Hockey Central

Hockey in World War II

Professional hockey, in no way immune to the impact of World War II on North American society, went through one of its greatest spasms of change during the six war years between 1939 and 1945. Some effects were directly related to the war, while others were coincidental. Still others were aftershocks from the Great Depression. The National Hockey League would emerge from the conflict stronger than at the outset, with a stabilized roster of teams and a game transformed by the introduction of the center red line. Along the way the league's competitive balance was turned virtually upside down and the careers of many of its stars would be interrupted. Those stars would also be the focus of controversy for the nature of their contributions to the war effort. While the league lost out on the talents of potential stars from the amateur, Canadian junior and minor-league ranks who paid the ultimate price during the conflict, it is difficult to name one NHL regular among the scores who entered the Canadian and American armed forces who died in military service.

The main challenge to the league's owners during the war years was to keep fans coming to the arenas. Rationing of vital materiel such as gasoline and rubber impaired fans' ability to drive their cars to games. (Late in the war, the U.S. government shut down horse racing to conserve these very items, which thoroughbred enthusiasts were consuming getting to and from the tracks.) Hockey teams in cities without extensive streetcar networks or subways were especially hard hit. The American Hockey League went from 10 teams at the war's outset to just six in 1943-44. Availability of players, however, was the primary concern: even if fans did bother to show up, what kind of hockey would they see?

While this was a problem faced by all professional sports, the fact that hockey straddled the Canada-U.S. border added some unique logistical and public-relations wrinkles. For one thing, while the vast majority of players were Canadian, all but two of the top 16 pro teams were based in the United States. Four issues regarding Canada's involvement in the war effort complicated the availability of NHL players: established NHLers and prospects alike showed a penchant for volunteering for military service; the Canadian government assigned a low labor priority to professional hockey; the military draft; and wartime restrictions on cross-border employment and travel.

Unlike other Allied nations, Canada did not make overseas service compulsory for eligible males. Rather, a draft solely for home defense was introduced in 1940. This policy was made in large part because of overwhelming opposition in French Quebec to compulsory overseas service. Many prominent Quebec politicians sympathized with France's Vichy puppet regime, and Montreal mayor Camillien Houde was thrown in military prison for four years for inciting his citizens to refuse to register for the draft. But Quebec was not alone in its opposition. In the Prairie provinces, there was still resentment over the 1917 Canadian draft; it was widely felt that the government at the time had reneged on a promise that young men required for the harvest would not be conscripted.

Initially, home defense duties required little hardship. Those called up were required to complete 30 days of basic training. In the fall of 1940, before the 1940-41 NHL season began, players were signing up in droves for home defense militias and completing their 30 days training so that they could get on with playing hockey and not have to risk having their number called in midseason.

One of this scheme's most outspoken critics was Conn Smythe, the Toronto Maple Leafs' managing director and a veteran of the Great War. He made a super-human effort to get himself onto the firing line, and succeeded, shipping out as a major in the Royal Canadian Artillery with his own anti-aircraft battery.

Eventually the Canadian government took a viewpoint Smythe had held all along, concluding that the 30-day training program was inadequate and gradually increasing home-defense duties to three months, then six, then making service indefinite, with a tour of duty interruptible only by the end of hostilities. Members of Canada's "active" oversease force began to disparage the home-defense conscripts labeling them "duty dodgers" and "Zombies" – painting them as "the living dead" of the war effect, neither pure civilians not actively engaged in combat.

Perhaps more than any other group of civilians, professional hockey players' prode dictated that they not be tarred with the Zombie brush. When in January 1942 the first NHLers received their home-defense draft notices, the players felt they had no choice but to join the volunteer army overseas. Still, those who controlled professional hockey were not prepared to sit idly by and watch their investments die in combat. However unfair it may appear, other, less hazardous, duties were found for many (if not most) NHLers who were compelled to enlist. A common job for NHL draftees was as a physical-education instructor at a training base, and they were also often pressed into service on armed forces hockey teams with the intent of boosting civilian and enlisted morale. The most famous team was the Royal Canadian Air Force Flyers, a senior team stacked with enlisted NHLers, including the entire Kraut Line from the Boston Bruins – Woody Dumart, Bobby Bauer and Milt Schmidt. The Flyers won the 1942 Allan Cup, the Canadian senior hockey championship. Not to be outdone, New York Rangers coach Frank Concher was instrumental in forming the Ottawa Commandos, an all-star army team created expressly for voluntees from professional hockey.

After the Commandos won the 1943 Allan Cup, teams from Canadian military camps, chock full of NHLers, accounted for most (and in some cases all) of the slots in provincial senior leagues. Bases were actively recruiting major-league talent to serve as coaches and players, and there were justifiable fears that what was supposed to be a recreational pursuit for men undergoing basic training was becoming a shadow league for the NHL, keeping its players out of active combat while serving as a cash cow for the owners of arenas that hosted the games. Conn Smythe's Maple Leaf Gardens, for example, held the right to host all senior games held in Toronto, including those of the Toronto Army Daggers.

Shortly before midnight on October 18, 1943, the system was damaged beyond repair by a scandal involving Turk Broda, the star goaltender of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Broda was hauled off a Montreal-bound train by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, claiming he was about to breach his draft notice. The Montreal Gazette got wind of the story, and claimed that Broda was on the train so he could enlist in a Montreal unit and play for the local army hockey team, but that the Mounties were spiriting him back home to make sure he played for the Toronto Army Daggers. A look at Broda's military records, made public 20 years after his death in 1972, shows that Broda was in no danger of breaching any draft notice – as a married father of three, he wasn't even draft-eligible. His records reveal that he had enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery in Toronto on October 15, three days before the incident on the train. Broda had apparently gone AWOL when taken into custody, and it does seem very likely that he was on his way to Montreal to accept a better offer than the one he had in Toronto to play military hockey.

As a result of the unfavorable publicity surrounding the Broda incident, the Toronto Daggers were ordered out of senior league play; by January 1944, military orders effectively brought an end to star-packed Canadian armed forces teams. NHLers did continue to play on military teams, however, and public resentment grew when it was revealed that some players had been on camp teams for two or more years while regular enlistees were being hurried through basic training in less than the prescribed eight months and being killed, wounded or captured overseas. Broda, for one, ended up going overseas and spending the was as a sporting ringer, playing football and hockey on Canadian military teams.

The NHL, meanwhile, soldiered on with makeshift lineups of players who were beyond the reach of the Canadian draft. (The American draft also touched the league; most notably, the Bruins lost star goaltender Frank Brimsek, a Minnesota native, to U.S. Coast Guard duty.) Virtually the entire starting lineup of the New York Rangers, Stanley Cup champions of 1939-40, had disappeared into military service by midwar. Teams employed players who were too young, too old, or too married to be drafted. In a typical move, the Maple Leafs introduced 17-year-old Ted Kennedy to their lineup in 1943-44. Other players took advantage of medical deferrals to appear in NHL uniforms. Canadian military standards of fitness were very high – in retrospect, too high – and players with bum knees, shoulders and the like were turned aside as potential conscripts. It became an irony of wartime, particularly in the fall of 1944 when Canada was facing an acute shortage of infantry, that men deemed unfit for duty were making a living as professional hockey players. It was not a situation unique to hockey: during the winter of 1944-45, when American troops were suffering heavy losses in Europe and the Pacific, it was discovered that about 40 percent of the players in profressional baseball in 1944 had been excused from military service on medical grounds.

Tommy Gorman, general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, cleverly exploited another draft loophole extended to men holding jobs in vital war industries. By ensuring Canadiens players secured jobs in industries such as shipbuilding and munitions manufacturing, Gorman was able to ice a mature and powerful lineup that proved to be the foundation on which 30 years' worth of great Canadiens teams were built. But the vital industry proviso was a double-edged sword: because professional hockey had been assigned a low labor priority by the Canadian government, potential players were not allowed to quit jobs of higher priority to accept starting positions with talent-straved clubs.

The resurgence of the Canadiens franchise was one of the major byproducts of the wartime NHL. Near death in 1940, the team was revived by Gorman's ingenuity, as well as the arrival of Dick Irvin, who'd spent the previous decade behind the bench in Toronto, and the introduction of a new generation of stars, among them Maurice Richard, Elmer Lach, Butch Bouchard and goaltender Bill Durnan. The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1944 and utterly dominated the 1944-45 regular season, losing only eight of 50 games and securing five of the six First All-Star Team positions as linemates Richard and Lach respectively set new league records for goals (50) and assists (54). Though upset in the semifinals by a determined Leaf team, Montreal was on a roll that would produce the dominant teams of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

As the Habs feasted, other teams starved. Already a league charity case when hostilities began, the New York Americans expired after the 1941-42 season, during which they were renamed the Brooklyn Americans. That left the league at six franchises, a configuration history would come to know as the "Original Six." Of the teams that survived the war, the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, the league's top two teams from 1937-38 until 1939-40, suffered most, as their lineups were gutted by military callups. A return to peacetime saw the Rangers, the Cup champions of 1940, as perennial also-rans until after the 1967 expansion. It would be 1944 before they won another Stanley Cup title. The Bruins, Cup winners in 1939 and 1941, did manage to reach three Cup finals during the 1950s, but they were more down than up until a renaissance in the late 1960s. Joining Toronto and Montreal in the league's upper echelon after the war were the Detroit Red Wings. Last-place finishers in 1937-38, the Wings reached the Cup finals four times in the 1940s, winning in 1943. They would dominate the late 1940s and early 1950s with seven consecutive first-place finishes and four more Stanley Cup wins. The Chicago Blackhawks found success as elusive after the war as before it, unable to repeat their longshot Cup win of 1938. After reaching the finals against Montreal in 1943-44, the Blackhawks wern't seen again in Cup play until they won in 1961.

The game was substantially different after the war. In 1943-44, the NHL had changed the pace and flavor of its game entirely by introducing the center ice red line. Previously, a player could not make a forward pass across his own blue line and aggressive forechecking could bottle up a weaker team in its own end. The new rules allowed a player in his own defensive zone to make a breakout pass as far as the red line (but no further, as a two-line pass resulted in an offside call) and created the high-speed, head-manning game we now take for granted. Many veterans whose careers had been interrupted by military service found the faster-paced game too much for their advancing age and declining skills, and the way was paved for a number of fresh recruits such as Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Ted Kennedy.

There is no question that wartime diluted the quality of the game. As Conn Smythe wrote from overseas to his chief scout, Squib Walker, in April 1944, "You have to admit that one NHLer is worth two wartime NHLers." Ted Kennedy reflects that while the game was not as well played as what followed, it was played with the same intensity. It was real hockey, and fans packed the arenas to see it.

The league was not untouched by the tragedy of war. Conn Smythe, having gotten overseas with his anti-aircraft battery, was seriously wounded in a Luftwaffe raid in July 1944 and returned home that September. Interim league president Red Dutton lost two sons in combat. And while casualties in the ranks of NHL regulars are difficult to spot, there were many bright prospects whose losses can only make one wonder what might have been. Detroit lost Joe Turner, a star goaltender in the AHL, who as a Canadian chose to join the U.S. Marines and was killed in action in northern Europe in January 1945. Leaf prospect Red Tilson, who had starred with the Oshawa Generals, was killed in action with a Canadian infantry regiment in October 1944. Dudley "Red" Garret, a Leaf prospect who had been traded to the Rangers (playing 23 games with New York in 1942-43), was lost when his corvette patrol boat was torpedoed by a U-boat off Newfoundland in November 1944.

While these losses hurt the NHL, the league was not entitled to present these tragedies as evidence of win-the-war selflessness. As a business enterprise, the NHL made every effort to prosper in wartime, and it succeeded. While Maple Leaf Gardens hosted Victory Bond drives and bought bonds of its own, it never donated any profits from its operations to war charities, and its directors could have done so comfortably as earnings soared from $192,274 in 1939 to $315,763 in 1945. For all the privations and private losses, World War II was a fine time to own an NHL franchise.