‘Mister’ Frank Selke
Montreal Canadiens, 1946-1964
Prince of Wales Trophies: 1946-1947, 1955-1956, 1957-1962, 1963-1964
Playoff Appearances: 1947, 1949-1964
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1947, 1951-1960
Stanley Cup Victories: 1953, 1956-1960
It’s hard to believe that despite Frank Selke’s amazing hockey career where he ably assisted in building one hockey dynasty and then personally built and maintained another hockey dynasty; set an NHL record which will never be broken by managing the Canadiens to ten consecutive Stanley Cup finals appearances and winning the last five of those appearances in consecutive order (another NHL record will never be broken); that Frank Selke (according to my rating system) never reached the top spot as the greatest general manager in NHL history; that the best rank he ever reached as a GM was third place (in 1960).
Despite all that Mister Frank Selke cut a swath through the NHL the likes of which was ever seldom seen. In only 18 seasons of superlative, tireless effort he was able to accomplish the following: he was the fifth best GM during the 1940s (even though he only coached three seasons during the decade; he was the greatest GM of the 1950s; and he was the third greatest GM of the 1960s (even though he only managed half the decade).
Furthermore he was the greatest general manager of the Original Six era (1942-1967) leading his closest competitor by 19 points.
He built an organization in Montreal that dominated the NHL long after his retirement. The legendary players he signed could fill an entire wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame. He also launched many a great coaching and managing career with his keen eye for hockey genius
It was Selke who embodied the cool efficiency of the Canadiens; the commitment to perfection; the embodiment of hockey consistency; and the selfless dedication to duty he demanded from his players, his staff, and most of all from himself.
Frank Selke was born in 1895 in what is now Kitchener, Ontario. Managing hockey teams was in his blood even in his teens. He managed bantam teams in Kitchener before moving on to manage the University of Toronto hockey team—where they won the 1919 Memorial Cup.
During the 1920s Selke also found success as a hockey coach too; coaching in junior and minor league hockey where he discovered future hall-of-famers Joe Primeau and Red Horner. Selke was instrumental in creating the Toronto Marlboros team and in 1929 they won the Memorial Cup.
It was then that Selke linked up with Conn Smythe, serving as assistant general manager to the Toronto Maple Leafs. When Smythe decided to build Maple Leaf Gardens during the Great Depression he soon encountered problems in meeting the costs of building the arena. It was Selke who saved the day by proposing a unique stratagem: how about cutting labor costs by paying the workers partly (20% of their pay) in Maple Leaf Gardens stock? Smythe accepted the plan and it was Selke who convinced the labor unions involved (he was a member of the Toronto Labour Council) to go along.
It worked. Maple Leaf Gardens was built and quickly became (alongside the Montreal Forum) hockey’s most hallowed ice.
As assistant general manager, Selke developed a farm system that supplied the Leafs with some of the greatest talents in hockey history: Joe Primeau, Busher Jackson, Turk Broda, Red Horner, Gordie Drillon, Syl Apps Sr. In return the Leafs made nine Stanley Cup finals appearances and won three Stanley Cups.
When World War Two commenced and Conn Smythe went abroad to serve in his second war, it was Selke who remained behind the run the team during Smythe’s absence.
What happened next has an aura on inevitability to it. The relationship between Smythe and Selke was never perfect; there was no real chance for it to be that way. Both men were high-powered executives with bronco-hockey management ability. Both men were determined to get their way when it came to getting things done but they were different in their approaches. Smythe was acerbic, pugnacious, combative; Selke, cold, crisp, machine-like efficient. Maple Leaf Gardens was not big enough to house these two managerial giants.
The beginning of the end came in 1943 when Selke traded Frank Eddolls to Montreal for the rights to the immortal Teeder Kennedy. Smythe, away in Europe, was incensed at not being consulted about the trade. When Smythe returned home in 1946, Selke’s days were numbered.
Selke’s letter of resignation to Smythe remains part of NHL folklore, “Lincoln freed the slaves eighty years ago. I’m done. Goodbye.”
(That poses a great hockey what-if? What would have happened to the Leafs if Selke had remained with the team? Could Selke’s presence have prevented Toronto’s decline after 1951 and the future mismanagement of the team by Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard during the 1960s?)
Toronto’s loss was Montreal’s gain. Selke replaced Tommy Gorman as the Habs GM and immediately used the same formula he used to establish the Leafs farm system: establish junior, senior, and minor-league teams in every province to recruit, train, and develop young talent.
In a short time Selke developed one of the greatest empires in North American sports history. The hockey talent he recruited could fill a wing in the Hockey Hall of Fame: Doug Harvey, Tom Johnson, Jacques Plante, Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, Henri Richard, and Yvan Cournoyer.
Selke not only had talent in place, he had talent to burn.
Selke was a no-nonsense figure in the Canadiens front office. Long after he was gone from the game, the players always addressed him as “Mister Selke”.
He managed in an era where the players had little or no rights at all. Selke could (and would) move players with abandon like so many chess pieces. He was not a lovable figure.
When Doug Harvey was instrument in helping Ted Lindsay make the first abortive attempt at forming the NHL Players association, Selke did not do as the other NHL GMs did in the aftermath of the collapse of the association: immediately blood purge his roster of the leading union figures (notably Harvey). Selke bided his time and in 1961 he sent Harvey to the New York Rangers).
When Jacques Plante’s eccentricities and crochets exasperated Habs management once too often, Plante was traded to the Rangers for Gump Worsley.
After the dynastic run ended in 1960, the Habs failed to win the Stanley Cup from 1961 to 1964 but all the while Selke was sowing the seeds for Montreal’s future greatness in the years ahead. When he retired in 1964, Selke had created a new future dynasty and presented it on a silver platter to a bright young executive who had been discovered and developed by Selke: Sam Pollock.
Selke had already earned Hall-of-Fame honors in 1960. He retired in 1964 and lived quietly until his death in 1985.
(Next week’s column will feature the third-greatest general manager in NHL history.)