By 1944-45, most NHL rosters had been decimated by enlistments in the Second World War. The Maple Leafs were Exhibit A, led by GM Conn Smythe, already a First World War hero, who organized a Toronto Sportsmen’s Battalion of athletes and sports media during the Second World War. The Leafs’ 1942 Cup-winning goalie, Turk Broda, followed Smythe’s patriotic lead in 1943, joining the Canadian armed forces.
That left Toronto’s interim GM, Frank Selke, Sr., in a bit of a jam. He didn’t have a single solid goalie in his lineup – not that Selke didn’t try to find a decent replacement. During 1943-44, Selke filled the Broda gap with an assortment of stopgaps including Benny Grant, Paul Bibeault and Jean Marois. The result was a third-place finish and a speedy first-round exit at the hands of the Habs, who disintegrated Bibeault and his mates in the final game, 11-0, to clinch the round.
The frustrated acting GM was ready to try anything in the autumn of 1944 and ultimately did just that. Against Smythe’s wishes, he hired a skinny netminder afflicted with a bad case of ulcers. What was worse, Frank McCool happened to be a 26-year-old goaltender with no pro experience and no serious action since his university years at Gonzaga five years earlier. But that was better than no goalie at all.
At that point, the believe-it-or-not story followed. Almost overnight, McCool became the sensation that rocked the nation. He opened the season with five straight wins, was the only goalie to play all 50 games of the schedule and closed the season by winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Between start and finish, he racked up four shutouts – Hall of Famer Bill Durnan of Montreal had only one – and then stunned the hockey world by ousting the defending champion Canadiens in six opening-round games. Well-nicknamed ‘Ulcers’ McCool next pitched three straight shutouts (1-0, 2-0, 1-0) to open the final round against the still-skeptical Red Wings. “Those Maple Leafs can’t be that good,” said Detroit forward Modere ‘Mud’ Bruneteau. “We’ll just have to go out and win four straight.”
Detroit responded with wins of 5-3, 2-0 and 1-0, reviving memories of the 1942 final when the Motor City sextet won three, then lost the next four to Toronto. Now Wings boss Jack Adams wanted to return the favor and had extra incentive for one more win; a quote from Leafs coach Hap Day uttered after his 1942 Cup triumph: “No team ever will duplicate what we did in the final.”
Alas, McCool’s ulcerated stomach was not made for such melodrama on the night of April 22, 1945 and it was freely predicted he would collapse under the pressure at hostile Olympia Stadium. But, somehow, he survived to the halfway mark of the third period with the score tied 1-1. Then, jaws dropped around the arena as McCool called time. As author Trent Frayne recounted in his book The Mad Men of Hockey, McCool walked out on his team and went straight to the locker room with coach Day in pursuit. In those days, teams didn’t have the luxury of backup goalies.
Frayne: “As Day arrived, McCool reached for a bottle of stomach powder, mixed it in a paper cup, gulped it down and stared. ‘How about it, Frank?’ Day asked.
“McCool didn’t answer. ‘There’s nobody else,’ reminded Day. McCool nodded. Then he got to his feet.”
‘Ulcers’ skated out and somehow refused Detroit another goal. Better still, he was gifted a Babe Pratt power play tally at 12:14 of the third to put the Leafs up 2-1. That’s all ‘Ulcers’ needed to become a Cup winner in Game 7. However, he remained slightly less than a hero to the skeptical Smythe, who, the following autumn, refused Frank’s bid for a $500 raise despite McCool’s threat to retire. “If you quit on yourself,” warned Smythe, “you’ll be the first fighting Irishman I ever knew to act like that and you’ll probably hate yourself for the balance of your active life.”
Eventually, McCool re-signed, played only 22 games in 1945-46 and retired for good at the end of the campaign. Criticized by many, McCool eventually turned newspaper critic himself as sports editor of the Calgary Albertan. Sadly, he died at 54. According to his daughter, ulcers were a partial cause of death.