It was the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Ringling Brothers circus elephants during the 1933 NHL playoffs and the pachyderms won. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
For starters, Conn Smythe’s Maple Leafs were favored to capture their second straight title in 1932-33. They finished first in the Canadian Division and faced the American Division-leading Boston Bruins in the best-of-five semifinal playoff round. The opening game in Beantown – a 2-1 Boston overtime win – proved to be a portent of titillating things to come.
In his book The Trail of the Stanley Cup, Charles Coleman called it “one of the most thrilling games ever played in Boston.” The historian also noted that Toronto right winger Ace Bailey was attacked by a fan at the end of the second period. After the Leafs won Game 2, also in OT, Smythe shouted to the angry Bruins crowd, “Take a good look at your team. It’s the last time you’re gonna see them this season.”
Unimpressed, the Bruins invaded Maple Leaf Gardens for the third encounter and won 2-1, again in overtime. But Toronto rebounded and forced a decisive Game 5 at home on April 3, 1933. A Canadian record crowd of 14,530 jammed into the arena for what would be the longest game in NHL history to that time.
“After the fifth overtime,” wrote Leafs defender King Clancy, in Clancy, his autobiography, “we were so drained of energy, we all lay out on the dressing room floor. We weren’t worth a quarter.”
Speaking of quarters, NHL president Frank Calder suggested that the teams call a coin toss to decide the winner. Smythe took that message to his team whereupon irate left winger Harold ‘Baldy’ Cotton leaped to his feet, yelling, “No son of a (gun) is going to call this game.”
Smythe had a brainstorm. He was convinced that if he could get a five- to 10-minute rest for his club, they’d be revived. He called over president Calder and Bruins coach-manager Art Ross and filibustered them.
“I took my time,” said Smythe in his book If You Can’t Beat ’Em In The Alley. “I did a lot of saying, ‘On the one hand...’ and, ‘On the other hand…’ When I thought the rest had been long enough, I told Calder that we were ready to continue.” He went to Calder, declaring, “My team wants to play.”
Smythe’s youngster, Ken Doraty, who had seen less playing time than the other Leafs, was dispatched to the ice along with slick forward Andy Blair. On the other side, Ross sent out his best player, Eddie Shore, who had labored with the most ice time, and Ross hoped for the best. Instead, he got the worst of the decision-making.
Just short of the five-minute mark of the sixth overtime, the marathon was settled. Toronto’s Blair intercepted a Shore pass and lateralled the puck to Doraty who beat goalie Tiny Thompson for the clincher. Broadcaster Foster Hewitt described the winning play: “There’s Eddie Shore going for the puck in the corner beside the Boston net. Andy Blair is on for the Leafs now...He’s moving in on Shore in the corner. Shore is clearing the puck...Blair intercepts! Blair has the puck. Ken Doraty is dashing for the front of the net. Blair passes. Doraty takes it! HE SHOOTS! HE SCORES!”
It was 1:50 a.m. and the exhausted Leafs were due to meet the Rangers later that day, April 4, 1933. When the Toronto train reached Grand Central Station in New York at 4:10 p.m., Smythe phoned Madison Square Garden pleading for the game to be postponed a day. “They said the game had to go on,” Smythe said, “because the elephants were coming in and the circus needed time to set up. Well, that turned out to be a lie.”
Less than four hours off the train, the fatigued Leafs took the ice and lost 5-1. “We were so tired,” said Smythe, whose club never regained form and lost the best-of-five series 3-1.
“That was the rottenest thing,” said Smythe in his autobiography. “We found out that Madison Square Garden really did have time to get the first game postponed.”
Smythe then confronted the Garden officials: “You guys lied. You told me that, ‘Because of the circus there’d be no ice (the next day), we couldn’t postpone this first game.’ ”
The MSG boss shot back, “Well, we changed our minds.”
The Rangers went on to win the 1933 Stanley Cup but Smythe never forgave the New Yorkers for their circus alibi.
And when it came time to engrave the players’ names on the Stanley Cup, a wag in the Leafs’ room chortled, “Add one elephant!”