‘Little Major ruled Toronto with an iron fist, fining and trading players who loved anything except hockey. To cross him was to buy a ticket out of town.
If you were a smart player when Conn Smythe ruled Toronto hockey – and he paid your salary – you didn’t mess with the ‘Little Major’ of Maple Leaf Gardens. Smythe had his rules, and woe to those who chose to break them. One of Conn’s canons had to do with weddings. Get married during the season and – uh-oh – brother you’ll get Zamboni-ed right out of the lineup. Johnny ‘Goose’ McCormack, who just happened to be the Leafs best penalty killer, couldn’t wait and wed Margaret Gordon during the 1950-51 campaign. Alas, the Goose was cooked. Faster than you can say mazel tov, McCormack was sold to Montreal.
William ‘Wild Bill’ Ezinicki, one of the best bodychecking forwards in history, helped Toronto win three straight Stanley Cups (1947, 1948, 1949) and might have been part of the 1951 champs. But ‘Ezzie’ loved golf as much as he did hockey, and Smythe didn’t like that, so he shipped one of his favorite players to Boston, and Wild Bill never won a Cup again.
Had he played his putts right, Ezinicki might have been skating alongside his former Toronto center, Cal Gardner, when the latter watched Bill Barilko score the 1951 overtime Cup-winner against the Habs. Better yet, Ezzie would have witnessed Smythe at his punishing best – or worst, as the case may be.
‘Tis a sad day when a hockey boss fines his best center $1,000 merely for not taking a shot. But that was the Smythe style and Gardner knew it. “Conn was a crusty old guy,” Cal told me one afternoon at the Gardens, “and he ran our team with an iron fist. On the one hand, he was a great hockey man but very opinionated about how the game should be played.” On the night of April 21, 1951 – the fifth game of the Cup final with Toronto up three games to one – Smythe underlined that point. He delivered one of the most bizarre fines ever levelled by an executive immediately after his team had won the championship. It happened because left winger Harry Watson was supposed to shadow Montreal ace Maurice Richard when the sudden-death period began, and didn’t do his job. “Instead, Watson went in deep and that meant my job was to watch The Rocket, which I did,” Gardner said. “All of a sudden the puck came right out in my direction, but I didn’t touch it. I was too busy watching Richard.” Smythe went nuts when he saw Gardner ignore both the puck and a scoring chance. Right then and there he decided to fine his center $1,000. (This was in a frugal NHL era when the average annual salary was about $10,000). Nevertheless, Gardner believed he was doing the right thing. “The puck went right past me toward the blueline,” Gardner went on. “Next thing I knew, our big defenseman Barilko dove at it and while in mid-air, shot the puck right over goalie Gerry McNeil. We had won the Cup!” Smythe was suitably enthused over the win but not Gardner’s failure to strike when the puck was hot. The Boss insisted that the $1,000 fine would stick, Cup win or not. In those pre-union days, Cal could only appeal to his creative mind for help. He requested a meeting with the still-seething Smythe and got a brainstorm: he decided to go to the movies. “Actually I told Smythe to watch the movies that the Leafs took of every game,” chuckled Gardner, “and he did – with me. I showed him that The Rocket was uncovered, and that I had to be watching him and not the puck. I convinced him that I did the right thing by watching Richard and letting Barilko do his thing.” The fine was rescinded, but Cal couldn’t avoid the fate that befell his Smythe-law-breaking buddies, Goose and Wild Bill. Before the 1952-53 season, Smythe punished his vigilant center by trading him to the Blackhawks. In those days the only thing lower than Chicago was Antarctica. P.S. The follow-up story is said to be either true or apocryphal, but, knowing Smythe, it could have happened. Prior to overtime Smythe warned his defensemen never to venture into the offensive zone when Richard was on the ice – under threat of a $500 fine. When Gardner allowed the puck to reach the blueline, Barilko broke the rule by diving into Montreal ice to score the Cup-winner. According to some insiders, the Little Major still fined his hero.
This feature appears in the Jan. 26 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.