The infamous incident between Wings legend Gordie Howe and Leafs icon Ted ‘Teeder’ Kennedy led to intriguing ramifications not just for them – but also for Gus Mortson, who played for both franchises.
The 1950 semifinal between Toronto and Detroit ranks among the most intense post-season series in NHL history. This was due to Gordie Howe’s near death after an alleged butt-end. “L’Affaire Howe” ignited one of the longest-running hates in the game: Detroit GM Jack Adams vs. Toronto captain Ted ‘Teeder’ Kennedy. The primary witness was Toronto defenseman Gus Mortson who was there when the blood feud started and there again eight years later when Adams bitterly reaffirmed it to Mortson who had by then become a Red Wing.
Adams’ hatred for the Maple Leafs was already deep rooted and understandable by the time the 1950 playoffs began. After all, Toronto had won the previous three Cups, including a sweep of Detroit in the 1949 final. But now it was a year after that debacle and, led by Howe, the Wings were stronger than ever. “We can do it this year,” Adams boasted prior to the opening game. “We’ve got the team this year.”
And so they did, primarily because Howe had blossomed into a star, patrolling right wing on Detroit’s Production Line with captain Sid Abel at center and Ted Lindsay on the left side. But when the Leafs went up 4-0 in the opener at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium few expected what Toronto author Jack Batten described as “one of the most infamous and controversial events” in NHL history.
The play began innocently enough, as Kennedy sidestepped his way across the Leafs blueline, heading toward the Wings zone. Mortson, who saw the play unfold, described it this way in Batten’s book, The Leafs of Autumn: “Jack Stewart of the Wings defense took a run at Kennedy so Teeder passed the puck and got out of the way quick, and at the same time Howe was coming in from the other side and ran right into the boards.”
Howe thought he had Kennedy lined up, but he had missed and fell headfirst into the boards, breaking his skull. He was carried off on a stretcher and removed to Harper Hospital. For several hours there was doubt whether he would survive. “A brain specialist operated,” Adams later told Maclean’s magazine writer Trent Frayne, “boring a hole into his skull to remove fluid pressing on the brain. We paced the corridors all night. Even the next day his condition was critical.”
Neither the ensuing conclusion by NHL president Clarence Campbell nor referee George Gravel’s report – both exonerating Kennedy – ever defused Adams’ hate. Led by Adams, the Wings contended Kennedy deliberately injured Howe. “The Detroit players said I did it with my stick, but I knew I hadn’t,” countered Kennedy. “Adams stirred up a fuss, blaming me.”
In Game 2, revenge was on every Detroit player’s mind. One by one, the Wings persisted in taking shots at Kennedy. When the dust had cleared, Detroit won 3-1 and Adams announced, “We are suing…for $75,000.” In the end there was no suit as Detroit took the series in double overtime of Game 7, with the Wings shouting, “We won for Gordie.”
As for Mortson, it took eight years for him to learn first-hand about Adams’ manic obsession. He was traded from Toronto to Chicago in 1952 and then to Detroit in 1958. After arriving in Hockeytown for training camp, Mortson was invited by Adams to golf with him and two team doctors. “It sounded nice,” Gus recalled, “until we got on the course and they wanted to talk about the Howe-Kennedy thing.”
Mortson considered that bloody episode ancient history, though he instantly knew he had no choice but to explain what had happened. Unequivocally, he told Adams what he didn’t want to hear: Kennedy never touched Howe. “Adams looked at me and the two doctors and they were so sore they didn’t speak to me for the rest of the eighteen holes,” Mortson said. “The talk on the golf course finished me. I don’t think I got into a game with Detroit until Christmas. Adams made sure I did nothing but sit on the bench.”
Eventually, Adams tried to exile Mortson to Hershey of the American League, but Gus had started a food business near Toronto and refused to move to Pennsylvania. Nearby Buffalo was a better bet and Mortson persuaded the wealthy AHL club there to buy out his contract from Detroit. “Here’s the laugh,” Mortson concluded, “I got more money from Buffalo than I got from any team the whole time I played in the NHL.”
Stan Fischler is an award-winning writer and broadcaster who’s covered the game since 1954. He’s been a contributor to The Hockey News since 1955 and you can continue to find his Strange But True features in almost every issue. He’s also produced the hockey newsletter, The Fischler Report, for the past 20 years. Fischler’s latest book is Behind the Net: 101 Incredible Hockey Stories.