Hockey Central

Frank Selke:

The Game's Greatest General Manager

Although Frank Selke was small (5'7") in stature, he was a giant among NHL executives, the most successful front office man the league ever has known.

In his 34 years from 1930 to 1964 with the Toronto Maple Leafs as business manager and the Montreal Canadiens as managing director, Selke masterminded teams that won the Stanley Cup 13 times and were finalists in another 11 seasons.

Add the four Cup triumphs that the Leafs and Canadiens each won with basic rosters assembled by Selke after he left those jobs and his record is even more remarkable.

Selke's influence on the two oldest Canadian NHL franchises want far beyond the on-ice product. He was a key figurein the construction of Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in 1931 plus the upgrading and evertual rebuilding of the Montreal Forum when he moved to the Canadiens in 1946.

A native of Kitchener, Ontario, Selke was involved in amateur hockey there before he moved to Toronto in his "real" job as a business manager for the electricians' union. He coached two hockey teams in the 1920s, the semi-pro Toronto Ravinas and the Toronto Marlborough juniors, crossing paths as an opponent with another busy hockey coach and manager Conn Smythe. When Smythe bought the Toronto St. Patrick's, the city's NHL entry, in 1927, and changed the team name to the Maple Leafs, Selke slowly evolved into his assistant.

"I did a little bit of everything around the team from scouting for talent to selling ads and editing the program for games," Selke said.

Smythe's big ambition was to construct a new hockey building in Toronto because the old Mutual Street Arena wasn't large enough to support a top NHL club. But financing such a project as the start of The Great Depression was difficult.

Smythe's dream brought together three of hockey's most influential men – Smythe, Selke and play-by-play radio broadcaster Foster Hewitt. In the 1929-30 season, Smythe told Selke to produce a special program to sell the idea of a new home for the Leafs and include preliminary drawings of the structure.

On a Saturday night broadcast, Hewitt pitched his audience on the new booklet, to be mailed to anyone who sent in a dime. The Leafs planned to sell 32,000 programs over the entire season but 91,000 letters, each containing a dime and many suggestions for the new rink, arrived after Hewitt's pitch.

"That huge response told us two things – how important a new building could be and the power of Hewitt's broadcasts," Selke recalled.

However, fund-raising to start construction was stalled when those involved met in a bank manager's office on King Street in Toronto in 1929. All revenue sources had been tapped and the funds needed to pay contracts with the unions were still short several hundred thousand dollars.

The story goes that Selke bolted from the meeting and ran a mile to the Labor Council office on Church Strre where the Allied Building Trades Council was in session. He asked them to back a plan under which workers would accept 20 percent of their salary in stock in the new building. The council did but in reality, Selke had to sell the stock scheme to the business agents for 24 unions.

"It was hard times, construction work was scarce and I convinced them that 80 persent of a salary was better than none," Selke said.

The contractors followed the labor lead and bought stock packages, which, in turn, inspired the banks to increase their investment. Maple Leaf Gardens was built from scratch in an astonishing five months, opening on November 12, 1931.

The Selke-Smythe relationship never was a smooth one but together they built the Gardens and Maple Leafs into national institutions in Canada.

When Smythe wondered how to improve his team, Selke told him to move out the old players on the club and move in the excellent crop of youngsters Selke had assembled on the Marlboro juniors. Smythe guffawed but in the next couple of seasons added those youngsters – the Kid Line of Joe Primeau, Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson, bashing defenseman Red Horner and forwards Alex Levinsky and Bob Gracie. The Leafs won only a single Stanley Cup title (1932) in that era but filled the Gardens. Selke and Smythe had many disagreements, especially on the type of players for the team.

"He (Smythe) said that players had to be big in stature to be winners and I didn't agree with him, although some size and toughness were necessary," Selke said. "We could have had two very talented but not large players from the west, Elmer Lach and Doug Bentley, plus the Kraut Line (Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer) from my hometown of Kitchener. Smythe said they were all too small but they all became important stars in the NHL."

When military call-ups for World War II service ravaged the rosters of the NHL teams, Selke was able to use his knowledge of available talent to keep the Leafs at the top of the war-time league. They were Cup winners in 1942 and 1945. A major in the Canadian Army, Smythe went to war but even when based in England, he sent messages on how Selke, who was called business manager for the team, and coach Hap Day were to run the Leafs.

In 1942, Selke traded defenseman Frank Eddolls to the Montreal Canadiens for young center Ted "Teeder" Kennedy. Even though Kennedy went on to enjoy a fine NHL career and was among Smuthe's favorite Maple Leafs, Smythe never forgave Selke for pulling the trigger on the deal without consulting him.

"It was great trade for the Leafs but Smythe could never admit that I or anyone else was a better judge of talent than him," Selke said.

Smythe returned from the war into a boardroom battle for control of the Leafs franchise. Selke sided with Ed Bickle and Bill MacBrien, club directors who were trying to gain control. When Smythe, backed by mining magnate Percy Gardner, won the ownership fight, Selke was finished with the Leafs. But the Leafs were not done. The large crop of splendid young players Selke had assembled won the Cup four time in the next five years.

Selke was immediately hired by the Canadiens, who had won the Stanley Cup title in 1946, to replace Tommy Gorman as managing director. The team had an aging but competitive roster and their arena, the old Montreal Forum also was in shabby condition.

"When I walked into the Forum on a warm August day in 1946 to discuss my contract with the team, all I could smell in the building was dirty washrooms," Selke said. "I would not agree to any deal until the owners had committed $100,000 to cleaning up the arena."

The Canadiens spent much more on the building and gave Selke a large budget to build a model organization for the postwar NHL. The Canadiens poured money into the Quebec junior leagues plue minor hockey systems in such strong hockey cities as Winnipeg and Regina, giving the Montreal club the pick of talent from many parts of Canada.

While the Leafs had built and Smythe strengthened dominated the NHL with Cup wins in 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951, and the Detroit Red Wings, with the young Gordie Howe, were a powerhouse, Selke carefully built the foundation of a strong farm system that was to sustain the Canadiens at the top through two decades.

"We looked for players with more than just talent," Selke said, "They had to be committed to the high standards of excellence in all parts of their lives that we made the trademark of the Canadiens' organization."

Goalie Jacques Plante, defensemen Doug Harvey, Tom Johnson, Bob Turner and Dolland St. Laurent, forwards Jean Beliveau, Maurice and Henry Richard, Bernie Geoffion, Bert Olmstead, Dickie Moore, Marcel Bonin, Don Marshall, Claude Provost and Phil Coyette under the masterful coaching of Toe Blake gave the Canadiens of the 1950s depth of talent perhaps unequaled in NHL history.

The team won the Stanley Cup in a record five consecutive seasons from 1956 to 1960, a string that easily could have been eight in a row because the Canadiens lost seven-game finals to the Red Wings in 1954 and 1955 after winning in 1953.

Selke did not want to retire from the job in 1964 when he reached the age of 70 but the ownership insisted. When he departed for this horse and cattle farm near Montral, Selke again left behind an excellent stock of players – the Canadiens won four Cup championships in five seasons from 1965 to 1969 – and an excellent replacement as managing director, Sam Pollock, whom Selke had groomed for the job.