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From the Archives: The Best Tough NHL Team Ever

Was there ever a tougher, more competent National Hockey League team than the Toronto Maple Leafs following the end of World War II? At one point, they weren't afraid to scuffle with anyone, writes Stan Fischler.
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Was there ever a tougher, more competent National Hockey League team than the Toronto Maple Leafs following the end of World War II?

Not in my lifetime and I've witnessed more than a half-century of NHL action.

For starters, please note that the Leafs, from 1946-47 through 1950-51 became the first NHL dynasty with four Stanley Cups in five years.

"My 1947-48 team was the best that I ever had," its leader, Conn Smythe, said, "and the (1946-47) club before that was one of my biggest surprises."

The Little Major might have added that his dynasty was born out of disgust. After returning from the wars and recuperating at home, Smythe watched his 1945-46 edition miss the playoffs.

(As it happened, being an ardent Leafs fan, I managed to see that 45-46 team in March 1946 against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden and I was disgusted with Toronto's losing effort.)

"We've got to rebuild immediately," Smythe asserted. "We've got too many old men on our team. What we need is youth, fighting youth, kids with spirit."

He wasn't kidding either. Veterans such as Sweeney Schriner, who had been a noble star on the 1942 and 1945 Cup-winners, were retired and replaced by eager, rambunctious youngsters.

They included forwards Vic Lynn, Howie Meeker, Ted Kennedy -- a still youthful holdover from two previous teams -- as well as vigorous defensemen Garth Boesch, Jim Thomson and Gus Mortson.

In addition, Smythe welcomed back his captain from the 1942 champs, Syl Apps,as well as veteran goaltender Turk Broda. Smythe was tickled by the blend.

"I should have figured it out years ago," he enthused. "Youth is the answer in this game. Only the kids have the drive, the fire and the ambition. Put the kids in with a few old pappy guys who still like to win and the combination is unbeatable."

Of course, I was as delighted as Smythe and even more so because 1946 was the year that I began subscribing to the Toronto Globe and Mail. I read every single story about the Leafs and went to every game at Madison Square Garden when they played the Rangers.

I loved the fact that Smythe and his coach Hap Day had constructed not only a winning team but a fighting team.

Their "Kid Line" of Ted Kennedy, Howie Meeker and Vic Lynn symbolized the punch Smythe adored. Lynn was a perfect example.

Meeker: "Vic was a good hockey player and he was always looking for a fight. Vic would cut you from ear to ear if he had half a chance."

But there were two others who oozed vim, vigor and vitality -- right wing Bill Ezinicki and defenseman Bill Barilko. Ezzie was suitably nicknamed "Wild Bill" while

Barilko was "Snake Hips" and occasionally "Bashin' Bill."

To this day I maintain that Ezinicki was the best, pure body checking forward I've ever seen while Barilko was the most devastating hip checker.

The pictured Globe and Mail sports page from the dynasty years sums up a split weekend for the Leafs. They lost to Detroit at Maple Leaf Gardens and then won against the Black Hawks in Chicago.

In this case, the subheads are most meaningful:

EZINICKI IN CRASHING FORM IN SEASON'S BEST NHL DISPLAY.

Better still, the photo in the top right corner shows Ezzie flattening big, tough Red Wings defenseman Leo Reise, Jr. Hockey writer Jim Vipond rhapsodized over

Wild Bill's hitting efforts.

In the other story, reporter Al Nickelson pointed out that Howie Meeker -- rookie of the year in 1946-47 -- scored the winning goal against Chicago.

Meanwhile, Smythe's "Pappy Guys" still were delivering. Broda and Apps were terrific as was veteran Nick Metz and another big, toughie Harry (Whipper) Watson.

Most foes were wise enough to avoid riling The Whipper who played left wing.

But Bruins defenseman Murray Henderson mistakenly stepped over the line and Watson kayoed him with one punch. After Barilko played his first game as a 1946-47 rookie, Watson observed, "Bill rocked a few of the boys. They kept their heads up when he was on the icel"

Barilko's rough and ready play infuriated the opposition. After a Leafs game with the Rangers, Bashin' Bill pulverized New York forward Jack McLeod who left the game for repairs. That inspired Rangers manager Frank Boucher to officially protest against Toronto's rough behavior. But it got Boucher nowhere.

Even Smythe's utility players -- forward Don Metz being an example -- played the hard, harsh game. In a February 6, 1947 game against the Canadians, Montreal's managing director Frank Selke protested several of the Leafs nasty maneuvers.

Selke was especially incensed after his ace center Elmer Lach suffered a fractured skull after a hard hit from Don Metz.

The fighting Leafs went on to win the first of three straight Cups -- no team ever had done that -- in 1947. Trainer Tim Daly, who had gleefully watched the club's metamorphosis from training camp had a nifty capsule comment:

"That's what you call taking them from the egg cup to the fighting cock stage all in one season!"

Then a pause and Daly added a tongue-in-cheek ad lib:

"I don't know why you guys are so excited at winning the Stanley Cup. We do it every year."

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