The Lives of Conn Smythe: From the Battlefield to Maple Leaf Gardens: A Hockey Icon's Story
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The first full-length biography of one of hockey's - and Canada's - most influential forces, Conn Smythe.
While the story of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been told many times, there has never been a full biography of the man who created, built and managed the team, turning it from a small-market collection of second-rate players into the hockey and financial powerhouse that dominated Canadian sports and created a collection of Canadian icons along the way. From the 1920s to the mid-1960s, Conn Smythe was one of the best-known, highest-profile figures in the country - irascible, tempestuous, outspoken and controversial. He not only constructed a hockey team that dominated the league for long stretches, but was critical to the growth and shaping of the NHL itself. By building Maple Leaf Gardens and hiring Foster Hewitt to fill Canada's living rooms with weekly broadcasts, he turned Saturday night into hockey night, creating institutions and habits that became central to Canada's character and remain with us today.
Smythe's story is much deeper and richer than the tale of a cantankerous hockey owner. Smythe fought in both world wars, fighting at Ypres and Passchendaele in the first war and landing at Normandy in the second. He was wounded in both and spent two years as a POW in a German camp after being shot down in 1917. He grew up in poverty and vowed to escape the life that was so incredibly hard on his family. Smythe was active in politics and ignited a national crisis over conscription that split the Liberal government in two and brought Mackenzie King to the brink of resignation.
This book tells the life of one of the country's great characters, a man who helped shape and define us and who left behind national habits and institutions that continue to lay at the heart of what makes Canada, Canada.
His most famous quote became, “If you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you can’t beat ’em on the ice. ” He was criticized by people who thought he was encouraging aggression, but his meaning was misunderstood. It was more than just a remark about hockey, it was a philosophy on life. “It means if you can be bullied anywhere, you will be bullied everywhere. It applies to every person and it applies to every nation. It is a phrase that should be repeated when you are young, and remembered when you are old. ”2 His notion of loyalty was noble enough in conception but could be self-serving in practice.
The New York Rangers bargain roster proved to be an exception, thanks to Smythe’s shrewd bargaining. * After the St. Pats changed hands, someone suggested the players might be able to declare themselves free agents and demand more money on the basis that the old team had ceased to exist. To avoid this, Smythe added the old name St Pats in small letters on the front of the new jerseys until the end of the season. * Coutu was ejected again the next year, this time from the Canadian-American Professional Hockey League, where he was playing for New Haven.
Rickard tried to soften the blow, inviting him to the Rangers opening game and promising tickets to several Broadway shows, at the Garden’s expense. Smythe tossed the invitation aside, but Irene retrieved the letter and insisted they go. It turned out to be a lucky thing for her husband that she did. * Lester Patrick owned and played for the Victoria club in the PCHA. When the league folded, he was the last owner/player until Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh more than seventy years later. † Bruce Kidd, The Struggle for Canadian Sport (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 207.
While Clancy distracted the referee with an invented dispute over an offside call, Chabot managed to unbuckle one of his pads. Then he took his time fixing it, despite the spirited heckling of Rangers fans. When Chabot was finally ready, the team was rested and reorganized. Horner potted another goal to widen the margin to two. Nonetheless, “an hour after the game was over, Conny Smythe was still fanning himself with his derby” at the narrowness of the escape. 30 In the second game, wrote Marsh, the Leafs made New York “look like a $4 bankroll in a Broadway speakeasy,”31 spotting them a two-goal lead before scoring six times in succession.
Selke had been watching the game from the press box and hurried down just as a local doctor made a quick examination of Bailey and said ominously, “If this boy is a Roman Catholic, we should call a priest right away. ”37 Smythe, meanwhile, had run into a mob of Boston fans outside the dressing room. One man, named Leonard Kenworthy, yelled that Bailey was faking it. As the next day’s paper reported, “Kenworthy said Smythe told him he would ‘knock his block off’ and Kenworthy told him to try it. Smythe did, Kenworthy claimed, and in striking him broke his glasses and cut Kenworthy’s face to such an extent three stitches were taken to close the wound.