

Given that several other radio stations in several different Canadian cities (Winnipeg, Regina, and Edmonton for certain) were on the air with their own broadcasts within a very short time of the ones in Toronto, I’ve often wondered if anyone, anywhere else, had actually broadcast a game before Norman Albert. The earliest stories I’ve found saying anything about hockey on the radio are from December of 1921 and January of 1922, but they only claim that Westinghouse radio stations (KDKA in Pittsburgh, WJZ in Newark, WBZ in Springfield, Mass. and KYW in Chicago) would transmit the scores of games played in those cities.

I’ve yet to find any earlier live hockey broadcasts then the ones in Toronto, but in March of 1922, the radio station owned by the Vancouver Sun was reading on the air the telegraphed reports they were receiving of the Stanley Cup games in progress between the NHL’s Toronto St. Patricks and the Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association at the Mutual Street Arena. The station operated by the Vancouver World was broadcasting score updates as they were received. Neither was actually providing live play-by-play, but people certainly seemed pleased … particularly with the Sun‘s coverage.

Van Sun 1922

Eight months later, on November 28, 1922, the Stanley Cup champion St. Pats were in Winnipeg to kick off a preseason western exhibition trip with a game against the Edmonton Eskimos of the Western Canada Hockey League. As had been done in Vancouver, the Winnipeg Tribune promised that its station, CJNC, would broadcast the results from the game “as fast as reports are received.” Again, not live play-by-play, but certainly comprehensive hockey coverage for the time.

Just recently, I came across another interesting hockey broadcasting story from Winnipeg two months prior to this game, from September 23, 1922, about Lester Patrick appearing on CJNC the day before.

LP 1922

The story states:

A pleasing surprise was given to hockey enthusiasts by the appearance before The Tribune’s radiophone of Lester Patrick, manager of the Victoria Pacific Coast hockey team, and part owner of the Pacific Coast hockey league, who was passing through the city on his way west, and who delivered a short address on hockey prospects for the coming season. Sporting fans expressed their appreciation of this addition to the program.

Though I’ve yet to check every other city with radio stations at this time, Patrick’s broadcast in Winnipeg may just be the first example of sports talk radio in Canada!

Connecting all this directly to modern times … In March of 1923 the radio stations owned by the Winnipeg Tribune and the Winnipeg Free Press both agreed to go out of business (they were likely losing money!) to clear the way for a new station in Winnipeg operated by the Manitoba Telephone System, which would later become Manitoba Telecom Services. Known both then and now as MTS, this is the same company that currently holds the naming rights on the MTS Centre in Winnipeg where the Jets play.

Upon Further Review…

Last week, on the night before it opened in Toronto, I attended a screening of Red Army – a documentary about the Soviet national hockey team. It was followed by a question-and-answer session with the director, Gabe Polsky, and Roy MacGregor of the Globe and Mail. I’m not sure how widely available this film is yet, but I known that it’s already playing in New York and Los Angeles and now Vancouver too. If it’s playing anywhere near you, go and see it!

Red Army

I won’t be the first one to say it’s not really a film about hockey. The director (who is an American) willingly admits it’s a movie that was made to show Americans about life in the Soviet Union by using hockey – and the story of Viacheslav Fetisov’s desire to escape the oppressive regime of coach Viktor Tikhonov.

I think most Canadian hockey fans of a certain age always knew that the Soviets trained 10 or 11 months of the year, and believed that they could be sent to Siberia if they failed – which seems to be true! – but I don’t think very many of us ever thought about how tough that actually was on the players and their families. Fetisov clearly loved his country, and loved being part of a spectacular hockey dynasty, but the story of how he eventually came to fight the Soviet system is fascinating … as is all of the vintage footage of life and hockey in Russia from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

As a Canadian, my biggest complaint would be that if you watch this movie, you’d never know that we ever beat them! But that’s not really the point. As a writer, I hate when critics complain about what’s NOT in a book, so I hate to do the same about a film. Still, it could have included something about the 1987 Canada Cup – not because we beat the Soviets in probably the greatest set of hockey games ever played, but because that tournament is said to have been a real eye-opening experience for some of the key Soviet players who wanted the chance to leave their homeland to play in the NHL – which is what a great deal of Fetisov’s story is about. Perhaps this is something that could have been addressed by Igor Larionov, but Polsky told the audience in our Q&A that Larionov (and Sergei Makarov) would not speak with him.

Falcons 2

Also last week, I saw on TV the new Canadian heritage minute featuring the Winnipeg Falcons. Apparently, it’s been out since Remembrance Day (which makes sense!) but this was the first I knew about it. I’m a big fan of the Falcons’ story … which is, in a nutshell, about how the players overcame the prejudice against them in Winnipeg as immigrants from Icelandic families to become Canada’s first gold medalists in Olympic hockey. (My book Long Shot tells their story for young readers.) The heritage minute tells the story in 60 seconds. It plays with some facts and compresses others, but it does a great job of covering a lot of information so quickly. My one beef with it is pretty nerdy, but what can you do?

The Falcons are depicted in their dressing room prior to a game at the Olympics and are shown wearing pretty good replicas of the mustard yellow jerseys they wore for the tournament in Antwerp, Belgium. (These were not the team’s regular uniforms, but were specially designed for whichever team represented Canada at the Olympics.) Two other green-and-blue Falcons sweaters are shown on the wall in the dressing room, representing a couple of former players who died while serving their country in World War I. (All of the Falcons who were of age signed up.) The sweaters are a nice, artistic touch, and my complaint is not that these dead players probably never wore them (as I believe they were new for the 1919-20 season), but that it’s highly unlikely they were green and blue!

Falcons 1

The fault (though that’s probably too strong a word) most certainly lies with the display honoring the Falcons that’s been at the MTS Center (and is shown above) in Winnipeg for several years. I’m not sure how they came up with those green and blue colors. All my research indicates that the Falcons pre-Olympic sweaters were actually orange with black stripes and collars … which I also happen to think is a much better match if you try to imagine the colors from the black-and-white team photograph.

Falcons 3

Like I said, a pretty nerdy complaint – but given all the research I’ve done on this team over the years, it would be nice if my reputation ever got to the point where more people think to call on me for things like this…