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From the Archives: A Dynasty in the Making

Stan Fischler looks back at how some mid-1940s acquisitions helped the Toronto Maple Leafs find success.
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When Kyle Dubas made 12th-hour trade deadline deals for defenseman Mark Giordano and forward Colin Blackwell, the Maple Leafs GM actually was aping history.

It was 75 years ago that Toronto's hockey major domo Conn Smythe pulled off a similar deal. Dubas can wish he could be so lucky because Smythe's two newcomers would help lead the Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups!

As the clipping in my 1946-47 scrapbook points out, Smythe's two farmhands would make history. Here's how it happened:

With more than half the 46-47 season completed, the Leafs were in big trouble. Coach Hap Day's defensive corps was down to only three regulars -- rookies Gus Mortson and Jim Thomson plus the veteran Wally Stanowski. "And we also needed help up front," moaned Day, winner of two Stanley Cups in four years. Not surprisingly, Smythe was listening.

Likewise, I was reading about and concerned over my favorite team, the Leafs. When my edition of the Toronto Globe and Mail arrived, I wasn't terribly impressed. by the news. Smythe had imported a pair of players who were unknown to me; and most of the hockey world. But, as it happened, they would emerge as two of the best substitutes any coach could wish for and that included Hap Day.

The defenseman was a raw-boned bruiser from the Northern Ontario mining town called Timmins. His name was Bill Barilko and he had been playing for the distant Hollywood Wolves in the equally distant Pacific Coast Hockey League. The other was a forward who learned his hockey in Toronto and then largely was forgotten. Sid Smith's name surely didn't cause migraines in the Goaltenders Union because not a single NHL puck-stopper had ever heard of him.

But a smile crossed my face when I looked over to the left side of the page. That's where my favorite columnist, Jim Coleman, held forth. Jim could be serious and funny simultaneously. And even though I didn't know a thing about writing style, I knew that I loved reading this guy. A couple of Jim's lines really amused me especially when he tried to calm down Leafs fans who were distressed about the club's slump. Coleman also suggested that we not get upset over goalie Turk Broda's last bad game.

Jim Coleman: "Just put a fourth defenseman in front of Broda and you'll see those frown lines disappear from his kisser."

Coleman's crystal ball was working. The Leafs slump soon ended, but not immediately. The Globe and Mail headline -- seen here -- SYD SMITH AND BARILKO TO JOIN LEAFS was accurate enough except that Smith spelled his name Sid, not Syd.

Barilko's first game wearing the Royal Blue and Whie took place in Montreal on February 6, 1947 when the first place Canadiens smacked down Toronto, 8-2. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Jim Vipond nevertheless commended the rookie backliner. "He (Barilko) was a bright spot with his ability to hit the opposition."

Only two nights later, the newcomers delivered as both Smith and Barilko scored in a slump-breaking 5-2 win over Boston. And it only took two games for Vipond to give Barilko his first nickname, "Bashing Bill." (Later another handle was given, "Snake Hips.") As for the gamble with two untried rookies -- added to six other rookies who had become regulars -- Vipond reported:

"Smythe said the decision was in keeping with the policy laid down at training camp to rebuild a championship team with young players. What Barilko and Smith lack in experience they will make up in enthusiasm and fight."

Both the new left wing and defenseman underlined Smythe's thinking. Barilko told Al Nickleson of the Globe, "I'm going to make hockey my career. So, I'm sure going to give everything I have to stay up here with the Leafs."

The Basher was true to his word. Upon the return of injured defensemen Garth Boesch and Bob Goldham, Barilko was teamed with Boesch and the pair proved to be one of the NHL's best. It also enabled Smyhe to later package Goldham in a five-player deal completed th3 following November. Toronto would obtain future Hall of Fame center Max Bentley.

Smith needed more minor league work.. He played only one regular season game for Toronto during the 1948-49 campaign but became a playoff star during thepostseason. Sid's three-goal hat trick in Game Two of the Cup Final was one reason why the Leafs were able to win a then unprecedented third straight Stanley Cup with a four-game sweep of Detroit.

From that point on Smith emerged as one of the Leafs most dependable scorers. Both Sid and Bill starred again when Toronto defeated Montreal in the 1951 six-game Cup Final. Barilko's scored the overtime Cup-winner and became Canada's sports hero. Sadly, he died later that Summer when the two-seater aircraft flown by his friend Dr. Henry Hudson crashed in the Northern Ontario bush country. The plane and the bodies were not found for ten years!

With another playoff season soon to arrive, we'll find out whether history can repeat itself for the Leafs. Perhaps Dubas' acquisitions -- Giordano and Blacwell -- will make the kind of beautiful playoff music that Barilko and Smith once did for Smythe's Leafs when they helped the Queen City skaters to four Stanley Cups in five years!

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