Remembering Connie Smythe

The Canadian Broadcasting Company is presently running a series on the history of Hockey in Canada and while flipping the channels the other night I happened to catch two episodes of this well crafted show. Much of those two segments featured the life of Connie Smythe, the legendary builder of the Toronto Maple Leafs.The shows reminded me just what a tough SOB Smythe was.

Born around the corner from the Gardens (Bleecker Street), the bantam 5’6” Presbyterian was an incredibly driven man.Captain of the U of T hockey team in 1915, the twenty year old Smythe signed up for duty in World War l.Two years later and now “The Major”, Smythe was the only one of his Sportsmen Battery not killed or wounded. Filled with shrapnel at Vimy Ridge, he bore the scars of war the rest of his life walking with a pronounced limp hereafter. Now the owner of a Military Cross, he joined the Royal Flying Corps and was presumed killed in action but had actually been interned in a German POW camp.

After the war and with the building boom in full flight, Smythe made a fortune in the sand and gravel business, but his real love was hockey. A run in with the owners of the New York Rangers brass (he was the coach), sent the Major back to his home town and in 1927 with his partner Frank Selke, he purchased the Toronto St. Patrick’s for $200,000.Here we see the first clue to the shadow side of Smythe. A lifelong anti-Catholic he did not like the Irish mick name of the St. Patrick’s. Hence the new name The Toronto Maple Leafs.

Ignoring the radical downturn in the world economy in 1931, Smythe in the earliest stages of the Depression built Maple Leaf Gardens in five months, paying off his contractors on margin and offering stock to investors.This is one gutsy guy.

I first met the major in the late 40s and early 50s.I often had a catbird seat on his antics. Courtesy of my dad’s relatives, my brothers and I were often taken to the Gardens to sit in a box set near ice level.We had to dress up and be on our best behaviour as Saturday night at the shrine was a great social event.For decades nobody would dare show up except in their Sunday best. Shirts and ties were de rigueur and if you weren’t in your seat by 8:30 you missed the opening face off . The Major ran a tight ship. It was Protestant Canada at its peak.The monarchist Smythe even had the 48th Highlanders playing from high up in the end blues. It was quite an impressive show.

Smythe was a ferocious competitor. I often watched this small man become enraged, his face turn purple as he dragged his game leg (always with spats on) around the rink hectoring officials and the opposition. Ted Lindsay in particular drove him crazy.One of the greatest left wingers in NHL history, Lindsay was snapped up in 1945 under Smythe’s nose by Detroit Red Wings. This tormented the Major for years. Lindsay,a Catholic, had played at St.Mike’s (SMC) and should have been Leaf’s property but he was overlooked as too small-and probably too Catholic.Connie had little time for RCs and old players will tell you the Pittsburgh farm team always was stocked with Micks, not good enough for the fiery Orangeman.Welcome to the golden years of Toronto the Good!

Ever the realist Smythe realized with the postwar immigration Catholics were flooding into the country and some would inevitably become great players.Hence the Maple Leafs gave good Catholic hockey-playing boys an education and a C form, a contract which locked them into the Leaf organization for life. SMC provided the Leafs with a steady roster of Catholics—Tod Sloan and his cousin Davey Keon, The Big M, Frank Mahovlich, Les Costello, Gus Mortson, Dick Duff and several others.

It is widely acknowledged that it was Smythe who barred the first great black hockey player Herb Carnegie from the NHL. Alas, the Major was a man of his time, carrying much of the prejudices of his cultural and religious background. However as I watched those segments of the CBC series, I was happily reminded of the man’s incredible drive and dedication. Hockey and Canada owe a lot to the Major.

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