Hockey Central

Conn Smythe: An Owner's Will

The sports literati will refain kindly from ever using the term "new Maple Leafs Gardens," even lightly or in jest, when referring to the updated digs of Toronto's hockey heroes, now they have finally unfurled their faded banners in the new Air Canada Center.

Maple Leafs Gardens couldn't happen again. Nor could Constantine Falkland Smythe, alais "the Little Pistol," who had the dream which less far-sighted folk mistook for a nightmare.

Both Smythe and the hockey shrine which he created were contradictions and paradoxes. Consider: in the depth of the worst economic depression this century has witnessed and suffered, when there wasn't enough loose investment money lying around to finance the lean-to on a woodshed, Maple Leaf Gardens sprang out of the ground – in an area where it really wasn't welcome – in about the same amount of time it would take the committee on environmental acceptability today to set the date for its first meeting.

Consider too: Once Smythe had the building humming and the hockey team winning, he chased the unhappy brokers of the bullring right out into Church Street. The bullring, for those who came in after the first period, was a crowded area, back to the blue seats, where some of the town's most enterprising bookmakers offered odds on just about anything from first or last goal to the next unlucky fan who would get nicked by a flying puck. Male or female? Even money.

That someone would get nailed by a deflected shot was the best bet of the day. Protective glass above the boards was still the fantasy of some silly salesman. One thing on which the bookies were reluctant to offer odds was whether the next victim of a deflected shot would be dressed in a tailor-made suit or a Holt Renfrew frock. It was odds-on that anyone within the orbit of a flying puck was fashionably clad. That was by decree of Constantine Falkland himself. Any seat subscriber who was guilty of favoring friends who showed up in the choice seats wearing a plain old leather jacket or a lettered sweatshirt would receive a curt reminder of the Garden's dress code.

Smythe was right, of course, in banishing the bullring gang. But some of the very oddsmakers who got tossed out into the cold night heave regarded themselves as victims of justice gone berserk. Wasn't it one of North America's most respected gamblers, Tex Rickard, who provided Smythe with at least part of the stake which he used to buy the old St. Pats franchise in the first place?

Smythe loved to tell the story himself. Colonel John Hammond, the director of Madison Square Garden, who had hired Smythe to put the New York Rangers together for their NHL debut in 1926, fired him before the season even started. The real reason was that he discovered he could get Lester Patrick, a much better-known name in hockey. His excuse was that Smythe had been at a football game at Toronto's Varisty Stadium when Babe Dye, a veteran player, became available for $17,500. Smythe had missed him. Chicago Black Hawks got him.

"I got Bun and Bill Cook and Frank Boucher for $17,500," Smythe argued. "For another $4,000, I got you Ching Johnson and Taffy Abel, two excellent defense players. I didn't want Dye." But Hammond had made up his mind. He also had decided that, since Smythe wouldn't even be going to New York, he wasn't entitled to his full salary of $10,000. The price would be $7,500.

Smythe got to meet Rickard, the president of Madison Square Garden, when he went to New York to see the team, which he had assembled, play the Montreal Maroons in their opening home game. Rickard asked him whether he thought the new team could make the game close. Smythe told him the Rangers would win – which they did. Rickard, the one-time owner of a famous casino in Goldfield, Navada where Joe Gans and Battling Nelson fought, was impressed. He asked Smythe whether he would be interested in rejoining the Rangers as a consultant. Smythe retorted that he wouldn't even consider working for the Rangers after the experience with Hammond. Upon hearing the full story, Rickard, who had a reputation as a straight shooter, ordered Hammond to give Smythe a cheque for $2,500. In later years, Smythe would recall how he bet the money on the Univeristy of Toronto to beat McGill in a football game and then put the bundle on the New York Rangers to beat the St. Pats the first time they played in Toronto.

Now Smythe had enough money in his pocket that he need not feel embarrassed about approaching some of the town's wheelers and dealers to get them interested in buying the Toronto St. Patrick's franchise. The price was right. By today's standards, it was a steal – $165,000. The truth was, though, that the St. Pats were a pretty poor outfit. Not even the name was worth anything to the new owners. They changed it almost at once to the Maple Leafs.

By 1930, with construction of his new building under way, Smythe knew that his team had to sign some name players to help sell tickets. One man he had in mind was King Clancy of the Ottawa Senators. But Clancy was going to cost a bundle – or what was considered a bundle at the time. Smythe's directors were willing to go only to $25,000. Not enough.

Once again, Smythe's willingness to gamble came into the picture. His two-year-old filly, Rare Jewel, was entered in a stakes race at Woodbine. Even his own trainer, Bill Campbell, told him she had no chance. The jockey, Dude Foden, had detected a hint of speed and durability in her, however. The racing public made her 100 to one and counting. Some of Smythe's rivals ridiculed him when he bet on her. He bet more. Foden gave the filly a rousing ride and she held off the favorite, Froth Blower, to win and pay $214 on a two-dollar win ticket. Smythe told his friends, Ed Bockle and Larkin Maloney, who were with him: "Now, I can buy King Clancy."

Smythe even insisted his presence at a horse park played an important part in the actual sale. An acquaintance, whom he met at the track, told him the directors of Montreal Maroons had scheduled a meeting to decide whether they should authorize their general manager, Jimmy Strachan, to offer the Ottawa Club an unprecedented $35,000 for Clancy's contract.

"Before they held their meeting, I had closed the deal," Smythe liked to recall, "The price was $35,000 and two players whom we valued at $15,000. Anyone who boubts what the terms were (many skeptics did) is welcome to see the details, which I have right here in my desk."

Possibly as a promotional teaser which would inspire the fans, while also tossing a harpoon into the Maroons, the Leafs ran an advertisement in the local press inquiring whether they would favor Clancy's purchase. They knew what the answer would be. Obviously, Clancy was a Leaf before the ads appeared. Using the newspapers to irritate an opponent was a tactic which Smythe used on more than one occasion.

Smythe had a long-running feud with Art Ross, general manager and coach of the Boston Bruins. On one road trip, when the leafs were billed to play in Boston Garden, Smythe had an advertisement placed in one of the Boston gazettes that read, in part: "If you're tired of what you've been looking at (the Bruins) come out tonight and see a decent team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, play hockey."

Ross, naturally, was furious. Smythe's defense, of course, was that he was inviting people to attend a game in the Bruin's building. Ross demanded that the league fine Smythe $1,000 for demeaning a rival team's product. When several other league executives sided with Ross, they were ridiculed by Smythe for lacking a sense of humor. The next time, he went to Boston Garden, he promised, he would be the perfect gentleman. And he kept his word, appearing in top hat and full dress suit near the Leaf bench before the face-off.

Such antics are left to club mascots today but the pioneers of pro hockey had no money at their disposal to pay for mascots. There were times when they scrambled for money to pay the meager salaries. They knew where they were going because they knew where they had been. And give them credit for making money their main concern – not a hobby. They were wrong a lot of the time, but they must have been right most of the time.

A look at the league today would permit that conclusion.