When news of this book first came out the response was...ummm...visceral to say the least and understandably so. I received a copy to review (I'll post it next week) but over the weekend I'll provide you the excerpt of the first chapter. Read it at your own risk. Full disclosure: The hour and a half I spoke with Michael Grange turned into about 5 pages worth of me defending our honour. Also, I HAVE to put up the book cover every time but each time will have a new joke.
Chapter One: Blame History
Armed with only limited experience with a handful of amateur hockey teams for which he'd played and coached, Smythe landed the GM's job with the New York Rangers in 1926 on little more than a friend's recommendation. Smythe used his knowledge of the Canadian hinterlands to put together a roster that would win the Stanley Cup in 1928, but not before the Rangers would relieve him of his managerial duties in favour of Lester Patrick. Smythe took his severance pay along with some gambling winnings and cobbled together a group of investors to buy the Toronto St. Patricks.
Legend has it that he also talked the previous ownership out of accepting a higher bid from a buyer that intended to move the team to Philadelphia by appealing to the Torontonians' civic pride (whether the pre-Smythe owners did Toronto a favour or a disservice depends on your outlook). Either way, showing civic pride meant showing a remarkable profit. The four men who sold the team to Smythe's group-one of whom, J.P. Bickell, retained his stake in the club-had bought it a few years earlier for a measly $5,000. On February 14, 1927, they allowed it to be taken off their hands for $160,000. Precisely two years later, seven gangsters in Al Capone's Chicago would be gunned down in a mass slaying that would become known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Call the sale of the St. Patricks, with its 1,600 percent cash return, a plain old St. Valentine's Day Killing. From the beginning, Toronto's NHL franchise has carved out a reputation for providing its overseers with exponential riches.
Smythe, with money on his mind, understood the team needed a more universally appealing image, one that wasn't so specifically catholic in origin. In short order, he changed the colours from green and white to blue and white, and changed the name to the Maple Leafs (leaving it to generations of parents to explain to their kids why their heroes weren't "Leaves"-though often a target of rival fans' mockery, the name was already in use by other Toronto sports teams; Merriam-Webster's dictionary even today considers "leafs" a valid pluralization of "leaf "). He also understood the necessity of a grander stage than the 8,000-seat Mutual Street Arena in which the St. Pats (and their previous incarnation, the Arenas) had played since the NHL's founding in 1917. A few years into his tenure as the team's owner, he undertook the unlikely project of building what would become, for a couple of generations, the country's best-known building. Maple Leaf Gardens was built in a flurry in the throes of the Dirty Thirties against almost all logic and a backdrop of grim prognostications.
As Foster Hewitt, the game's very voice, would later write: "When Maple Leaf Gardens was only an idea the critics said, ‘You can't finance it.' When the plans were drawn the doubters declared, ‘You can't have it ready for opening night.' When the building was completed the pessimists prophesied, ‘You can't fill it.' But every prediction was false, for on November 12, 1931, the largest crowd in Toronto's history to witness an indoor event of any kind packed into the new ice palace."
The story goes that Smythe coveted a bedrock player to build a champion around. He recognized that King Clancy, the gutsy defenceman who'd been at the heart of the Ottawa Senators' Stanley Cup wins in 1923 and 1927, was that man. Smythe also knew he was short of the cash that would be required to secure Clancy. By this time, the irascible owner had gone from simply betting on horse races to owning racehorses. He had a filly, Rare Jewel, running in the Coronation Futurity at Woodbine and, in a gamble to meet the Clancy price, he bet heavily on her despite the fact that she was a 100-to-1 shot. Whether it was improbably good luck, or another instance of the uncanny Smythe arranging the outcome at the racetrack, as he was not above doing, Rare Jewel won the race, Smythe won almost $15,000, and Clancy became a Leaf. Perhaps it was both good luck and shrewd planning. What's for sure is that Smythe, as the controlling owner and effective general manager, had more luck or skill or both at building Maple Leaf rosters than almost every other man who'd inhabit the role.
The Clancy-led Leafs-teamed with Red Horner, Hap Day, Lorne Chabot, et al, and with Dick Irvin as coach-won the Cup in Clancy's second year in Toronto, the team's first season at the Gardens. The teams Smythe governed would win six of ten Stanley Cups from 1942 to 1951, and plenty of glorious lore would be etched in the winning. The 1942 Leafs, for instance, coached by Day and captained by Syl Apps, became the first pro sports team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit to win a best-of-seven series, defeating the Detroit Red Wings in four straight elimination games to win the Cup. (That feat wouldn't be matched until the 1975 New York Islanders came back from three games down to the Pittsburgh Penguins to reach the final).
How'd they pull it off?
"It was pretty easy to get up for every game in the old days," said Gordie Drillon, a member of that Leafs squad. "You know how we got up? Mr. Smythe would walk in the dressing room and reach in his pocket and hold up three tickets. He'd say, ‘See this? There are three going to [the farm club in] Syracuse tonight and three coming back." If you think Ron Wilson is a cruel task-master for sitting Jason Blake for a few shifts or skating his squad without pucks after a loss, keep in mind that Wilson would come off like a kindly uncle in the Smythe regime.
Excerpted from Leafs AbomiNation by Dave Feschuk Michael Grange Copyright © 2009 by Dave Feschuk Michael Grange. Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.