Book Review: “The Lives of Conn Smythe”

The Lives of Conn Smythe by Kelly McParland
McClelland & Stewart
$32.99 (CDN, US)
Release date- October 18, 2011

For most hockey fans, the name Conn Smythe conjures up images of the undersized but larger than life man responsible for the Toronto Leafs in the years they were a major force in the sport.  A Canadian patriot with pronounced Empire leanings, Smythe fought in both World Wars, suffering injuries that would plague him for the rest of his life and took a stand on conscription that came close to bringing down the Canadian government of the day.

Kelly McParland’s The Lives of Conn Smythe – From the Battlefield to Maple Leaf Gardens; A Hockey Icon’s Story, slated for release on October 22nd, the first long-form biography of the legendary Leafs leader is a heavily footnoted volume that draws extensively on Smythe’s autobiography, news reports of his era and interviews with the few left alive with first-hand memories of his hockey years. The author also was given access to both the Smythe family archives as well as to the files used by Scott Young when he assembled Smythe’s 1981 in-his-own-words memoir, If You Can’t Beat ‘Em in the Alley.

A career journalist presently employed at the National Post and familiar with the machinations of the political world, McParland is in his element when putting Major Smythe’s military and business careers in the spotlight, determining and identifying a number of minor inaccuracies in his autobiography.

Some were things that Smythe might well have relied on his aging memory to recall but were shown to have occurred differently or at another time than originally stated. Others, such as the relationship and eventual rift between Smythe and Frank Selke, who seconded him for many years running both the Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens while his boss went off to the conflict in Europe are examined from both sides, with Selke’s autobiography, Behind The Cheering, cited as a source and his son, Frank Selke Jr., consenting to be interviewed for this book.

While it is not of any great import to know whether  Smythe  paid off the mortgage on the family residence with one particular windfall or used it to acquire a rental property, his stature as a national political figure is something that has not been examined in any detail until now. A hockey name brought greater fame and his opinions on many subjects were widely quoted in the press, giving him far more influence than if he had been the manager of any another enterprise with a similar balance sheet.

The national debate surrounding conscription and the functions that drafted personnel were allowed to be assigned during the waning days of World War II was one that split the Canadian public almost exclusively along linguistic lines.  Mackenzie King’s Liberal government, holding onto power largely through the support from French-speaking Quebec ,the only part of the country solidly against conscription, was not keen on going back on the promise that got them the support of the majority in that province.

An injured Smythe, never at a loss for words when journalists came calling, shared the opinion he formed, namely that fighting men were not being replaced by new recruits who were properly trained due to political considerations at home. The bedside interview ignited a debate that inflamed editorialists from coast to coast, bringing the government of the day to the brink of a non-confidence vote, and probably caused Prime Minister King to spend more time than he normally did actively interpreting mundane every day events as otherworldly signs and consulting his deceased mother for advice on matters of state.

While McParland’s recitations of the facts and events in Smythe’s life seem to be accurate, some of the conclusions he reaches when discussing hockey matters show a lack of familiarity with the history of the game and its evolution.

In discussing the case of Jimmy Herberts, a proven scorer who did not work out well with the Leafs after Smythe bought his contract from Boston McParland mentioned that the incoming forward, while scoring goals on a regular basis (63 in 108 games with Boston), did not help teammates in their attempts to put the biscuit in the basket, citing the fact that he averaged only a half-dozen assists per season.

The author then goes on the declare that many of the era’s top players were “puck hogs”, buttressing his conclusion with the fact that NHL scoring leader for 1926-27, Bill Cook lit the lamp 33 times but was only credited with four assists. Other noted marksmen tarred with the same brush are Howie Morenz (25G, 7A) and Babe Dye (25G 5A), who Smythe refused to sign when assembling the on-ice cast for the New York Rangers inaugural season.

A quick look at the scoring stats for that season would have yielded the information that the NHL’s leader for assists, Chicago’s Dick Irvin, was credited with only 18 over the course of the schedule. The entire Blackhawks team scored 115 goals in 1926-27 with team members being credited with a total of only 64 assists.  Cook’s Rangers potted 95 goals collectively with only 45 assists to go along with them and Morenz’s Habs numbers show them with 99 markers and only 35 helpers.

In short, assists were rarer than hens’ teeth in the NHL of the 1920s and did not come to match the number of goals scored until at least a decade or so later. There have always been puck hogs in the game of hockey but the evidence McParland provides to bolster his claim that many of the early masters of the sport fit that description is incomplete at best and downright misleading if taken alone without any concern or appreciation for historical context.

Another of McParland’s affirmations concerns Doug Harvey’s involvement in the attempted Players’ Association battle in the late 1950s.  His selection as Vice President is declared as a “tactical error” since he was “already well down the road to the alcoholism that turned his life into a tragedy” at the time he and Ted Lindsay took on the NHL in an attempt to organize the players.

The absence of footnotes near this passage leads one to believe the author is once again editorializing and, once again, shows his unfamiliarity with important aspects of his chosen subject area. While one of the three men mentioned in the book as active in the attempt at organization, Jim Thomson, passed away some time ago two others referred to (Lindsay himself as well as Tod Sloan) are still living. A short phone call to either of them or to one of Harvey’s surviving Canadiens teammates would surely have provided sufficient first-hand memories to counter the claim McParland makes.

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One Response to “Book Review: “The Lives of Conn Smythe””

  1. Lloyd Davis
    October 13, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    “…his stature as a national political figure is something that has not been examined in any detail until now.”

    I’m at a disadvantage, not having seen McParland’s book, but Douglas Hunter’s “War Games” covered Smythe’s attempts to influence military policy during the Second World War.

    I also note that research has determined that Herbert and not Herberts was the correct spelling of the surname of the player known as Sailor.