The Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings have been around almost as long as the National Hockey League itself. So needless to say the two teams have had heated rivalries over the course of that time.
But never was the rivalry as heated as during their Stanley Cup playoff series in 1950. Things over-boiled right in game one. That was the night Teeder Kennedy almost ended the career of a young Gordie Howe.
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's admiration was not just limited to southern Ontario. The whole league admired Kennedy's play, except for in Detroit. That's because in the Motor City Teeder Kennedy was for the longest time public enemy number one. And it is all from a horrific incident where he nearly killed a young player named Gordie Howe.
The incident took place during the first game of the Stanley Cup semi-final on March 28th, 1950. The Leafs were visiting the Olympia Stadium, and had a tidy 4-0 lead in the middle of the third period.
The soon-to-be legendary Gordie Howe was just a young player but he had the word special written all over him. Gordie Howe thought he had Kennedy lined up for a big hit, but his timing was a bit off. He then tried to just get a piece of Kennedy, attempting to throw Kennedy him 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.
The Red Wings of course cried it was a deliberate attempt to injure, and that Kennedy had actually speared him. Kennedy and the Leafs claimed it was a terrible accident.
"I saw Howe lying on the ice with his face covered with blood," said Kennedy. "I couldn't help thinking what a great player he was and how I hoped he wasn't badly hurt. Then Detroit players started saying I did it with my stick. I knew I hadn't, and as I've always regarded coach Tommy Ivan as a sensible, level-headed man, I went over to the Detroit bench and told him I was sorry was hurt but that I wasn't responsible."
To this day there is question to this horrific incident as no video or photo evidence of the collision exists. But it is interesting to note how the media on each side of the border portrayed the incident.
Al Nickelson was one of the few reporteres to cover the game. He wrote in the Globe and Mail, a Toronto based newspaper, that "it appeared to this observer that Kennedy, in stopping short, had raised his elbow as a protective gesture and that Howe had struck it, before smashing into the boards with his face as he fell."
Red Burnett of the Toronto Daily Star suggested that "referee George Gravel saw the mishap to Howe, didn't call a penalty, and that proves, as far as we are concerned, that Kennedy did not hit Howe." Furthermore, the referee's report was enough to convince National Hockey League President Clarence Campbell to exonerate Kennedy fully.
The Detroit side wanted nothing but to vilify Kennedy. This led to the predictable attempts to get revenge on Kennedy in the next game two days later. Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel led the way with sticks held high and fists flailing. A fan even got involved, pinning Kennedy's arms. With mayhem breaking out all over the ice, it took Toronto's bulky goaltender Turk Broda to get involved to save Kennedy.
Detroit won that game, and, seemingly more importantly, that fight. But now the whole rivalry was threatening to spread beyond the ice. Maple Leafs boss Conn Smythe accused Detroit for deliberate attempts to injure players in the past. Detroit's Jack Adams responded by threatening to take the Leafs to court, suing for reputation damages of $75,000.
Under the watchful eye of President Campbell, the Leafs and Red Wings returned to hockey for the rest of the series. The series went a full seven games, with Detroit winning the deciding match by a score of 1-0. They advanced to the Stanley Cup final where they knocked off the New York Rangers, winning the Stanley Cup.
Heading into the 1950s, Toronto was hockey's greatest dynasty. But Howe, Lindsay and the Red Wings put an end to that. Between 1950 and 1956, the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs met in the Stanley Cup semi-finals five times. Detroit won every series.