May 04, 2006

Teeder Kennedy

The Montreal Canadiens loss turned out to be the Toronto Maple Leafs gain, even if Conn Smythe didn't think so at the time.

The Canadiens were the first to discover the hard working Ted Kennedy, and offered to pay his living and schooling expenses if he would come to Montreal to play junior hockey. However a homesick Kennedy quickly grew tired of the junior team's bumbling of his living and schooling arrangement, so Kennedy packed his bags and headed back to his native Port Colbourne, Ontario

Once he arrived at home he met an old NHL warrior by the name of Nels Stewart. "Old Poison," as he was known, was coaching a senior team in the area and offered the 16 year old Kennedy a chance to play. Stewart took Kennedy under his wing and helped to polish this diamond in the rough.

Stewart would later recommend to the Leafs that they should take their chances on his young protégé. The Leafs, being run by Frank Selke while Conn Smythe was overseas fighting on the front lines of World War II, traded a highly thought of young defenseman in Frank Eddolls to Montreal for the rights to Kennedy.

Smythe was very angry at the move. Feeling like Selke and the Leafs were abusing their authority in his absence, and he loathed the trade from day one. The trade led to the deteriorating relationship between Smythe and Selke, which eventually led to Selke's departure to Montreal.

As much as Smythe hated the deal, even he would have to admit in hindsight that it was perhaps one of the most lopsided deals in franchise history. Eddolls would play in the National Hockey League with little fanfare for 8 seasons, while Kennedy would go on to become one of the all time greats.

Universally known as Teeder (a nickname that stuck since childhood because some people had trouble pronouncing the name Theodore), Kennedy was the ultimate Leaf. While he was a horrendous skater, he made up for it with his competitive zeal that would make him arguably the greatest leader in franchise history, and maybe in hockey history. He led by example, fearlessly battling some of hockey's all time greats. He could shoot and pass and stickhandle with the best of them, yet was a proud defensive player and a superior faceoff specialist.

Kennedy grew up dreaming of playing for the Leafs and idolizing the great Charlie Conacher. Needless to say, Kennedy was ecstatic when his dream suddenly became true. But come game time he was totally focused, and always played every game at the highest level. For Kennedy every game was played with a level of desperation as if it were game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. Very few players in league history can have that said about them.

Kennedy broke in with the Leafs in 1943-44. His arrival was well timed as several veteran players were called upon for war duty. Kennedy, too young for war duty himself at the time, stepped in and contributed 26 goals and 49 points in 49 games. Yet it wasn't his offense but his hustle that earned him the most admiration. There was no doubt this man would one day be captain of the Blue and White.

Kennedy led the Leafs to an upset victory against the Montreal Canadiens in the 1945 Stanley Cup finals. The Canadiens were a powerhouse led by the unthinkable exploits of Rocket Richard. The Habs top line of Elmer Lach, Toe Blake and Richard - who scored 50 goals in 50 games that season - finished 1-2-3 in scoring during the year and were supposed to tear Toronto apart. But a wondrous defensive effort by a line centered by Kennedy (flanked by Bob Davidson and "Sudden Death" Mel Hill) kept the feared Punch Line at bay for much of the series. In the mean time Kennedy contributed a playoff leading 7 goals to capture the silver chalice.

It was in the playoffs that Kennedy was at his best. Although he put up impressive scoring totals throughout his career, he was hockey's version of Mr. October. In 1947 the Leafs captured another Stanley Cup, thanks Kennedy's cup winning goal against Montreal. The Leafs would repeat as champions in 1948, as Kennedy scored a playoff high 8 goals and 14 points. The following season Syl Apps - to that point probably the most revered Leaf in team history - retired and Kennedy, just 22, became the youngest captain in club history. Even without Apps, Kennedy would lead the Leafs to the first ever Stanley Cup "three-peat".

The Leafs would win again in 1951, making it 4 out of 5 years with the Cup. They were upset in the 1950 Stanley Cup final, otherwise they would have won 5 consecutive Cups and be remembered - as they should still be - as one of hockey's greatest teams.

A very famous - or perhaps infamous - incident occurred in that 1950 showdown with Detroit. The soon-to-be legendary Gordie Howe was just a young player but he had the word special written all over him. But his great career - and perhaps even his life - were put in jeopardy in the opening game of the finals. Gordie Howe attempted to throw Kennedy off balance. Howe missed as Kennedy pressed forward, forcing Howe to tumble face first into the boards. A horrified crowd watch the superstar being carried off the ice with a badly broken skull. Kennedy and the Leafs of course claimed it was an accident, but Red Wings of course claim it was a deliberate attempt to injure. To this day there is question to this horrific incident as no video or photo evidence of the collision exists.

The Leafs began the inevitable fall from the top as the 1950s progressed while Detroit and Montreal became hockey's top teams. Kennedy's already atrocious skating became slower and his game declined a step as well, although in 1954-55 - in his last full season in the league - he was named as the most valuable player. The award was perhaps more of a sentimental life time achievement award than anything, but Kennedy deserved the honor.

Kennedy would retire at the end of that season, but would attempt a comeback with the leafs in 1956-57, playing 30 games Kennedy retired with 696games played. In that time he scored 231 goals and 329 assists for 560 points. In the playoffs, this 5 time Stanley Cup champion scored 29 goals and 60 points in 78 contests.

As a kid Ted Kennedy just wanted to play hockey, but never imagined he would ever be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1966 hockey's elite immortalized the hustle and success of Teeder Kennedy by his inclusion in the Hall - hockey's highest honor.

No comments: