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Book Excerpt: Leafs AbomiNation Part One

The Maple Leaf in upside down! Like a ship in distress! GET IT?!?
The Maple Leaf in upside down! Like a ship in distress! GET IT?!?

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 (out 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

"The Toronto Maple Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and I thought the only way I'll probably see a Stanley Cup in my lifetime is if I write it."
-Mike Myers, writer, director and star of The Love Guru, a box-office bomb of a comedy wherein the Leafs finally win

Imagine a little kid growing up in a dilapidated row-house in a joyless city crowded with horse-drawn carriages and pony-carts. His father is a teetotalling vegetarian and failed businessman. His mother has drunk herself to death at the tender age of thirty-eight. The kid is a scrapper and a go-getter. No, this is not the opening chapter of a long-lost Charles Dickens novel. It is the childhood of Leafs patriarch Conn Smythe.

The Smythe family lived on North Street, a stretch of road north of Bloor that is today part of Bay Street, only a few city blocks up the hill from where the Air Canada Centre now sits. Far removed from the luxury suites and on-demand shrimp of the pampered generations to come, Smythe's was a hardscrabble existence in a hard era. "The greatest fight I ever saw was one day going home from school when a fight started between three St. Mike's kids," Smythe enthused in his autobiography, referring to the Catholic boys' school. "One fought the other two up a lane and then along street after street, always with his back to the wall, or he never would have been able to hang on. It was a lesson I didn't forget: if you looked after your rear, you could keep going. It works in fights, war, business." Smythe's trademark phrase would come to be among the most famous quotations in hockey history. "If you can't beat 'em in the alley," went a mantra that doubled as the title of his posthumously published memoir, "you can't beat 'em on the ice."

Clawing to carve out a legacy and a fortune, Smythe left marks you could still see long after he died in 1980. Smythe didn't drink, citing his mother's addiction as his reason for abstinence. Maple Leaf Gardens, perhaps at least partly because of the great builder's feelings on the evils of the sauce-and certainly because of Toronto's well-earned reputation as a conservative burg that tolerated fun only in small doses-didn't serve beer until 1993. If today's Leafs crowds are castigated for their sit-upon-hands reserve, blame Smythe for setting the tone. In a time before the sideboards were topped with Plexiglas, Smythe was said to strut along them in his spats, peering down and inspecting the wardrobe of the season-ticket holders and generally ensuring order. But then, his walkabouts may have been no more than keeping an eye on the rabble. During the years when Smythe ruled the Gardens, a Toronto police officer once told a newspaperman that illegal activity declined significantly on the nights of Leafs games. The implication seems to be that if the people running the Gardens were a bunch of crooks, so were the fans.

If he came off as holier-than-thou-and almost everything you can read about him suggests he was among the more insufferable and self-righteous men to occupy a seat of power in the sports sphere-politely acknowledge your respect for his sacrifice as a veteran of both World Wars. He was captured by the Germans in the First World War and wounded badly in the Second, absorbing a burst of shrapnel that caused him no end of pain until his dying day. He was also the benefactor of a charitable foundation that still raises boatloads of money to help children with disabilities. The Conn Smythe Dinner remains a fixture on the social calendars of the Toronto sports community.

But Smythe had warts that belonged to his era just as much as his heroism and philanthropy. He, like all NHL owners of his day as a rule, underpaid his players while pocketing massive profits. "I never shared things well with anybody, all my life," he once admitted, albeit referring to his sister, for whom he had little time. He wasn't above cheating; he acknowledged in his memoir that he'd once been a party to attempting to fix a horse-race at Toronto's old Hillcrest racetrack. He had a fear and disdain of Jews and Catholics that makes Don Cherry's hate-on for French Canadians and Europeans seem downright quaint. "We sincerely believed if we were captured by the priests, we'd never be seen alive again," Smythe wrote in his autobiography."I've always thought that Catholics have it pretty easy-do anything they like, then confess, and be forgiven. It's the opposite of, ‘as ye sow, so shall ye reap.' I know that there is no such thing as being forgiven." And indeed, he held grudges. Long of the opinion that one of his best players, Busher Jackson, was a disgrace to the game because Jackson was said to enjoy women and alcohol more than most, Smythe lobbied tirelessly to keep Jackson out of the Hall of Fame, going as far to resign as the Hall's president when Jackson was finally inducted. 

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.