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Blaming History Part 1 - Conn Smythe

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Writing good history is a tricky process.  The author has both the benefit and the hazard of hindsight filtered through the distorted window of contemporary eyes looking at a world that might have worked by different rules. 

It's not an inherently bad thing to want to take a fresh look at a story we all think we know - in fact, we should do more of this.  There is a tendency to ascribe simple storylines to the flow of history that really aren't borne out when one really gets into the details.  Things aren't as cut and dried as we've been led to believe.  A fuller understanding of where we've been really helps when looking at where we are now.  This, to me, has always been the value of history. 

I haven't read all of Leafs Abomination.  All I've seen is the first chapter excerpted here.  I can't comment on the entire book, the intentions of the authors, the process they've followed or any of that. 

So I won't.

What I want to do instead is look at some of the things they say and the mistakes they highlight in the first chapter.  The things I'll get to eventually (this may well take three posts) are the the Conn Smythe era, the formula of the championship Leaf teams, the ascension of the Stafford Smythe/Ballard team, the loss of Gerry Cheevers and the 1969 draft.  (Actually, this may well take five posts and I'll have to alternate it with the Livingstone stuff or else I'll never finish it.)

There's a tendency to glorify teams that win.  It's reasonable enough, I suppose, since that's the whole point of competing, but I think it's ultimately misguided.  Teams that win don't do everything right and teams that lose don't do everything wrong. 

Grange and Feschuk (I don't know who wrote Chapter One) do a credible job in capturing the complexity that was Conn Smythe.  One can take issue with the portrayal of individual events (his experience upon joining the Rangers, for example, wasn't as thin as they suggest), but they show a man who was full of contradictions.  He came out of a hardscrabble childhood, fought for everything he got, served valiantly in two wars, built championship teams for both the Leafs and Rangers, and could be simultaneously cheap with his players and generous to his charities.  He could be steadfastly loyal yet turn on you in an instant.  He was not an easy person.

Also, his teams won - or at least sometimes they did.

What really came out of the Smythe era was a template for what a Toronto Maple Leaf should be.

F&G say this:

"Smythe's Leafs weren't prima donnas, but they were stars, albeit in a different age. Back when the NHL was a select club of some 120 players (compared with today's approximately 700), the Leafs were a perennial powerhouse. A Toronto player led the league in scoring for six of the seven seasons between 1931 to 1938, Drillon racking up 52 points in 48 games to top the chart. Who could have predicted then that Drillon would still be the last Leaf to win the scoring title more than two decades after his death in 1986?"

There's a reason for this.  I feel it was by design.

Smythe was good at finding star players.  The Rangers were built out of some of the top shooters of the Western Leagues and the early Leaf teams were laden with offensive firepower he found in junior.  The teams of the 30s had some of the flashiest stars in the game - Conacher, Primeau, Jackson, Clancy, Horner.  You had guys who could light it up offensively to a degree the Leafs have never really seen since.  They were perennial all-stars, led the league in all sorts of offensive categories and were as well-known as movie stars.

And they lost.

After their initial success in 1932, the Leafs became the Buffalo Bills.  They lost the Stanley Cup Final in 1933, 1935, 1936, 1938, 1939 and 1940.  All that offensive firepower could get them to the dance, but they could never finish it.  Smythe was very critical of his big stars, particularly Conacher and Jackson, who he felt were having far too much of a good time to really bring it when it mattered most.  (Jackson was well into a life-long problem with alcohol.)  He most likely also saw that the losses began with the injury to two-way star Ace Bailey.

With the arrival of coach (and former defenseman) Hap Day in 1940, a sea change in the Leafs really becomes apparent.  Day's first Cup win comes in 1942, in the famous series where the Leafs were down 3-0 in the Final and roared back with four straight to win it.  One of the key moves was the benching of former scoring champion Gordie Drillon and his replacement with checker Don Metz.  This set in stone something that had been shaping for a while.

The championship Leaf teams of the 1940s (they'd win in '42, '45, '47, '48, '49 and '51) often had star players on them, but the individual success which so characterized the 1930s was placed second behind team success.  The Leafs became a defensive-oriented team.  All players, no matter their talent or stature, were expected to play two-way games.  Players who couldn't adjust or just didn't have it in their nature found themselves shipped out of town or were buried in the minors.  The Leafs of this era lacked the gaudy offensive totals, but they won Stanley Cups.

This is also true of the teams of the 1960s.  Think of the big names on those teams.  With the exception of Frank Mahovlich, they're all either defensemen, goaltenders or two-way forwards.  This was the model.  The Leafs would get through the regular season, often anywhere from second to fourth place, then hit the playoffs against a flashy team like Chicago and just choke the life out of them.  They'd win the Stanley Cup without a single player hitting 70 points.  The Leafs had talent, to be sure, but they played a game that was aimed at winning "when it mattered" rather than earning scoring titles.

For that matter, the Leaf revivals under Roger Neilson and Pat Burns were built around strong defensive games, as well.  The moves that Brian Burke is making?  He's actually building the prototypical Leaf team.

After the death of Bill Barilko in 1951, the Leafs went into a long funk.  They'd play OK at times, but were turning over the roster a lot and really never found much of an identity.  The resurgence came not from Smythe and the old guard, whose time was really done, but from the two people most often associated with the demise of the Leafs - Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard.

That can be the next story.