For many die-hard Toronto Maple Leafs fans, February 14th does not mark a day in which individuals express their love for their significant other. Instead, it is a day that marks the anniversary that the Toronto St. Pats hockey club was re-named the Toronto Maple Leafs, under new owner Maj. Conn Smythe. Smythe has become a revered and storied figure throughout the hockey world, and his history is usually portrayed in a positive light.
Mr. Smythe was indeed a great man at times, and contributed a lot to help the game of hockey flourish in Toronto and beyond. Fans of the Maple Leafs today can thank Smythe, a decorated WWI hero, for almost single-handedly saving the franchise from being moved to Philadelphia. The owners of the St. Pats were ready to sell to the team to the city of Brotherly Love, but Mr. Smythe urged the owners to sell at a cheaper price, convincing them it was their civic duty to do so. Smythe was also determined to build a winner on the ice, acquiring King Clancy from Ottawa in a legendary deal, though his desire to win can also be seen with his work done with the New York Rangers. Though Smythe put together a great team for New York, he was fired before the start of the 1926-27 season, and the Rangers would go on to win the Cup in 1928, largely with players Smythe had gathered. Smythe would also give his Leafs and the city of Toronto one of the greatest hockey shrines of all-time, with the construction of the legendary Maple Leafs Gardens in 1931.
Off the ice, Smythe is remembered not only for his military efforts, but for helping with the creation of Hockey Night in Canada. The program helped expand the popularity of the game and the NHL across the nation, and Smythe had a hand in its creation, literally. A handshake agreement in 1929 with Jack MacLaren of MacLaren Advertising gave them exclusive rights to the Leafs radio broadcasts, this led to a connection with General Motors, which eventually led to the radio debut of Hockey Night in Canada. Also, Smythe was known to be a charitable man, as he was a frequent donator to the Ontario Society for Crippled Children, and in 1960, he set up a charity foundation to distribute money to various charities in Toronto.
Usually with historical matters, we tend to try and portray those of the past in as positive a light as possible, pushing the negative stories of an individual or group into the shadows of time, and Conn Smythe is no exception. Though Smythe may have been a great man in many ways, he certainly was no saint.
First, he was an alleged racist. The story goes that in 1938, after watching the great black player Herb Carnegie play at the Gardens, Smythe would not sign him, and supposedly uttered, “I’ll give anyone $10,000 today if they can turn Carnegie white.”
Also, though he did help the game grow, some of his actions toward the league were questionable. Smythe made many enemies in the 1940s and 50s with his reluctance to help give the league more parity. At this time, the Leafs, Red Wings, and Canadiens dominated, while the Bruins, Rangers, and Blackhawks floundered. Smythe was against both the intra-league draft (stating “we do the work all the work, yet you will get the players”) and revenue sharing (stating that he did not believe in handouts, even if it meant potentially saving the NHL). Smythe then encountered potentially his greatest enemy in hockey world in the late 1950s: the players themselves. When the players tried to start a union in 1957, Smythe was fully against it, and used Maple Leaf Jim Thompson an example of that. He traded Thompson, who along with Ted Lindsay was instrumental in forming the union, to Chicago, and took a jab at him by stating that the union was created in secrecy, and anything created in secret has an odor to it.
Thompson had the last laugh when he irritated Smythe beyond belief while in the penalty box on a road trip visit with Chicago, saluting the Major, and then making a gun with his hand, pointing it at Smythe.
Who knew what was to follow when Smythe purchased the Leafs on Valentine’s Day 1927. Whether you look at it from the perspective of Conn Smythe as a Toronto hockey saviour, or a racist who tried to halt the players rights and benefits from growing, the Legend of Conn Smythe is an interesting one to say the least.
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Main Photo Credit: Conn Smythe, 1948. Photo taken by Turofsky.