Kids can be cruel. In some cases, that has spawned some marvelous nicknames. Initially borne in a cascade of tears, they later became a badge of honor. And that was the case with one of the game’s most iconic goalies, Turk Broda.
The last time the young freckle-faced son of Ukrainian immigrants in Brandon, Man., was called Walter, his English teacher had been talking innocuously about an old English king who was covered in spots. Citizens called the king ‘Turkey Egg’ because of his freckles. One of Walter’s classmates looked over at him and said, “Look at Walter. He looks like a turkey egg, too!” And Walter laughed.
Another story about the origin of Walter’s nickname had more to do with the way he was built. He had a large upper body and short, skinny legs, prompting classmates to dub him ‘Turkey Legs.’ And Walter laughed, because that was his nature. Whatever story you prefer, it wasn’t long before only his parents called Walter by his real name. The moniker was shortened to ‘Turk,’ and it followed the affable goalie for the rest of his life.
So no, Broda wasn’t of Turkish decent. Nor was he Polish, despite the fact he’s an inductee in the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame. He was born in 1914 and grew up wanting to be a defenseman but was a lousy skater. When his Brandon school created a hockey team, Broda had big aspirations but wasn’t selected to be a skater. It turned out the coach had the inclination to pick the fattest kid to guard the net. To the coach’s credit, he worked with Broda each day by peppering pucks at him in the school lot.
By the time Turk was 18, he was called up to the Brandon Native Sons junior team to serve as an emergency replacement goalie in the 1933 Memorial Cup Western Canada final. He became a regular the next season in Winnipeg and caught the eyes of a Detroit scout. And this is where Broda’s pleasant nature paid dividends. You see, young Turk was universally liked. He was popular in the dressing room, and though he didn’t make the Red Wings at 20, he was kept around as a practice goalie because he made for a good target.
Broda’s play between the pipes soared, and he was best served the following season playing on the farm team, where he guided the Detroit Olympics to an International League title with the league’s best goals-against average.
Around that time, the Toronto Maple Leafs were seeking a replacement for 41-year-old George Hainsworth. General manager Conn Smythe was told about an impressive 24-year-old stopper by the name of Earl Robertson, playing with Windsor in the IHL. So Smythe went on a scouting trip. Robertson was OK, but Smythe walked away more impressed with the plump 21-year-old kid from Brandon.
Broda spent the next seven years as the mainstay in the Toronto crease, missing just four games out of 338. He won the Vezina Trophy in his fifth season, 1940-41, and guided the Leafs to the Stanley Cup the next year. Along the way, the jovial, happy-go-lucky soul made friends everywhere he went. Teammates, fans, even the opposition found him endearing. He was back in the 1940s what Marc-Andre Fleury is today.
But Broda wasn’t perfect. He spent his entire career battling weight gain. If he played well, nobody would say a word. If he struggled, people pointed to his girth. A couple poor performances in a row and all of a sudden ‘Fat Boy’ – his other, more unfortunate nickname – was eating his way out of the NHL, critics would claim. Broda missed the 1943-44, ‘44-45 and most of the ‘45-46 seasons serving in the Canadian military during the Second World War. His level of fitness didn’t improve in the army, but upon his return, he was as spectacular as ever. Broda finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting in his first full season back (1946-47) and led the Leafs to three straight Stanley Cups – he was the first goalie in NHL history to do that – and won his second Vezina Trophy in 1947-48.
But the weight was always an issue, and Broda predictably laughed it off. Prior to the start of 1950-51, Smythe had an addendum written into Broda’s contract. It included a dollar-per-pound clause. Turk was listed at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, but his playing weight could be as much as 40 pounds more. Broda had to step on the scales every payday and if it registered under 190 pounds – a reasonable compromise in Smythe’s opinion – there would be a bonus added to his stipend. If Broda’s weight exceeded the 190-pound maximum, Smythe could garnish some wages off his paycheque.
It’s a stunt that wouldn’t fly for a second in today’s unionized league, but it made for great photos and headlines at the time.
Broda’s first trip to the scale that season touched 194-and-three-quarter pounds, but he took it in good humor. “I work out at the West End ‘Y’ every day, and I don’t expect any trouble shedding those few pounds,” he said in The Hockey News. “I got rid of more than that last year (when he played at 200-plus pounds.)”
Comically, Broda was known to spend extra time in a steam chamber prior to the weigh-in to get closer to 190 pounds. He knew the weight of water like a prizefighter trying to stay in a weight class. On the ice, Broda was beginning to look slow and unorthodox, yet he had an amazing sense of positioning and was at his best in clutch situations.
Though ‘Turk’ and ‘Fat Boy’ were his common and widely accepted names, teammates in Toronto’s dressing room called him ‘Old Slippery’ or ‘Slip’ for the way he moved around, arriving in the right place at the right time.
Typically, Broda didn’t take himself too seriously. He ate when he felt like it, smoked in the washroom stalls between periods and loved his beer. Case in point is the story of him drinking the night away with an American GI during an NHL exhibition series in Los Angeles after the 1942-43 season. The story goes that in the wee hours of the morning, an MP searching for missing soldiers found Broda’s drinking partner passed out in the orchestra pit at a famous Hollywood nightclub. Where was Broda? He was seated at the piano, playing a duet with that night’s headliner, legendary jazz pianist Hoagy Carmichael. Later that same day, Broda blanked the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 in the final game of that series.
Broda was on Toronto’s 1951 Cup winner, earning his fifth NHL title, and he retired after one game the next season, happily overweight. A heart attack claimed Broda at 58 in 1972.
Born: May 15, 1914, Brandon, Man.
NHL Career: 1936-52
Stats: 302-224-101, 2.53 GAA, 62 SO
All-Star: 3 (First-2, Second-1)
Trophies: 2 (Vezina-2)
Stanley Cups: 5
DID YOU KNOW?
There’s a Turk Broda Stanley Cup ring out there. Somewhere. Broda won five Cups with the Maple Leafs, and with each successive win, owner Conn Smythe would replace the diamond with a slightly larger one. The jewel was pretty big by the time Broda retired. When Broda died in 1972, that keepsake went to daughter Bonnie, whose house in Toronto was burglarized in 2005. It has been missing ever since. The family would like it back. “We often wonder where it is,” said daughter Barbara. “It would be nice for the grandkids.”