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Max Bentley - My Grandfather's Leafs

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There is a short-printed version of the Quaker Oats Max Bentley picture that is worth a pretty penny if you can find one.  This would not be it.
There is a short-printed version of the Quaker Oats Max Bentley picture that is worth a pretty penny if you can find one. This would not be it.

If James Mirtle happens to wander by today and read this, there's a question I wish he would ask:

What is the status of Tyler Bozak's hearing?

I saw that he was one of the game stars the other day, which bodes well, but I've heard a lot of criticism of his play and nobody seems to recall that he's been playing with an injury.  Getting hit in the ear cost him something like 30% of the hearing on one side of his head and he admitted that he was noticing it out on the ice, that he had to listen for teammates (or opponents) out of the other side and sort of guess where the sound was coming from.  They can swear up and down that this had no impact on his play, but I can't say I particularly believe them.  It was to take a couple of weeks before they knew whether there would be any permanent damage, and it's been at least that by now.  So what's the news?

Obviously, any loss of Bozak's skill set would be a royal mess for this team, given the state of the centres they have to work with.  Whether you love or hate Grabbo, he can't be the only scoring option down the middle. 

When I've heard this team described as following the Leaf prototype (I may have even been the one doing the describing - I'll have to look it up) of the grand old teams of yore, it should be mentioned that there's one significant way in which they're different.  All those teams were stacked down the middle. 

A somewhat forgotten part of Hap Day's defensive system was the ability to counterpunch.  He liked to ensure that he had at least one competent offensive player on the ice at any given moment, because turnovers would happen and you needed someone who knew what to do with the puck once they got it.  As such, every forward line needed one good weapon.

While it was not unknown for the Leafs to trade away scoring wingers, particularly those who couldn't fit the system (see names like Fleming Mackell, Gaye Stewart, Gordie Drillon), they would move heaven and earth for a skilled centre.  Probably no case greater illustrates this than Max Bentley.

Going into the 1947-48 season, the Leafs were as strong as they had ever been.  All the war veterans were back with the team and had found their games again.  They had come off a 72-point season (60 games) and were the defending Stanley Cup champions.  Conn Smythe, though, was always looking to improve.  He had an idea who he wanted to target, but wanted to validate his opinion.  He asked around his own organization, and even talked to Habs goalie Bill Durnan - who was the best centre in the league that wasn't already a Maple Leaf?

There was only one answer:  Max Bentley.

Max was the two-time defending Art Ross winner and the centrepiece of Chicago's famed Pony Line with his brother Doug and Bill Mosienko - both hall of famers.  He'd won the Hart in 1946 and had been an all-star both of the past two seasons.  At 27, he was at the peak of his career.  This wasn't the sort of person normally available by trade.

Chicago, though, was ripe for the picking.  Once you got past the Pony Line, the Hawks had precious little else.  They were particularly weak on the blue line and in goal.  Smythe made a blow-your-doors-off offer.  He sent them an entire five-man unit - the "Flying Forts" forward line of Bud Poile, Gaye Stewart and Gus Bodnar along with defensemen Bob Goldham and Ernie Dickens.  Chicago threw in a little-used rookie winger named Cy Thomas to round out the trade.  Cy would play just 14 games in his NHL career.  This was really a five-for-one trade.  (Note: Extremely-observant commenter Deceptions (author of an awesome book - go buy it) notes that the trade took place 63 years ago today.  Let's pretend I planned it this way.)

It was a hefty price, but Toronto now had arguably the best collection of centres that was ever assembled on a single team.  They already had Syl Apps, a five-time all-star with six top-ten finishes in scoring.  He was captain.  Behind him was Ted Kennedy, just 22 years old and already with two top-five scoring finishes, and now the third line had Max Bentley with his two Art Ross wins.  This was potent.  Remember that teams only had three lines plus a spare forward.  No matter which line was on the ice, the opposition had to watch out.

By being the number three centre, Bentley was not given the choice wingers.  He lined up with penalty-killer Joe Klukay on one side and any number of rookies on the other.  (Imagine the Leafs picking up Sidney Crosby and putting him out there with Caputi and Sjostrom.)  He knew this going in.  Smythe warned him about it, but told him not to worry, he'd get his goals on the power play.  Bentley played the point and it worked out.  Still, Howie Meeker estimated that coming to the Leafs cost Bentley 20 points per season.  He didn't have the linemates.

Bentley took to his new assignment and it worked.  The 1947-48 Leafs went 32-15-13 for their first first-place finish since 1937-38.  They swept Detroit in the first round and lost a single game to Boston in the Final.  Bentley never won another Art Ross (he would have won a new Cadillac had he won three straight) but he got a Stanley Cup that year, plus two more in 1949 and 1951.  Iffy wingers or not, he placed fifth in scoring in 1947-48 and third in 1950-51.

Syl Apps retired following the '47-48 season, meaning the Leafs went with a one-two punch of Kennedy and Bentley in the following seasons, trying a number of young players on the third line. 

The Leafs kept winning.  They stumbled in the regular season in '48-49, but won the Cup all the same.  They probably should have won the 1950 Cup and then put together the best season in team history in 1950-51.  The team went 41-16-13, for a team record 95 points (not topped until Gilmour) and a .679 winning percentage (good for 111 points today).  They beat Boston in six games, then Montreal in five, winning their fourth Cup in five seasons, their fifth Cup in seven and their sixth in the past nine. 

It was a good time to be a fan.

After 1951, the Leafs faced the retirement of Broda and the death of Barilko, not to mention the ascendant Wings and Habs teams of the '50s.  They slipped to third.

They got off to a great start in 1952-53, though.  They had made another huge deal with Chicago, picking up goalie Harry Lumley, and it was paying dividends.  At the 15 game mark, the Leafs faced Montreal at the Gardens with first-place on the line.  Kennedy and Bentley were both flying.  Teeder had eight goals and eight assists, good for fourth in league scoring, and Max had nine and six, good for fifth.  Max had the best linemates of his Leaf career in George Armstrong and Gord Hannigan, both big wingers who could skate and watch out for their smaller centre.

At 9:07 of the second period, Montreal's Paul Masnick drilled Max Bentley from behind and something popped in his back.  Masnick only picked up a minor on the play.  Bentley was out about 10 days with a back injury, and came back before it was really healed.  He hurt it again against Detroit and would be in and out of the lineup all season, barely able to skate when he did play.  He only scored another three goals the rest of the year.  Worse, Teeder Kennedy would wind up with a badly separated shoulder on New Year's Day thanks to a fight with Milt Schmidt of Boston.

With both star centres ailing (along with a number of other veterans like Meeker and Watson), the rookie-laden Leafs struggled all year to stay in the playoff hunt.  Their defense was solid, but they couldn't put the puck in the net with regularity.  Kennedy made it back for the last handful of games and Bentley played where he could, but it was too little too late.  The Leafs missed the playoffs - eliminated on the last day of the season despite winning their last four.  The strain of it was too much for coach Joe Primeau, who retired shortly thereafter.

It was tough on Bentley, too.  He was depressed at not being able to contribute and left the team for a week in February (this was later described as "the flu").  He left again without notice after the Leafs were eliminated (not that there was anything left other than end-of-season meetings) and went home to be with his brother and debate his future.

The Rangers had brought 37-year-old Doug Bentley back from the western league and wanted to put he and Max back together.  There was no guarantee Max would ever play again, so Smythe swung a cash deal and that was it for Max as a Leaf.  He'd play a pain-ridden season in New York, then head back to Saskatchewan, his NHL career over at 33.

Without Max Bentley, the Leafs spent the next few years playing well defensively but never really figuring out who on earth would play centre for them.  An endless parade of rookies tried, and some were OK, but none were Max Bentley.  When Teeder finally called it a career, they fell right to the basement.  It wouldn't be until the arrival of Kelly and the emergence of Keon that they would win it all again.

Visit the Max Bentley Gallery at the HHOF.

Max's stats:

 1935-36  Rosetown Red Wings  SIHA
 1937-38  Drumheller Miners  ASHL  26   28   15   43   10   5   7   1   8   2 
 1938-39  Drumheller Miners  ASHL  32   29   24   53   16   6   5   3   8   6 
 1939-40  Saskatoon Quakers  SSHL  31   37   14   51   4   4   1   1   2   2 
 1940-41  Providence Reds  AHL  9   4   2   6   0 
 1940-41  Kansas City Americans  AHA  5   5   5   10   0 
 1940-41  Chicago Black Hawks  NHL  36   7   10   17   6   4   1   3   4   2 
 1941-42  Chicago Black Hawks  NHL  39   13   17   30   2   3   2   0   2   0 
 1942-43  Chicago Black Hawks  NHL  47   26   44   70   2 
 1942-43  Victoria Navy  NNDHL
 1942-43  San Diego Skyhawks  Exhib.
 1943-44  Calgary Currie Army  CNDHL  15   18   13   31   26   2   3   4   7   0 
 1944-45  Calgary Currie Army  CNDHL  12   14   14   28   24   3   3   2   5   0 
 1945-46  Chicago Black Hawks  NHL  47   31   30   61   6   4   1   0   1   4 
 1946-47  Chicago Black Hawks  NHL  60   29   43   72   12 
 1947-48  Chicago Black Hawks  NHL  6   3   3   6   4 
 1947-48  Toronto Maple Leafs  NHL  53   23   25   48   10   9   4   7   11   0 
 1948-49  Toronto Maple Leafs  NHL  60   19   22   41   18   9   4   3   7   2 
 1949-50  Toronto Maple Leafs  NHL  69   23   18   41   14   7   3   3   6   0 
 1950-51  Toronto Maple Leafs  NHL  67   21   41   62   34   11   2   11   13   4 
 1951-52  Toronto Maple Leafs  NHL  69   24   17   41   40   4   1   0   1   2 
 1952-53  Toronto Maple Leafs  NHL  36   12   11   23   16 
 1953-54  New York Rangers  NHL  57   14   18   32   15 
 1954-55  Saskatoon Quakers  WHL  40   24   17   41   23 
 1955-56  Saskatoon Quakers  WHL  10   2   2   4   20 
 1956-57  Saskatoon Quakers  SJHL
 1957-58  Saskatoon Quakers  SJHL
 1958-59  Saskatoon Quakers  WHL  26   6   12   18   2 
 Leaf Totals  354   122   134   256   132   40   14   24   38   8 
 NHL Totals  646   245   299   544   179   51   18   27   45   14 

Art Ross Trophy (1946, 1947)
First All-Star Team Centre (1946)
Hart Memorial Trophy (1946)
Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (1943)
Second All-Star Team Centre (1947)    

- Traded to Toronto by Chicago with Cy Thomas for Gus Bodnar, Bud Poile, Gaye Stewart, Ernie Dickens and Bob Goldham, November 2, 1947.
- Traded to NY Rangers by Toronto for cash, August 11, 1953.
- Officially announced retirement from NHL, November 16, 1955.

What the HHOF has to say about Max:

Known as the "Dipsy-Doodle Dandy from Delisle" because of his fancy skating and superb stickhandling, Max was the youngest of the three NHL Bentleys (the other two were Doug and Reggie). Max grew up on a farm, one of 13 children, six of whom were boys. All of the kids played sports, and at one time five of the boys played on the same hockey team, the Drumheller Miners.

Max originally had a tryout with Boston as a 16-year-old, but he looked so small the Bruins sent him packing. On his way home, he stopped off in Montreal to try out with the Habs, and there the Canadiens' manager said Max looked so sick he should see a doctor. Incredibly, the doctor told Max he had a heart condition. If he didn't go home and forget about hockey, the doctor said, Max wouldn't live a year.

Max always looked gaunt and pale, and throughout his career he was plagued by minor injuries, pains, aches, dry throat, burning eyes, upset stomach, ulcers, diabetes and kidney trouble. He was often called "a walking drug store" because of his pharmacological tendencies, and for 155 pounds he was also quite resilient.

Although the Hawks liked Max, they wanted him to develop in Kansas City, the team's farm club. At first Max balked at reporting and decided to retire at 18 years of age. But Johnny Gottselig, a former great Max admired who was the current coach in K.C., promised to look after him and make sure he got to the NHL. Max reported the next day. Just a week later, injuries forced Chicago to call a forward up from the farm and Gottselig pointed to Max. He never saw the minors again.

In his first year Max played on a line with brother Doug and Mush March, but the following season the coach put Bill Thoms on the line as a policeman for the two high scorers. That was the turning point of the season, as Max finished third in the NHL's scoring race--Doug was first--and won the Lady Byng Trophy.

Max became famous for his drive to the net, his aggressive play to score and the fact that he was constantly in motion. He never stopped skating and had as many moves in his day, contemporaries would later say, as Wayne Gretzky did during his era.

Max won the 1946-47 scoring championship on the last day of the season--his second consecutive scoring title. Going into the game against New York, he was one point ahead of Rocket Richard, whose Canadiens were playing Boston. The game itself didn't matter for the Hawks, who were so far down in last place they couldn't see up at all. Max was getting reports about the Montreal game, and in the first two periods Richard had two points, and moved ahead. But in the third period, Max had an early assist to tie Richard. Then, midway through the period, he took a Mosienko pass at center and returned the favor at the blue line and cut to the net. Mosienko fed a perfect pass to the slot and Max's quick shot to the corner slid past the sprawling glove hand of Charlie Rayner. The Rocket was held off the score sheet and Max won the scoring title by one point.

While his years with his brother in Chicago were rewarding, the turning point of his career came on November 2, 1947, when he and Cy Thomas were traded to Toronto for an unprecedented five players--Bud Poile, Bob Goldham, Gaye Stewart, Gus Bodnar and Ernie Dickens. While many thought Conn Smythe was crazy to make the trade, the Leafs won the Stanley Cup three times in the next four years with Max. He assisted on the game-tying goal in game five of the 1951 finals that saw Bill Barilko score the Cup winner in overtime.

Bentley himself was at first saddened by the trade and the loss of playing with his brother. But he immediately became a star on a star team and helped the Leafs to victory, and his popularity in Chicago was never as great as it was almost instantly in Toronto. One night at the Gardens, the Leafs needed a goal. Charlie Hempstead, a racehorse owner and season ticket subscriber who sat right by the Leafs bench, petitioned Max. "Score a goal and I'll give you a horse," he proposed. Max did and Charlie obliged.

During the 1952-53 season, Max was hampered by a genuine back injury and played only 36 games before retiring. The Leafs sold his rights to the Rangers, and he was reunited briefly with brother Doug for part of the 1953-54 season in New York. When he retired, he had scored 245 goals and was second among active players only to Maurice Richard.