After a slow start to the NHL season, the Toronto Maple Leafs just blitzed through a November to remember. With 12 wins in 14 games, Toronto has taken over top spot in the Atlantic Division … although most Leafs fans still feel like “ain’t nothin’s nothin’” until the team finally win at least one round in the playoffs, to say nothing of another Stanley Cup after 55 years!
November hadn’t been as kind to Toronto’s team 90 years ago when they first moved into the brand new building known as Maple Leaf Gardens. Most stories noting the opening of the Gardens (and there were many marking the 90th anniversary back on November 12) point out the speed at which the arena was constructed (built in five months during the height of the Great Depression) and that the Leafs lost the opener 2–1 to Chicago, but went on the win the Stanley Cup that season. They did … but it took a coaching change that was officially made on this day in history, December 1, 1931, to get them there.
After the loss to Chicago, the Leafs tied their next game at the Gardens 1–1 against the Canadiens on November 14, 1931. They followed that with another 1–1 tie, this time in Chicago, four days later. Next came back-to-back losses, 5–3 at home to the Rangers on November 21, and then 3–2 on November 26 to the Canadiens in Montreal. In five games to start the season, the Leafs had no wins, two ties, and three losses.
Since the opening of Maple Leaf Gardens, the Toronto players may have had their minds on too many things besides hockey.
“Pro hockey players are pestered half to death by men and women who try to jimmy free ducats for their home games,” noted a story in the Toronto Star on November 28, 1931. “The other night, one of Alex Levinsky’s friends boned him for a couple of passes, saying, ‘Get me a couple of ducats, Alex, and I’ll come out and root for you.’ To which Levinsky replied, ‘Get yourself a couple of tickets and I’ll come out and sit with you.’ Joe Primeau says that everyone from the man who brings the ice to the chap who sells his grass seed asks him for passes. King Clancy says that the only one he fixes up is his friend the cop. As a matter of fact, each pro player is only allowed two passes. If they want any more tickets, they step right up to the box office and ‘lay it on the line.’”
By the time that story appeared in the Star, Leafs owner/manager Conn Smythe had already decided that the fault with the struggling Leafs lay with coach Art Duncan, who’d been hired the previous season. Duncan was fired on November 27, 1931, after a team practice at the Gardens.
“It is from the results to date – that is, the standing of our team with only two points, with the material available – that we are engaging a new coach,” read a club announcement from the Maple Leafs later that day. “It is thought that a new man, with an unbiased view on the older players, will work to the advantage of the Maple Leafs, and for these reasons we are making the change, and not from any personal feeling between the club, Manager Smythe, and Mr. Duncan.”
Frank Selke, Conn Smythe’s right-hand man, would write in his autobiography Behind the Cheering in 1962, that he and Smythe “had been so engrossed in getting the new building ready for the opening that we had neglected the hockey team. We had simply left the chore in the hands of Art Duncan. Art was too soft-hearted to drive the players during practice. In consequence, they opened the season many pounds overweight and not ready for stiff competition.”
When Smythe fired Art Duncan, he hired Dick Irvin to coach the team. Given that this all went down on November 27, NHL records for many years credited Toronto’s 6–5 overtime win over Boston on Saturday November 28, 1931 (the team’s first win at Maple Leaf Gardens), to Irvin. Many accounts likely still do. However, newspaper reports at the time of Irvin’s hiring make it very clear that he was at his home in Regina, Saskatchewan, and wouldn’t even be leaving for Toronto until Sunday morning, November 29. Conn Smythe himself was the man behind the bench for Toronto’s win over Boston. Irvin didn’t appear at Maple Leaf Gardens until Tuesday December 1, 1931.
“I well remember Dick walking in, bright and early, hours ahead of his appointment that morning,” Selke would write. “‘What kind of man is Smythe, anyhow?’ Dick asked me. I cannot think of any more difficult task than to give a character sketch of Conn Smythe. But I did the best I could. I told Dick that above everything else, Smythe was the Boss with a capital B. And if Dick felt he could work under strict discipline, he would no doubt have a happy time in Toronto.”
Smythe and Irvin agreed that the new coach would watch the game that evening between the Maple Leafs and the New York Americans from the stands to get a sense of the team. Smythe was behind the bench again when the game began, but Irvin actually took over at the start of the second period. The Leafs were trailing 1–0 at the time. The Globe newspaper in Toronto reported that after the first, Irvin had remarked to Smythe that the Leafs lacked condition. “[I]t was noticeable,” wrote the reporters, “that the lines were changed more frequently in the later two periods.” Toronto rallied for a 2–2 tie that night.
Dick Irvin quickly got the Maple Leafs on track and they were soon staging a season-long battle with the Montreal Canadiens for first place in the Canadian Division. Charlie Conacher led the league with 34 goals in the newly expanded 48-game season, while Joe Primeau topped the circuit with 37 assists, and Busher Jackson led the scoring race with 53 points. Jackson earned a First-Team All-Star berth at left wing, while Conacher (right wing) and King Clancy (defense) earned Second-Team selections. Primeau won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship.
In the end, Toronto finished the season in second place with a record of 23–18–7 and 53 points (which was nearly identical to their finish in 1930–31). They got revenge for the opening loss at Maple Leaf Gardens by beating Chicago in the first round of the playoffs, and then knocked off the Montreal Maroons to advance to the Stanley Cup Final where they swept the New York Rangers in what was then a best-of-five series.
Ninety years later, and without a Stanley Cup victory since 1967, Leafs fans can only hope things end as well this season.