Gentleman Joe Primeau, a playmaking wizard and star center of the famed “Kid Line” with Busher Jackson and Charlie Conacher, got a late start as a hockey player.
Though born in Lindsay, Ontario, Joe was raised in mild Victoria, British Columbia where outdoor ice is almost non-existent. It wasn’t until his family moved to Toronto that Joe took up the game. Although hockey was a big part of the Primeau household, Joe never learned to skate until he was nearly 13 years old.
Little did anyone realize just what an impact on hockey in Toronto Joe would have when they were packing their bags and moving back east. Perhaps no other hockey player of that generation is as synonymous with the city of Toronto as Primeau.
Success was immediate, but Joe, who like so many Ontario boys of the day idolized Frank Nighbor immensely, worked hard over the next few years to make up for lost time, and before long he was one of the hottest prospects on the hockey scene. He blossomed with the junior Marlies team.
Conn Smythe gets the credit for discovering Primeau. While Smythe was building the Rangers, he brought in Primeau as a prospect, but the Rangers felt Primeau, who was 5’11” and played at about 160 pounds, was too small and they refused to sign him.
When Smythe was unceremoniously let go by the Rangers, he never forgot the slick passing centerman. When Smythe joined the St. Patricks (later re-named at the Maple Leafs) signing Primeau was one of his best moves. It took a while though, as, perhaps because of his late start in hockey, Primeau needed to polish his game. Joe only appeared sparingly in the first two seasons. He spent most of the two years of minor professionally hockey with the Toronto Ravinas.
Primeau found a permanent spot on the Leafs in 1929-30, as the Kid Line appeared and changed hockey history forever. While Jackson and Conacher are remembered for their scoring theatrics, it was Primeau who was the glue of the unit.
Not unlike Doug Gilmour years later, the slippery Primeau masterfully set up his two line mates time and time again, as well as acting as the line’s defensive conscience. He was as good a defensive center and penalty killer as there was in his day.
Primeau led the NHL in assists three times. He was never better than in the 1931-32 season. He not only led the league in assists, but he established a new season record with 37 helpers. That record would stand for 9 seasons. Joe, who was named as the Lady Byng trophy winner despite picking up a career high 25 penalty minutes, then went on to lead all NHLers in assists in the playoffs, as the Leafs won the Stanley Cup – the only championship of Primeau’s playing career.
Primeau scored 86 goals and 177 assists for 243 points in 310 NHL games before retiring prematurely at the age of 30 to attend to his successful concrete business. But he also turned to coaching. He started by coaching several Toronto senior teams and coached a Canadian Air Force team which included Neil and Mac Colville, Alex Shibicky and Ken Reardon during World War II.
After the war he switched to the junior ranks with the St. Michael’s Majors and captured two Memorial Cup championships. Some of his notable protégés were Ed Sandford, Jimmy Thomson, Gus Mortson and Red Kelly. Kelly of course went on to become one of the top forwards in Maple Leaf history, but before that was an all star defenseman with the Detroit Red Wings. It was Primeau who originally converted Kelly to defense.
Back in the 1940s senior hockey was often a high calibre of play. Even though they were amateur in practice, Many teams were of a quality of at least equal to today’s minor leagues. This quality attracted Primeau back to the senior ranks in 1947-48. By 1949-50 he was tasting national championship fame again as he guided the Toronto Marlboros (senior edition) to the 1949-50 Allan Cup.
The following year he was hired as the coach of Maple Leafs for three seasons, capturing the Stanley Cup in 1951, thus making Joe Primeau is the only man to coach teams to Memorial Cup, Allan Cup and Stanley Cup championships. Everyone of course remembers Bill Barilko’s heroics in the playoffs that year, but few people remember that Gentleman Joe Primeau, one of the greatest players in the history of not only the Toronto Maple Leafs but of the entire National Hockey League, was the bench boss of that glorious championship team.
Primeau was let go by the Leafs after failing to make the playoffs 2 seasons after the championship year. That event forced Primeau to make a tough decision in his life. His construction business was extremely successful, and he was considering expansion including building a new plant. But doing so would mean he would almost certainly have to leave hockey behind, as it was a huge undertaking. Primeau reluctantly gave up hockey to follow his other love.
Joe Primeau passed away on May 14, 1989 at the age of 83.