By the winter of 1951 it was apparent that the career of one of Toronto’s most-loved athletes was drawing to a close.
At 37 Walter “Turk” Broda was the oldest player in the NHL. Only months before he had backstopped the Maple Leafs to the fifth Stanley Cup of his dozen years in blue and white, posting two shutouts and a goals-against average of 1.10 in eight postseason appearances between the pipes. By the time the next season rolled around Al Rollins was in nets full-time and Broda was watching from the seats. Nominally the club’s alternate goalie, he would see action in only one game on the 1951-52 schedule.
The Brandon, Manitoba native shone early with teams in his home province and ended his junior career in the spring of 1934 with Toronto’s St Michael’s College. Picked up from the Winnipeg Monarchs at the conclusion of their season to stand by in case Harvey Teno was incapacitated, Broda sat at the ready for 13 games as St Mike’s claimed their first Memorial Cup title.
The years between St. Mike’s and 1951-52 had involved a lot less sitting around waiting to be needed. Broda turned pro with the Red Wings organization, one that in the one-goalie era already had a pair of proven NHL vets under contract for 1935-36. As a result the 21-year-old earned his first hockey pay cheques with the IHL’s Detroit Olympics, a team that finished in first place in their division with the rookie proving to be among the loop’s stingiest netminders.
After catching Conn Smythe’s eye with his tenacious play in game that the Toronto manager had attended to scout another player, Broda’s transfer to the Leafs was completed with $8000 going to Jim Norris’ club.
While the sum allowed the Red Wings to turn a profit on their initial investment it also proved to be one of Smythe’s more astute bargains.
A fixture in the Toronto crease for the next seven seasons before entering the military during World War II, Broda replaced a 40-year-old George Hainsworth who only suited up three times in 1936-37 as the newcomer posted 22 wins, good for third in the eight-team NHL. Smythe touted him as Toronto’s goalie of the future stating that the errors he did make between the pipes were due to youth and inexperience, both things soon to be mere memories as his intensity and will to win would make him one of the best in the game.
As popular with fans and writers as with his boss, the fun-loving Broda was not an aloof, distant, cerebral man, qualities tolerated in netminders, while largely unappreciated in position players. He was one of the guys. As Howie Meeker said in an interview a few years ago, “If there were any shenanigans going on or any fun to be had, Turk was in the thick of it.”
Never at a loss for words, Broda once declared to the assembled scribes, “The Leafs pay me for my work in practices and I throw the games in for free. “
Toronto made it to the finals in 1938, 1939 and 1940 but was unable to overcome Blackhawks, Bruins or Rangers to go all the way. 1940-41 saw Broda acquire his first piece of NHL silverware, the Vezina Trophy, then awarded to the goaltender with the lowest regular season goals-against average, not the result of a multiple choice question. He was also named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team.
The next year, earning second team All-star status, he backstopped the Leafs to the Stanley Cup in a seven-game series that saw Toronto claw their way back from the brink of defeat after dropping the first three to Detroit. Much has been made of coach Hap Day’s benching of Gordie Drillon and Bucko McDonald after the third encounter but the fact that Broda turned in masterful performances when the chips were down, allowing only one goal in the two final games, played a more than minor role in the team’s successes.
Following the 1942-43 campaign, Broda joined the Canadian Army, only returning to his familiar blue uniform towards the end of the 1945-46 season. While he was away, spending more time in skates and pads than in more traditional military garb, Paul Bibeault and Frank McCool filled the space he had vacated in front of the Toronto net.
The Leafs went all the way in the spring of 1945 but failed to make the playoffs the next season, one that saw Broda, who suited up for 15 games as the schedule wound down, welcomed back to Maple Leaf Gardens.
The Toronto Maple Leafs became a postwar powerhouse, strong, skilled, tough, and smart and, with Broda back in his rightful post, almost impossible to score against. Three straight Stanley Cups from 1947 through 1949 cemented Broda’s place among the immortals of at his position as he won 24 and lost only five playoff games en route to the unprecedented triple championship. A second Vezina came his way following the 1947-48 season as did another First All-Star Team mention.
As handy with a knife and fork as he was with pads and a paddle, Broda’s conditioning became an issue with Conn Smythe. As a result it became an issue for Broda who, like most of his peers, used training camp to sweat off the poundage he’d packed on the offseason as well as to re-hone his reflexes.
In late November, 1949, with his two-time defending Stanley Cup champs riding a six-game slump that dropped them to fourth place, Smythe declared, “I’m not running a fatman’s team,” and singled out a handful of his men as being too well-insulated to give an adequate account of themselves on the ice.
With just short of 200 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame, Broda was told he’d be suspended if he did not get his weight down to less than 190 pounds. Standing in the wings was 19-year-old prospect Gil Mayer, then of the AHL Pittsburgh Hornets, three inches shorter and 70 pounds lighter, a youngster who evidently did not overload his dinner plate.
“We are starting Mayer and he’ll stay in there even if the score is 500 to 0 against him – and I don’t think it will be,” proclaimed Major Smythe. When queried about who would replace the fill-in while he was away from his post in Pittsburgh, suggested that it might well be Broda, who would not be of any use to the Leafs until he made the designated weight.
Mayer, who covered significantly less of the goalmouth than did Broda, came out on the short end of his NHL debut, one of eight games he’d play for the Leafs, losing a 2-0 decision to the Red Wings in front of over 14,000 Maple Leaf Garden faithful, one of the largest crowds the building had ever seen.
Broda was not exiled to the AHL, however temporarily, and after two days of diet and dehydration managed to make the needle dip to 189½ pounds, beating Smythe’s target by a whole half pound and sending the diminutive Mayer back to Pittsburgh.
By the time Broda had his name inscribed on Lord Stanley’s Cup for a fifth and final time, he was sharing netminding duties with Al Rollins, making appearances in 31 regular season games and showing a very respectable 2.23 goals-against average for his efforts. His stable mate took to the ice 40 times, ended the season with a sizzling 1.77 GAA and was 1951’s Vezina Trophy winner but when the postseason rolled around the veteran saw twice as much action as did the man who would replace him months later.
Despite the team’s longstanding policy against honouring active players the idea of celebrating Broda’s career during a Leafs game was floated and found immediate and widespread favour.
The date was announced and a month before the December 22nd event, packages began piling up at the arena. Fans from across the country were invited to send in their wishes and gifts which would be hung on a giant Christmas tree in the lobby of Maple Leaf Gardens and presented to the veteran goaltender at centre ice.
By game day it was evident that the ceremonial aspect of the evening was going to be a great success but there was the small problem of that night’s opponents. The Boston Bruins, who had played the Blackhawks the night before were at the mercy of the train schedules and only arrived a couple hours before game time, the trip from Chicago being a 20-hour journey rather than the 2-hour flight it is today.
The game itself started well for the home team with Max Bentley scoring the first of the evening on a pass from Fleming Mackell two and a half minutes after the opening faceoff. Road-weary as they might have been, Boston managed to tie things up on a Red Sullivan marker. Three and a half minutes later, Bill Ezinicki put the Bruins ahead while Leaf rearguard Gus Mortson looked on from the penalty box.
The presentations to Broda and his family took place with the visitors leading, 2-1. Newspaper accounts from before the event conflict with some stating the ceremonies would be held during the first intermission and others claiming it would be during the second while available online archives covering the game itself fail to specify exactly when the Broda family was conducted to the centre of the rink and showered with gifts.
Once they were introduced and installed at the place of honour, the band struck up For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow and the crowd of 12,472 applauded pretty much straight through the shower of gifts that totalled some $7000 in value according to most estimates, a figure that prompted Toronto sportswriter, Jim Coleman, to brand Broda as one of the world’s smartest athletes since he managed , in a single night, to pick up swag worth more than what 75 percent of NHLers would earn that season.
Offerings to the portly netminder came from friends, fans, companies and institutions, arriving from points of origin from one coast of Canada to the other, his national fame and popularity a result of Foster Hewitt’s weekly radio broadcasts.
Rolled out on a special wheeled riser, The Maple Leaf organization’s gift was a dining room suite, with one interesting feature. The chair slated for the head of the table was made to order according to specifications issued by Conn Smythe. Somewhat out of proportion to those that completed the set, it was noticeably wider and deeper than the average dining room chair. Media wags speculated that it was Smythe’s way of indicating he would no longer stand between Broda and his dinner plate.
The press gallery regulars at the Gardens took up a collection, spending it on an armchair while his teammates completed the set of living room furniture and the Turk Broda Fan Club chipped in and contributed a grandfather clock. There was also a silver tea service, 56-piece set of dishes, sterling silver flatware, a chandelier, a radio set and a painting. Completing the distinctly domestic theme of the evening was something to serve up for Christmas, only three days distant, a 40-pound turkey.
From Broda’s civilian employers at the Labatt Brewery came the most expensive gift of the night, a brand new car, gold in colour if a then teen-aged Dick Duff’s memory serves him well. Vernon, B.C., provided a destination for the new family vehicle, offering an all-expense-paid five-day vacation in their town. Among the smaller tributes Broda received were a suit, a watch, a wallet, a pair of argyle socks (from the Boys of Queen Mary Hospital in Weston, Ontario) and a ceramic ashtray (from a Newfoundland fan named Lewis Hollett).
The rest of the family did not leave empty-handed. Mrs. Broda was presented with a new hat while the three girls all got figure skates courtesy of the CCM Company.
In his remarks opening the evening’s tribute to Broda Conn Smythe mentioned that the portly goalie, who now spent most of his time as a team ambassador, had played approximately 625 regular season games and made 99 playoff appearances to that point in his career and he then went on to make the crowd a promise.
“If we make the playoffs again this year you’ll see Turk in there again to make it an even hundred.”
In third period action the Leafs tied it up when Harry Watson scored five minutes in with assists going to Jimmy Thomson and Bob Solinger. Three minutes later Bentley had his second of the night, the game-winner coming on Thomson’s second helper of the night.
The Leafs made the postseason, finishing third but were swept by the Red Wings, who went on to capture the Stanley Cup later that spring. True to his word, Conn Smythe made sure Broda played in two games, his final NHL action.
When he retired 60 years ago Turk Broda was the Toronto Maple Leafs all-time leader for goaltenders in terms of games played, wins and shutouts. He has not been supplanted since.