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From the Archives: A Landmark All-Star Game in 1951

The upcoming All-Star Game in Las Vegas will provide an arresting contrast to the one played a half-century ago in Toronto. Stan Fischler looks back at the unique format the NHL tried at the time, and how it didn't work.
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The upcoming All-Star Game in Las Vegas will provide an arresting contrast to the one played a half-century ago in Toronto.

Promoters in 1951 sought a fresh approach to the official format that was introduced in 1947 at Maple Leaf Gardens. The league pitted the Stanley Cup champion Maple Leafs against the All-Stars. The format was retained through the 1950 edition.

"We wanted something different for 1951," said NHL President Clarence Campbell, "and we got it."

Not that the first four tries were flops; far from it but the feeling was that a fresh approach was necessary. Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, reporter Al Nickleson believed that having the First All-Stars play the Second Team was worth a try.

"A hitch to the old system," asserted Nickleson. "was that any members of the Cup-winning team who were named All-Stars still had to play with their own club against the stars. Thus, only a partial All-Star team was on display."

To market the new version, NHL promoters gave the 1951 contest a catchy label, "The Dream Team." It pitted the First Team All-Stars and Second Team All-Stars from the previous season playing against each other in the pre-season game.

The First Team coach was Joe Primeau of the Cup champion Maple Leafs while Dick Irvin of the Canadiens ran the bench for the Second Team.

"This promises to be the most notable of all the All-Star Games so far," wrote Nickleson. 

Several sidebars enveloped the regular All-Star narrative. One centered on the appearance of Detroit's Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay skating against Ted Kennedy of Toronto.

During the first game of the 1950 playoff semi-final Howe was knocked unconscious after he had attempted to check Kennedy near center ice. The big Red Wing was severely injured and eventually hospitalized. For a time, doctors feared for how life. Eventually Howe recovered and returned to action the following season.

The Red Wings blamed Kennedy for committing a dirty play but the Leafs claimed the opposite and the league soon exonerated Ted of any wrongdoing. However, the Detroiters refused to believe the Torontonians and took every opportunity following the frightening episode to retaliate.

Another anticipated clash featured the NHL's two leading right wings, Howe and Montreal's Maurice (The Rocket) Richard. A "Who's Better?" discussion raged throughout the 1950-51 season as both aces vied for the scoring lead. In addition the pair would physically check the other as often as possible.

As one reporter commented: "Howe versus Richard could be as exciting as the game itself."

A few oddities captured the journalists' attention. For the first time, the Vezina Trophy-winning goalie wasn't on either roster. The fact that coach Dick Irvin picked his own goalie, Gerry McNeil, instead of Toronto's Al Rollins raised hackles among local fans as well as the media. After all, Rollins had been the winning goalie when Toronto defeated Montreal to win the 1951 Stanley Cup.

Another rarity was the fact that this was the first All-Star Game without Leafs goalie Turk Broda. In fact, it was the first that did not have a Toronto goalie.

Finally, another issue involved attendance. The Lords of the NHL were unsure how well the new format would appeal to the Toronto audience or whether it would be appreciated at all. After the gate receipts are counted post-game, it would make a good story either way.

Big ads in the Toronto papers headlined "Who Is The Greater?" theme. One such spread pitted Detroit's left wing Ted Lindsay against Sid Smith of Toronto.

Another ad had the caption, "How will Lindsay fare when checkmated by Rocket Richard? How will Smith compare with scoring champion Gordie Howe? The answers will be forthcoming on October 9th."

As for the game itself, one Toronto critic rated the 2-2 tie as "excellent hockey." Six penalties were called amid feistiness generated by both teams.

"This was no exhibition waltz," Nickleson concluded in his game wrap-up. "The bad man of the evening was Lindsay. He took two minor penalties, one for crosschecking

Rocket Richard and another for slashing Ted Kennedy."

Lindsay set up the game's first goal by Howe at 7:49 of the first period. Second team center Tod Sloan of Toronto tied it at 1-1 at 2:26 of the second period, but Boston's Johnny Peirson put the First Team ahead 2-1 at 16:49.

Second Team member Ken Mosdell of Montreal tied the game at 9:25 of the third period and the "Dream Team" game ended without a winner.

Not surprisingly, battles erupted throughout the match. Reporter Nickleson recalled two: "Rocket Richard in a warning gesture, tapped Lindsay on the shoulder with his stick after Lindsay's crosschecking penalty was assessed. And to almost start another feud, the Rocket rode Howe into the boards near the start of the third period and the two wrestled to the ice."

Despite the excitement produced by the scoring and physical play a certain pall extended over the event because of the absence of one player, Maple Leafs defenseman Bill (Snake Hips) Barilko.

One of the most popular players in Toronto hockey history, Barilko had scored Toronto's Cup-winning goal in Game Five of the 1951 Stanley Cup Final against Montreal. In addition, Barilko had played a significant role in his team's Cup victories in 1947, 1948 and 1949.

During the summer of 1951, Barilko and his dentist friend Dr. Henry Hudson took off in Hudson's plane on a fishing trip en route to the Northern Ontario wilds. They never returned and by All-Star time neither the plane nor the adventurers had been found. (Only ten years later was the wreckage discovered. Both the bodies of Barilko and his pal still were strapped in their seats.)

"We miss Bill deeply," said Toronto coach Joe Primeau, "both on the ice and in the dressing room. We only wish he could be with us today."

All things considered the game brought together the NHL's finest and provided a hockey jubilee for the media and non-All-Stars who came to see the game. In addition it would become the first piece of a template that would inspired future games -- with assorted and sundry changes along the way, right up to the present.

Some critics were displeased that the game ended in a tie. As for the "Who Is The Greater?" promotion campaign, it didn't generate the kind of hype the league had hoped for, as the crowd of 11,469 was well below expectations.

The league returned to the old format in 1953 at Montreal's Forum where the All-Stars defeated the Canadiens, 3-1 and 14,153 fans filled the arena proving that there was no need for novelty. 

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