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From the Archives: The Day the Leafs' Trade Denial Became a Trade

It was difficult to hide NHL trade talks from competitive reporters in the 1950s. Stan Fischler recalls one trade that helped Toronto win another Cup.
Newspaper clipping: Smythe Denies Yarn Ezzy, Lynn to Bruins

It was hard to keep a hockey secret in Toronto during the 1950-51 season.

For one thing, Canada's Queen City had three fiercely competitive newspapers, the Globe and Mail, The Daily Star and The Telegram. And each one boasted some of the sharpest NHL reporters in the hockey world. Getting a "scoop" on the other guy's broadsheet was a big deal.

"It was the nature of the competition," said Milt Dunnell, lead columnist for The Star. "You just wanted to be the first with a hot story."

In mid-November 1951, the big story surrounded rumors of a trade between the Leafs and Boston Bruins. Or to file it down to the basics, it was Toronto's hockey boss, Conn Smythe, negotiating with his Beantown opposite, Art Ross.

Of course, if Smythe and Ross had had their way, the negotiations would have been held inside a cave out of sight or sound of any reporter. But even then, it was hard to keep a good story down and away from the eager, probing journalists.

Smythe's league-leading Leafs were aiming for their fourth Stanley Cup in five years while Ross had a more limited objective – just make the playoffs.

But it was obvious that their trade talk eventually would be leaked to the papers. The Globe and Mail's sports editor Jim Vipond broke the story which I eagerly read when my daily copy of The Globe came in the mail. The headline was enough to intrigue any Leaf fan such as 18-year-old me.

“Hockey Deal Hot or Cold?” shouted Vipond's headline. The subhead also was gripping: “Smythe Discusses Trade; Second Party Not Named.”

Newspaper clipping: Hockey Deal Hot or Cold?

Upset that the trade stories have spread to Detroit and Boston, Smythe told Vipond's top hockey writer, Al Nickleson, "Nobody talked trades." Nickleson's story carried the headline, “Smythe Denies Yarn, Ezzie, Lynn To Bruins.”

Bill Ezinicki had been a pivotal right wing on Toronto's three-straight Stanley Cup-winners along with left wing Vic Lynn. But each lost favor with Smythe and had been demoted to the Leafs AHL farm team in Pittsburgh.

But the fact is that – despite the denials – serious trade talks were ongoing with Smythe's assistant GM Hap Day also negotiating with the Bruins.

A day later, the Globe headline confirmed the exchanges: “Leafs Swap Two For Four; Rangers' Fisher To Boston.”

Ezinicki and Lynn had been dispatched to Boston. In return, the Leafs obtained defenseman Fern Flaman, forwards Phil Maloney and Ken Smith as well as the rights to junior defender Leo Boivin.

"Neither Ezinicki nor Lynn fitted into our plans for the future," said Smythe. "But we never keep a major league player in the minors."

Smythe's prize was Flaman, 23, who would complement the Leafs defense with Hugh Bolton out with a serious injury. "Flaman," Smythe added, "is insurance for the present and future."

Newspaper clipping: Leafs Swap Two for Four

Personally, I was stunned and angry. Ezinicki was one of my favorites ever since he helped the Leafs win three straight Cups. He was the best bodychecking forward I'd ever seen, and Lynn was part of the famed Kid Line with Ted Kennedy and Howie Meeker.

Now the pundits went to work analyzing the trade and at least one Toronto columnist pointed out that the last big deal consummated by Smythe also took place in November 1947.

That was the 5-for-2 deal with Chicago in which the Leafs dealt forwards Gaye Stewart, Bud Poile and Gus Bodnar and defensemen Bob Goldham and Ernie Dickens to the Black Hawks for superstar center Max Bentley and minor leaguer Cy Thomas.

"Max helped us win two straight Cups," said Smythe, "in 1948 and 1949."

As it happened, Smythe struck gold again with his latest blockbuster deal. Flaman fit snugly into the Leafs' defense, and in spring 1951, fistic-minded Fernie was a catalyst for Toronto as Conn's contingent won yet another Cup.

Turns out that Smythe's deal denials had a day's value. His 1951 title victory is inscribed on the Cup forever.

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