Sportswriters loved Conn Smythe. Even the ones who didn’t like him loved him. Reporters love anyone who gives them something interesting to write about, and Smythe always had something newsworthy going on. If you asked a serious question, he’d answer it. Even if he knew his response would upset people, he’d say it anyway. Sometimes he’d say it because
he knew it would upset people, because controversy put butts in the seats at Maple Leaf Gardens. Not that the Gardens’ seats lacked backsides: from the time Smythe finally gained full control in 1947 until he quit his last post with the team two decades later, there hadn’t been a single unsold ticket to a Leafs game, and there wouldn’t be for many more years to come.
They loved him because of his outsized character, fierce pride and uncompromising devotion to success, which was also useful newspaper fodder. They described him as fiery, stubborn, imperious, explosive, volcanic, “a flinty mixture of heart and head,” “an eruption of Mt. Etna,” a firebrand, “the Toronto pepperpot,” “the Little Pistol,” “the Little Corporal,” “the little Major.”
Trent Frayne wrote that Smythe was a “bombastic, romantic, bigoted, inventive, intimidating, quixotic, terrible-tempered paradox of outlandish proportions.” 1 Frayne’s wife, June Callwood, portrayed him as “a high-hearted despot, a patriot, a brave, outrageous, generous and honest man” who had learned to simplify the confusion of his childhood “by eliminating the soft baggage of tact, tolerance, forgiveness and sociality by which most people draw closer to one another.” Ralph Allen, who joined Smythe’s “sportsmen’s battery” in the Second World War, joked he was “as diplomatic as a runaway Rhinoceros.” Ted Reeve, who also signed on to the battery, claimed that when Smythe addressed the men, he sometimes grew so heated his helmet rattled like the lid on a tea kettle.
He was great for profiles. Any magazine with a cover to fill could send someone around to talk to Conn Smythe and come away with something worth reading. They wrote about him in his early days as Leaf boss roaring around the gangway that circled the Gardens, hurling hats and insults at wayward referees or skidding across the ice in his spats as he took his complaint directly to officials. Later, after war wounds reduced his mobility, they described him perched in his redoubt in the green seats, assessing the game from on high, just as fervent as ever as he dispatched runners with mid-game “advice” for the coach behind the bench.
They called him “The Ice Man.” They talked about his mix of harshness and sentimentality. They recounted the time Rocket Richard was thrown out of a game after a wild brawl and Smythe countered the resultant pooh-poohing with the remark: “We’ve got to stamp out this kind of thing or people are going to keep on buying tickets.”
He was, more than anything, a contradiction. He valued loyalty above all else but left two of his most devoted allies, Frank Selke and Hap Day, feeling betrayed. He admired Ted Kennedy as one of the greatest Leafs ever, even while excoriating Selke for bringing him to the team. His anti-Catholic rhetoric flowed freely, yet several of the men he regarded most highly were ardent Catholics. He was a fierce proponent of free enterprise who willingly gave away money, just as long as it was requested, not demanded. He advocated a rough, tough, no-nonsense style of hockey, yet two of his favourite players – Syl Apps and Joe Primeau – rarely spent a minute in the penalty box. He blocked Harvey Jackson from the Hall of Fame for years because he drank too much and got into trouble, but happily supported Doug Harvey, who drank just as much.
He was more than simply a hockey manager. Twice he risked his life to go to war for his country and was injured both times, the second set of wounds causing permanent, painful damage. He joined up to fight Hitler when already in his mid-forties, with a wife and four children to care for, and refused numerous offers of safe, high-profile appointments, insisting on a battlefield position. On his return he launched a controversy that almost brought down the government of Mackenzie King, creating turmoil in Ottawa while he lay prone in a hospital bed.
One reason for writing this book is to remind people that Conn Smythe was not only the builder and owner of a hockey team but a fascinating Canadian who for forty years or more contributed enormously to the development of this country’s culture and character. He founded the hockey dynasty that, for much of his life, really was
Canada’s team (if you didn’t happen to live in Quebec). He built the most famous arena in the country, a building that drew gawking, reverent tourists from across the country. When radio was still a novelty – some said a gimmick – he recognized its power and hired a young announcer named Foster Hewitt to turn his team into national heroes. He battled relentlessly for the ideas he believed in – in sports, politics, and civic responsibility – even after the country turned in a new direction and left him largely preaching to himself. He suffered the death of his oldest son amid a scandal played out on the front pages of the country’s newspapers. He lost a mother, son, and daughter to alcohol, which he rarely touched himself.
Another reason to write about Smythe is that many Canadians know little about him despite the important role he played over so many years. You have to be older than fifty to remember the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. You have to be close to sixty to remember when Conn Smythe ruled the team and to appreciate that no Leafs team has ever won a Stanley Cup when it wasn’t run by a man named Smythe. He sold the team to his son, Stafford, in 1961, but the core of the club that hoisted the Cup in 1967 came up through the ranks of the talent machine developed by Conn Smythe.
Today’s Leafs teams still profit from that legacy. The legend of the team – the inexplicable fervency and loyalty of fans who have fiercely supported it through four decades of frustration – was nourished, developed, and brought to term by the spectacular successes between the 1930s and the 1960s. The players from that period – Conacher, Clancy, Broda, Apps, Bailey, Kennedy, and Day – still look down from the rafters at the Air Canada Centre, though images of Smythe himself are curiously scarce. The vast money-making machine that is the current Leafs ownership is deeply indebted to the bedrock of devotion created by Smythe, which even Harold Ballard couldn’t destroy. The fact that Toronto is still accorded a home game almost every Saturday night – despite justifiable grumbling from rivals – dates from Smythe’s success in establishing Saturday as the night Canada gathered around its radios to listen to his team.
Some of the details of his life are hard to authenticate with certainty. Hockey men in the early years of the game loved a good story and weren’t overly fussy about details. Players gave different versions of the same events. Foster Hewitt claimed he was eighteen when he made his first hockey broadcast. He was born in 1902 and the broadcast was in 1923; there’s no way you can get eighteen from that. Many of the stories that survive from Smythe’s time have been retold so often that the original details have long since disappeared into myth and the altered versions are taken as fact. Who is to know who really decked Eddie Shore just before he all but killed Ace Bailey with a check in 1933? King Clancy and Red Horner both claimed credit. The news reports at the time favoured Clancy, but goalie George Hainsworth, who had the best view, said it was Horner. Many accounts of Smythe’s experience as a prisoner of war in the First World War insist he tried repeatedly to escape, and succeeded on two occasions, though Smythe, in his autobiography, only laid claim to one attempt. Similarly, many histories of the Leafs report as fact that Smythe bought the Toronto St. Patricks in 1927 with money he won betting on football and hockey. Except Smythe only gained $10,000 from his wagers, and the St. Pats sold for $160,000. Smythe said he used the gambling winnings to pay off the mortgage on his new home, though mortgage records show he didn’t. Until 1947, Smythe was never more than a minor shareholder and well-paid employee of the team.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Lives of Conn Smythe by Kelly McParland. Copyright © 2011 by Kelly McParland. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.