Toronto Maple Leafs, 1927-1957
Canadian Division Titles, 1932-1935, 1937-1938
Playoff Appearances: 1929, 1931-1945, 1947-1952, 1954-1956
Stanley Cup Finals: 1932-1933, 1935-1936, 1938-1940, 1942, 1945, 1947-1949, 1951
Stanley Cup Victories: 1932, 1942, 1945, 1947-1949, 1951
Before Constantine Falkland Cary Smythe became manager of the Toronto NHL hockey club in the NHL in 1927, the franchise had already won two Stanley Cups in 1918 and 1922 as the Toronto Arenas and the Toronto St. Patricks, respectively. Since then the team had performed inconsistently.
Who could imagine then 30 years later, this same Constantine Falkland Cary Smythe would wipe the slate which had been the Toronto St. Patricks clean; totally re-make the team on all athletic, professional, and aesthetic levels; give the team a new name (the Maple Leafs); establish an athletic and professional ethos that would make the Maple Leafs not only the embodiment of the city of Toronto but the symbol of English Canada; build an arena that would vie with the Montreal Forum as NHL hockey’s most hallowed ice; discover and sign several of the greatest NHL players who ever played the game; preside over the NHL’s first dynasty since the original Ottawa Senators dynasty of the 1920s; serve and fight valiantly in World War Two; became a landmark figure not only in North American sports but also in Canadian society as a whole?
And yet that is what the late Conn Smythe did…and more.
Thanks to Conn Smythe the Toronto Maple Leafs became a flagship franchise in the NHL; attaining heights that helped him become the greatest NHL general manager from 1945 to 1946; and from 1948 to 1955 (according to my rating system calculations, applied retroactively).
Furthermore Conn Smythe was the greatest NHL general during the 1930s (leading Art Ross by 17 plus points); the greatest NHL general manager of the 1940s (leading his competition by 24 plus points; and the third greatest GM of the 1950s. He was the third greatest GM of the NHL’s expansion and contraction era (1926 to 1942) and he was the fourth greatest general manager of the Original Six era (1942-1967) according to my rating system.
Smythe was no scion from a rich family. He was self-made; self-realized; self-assured; and self-driven. There were no smooth surfaces in the man. He was pugnacious, blunt-spoken, abstinent (his mother’s alcoholism made him a lifelong teetotaler) but at the same time also forthright and honest even to an embarrassing degree (when reading his memoirs I was repeatedly struck by his willingness to discuss things about himself that another person wouldn’t dream of discussing).
You either loved Conn Smythe or else you hated him. There was no in-between. Even though to his dying day he sought to embody traditional values there was a part of him that was unafraid to stand against the light (sometimes when you stand against the light you cast a longer and greater shadow on the world; drawing more attention to ones’ self and one’s causes if that is what you original intent is in the first place).
Smythe was a determined athlete in his youth playing both hockey and football. He was the captain of his college hockey team and led them to the OHA finals in 1914 and 1915; winning the title the latter year.
World War I beckoned and he became an officer in an artillery regiment (where he served and was decorated for gallantry) and, later, the Flying Corps where he was shot down and taken prisoner for the duration of the war.
After the war Smythe started the sand and gravel business that became the source of his wealth for the next forty years. At the same time Smythe did not lose his love for hockey. He coached the men’s hockey team at the University of Toronto and did well enough to merit the attention of Colonel John Hammond who asked Smythe to recruit players for his fledgling New York Rangers NHL team. Smythe did so with his usual brio. He built a team that would win three Stanley Cups from 1926 to 1940 but without him managing it. His acerbic combativeness put him at odds with Rangers ownership. He was fired but was able to take his severance pay; win big on some lucky bets and earned enough money to buy the Toronto St. Patricks in the NHL and become its manager and head coach at the same time.
The first five years were rough but Smythe was putting his imprimatur on the team. He hired top subordinates and let them make magic. Frank Selke got his start. Smythe (against the advice of his board of directors) hired a man named Foster Hewitt to broadcast Leafs games over the radio. Hewitt went on to invent hockey broadcasting and gave joy to millions of Canadians with his immortal calls of Leafs games.
In 1931 he staked every penny he had in building Maple Leaf Gardens; almost came close to losing everything but in the end gave Toronto an arena that was the scene of some of the greatest hockey ever played in the history of the frozen sport.
Toronto’s style of play was a reflection of Smythe himself: pugnacious, conservative, successful, strait-laced. Smythe had little tolerance for players who played harder off the ice than they did on the ice (Smythe made it a personal goal to deny Busher Jackson induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame because of Jackson’s roistering habits. Jackson was inducted posthumously in 1971 over Smythe’s vehement objections which resulted in Smythe resigning from the HHOF induction committee in protest).
When Dick Irvin failed to repeat his 1932 Stanley Cup victory, Smythe tapped Hap Day to succeed Irvin as head coach and watched as Day led the Leafs to five Cup wins in the 1940s.
After their 1951 cup win the Leafs went into a slow decline and fall. Smythe, himself, was slowly giving way to his son Stafford; devoting himself more to thoroughbred horse-racing (becoming just as successful there as he did in hockey) and his charitable work.
Still, Smythe lost none of his fire (he never did). When Ted Lindsay made his abortive attempt at organizing the first NHL Players Association, Smythe was second only to Jack Adams in leading the opposition of the owner’s against it. When Red Wings owner James E. Norris Sr. died in 1952 and was succeeded by his daughter Marguerite (a shrewd and determined businesswoman in her own right) Smythe waged a campaign to have her removed; eventually succeeding in 1955 (and in so doing contributed greatly to the decline and fall of the Red Wings franchise).
By 1957 he yielded his managerial position and watched as his son (along with his son’s partners) tear asunder what he alone had put together for thirty years. Even though the Leafs won Cups in the 1960s it was like watching a wreck in slow motion. Conn Smythe was seen as a relic of hockey’s ancient past; a curmudgeon who emerged periodically to take pot-shots at the changing norms of world society.
When his son Stafford died in 1971 after being indicted for tax evasion, Conn Smythe devoted himself to his philanthropies. He died in 1980.
(My next column will feature the second greatest general manager in NHL history.)