Monthly Archives: April 2017

A Coach’s Lament

“Overtime goals in the Stanley Cup [playoffs] are very nice to get, but very bitter to take. It never seems so bad to be beaten in a straight hour’s playing time.”

With a record 18 overtime games in the first round of the playoffs this year, and three of eight series decided during an extra period, there are a lot of coaches – and fans – who might be feeling this way right now. It was a Toronto coach who expressed the opinion above, but it came long before Mike Babcock and the Maple Leafs had their surprisingly satisfying season end abruptly with an overtime loss to Washington on Sunday. It was Dick Irvin who said this; recalling a series of disappointing moments during his tenure in Toronto for Bill Roche of the Globe and Mail back in 1938.

Irvin, who for years was the winningest coach in NHL history, had guided Toronto to the Stanley Cup in 1932 and would lead the team to the Final six more times without success before moving on to Montreal in 1940. His overtime disappointments dated back to his amateur playing days in Winnipeg in 1916, but reached new levels with the Maple Leafs.

Irvin 1
Syl Apps, Conn Smythe, Dick Irvin and Gordie Drillon, circa 1938.
Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library/
Digital Commonwealth Massachusetts Collections Online.

“[There] was a goal that Bill Cook scored in Maple Leaf Gardens in the spring of 1933 when the Rangers beat the Leafs by 1-0 in overtime to take the game and the Stanley Cup. We had both [Bill] Thoms and [Alex] Levinsky in the penalty box when Cook scored the heart-breaker. And the next one came when Maroons beat the Leafs three straight in the Stanley Cup Final in 1935. Our woes began in the first game when [Dave] Trottier scored to beat us 3-2 after more than 33 minutes of overtime.” Trottier actually scored at just 5:28 of OT, but it did spark a surprising Maroons sweep.

“Then, in the Cup playdowns of 1937, I still can see Babe Pratt of the Rangers scoring that goal in New York to beat us 2-1 in overtime to decide the series.” The Leafs would also lose the Stanley Cup to the Rangers in overtime again in 1940, but that was still in the future at this point.

Irvin’s recollections are timely … but what I found most interesting about his conversation with Bill Roche was his take on something that people have obviously been complaining about for a lot longer than I’d ever realized.

When asked, basically, why there wasn’t as much creativity in the game as there used to be, Irvin answered that, “in one sense I blame it on my own fraternity, the coaches. The youngsters are being over-coached. I don’t think young fellows who are getting into pro hockey these days are developing their own natural ability….

“These days, the kids are coached, coached, coached from pee-wee right up through to the pros. Six or seven coaches may handle a youngster before he reaches an NHL coach. And so much stress has been placed on team play, systems and methods along this coached route that few lads ever really develop those individualistic arts which are gifts of natural ability, such as stickhandling and fine shooting to finish off a play properly.”

Irvin 2
Dick Irvin was declared ineligible to play with the Winnipeg Monarchs
during the 1914 Allan Cup playoffs. They lost that year, but regained
the Canadian amateur championship with Irvin on board in 1915.

Irvin reminisced about growing up in Winnipeg, playing with gangs of kids on corner lots and frozen rivers. “The kids who had the skill and stamina became individual stars. They stood out far above the rest. And much later in their careers they learned team play….

“Many of the kids these days have never played on a frozen river or pond where they could practice all day. Instead, they have only short practice hours in an artificial ice arena, and they’ve never got the real groundwork or background…

“Why, we could shoot like young fools from all distances and angles long before we ever got near an organized team. If you couldn’t shoot, and if you couldn’t stickhandle from one end of the rink to the other through the mob of players, well, you had no chance to get any kind of hockey job. These days, it seems to me, they are teaching the kids too much system without first having them get the real fundamentals of skating, stickhandling, shooting and checking.”

Irvin admits it was “dog-eat-dog” in his childhood hockey days – and his head might explode if he saw how fast and how physical the game has become – but if he thought kids were being over-coached in the 1930s, what would he think of the way they play today?

The Comeback Kids

On April 18, 1942 – 75 years ago today – the Toronto Maple Leafs capped the greatest comeback in sports history. With a 3–1 win over the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto recorded its fourth straight win after dropping the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final. A few other hockey teams have rallied to win series after 3–0 deficits since then, and the Boston Red Sox did it in baseball against the New York Yankees in 2004, but no team except the 1942 Maple Leafs has done it to win a major championship.

“That Detroit club invented something that’s common now, shooting the puck in from center and then forechecking like hell,” said Bob Goldham as quoted by Jim Proudfoot in a Toronto Star story in 1993. “It had us completely buffaloed.”

“We had decided before that series that Toronto, with [Syl] Apps and a powerful club, would be a problem,” Detroit’s Syd Howe told the Ottawa Journal in 1965. “It was [coach and GM] Jack Adams’ idea that we should fire the puck into their end of the rink and go and try and check the Leafs before they could get started. I never did like the idea of it, but we had a meeting and decided on it.”

Pete Langelle celebrates his goal to put Toronto
ahead 2-1midway through the third period of Game 7.

Leafs coach Hap Day also said the team was “buffaloed” in discussing the 1942 series with Stan Fischler for his 1976 book Those Were the Days. “That was the first time any club ever shot the puck into the end zone and flooded in after it,” Day continued. “There was no center red line then, and the Detroits would simply get the puck across their own blue line and let it go into our end. Then they’d race in and get to it before we did.”

“We had tried that style of play back in 1936-37,” Howe remembered,  “but it wasn’t until [then] that we really put it to use in earnest.”

Syl Apps admitted to Fischler that after dropping the first three games, “We felt we were licked.” He said the team hoped to win Game 4 to avoid being swept but that, “the Stanley Cup wasn’t even on our minds at that point.”

As the story goes, Hap Day read a letter to the team that he’d received from a young girl prior to Game 4. “I had always found in coaching,” Day told Allen Abel of the Globe and Mail in 1983, “that it was harder to get a team ready mentally than physically… What happened after we lost the third game that year was we got a letter from a 15-year-old girl in Detroit who was a Leaf fan. She wrote that she still had confidence in our team. I read the letter to the boys in the dressing room before the fourth game. By the time I finished, you could see the walls bulging…”

NHL President Frank Calder presents to the
Stanley Cup to Conn Smythe, Syl Apps and Hap Day.

Day did something more tangible too. He benched veterans Gord Drillon and Bucko McDonald, who’d been worn out by Detroit’s dump-and-chase tactics. Younger and faster Don Metz and Hank Goldup were inserted into the lineup, and Gaye Stewart was summoned from the farm team in Pittsburgh. The Leafs also changed tactics, as Sweeney Schriner – who would score the first and third goals in Game 7 – recalled to Trent Frayne as reported in the Globe in 1987.

Schriner remembered coming down early for breakfast in Detroit’s Leland Hotel on the morning of Game 4. Hap Day was huddling with Conn Smythe, and Smythe called Schriner over. “He looked worried,” Sweeney remembered. “He said, ‘Dave, what’s wrong with our hockey club?’ and I told him I thought it was that we’d changed our style. We’d been a good-staking, good-scoring team all season, but in these games with Detroit we were playing their game, bumping and grinding. That night, before the game, Hap made the player changes and we went back to our own style.”

Frayne had planned to use Shriner’s memory to open a 1970s story for Reader’s Digest in which Foster Hewitt recalled the 1942 series. “But it never saw the light of print,” wrote Frayne in his 1987 piece. “A phone call from the magazine’s editorial office in Montreal a day or two before the deadline advised me that the research department had been in touch with Day and Smythe. Both said the incident never happened.”

A section of the ad the makers of Eno ran in Toronto newspapers after Hap Day had
written to them to say that their product had helped to keep his team in fighting trim.

Admitting that he was “feeling like a jerk,” Frayne asked if they’d checked with Sweeney Schriner. What he was told gives a pretty good indication of the type of control men like Smythe and Day exerted over their players.

“Yes, he says it did happen, but he also says that if Smythe and Day said it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen, and he’s not about to get into a shouting match with them.”

Frayne opened the Foster Hewitt piece with Day’s story about the letter instead.

*               *               *

Relating to last week’s story about Toronto’s 1922 Stanley Cup banquet and comments about parades, here’s some information on how Toronto celebrated the Leafs Cup wins in 1932 and 1942.

A day after the Leafs’ victory in 1932, City Clerk James Somers announced there would be no banquet for the team, nor for the amateur National Sea Fleas who had just won the Allan Cup. There was no budget for such things during the Great Depression. The city’s Civic Reception Committee, said Somer, “has been forced to limit entertainment to a minimum on account of prevailing conditions.” With Canada at War in 1942, the team held its own small banquet for players, Gardens employees and the press. “We are gathered here today,” said team executive George Cottrelle, “to pay tribute in a mild way, in keeping with the times, to our championship hockey team.”

There doesn’t appear to have been a big to-do for the Leafs’ Cup win in 1947 either, but in 1948 after the team returned from winning the Cup on the road in Detroit, the city celebrated with a ticker-tape parade and a reception at City Hall.


Toronto’s First Stanley Cup Banquet

With the Leafs back in the playoffs tonight, let’s dream big! Would a Stanley Cup parade in Toronto rival the scenes from the World Series parade for the Cubs in Chicago last fall? Quite likely. But whatever happens (and whenever it happens), it’s certainly bound to outdo the show the city put on at its first Stanley Cup civic reception 95 years ago.

It appears that there was no public display in the city when Toronto won the Stanley Cup as a member of the National Hockey Association in 1914, nor at the end of the inaugural National Hockey League season back in 1917–18. Things were different when the Toronto St. Pats won the Cup in 1922 by defeating the Vancouver Millionaires in the final game of their best-of-five series.

Headlines from Toronto’s Globe and Daily Star sports pages on March 30, 1922.

“Mayor Alf Maguire was as tickled as a schoolboy when the St. Pats won the Stanley Cup last night,” reported the Toronto Daily Star on March 29. “Right away he arranged a banquet for the boys which will take place at the Carls-Rite tonight at 6:30.”

Given that footage exists of a Stanley Cup parade in Ottawa when the Senators returned triumphant from Vancouver in 1921 (unless that’s actually 1923), it seems unlikely that this event in Toronto was the first of its kind for a professional sports team in Eastern Canada as the Star reported … although it was likely a first for pro sports in the city. The evening seems to have been a fairly tame one. None of the accounts I’ve seen mention how many people were there, nor what kind of food or drink was served. For sure there were a lot of politicians and team executives present, and a lot of speeches were made.

The site of the Hotel Carls-Rite is currently a parking lot not too far
from the Maple Leafs’ current home at the Air Canada Centre.

Mayor Maguire led the festivities, making a speech in which he lauded the St. Pats for the attention they had brought to the city through their fair play and skill. He asked that the players “continue through the summer the clean living which has characterized their winter’s work.”

Coach George O’Donoghue and manager Charlie Querrie replied on behalf of the players, who received their winner’s checks from the Stanley Cup series prior to the dinner (no mention of the amount, but likely a few hundred dollars each) and were presented with silver-mounted rabbits’ feet by a fan known as  Oh Boy Saunders, the Human Fly, (more on that if I ever find it!) afterwards.

The highlight of the evening came when Mayor Maguire presented the Stanley Cup to team president Fred Hambly after NHL President Frank Calder had presented the O’Brien Cup – aka the O’Brien Trophy, symbolic of the NHL championship at the time – to St. Pats captain Reg Noble.

This dining room was likely the site for Toronto’s 1922 Stanley Cup banquet.

“This cup was lost for some time,” said Calder, “and when I dug it up it was being used as a watering trough for a bulldog. May you and your team show the proverbial tenacity of the bulldog who drank out of it, in defending it.”

“We will do our best to keep it here,” replied the captain.

But it would be 10 years before the next NHL championship came to Toronto.

I don’t suppose anyone needs reminding that this year marks 50 since the last one!

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Spring is here. Baseball season is under way. Hockey playoffs are just around the corner. Can’t beat it! No real story this week. Just some fun images from this day in history. Click on each one to see it in greater detail.

On this date 85 years ago in 1932, April 4 was a Monday and Toronto newspapers were reporting on Saturday night’s win by the Maple Leafs in overtime against the Montreal Maroons to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. You don’t see many action photos from this era.

Leafs 1932

April 4 was also a Monday 40 years ago in 1977. The Blue Jays would wrap up spring training  in Dunedin that day and fly to Toronto at night ahead of the franchise’s first Opening Day on April 7.

April 4 Star

April 4 Globe