May 12, 2009

Stanley Cup Legends: Ulcers McCool

World War II was particularly tough on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Legendary coach and GM Conn Smythe headed overseas to fight against evil. Several key players, such as Syl Apps, Pete Langelle and starting goalie Turk Broda, joined him.

Replacing these players was of course never easy, but replacing superstar netminder Broda was toughest of all. The Leafs settled on a 26 year old rookie from Calgary, Alberta named Frank McCool.

McCool was a strange pick in many ways, most notably because of the ailment that he would suffer by strapping on the pads. He developed serious ulcers when he got nervous, and as you can imagine playing in the NHL without a mask must have been a heart-wrenching experience! Frank would always drink a quart of milk before each game in order to calm his stomach. Sometimes he'd have to delay the game during action in order to head to the dressing room in order to regain comfort.

Conn Smythe, who still kept up to date on Maple Leafs happenings while on the battle fields of Europe, was not very happy with this choice. He didn't know much about McCool's ability, but how couild a NHL team play with a goalie with such uncertain health?

Despite the concerns, McCool went on to turn in one of the finest rookie seasons in NHL history. He played in all 50 games, sporting a respectable 24-22-4 record. He had a 3.22 GAA and led the entire league in shutouts with 4. He earned the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league's best first year player, edging out Boston's Kenny Smith.

Even with such a fine rookie season, McCool's best was yet to come. McCool backstopped the Leafs to a surprise Stanley Cup championship, and did it in fine form.

The Leafs met the the highly favored Montreal Canadiens in the semi-finals. McCool set the stage for the series by shutting them out 1-0 in the fabled Montreal Forum. McCool was outstanding in game two, which went 3-2 in Toronto's favor. The series headed back to Maple Leaf Gardens for game 3. The Canadiens earned a 4-1 victory. The Leafs took a commanding 3-1 series lead with a 4-3 win in game 5 thanks to a Gus Bodnar overtime goal, but the Canadiens stormed back in game 5 with an outstanding 10-3 trouncing of McCool and the Leafs. Rocket Richard, who had been shutdown in the first 4 games by Leafs checking ace Bob Davidson, scored 4 times on McCool. However McCool must have drank a couple of quarts of milk before game 6, as he excelled, allowing just 2 goals while his teammates scored three. The Leafs upset the highest scoring team in hockey, due in a large part to their rookie netminder.

In the final series between Detroit and Toronto, McCool's goaltending brilliance in the first three games was record-shattering. He accumulated three straight shutouts and wasn't beaten until 8:35 of game 4, which was won by the Wings 5-3. The pendulum of momentum then swung in the Red Wings favor as their own young goalie Harry "Apple Cheeks" Lumley went on a shutout streak - winning the next two games 2-0 and 1-0 to force a final and deciding 7th game for the Stanley Cup!

Game 7 was played before a sell out crowd at Detroit's Olympia Stadium. The game was tied 1-1 in the third period when Toronto's big defenseman Walter "Babe" Pratt rushed in on Harry Lumley to score the winning goal. McCool led the Leafs to the Stanley Cup, despite finishing 28 points back of the regular season champs.

Frank McCool didn't do himself any favors the following season though. After backstopping an overachieving squad to the Cup finals, McCool sat out and demanded more money, allegedly 500 bucks more a year. Remember, this was in 1945 when $500 was a far more significant sum than it sounds nowadays. McCool eventually left the team and went home claiming he was ill. One Toronto newspaper reporter said "McCool was sick all right. He was sick and tired of arguing over $500 difference in salary." The Leafs eventually convinced McCool to return, as the team dropped back to reality early in the 1945-46 season, winning only 3 of the teams first 13 games. Apparently McCool never did get that extra $500 either.

McCool had a less than great season once he did return. Despite having six regulars, including Syl Apps, return from the War, the Leafs returned to their mediocre form and missed the playoffs. McCool had a 3.68 GAA and wasn't nearly as effective, despite a 10-9-3 winning record.

The Leafs gave McCool his outright release at the conclusion of the season. Conn Smythe never was excited about a sick goalie who demanded extra money. Add to that the fact that Turk Broda returned from the war in time for the 1946-47 season and there simply wasn't any room for McCool anymore.

McCool never played a high level of hockey again. He did turn to coaching for a while.

According to his daughter, his ulcers did play a role in his early death at the age off 55 on May 20, 1975.

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