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From the Archives: Hornets Give Pittsburgh First Calder Cup

Stan Fischler looks back at the time the Pittsburgh Hornets won the AHL's Calder Cup back in 1952, led by coach King Clancy and featuring a host of future NHLers, including Tim Horton.
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Conn Smythe knew that the 1951-52 season would be a challenge for his defending champion Maple Leafs. In the spring of 1951, they had won their fourth Stanley Cup in five years and yet another title seemed possible. Their coach, Joe Primeau, already had won a Memorial Cup as well as the Allan Cup.

Then, tragedy struck.

In late summer, defenseman Bill (Snake Hips) Barilko disappeared on a fishing trip in Northern Ontario. When training camp opened in September, Barilko had not been found and was given up for lost.

"We lost the heart and soul of the team," lamented Smythe. "The Leafs are not the Leafs without Bill."

Conn was right. Barilko not only had scored the Cup-winning goal against Montreal in the 1951 Final, he had blossomed into one of the best-backliners in the NHL. Without Bashin' Bill, Toronto's sextet was just a shade of its former championship self.

"I can't see Toronto keeping the Cup," said Rangers coach Bill Cook. "The Maple Leafs aren't championship caliber anymore. Smythe always brings the cream of the crop up from the minors, but the cream has curdled."

Well not quite.

Toronto's flagship farm club in the American Hockey League was in Pittsburgh and the AHL Hornets were having a banner year. Their coach, former Leafs ace defenseman King Clancy was being groomed as the successor to Primeau who wanted to retire.

"Conn told me I'd have a chance to coach the Leafs someday if I made good at Pittsburgh," Clancy recalled.

King's Hornets never had won a Calder Cup -- The AHL's Stanley Cup -- before but this time around he had a loaded lineup sprinkled with enough good youngsters to eventually help the Leafs.

Husky Tim Horton was considered as tough as Barilko and Smythe figured that the successor to Snake Hips was only a year or two away from The Show. The other Blue Line prospect, Frank Mathers, already had been tabbed a can't-miss prospect.

The fact that their Hornets coach, Clancy, once enjoyed a Hall of Fame playing career helped considerably. "I was never cut out to be pacing up and down a bench," said Clancy, "and I never thought I had the temperament for it.

"But I enjoyed trying to buoy up the players and get them into the right mood for a game."

Five-time Leafs Cup-winning coach Hap Day had been King's defense partner on the first Toronto Cup-winning team in 1932. Day had enjoyed watching Clancy's unique way of running a bench.

Day: "King is such a real Irishman that he believes in leprechauns. He really believes in luck in the games and feels it's more potent than masterminding."

Four-time Cup-winning Toronto right wing Howie Meeker made it simple, explaining why Clancy was such a good coach: "The players would walk on nails for King."

So it was in that 1951-52 campaign in Pittsburgh. While the Leafs did make the NHL playoffs they were wiped out in four straight games by the eventual Cup champion Red Wings.

By contrast, Clancy's Hornets steamrolled through The A's regular season and reached the Calder Cup Final against the Providence Reds.

The New Englanders featured the AHL's leading scorer Ray Powell and crack goalie, Harvey Bennett, who already had played NHL hockey for the Boston Bruins.

Still, the Hornets were favored based on the number of their ex-NHLers, not to mention future big-leaguers on the Pittsburgh roster.

They included Bill Eznicki, Ray Timgren, Danny Lewicki, Leo Boivin, Rudy Migay, Pete Backor and leading scorer Bob Hassard. In terms of future, George Armstrong was regarded as the best young forward while Horton led the blue liners.

After five games, the Hornets led three games to two with Game Six slated for April 20, 1952, just weeks after the parent Leafs had been knocked out of the NHL semi-finals.

The band box Rhode Island Arena was packed to the gills with a standing-room crowd of 6154 hoping for a hometown victory. What they got was sheer melodrama -- a 2-2 tie after regulation and no score in the first sudden-death period.

But just past the six-minute mark of the second overtime, the Hornets' Ray Hannigan beat Bennett with a 15-foot wrist shot and Pittsburgh had won its first Calder Cup.

Since I had just turned 20 and still was a fervent Leafs fan, the Hornets victory story made my scrapbook in its last year of existence. My clippings included a banner headline in the Sun-Telegraph as well as the Providence Evening Bulletin.

They read as follows: HORNETS GIVE PITTSBURGH FIRST CALDER CUP as well as HORNETS ELIMINATE REDS WITH VICTORY IN OVERTIME.

In addition, the Bulletin added some artwork -- a ship flying the flag R.I. Reds is depicted on its way down to the briny deep, having been sunk by the Hornets submarine.

The irony of it all was that -- of all the bright Toronto prospects -- only Horton and Armstrong would help the Leafs. A good ten years later Tim and George would spur Toronto to the first of four Stanley Cups.

But, as Smythe pointed out, the players on his champ AHL team were either too young or too old.

"I thought our young talent would improve more than they did," he concluded.

Hornets fans didn't care. King Clancy delivered Pittsburgh its first Calder Cup in the franchise's 16 year existence; and on March 25, 1953, the Irishman's wish came true; he was named head coach of the Maple Leafs.

"I'm overjoyed," shouted King. "I never dreamed I'd ever be coaching the Leafs. Yes, sir, it's wonderful with me!"

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