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1930s Maple Leafs: The Dynasty That Never Was

It was “the dirty thirties.” The Great Depression ravaged much of the 1930’s decade in a drab and gloomy spirit that makes today’s economic crisis seem not so bad.

People by the hundreds lined up daily outside the food lines at places like the Yonge Street Mission. Protest parades were regularly held down Bathurst Street. People were desperate for a helpless government to bail them out. But the plight only got darker as the decade progressed. Soon worries about the economy were replaced with the build up for an inevitable world war.

Torontonians looking for distractions from all the real world darkness of the 1930s religiously followed their beloved hockey team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. For the Leafs, the 1930s were not so much about economic troubles, but striving for their destiny they could not reach as hockey’s greatest dynasty.

The Leafs and their pugnacious boss Conn Smythe were mostly unscathed by the Great Depression. In fact, Smythe was able to use the hard times to his advantage, erecting Maple Leaf Gardens in just 6 months in 1931.

To build Toronto’s hockey mecca Smythe acquired the land at the northwest corner of Carlton and Church streets from Eaton’s well below market value. He then had the Gardens built for $1.5 million, offering preferred shares in the Leafs in a public offering to help finance it. Unionized construction workers were convinced to accept shares as opposed to hourly wages to build the hockey shrine.

The “Carlton Street Cashbox” it was dubbed very early on. Though the economy did not guarantee the sold out crowds, paid attendance was very strong. Other events came to Toronto, too. The Gardens drew very well for boxing, wrestling, basketball and concerts.

The Leafs popularity grew throughout the city, and the country. Smythe was a visionary, and had all games at the Gardens broadcast on radio. He hired none other than Foster Hewitt. A legend was born, while the Leafs became Canada’s team.

The Gashouse Gang

Of course, Smythe also knew he needed a strong team worth worshipping. With such revenue streams generated by the Gardens, as well as his fortune made in sand and gravel pit operations (not to mention his legendary luck betting on horse races) Smythe was never afraid to spend money on his team.

The result: a speedy, high scoring Leafs team that was always a contender, and therfore very popular. The Leafs brought much joy to a city and to a country that really needed it.

The gang was led by King Clancy. In 1930 Smythe was able to essentially outright buy the legendary Ottawa defenseman, arguably the best player in the game, and maybe the greatest Maple Leaf of all time. The price: journeymen players Art Smith and Eric Pettinger and $35,000 cash, a huge amount in the bleakest days of the Depression. But Smythe knew what he was getting. The rabble-rousing Clancy gave the Leafs heart and life. He was the catalyst of hockey’s great dynasty that never was.

Joining Clancy on defense were two other Hall of Famers. Cheery and personable Happy Day was care free and fond of practical jokes off the ice, but on it he was one of the most athletic defenders in the first half century. Contrasting him was mean Red Horner, a dirty, hard hitting, NHL penalty king that would make Chris Pronger look like a choir boy in comparison.

Up front the Leafs were unquestionably led by the Kid Line – superstar center Gentleman Joe Primeau with snipers Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson on the wings.

Smythe adored the clean living Primeau, a real heady and elegant player who made any linemate better thanks to his beautiful approach to the game. But Smythe did not care a lot for Conacher, and down right despised Jackson for his character. He called them poor hockey players who let Primeau do all the work. He kept them together because of their popularity in Toronto and because Conacher and Jackson were largely ineffective with any other center. He needed their goal scoring ability.

They were lovingly hailed as the Gashouse Gang. Their love of zany off ice antics and practical jokes were as legendary as their on-ice performance. Once Conacher dangled the mischievous Clancy by his ankles outside of a 20th floor hotel window. Another time they famously they managed to sneak a goose into NHL president Red Dutton’s bath tub!

1932 Stanley Cup

With a newly-christened cathedral to worship in, Foster Hewitt’s sermon, and heroes named Clancy and the Kid Line, the Leafs just needed the Holy Grail to complete the perfect mixture. The Leafs were able to deliver that in the spring of 1932. That night would come on April 9th, 1932, just six months after opening the Gardens.

The Leafs were awarded the Stanley Cup before the Maple Leaf Gardens faithful after ousting the New York Rangers in 3 games straight (it was a best of 5 final) in the “Tennis Series,” so dubbed due to the scores of 6-2, 6-2 and 6-4. The win was especially sweet for Smythe, who had essentially constructed that Rangers team 5 years earlier before coming to Toronto. While it was the franchise’s third Stanley Cup championship, it was the first as the Maple Leafs, and the first in a decade.

Unfulfilled Destiny

It would be their last for a decade, too. Mind you the Leafs certainly had their chances at winning more championships. They threatened to be the NHL’s first great dynasty, appearing in six of the following eight Stanley Cup championships from 1933 through 1940.

They lost all of them.

History remembers Conn Smythe as a brilliant hockey man and a war hero. But had his hockey career ended when he left for World War II, he would likely be remembered as the visionary who built Maple Leaf Gardens, but failed time and time again to bring the Stanley Cup to Toronto.

Same goes for coach Dick Irvin. Had he not found great success in Montreal in the following decade, he would likely not be remembered at all today.

Many of the Maple Leafs players of the 1930s were not so lucky. Even the Gashouse Gang’s Hall of Famers are not held in the highest regard thanks to the passing of time. And forget about the role players, History certainly has. Good hard working players like Baldy Cotton, Bill Thoms, Andy Blair, Buzz Boll, and Pep Kelly all made good contributions that no one remembers.

What Went Wrong?

How is it possible to make it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals year in and year out, only to come up short each time?

The first big blow came during the 1933 regular season. In an incident that was strikingly similar to the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore attack seven decades later, Boston’s Eddie Shore attacked Toronto’s unsuspecting forward Ace Bailey. Shore mistook Bailey for Clancy, the player he was mad at. From behind he hit the unsuspecting Bailey. Bailey tumbled forward out of control, hitting his helmetless head on the ice.

Bailey’s skull was fractured, and he had to undergo life saving surgery. He would recover to live a normal life, but the popular Bailey, just emerging as a star, never was able to play hockey again.

That tragedy seemed to take something out of the Leafs’ heart that season. Still, they carried on, meeting their hated rivals from Boston in the playoffs. The Bruins took them the distance of five games, with the final game of that series going an amazing six overtime periods, setting what was then a new league record. Ken Doraty was the hero that night, scoring early in the morning of April 4th.

The Leafs had little rest as they had to travel by train to play the Rangers on the same day. They caught the 3am train, arrived at 4 in the afternoon and played at 8pm that night. The Leafs just did not have enough left in the tank against the Rangers, and never recovered. They were unsuccessful in defending their championship title, losing three games to one against the New York Rangers, despite hosting three of the four games at Maple Leaf Gardens because the circus was in Manhattan.

Following the loss, Smythe began making changes, one of which would be ill-advised. Smythe rid himself of 1932 goaltending hero Lorne Chabot. Smythe was a man of his own high principles, and if you lived a life that did not meet his standards, he usually dismissed you quickly. Chabot and Smythe had clashed, so out went Chabot and in came Montreal goaltender Georges Hainsworth. Hainsworth was a great goalie in his own right, but he would never lead the Leafs to the Stanley Cup.

In 1935 the Leafs, fresh off their third consecutive regular season division first place showing, returned to the Stanley Cup finals. This time they faced off against Montreal. Not their eternal rivals the Canadiens, but rather the now long forgotten Montreal Maroons.

The Leafs and Maroons had an unhealthy dislike for each other, thanks to Smythe’s soured relationship with Maroons’ counterpart Tommy Gorman. Each side would spend a lot of time in this series accusing each other of laying sand in each other’s dressing rooms in order to dull the opposition’s skates.

In the first all-Canadian finals since 1926, the Maroons were considered to be heavy underdogs against the speedier Leafs, despite going 5-0-2 in the previous seven games. The pundits were proven wrong, as the Maroons continued their undefeated spring by sweeping the Leafs 3-0.

The Leafs vowed revenge for the upset the next year, and things looked good as the Leafs prepared for the Detroit Red Wings in the finals. This time the Maroons did the Leafs a favor, wearing down the Wings with a gruelling six overtime game in the previous round, beating the Leafs/Bruins game three years earlier. The Leafs remembered all too well how much their gruelling marathon may have cost them the Cup. But the Wings continued to fly high, edging out the Leafs 3 games to 1.

Changing Of The Guard

The Leafs knew they needed to make changes, and that began in 1937. In came Gordie Drillon, Syl Apps, and Turk Broda. King Clancy, Hap Day, George Hainsworth were all shown the door by the end of the year. Joe Primeau retired before the season even started.

By the end of the season the Leafs finished 1st place in their division, a full 20 points better than their surprise opponents in the 1938 Stanley Cup finals, the Chicago Black Hawks. Absolutely no one gave the 14-25-9 Hawks a chance, especially after goalie Mike Karakas injured his toe and was unable to play the first two games of the finals. They were such underdogs that the NHL did not even bother shipping the Stanley Cup to Chicago for game four. Big mistake. The Hawks pulled off the ultimate Cinderella upset, knocking off the Leafs 3 games to 1, and celebrating their Stanley Cup championship without the trophy to hold!

1939 marked the first year the Stanley Cup finals would be a best of seven contest. That did not help the Leafs any, as they dropped another Stanley Cup final, this time to Boston in five games. The Leafs really sputtered in this final, scoring only one goal in the final two games, and only 6 goals in the series. And who got the Stanley Cup winning goal for Boston? Flash Hollett, a high scoring defenseman who Smythe dispatched early in his career because he did not like him.

Unbelievably, the Leafs returned to the finals again in 1940, this time dusting off Chicago and Detroit and once again meeting the New York Rangers in the championship round. As per usual the circus was back at Madison Square Gardens, forcing the Rangers to play all their games after games one and two in Toronto. Despite the home ice advantage, the Leafs yet again could not bring home the Stanley Cup. They lost 4 games to 2.

In the nine-year span from 1931-32 to 1939-40, the Leaf powerhouse made it to the finals an amazing seven times, winning the Stanley Cup only once. Head coach Dick Irvin sensed the end was near and left before he could be fired, joining the Montreal Canadiens.

Dynasty At Last

Hap Day, the former captain, would return to Toronto, this time to as coach. The Leafs would ultimately find a lot more success in the 1940s. Between 1942 and 1951 the Leafs returned to six Stanley Cup finals, winning them all while finally capturing the title of the NHL’s first dynasty.

The number of titles perhaps could have been even higher had it not been for World War II. The majority of Leafs, following the lead of their boss Smythe, enrolled in the War. Their roster was depleted due to the war efforts. Johnny McCreedy, Bingo Kampman, Don and Nick Metz, Ernie Dickens, Bob Goldham and Wally Stanowski all enrolled early. Soon enough the superstar likes of Syl Apps and goalie Turk Broda were called to war.

Going back to 1932 the Maple Leafs had made it to the Stanley Cup finals an amazing 13 times in 19 years, winning 7 Stanley Cups. In doing so the Toronto Maple Leafs became the NHL’s first great dynasty team.

Eventually.

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