Category Archives: News

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.

Smythe

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.

Young

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.)

Barilko

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!”

Broda

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!

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…

Hometown Hockey in Owen Sound

I’ve been watching Ron MacLean on television for more than 25 years. A couple of years ago, I got in touch with him for a segment I was doing for my book The Big Book of Hockey for Kids. He was very friendly and extremely helpful, not to mention very complimentary of my past work!

When I found out in October that Owen Sound would be a host city for one of the Sunday night broadcasts of Hometown Hockey, I got in touch with Ron, and while it was already too late to produce a full segment for the broadcast, I have stayed in contact and he and producer Travis Formosa invited me to come on the air for a very quick discussion of the 1924 Memorial Cup champion Owen Sound Greys, which took place during the second-period intermission of last night’s game.

EZ on TV
(Thank you to James Milks for the photograph.)

I had never actually met Ron in person until last night, and I must say that he could not have been nicer. As I said to him (and I hope this doesn’t embarrass him), it’s always a treat when the people you admire turn out to be even nicer in “real life” than you imagined they would be.

The story I had originally pitched to Ron was about the fact that so many of the 1924 Greys had actually grown up in Owen Sound. Three of them (future NHLers Butch Keeling and Teddy Graham, plus star goalie Hedley Smith, who was just 16 years old in 1924) grew up within a few blocks of each other on the same street. All three attended the Victoria School (which was also on the same street), and were all coached by Henry Kelso (for whom Kelso beach in Owen Sound is named … and who also lived on the same street!).

Greys 1924
(Butch Keeling is in the center of the back row; Teddy Graham is seated to the left in the middle; Hedley Smith has the pads on in front; Cooney Weiland is to Smith’s left as you look at the photo.)

But watching the broadcast before I arrived at the “truck” it was obvious that the story we had to tell was just how ravenously the fans of Owen Sound had supported the Greys back in 1924. Huge crowds turned out in the streets during the playoffs to get the scores of the game by telegraph outside the local newspaper office, and a crowd of 8,000 (in a town of 12,000) turned out to greet the team in a parade from the CNR train station a few blocks to the Market Square. The old newspaper reports are quite remarkable.

Those who saw the broadcast last night know that I had to talk pretty fast to get the story in! So, here are some things I did not get to discuss:

– The Greys were 22-2-2 during the 1923-24 season.
– one of their losses and both of their ties came in the second game of total-goal series when they already had big leads after the first game.
– The Greys were the only team in their division in the 64-team OHA junior circuit in 1923-24, and played exhibition games against other OHA teams all season before embarking on the regional playoffs.
Ralph “Cooney” Weiland was one of the few non-locals on the team, coming to Owen Sound in 1922 to attend school. He led the team with 68 goals in 25 games!
– Butch Keeling had 62 goals in 26 games.
-The Greys outscored their opponents 204-69 during the season.
– They defeated the Calgary Canadians to win the Memorial Cup in a two-game series played in Winnipeg, winning the first 5-3 and tying the second 2-2 to take the series 7-5.
– Hedley Smith faced 49 shots in the second game, stopping all 24 he faced in the third period alone to preserve the victory. (I mentioned that last night, but it’s worth repeating!)

Big Book up for Silver Birch Award

I have to admit, I’m very excited to be nominated for a Silver Birch Award for The Big Book of Hockey For Kids! I hope I can get out to as many schools as possible to meet the students, talk about my book, (talk hockey!) and talk about writing.

Ten Books are nominated in the Silver Birch Non-Fiction category, and a few of the other authors are ones I know, so congratulations to Hugh Brewster, Elizabeth MacLeod, Helaine Becker, and all the others.

Silver Birch

For those who don’t know, the Silver Birch Award was first established by the Ontario Library Association in 1994, and is now part of eight categories that make up the “Forest of Reading” program, celebrating Canadian books, publishers, authors and illustrators, and encouraging a love of reading. The Silver Birch Award is for readers in grades 3 to 6 (ages 8 to 12), but other “Forest” categories cover everything from kindergarten to grade 12,  plus ESL students and adults learning to read. There is a Silver Birch Award for Fiction and Non-Fiction.

Schools all across Ontario can take part, with students to read at least five of the ten nominated titles and vote for their favourite in the spring. Then, there’s a big awards ceremony held! (In fact, there are three in three different cities.) The final ceremony for the Silver Birch Award takes place at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto on May 13, 2015.

My wife, Barbara, was nominated for a Silver Birch Award in 2005 for her book, The Tunnel King. Attending the ceremony with her was great fun, as was travelling around the province as she spoke in schools. I’m looking forward to all of it!

Big Book cover