April 11, 2014

The Curse of King Clancy

It's been 84 years since the Ottawa Senators traded the most popular - and arguably greatest - player in franchise history. His name was King Clancy. And they traded him to the hated Toronto Maple Leafs of all teams.

The Leafs went on to win nine Stanley Cups with Clancy as a player, coach or executive. Ottawa - once one of the most powerful hockey dynasties ever iced - has not come close to winning the Stanley Cup ever since.

Like baseball's famous Curse of the Bambino when the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees, hockey's foundation was rocked when Ottawa traded Clancy for $35,000 and two nobodies.

The Curse of King Clancy.

Okay the lack of Stanley Cup success is a little unfair. The Senators moved to St. Louis four years after the Clancy trade and promptly folded another year later. The current day Senators were reborn in 1992 and though they share the historic name, they should be excused from the Clancy curse.

But of course they are not. The many modern day Battles of Ontario have tended to fall in Toronto's favour, though never for anything terribly significant. The Sens did make it to the Stanley Cup final once, but for the most part they and the Leafs are long shot championship contenders at best.

So who was King Clancy, you ask.

Born and raised in the Market district of downtown Ottawa, Clancy grew up skating miles upon miles on the famous Rideau Canal and river. He and his friends would us anything and everything as a puck - often a frozen chunk of wood.

Against his mother's wishes (she wanted young Francis to become a teacher) Clancy turned pro with the Senators in 1921. The 18 year old would become the most celebrated hockey player of his time, and one of the all time greats.

Howie Morenz, the great Montreal Canadiens attacker, called Clancy "the best defenceman of his time." That's high praise considering his time was also Eddie Shore's time.

Perhaps more important than that, Clancy was an event on to himself. He was so popular - and so mischievous on the ice, much to the fans' delight - that he was the game's ultimate drawing card.

Enter Conn Smythe. He took over NHL hockey in Toronto in the late 1920s and renamed the team the Maple Leafs. He was a grand visionary and, despite the onslaught of The Great Depression in 1929, he wanted to build the most palatial hockey rink in the world. In order to convince his Board of Governors to give him the money to do that, he needed an attraction. And he knew just who his Maple Leafs needed.

"Clancy was the most entertaining player in the league," Smythe wrote in his autobiography. In September 1930, Smythe offered $35,000 to the cash strapped Senators, plus Art Smith and Eric Pettinger. The Senators jumped at the cash infusion.

The trade shocked Clancy at first, but everything worked out pretty well.

"I never wanted to go," he said years later in an interview. "It was my home and it took me a while to get over leaving. As it turned out, it was the best thing that happened to me."

And for the Leafs.

Clancy was an instant All Star and brought the Stanley Cup to Toronto by just his second season. More importantly Smythe had his gate attraction and a year and a half after Clancy arrived in Toronto Smythe had his shrine - Maple Leaf Gardens.

"Clancy made it possible," Smythe said years later. "We were building a great team with many fine players, but Clancy made it all stick together."

Clancy would remain loyal to the blue and white for the rest of his life. He spent much of the 1940s as a NHL referee before becoming a Leafs farm team coach. He later became assistant GM during the 1960s dynasty days. And in one of the most bizarre relationships in hockey the affable Clancy became the sidekick of the hated new owner Harold Ballard until his death in 1986.

"No one ever met the King who didn't come away feeling better about life," legendary Toronto Star sports columnist Milt Dunnell once wrote. "Even in the Leafs darkest days of the early 1980s, King's presence made it seem possible that the glory days could return."

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