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From the Archives: Goodbye Gentleman Joe, Hello King!

Stan Fischler looks back at how Joe Primeau led the Toronto Maple Leafs to a fourth Stanley Cup in five years in the early 1950s, but still didn't manage last long with the organization.
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If, by chance, Sheldon Keefe happens to guide his Maple Leafs to a Stanley Cup, he shouldn't feel too confident about keeping his job. For proof positive, all he has to do is check out the fate of Joe Primeau 70 years ago.

When Gentleman Joe -- once a Hall of Fame center with Toronto -- was named successor to Hap Day in 1950 as Leafs coach, Primeau was asked, "How does it feel to be starting?"

Joe laughed: "I don't mind starting," he said. "I only hope I'm around at the finish."

Primeau knew that Day had won five Stanley Cups in ten years of coaching including a then-unprecedented three in a row (1947-49) .

But Primeau -- center on Toronto's famed "Kid Line" with Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson -- did well on his own after retiring as a player.

He coached a Memorial Cup team to Canada's Junior championship and then coached an Allan Cup club to the Dominion's senior title.

Yet again, in 1951 he guided the Leafs to their fourth -- his first -- Cup in five years.

Still, Joe's boss, Conn Smythe, was less optimistic about Primeau as Toronto's head coach.

"I had the conviction that Joe couldn't do it again with the same team," Smythe wrote in his autobiography. "But I was determined that he should keep on coaching."

Smythe was right. The defending champion Leafs fell to fourth place in the 1951-52 season and were eliminated from the semi-final round by Detroit in four straight games.

Once again, the Leafs faltered but Smythe was determined not to fire Primeau although The Boss knew deep down that it was time for a change. Before the campaign had ended, Conn convened the writers for some candid news.

(As a devoted Leafs fan, I was disappointed in the season but I understood that you can't have a Cup-winner every year. What did surprise me was a headline in the Globe and Mail with the season still on and the playoffs ahead.)

CLANCY LEAF COACH IF PRIMEAU RETIRES. The subhead added: SMYTHE SOUNDS OFF AT HUB.

(Photos of Joe Primeau, King Clancy and Bill Ezinicki accompanied the story.)

A longtime favorite of Smythe's, King Clancy's defense work had helped Toronto win a Stanley Cup in 1932. He later would become an NHL referee and, most recently, coach of Toronto's AHL farm team in Pittsburgh.

"No formal announcement of the next Leafs coach was made," wrote historian Eric Zweig in his oral history of the Leafs, "but everyone knew it was going to be King Clancy.

"He'd led Pittsburgh to the Calder Cup in 1952 and had them back in the finals again in 1953."

But there was more to that Globe and Mail story than the coaching news. Although it was buried inside the piece by The Globe's Jim Vipond, one of my all-time favorite Leafs was coming back to the organization and that made me happy.

The Bruins, who previously had obtained right wing Bill Ezinicki from Toronto, were now releasing him and Smythe figured Ezzie could help bolster the Pitt lineup.

"I'll send Bill to Pittsburgh as a replacement for George Armstrong," said Smythe, referring to Army as a future Leafs star.

"Ezinicki was back in the Leafs organization and now is owned again by Toronto," added Vipond.

From my journalist's viewpoint, I was amused by the fact that neither Smythe, his aide, Hap Day, nor Boston's Art Ross would admit that they "leaked" the Ezinicki news. Here's how Vipond ended his story:

Vipond: "All executive parties disclaimed responsibility for releasing news of the (Ezinicki) deal before it was consummated. Art Ross said he didn't do it. Conn Smythe said he didn't do it.

"Hap Day said he didn't do it. All agreed that Ezzie must have talked to the Boston writers. Good for Ezzie!"

---

THE POSTSCRIPTS:

As Smythe had hoped, Primeau resigned at the end of the 52-53 season. Gentleman Joe had a thriving cement block business which meant that his exit was painless for everyone.

Clancy became the new head coach of the Leafs and on March 25, 1953, he expressed his pleasure over the development that had been bruited about for weeks.

"I'm overjoyed," said the popular King. "I never dreamed I'd be coaching the Leafs. I'll do my best to live up to the record established by guys like Hap and Joe.

"Conn had told me I'd have a chance to coach the Leafs someday if I made good in Pittsburgh. It's wonderful to hear that I made it. Yes, sir, it's wonderful with me!"

And it was wonderful for a while. Clancy got the Leafs to finish third in 1953-54 and fourth the following year. He got the most out of the talent at hand.

"No one else in hockey but Clancy could have put the Leafs in the playoffs," said Howie Meeker who had skated on four Cup winners.

But by the 1955-56 season, losing took the fun out of coaching for Clancy. "I was never cut out to be pacing up and down the bench," King concluded. On April 2, 1956 King was fired as Toronto's bench boss.

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