Veteran, Businessman, Toronto Maple Leafs, Maple Leaf Gardens
Conn Smythe left his mark on Toronto and hockey
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Constantine sounds Italian…But his mother was English and his father came from Ireland. In fact they were married on the boat on their way to Canada. His only sister died at 12. His mother became a drunk and died at 38 when he was 11.
His dad worked as a reporter and often his beat was the old Woodbine racetrack. They lived modestly and moved many times from one place to another.
Although short, Constantine was wiry and could rough it up in sports. He was cocky and tough and truly believed that he had guts and courage.
The war came on and as a gunner he fought with artillery in the bloody Somme River Battle of 1916, and a few months later at Vimy Ridge his courage took over and he charged a German position by himself with a revolver. Still alone, he brought back a half dozen prisoners - and was awarded the Military Cross.
He learned to fly and switched to the Royal Flying Corps in early 1917. He flew over German lines spotting targets for the artillery until October…when he caught a burst from a machine gun and crashed. He sat out the war in a P.O.W. camp.
Back home in 1919, he took engineering at the University of Toronto and went into business…but he still loved sports, especially hockey. And he pursued it with tenacity and skill.
He had a dream that came true on the night of November 12, 1931. The combined bands of the Royal Grenadiers and the 48th Highlanders played “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Over 13,000 people turned out to be amazed and thrilled at the sight of Constantine Smythe’s new sports arena - some arrived in evening clothes…and the Toronto Maple Leafs played their first game in their own Gardens against Chicago.
It was built in an unbelievable 155 days in the midst of the Depression, partly because he offered the workmen stock in the Gardens as part payment of their wages. The fact that he was able to build it at all was because they took stock instead of cash…and a banker, Sir John Aird, president of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, and grandfather of Ontario`s 23rd Lieutenant Governor, came up with the rest. The Toronto local of the Ontario Bricklayers’ Union, I`m told, are still holding the shares they received in 1931.
He ran the Gardens and the team for three decades. For years it was the finest and most popular hockey arena in the National Hockey League. It attracted and kept a large assemblage of loyal and devoted ticket buying fans…with tens of thousands more glued to radios listening to the legendary Foster Hewitt, and Wes McKnight, CFRB’s famous sportscaster. In later years we both heard and watched as Jack Dennett and Ward Cornell called the plays on TV.
There was a level of allegiance not often found in other sports or sport palaces - and it was not reserved just for Central Canadians. Maritimers who moved to Toronto were known to have gone directly to the Gardens from Union Station to get their name on the waiting list for season tickets…even before they found a place to live.
In the mid-‘80s, Trent Frayne wrote, “Conn Smythe was a bombastic, romantic, bigoted, inventive, intimidating, terrible tempered paradox of outlandish proportions.” Indeed he was all that…and was a con man as well - not unlike Robin Hood. He conned governments and the rich out of money to help causes he believed in, like crippled children and the deaf. He and the Reverend Bob Rumball raised the dollars needed to buy the land and build the Mission for the Deaf on Bayview.
In fact, the day Premier Bill Davis agreed to support the venture I saw the humorous side of Connie Smythe. As he thanked the premier, he turned to leave and said, “Bill, something happened yesterday that shook my faith and made me angry and sad.” I was holding the door and as he walked towards me he continued. “I discovered that the Lord is fixing races.”
“I don’t understand what you mean, Connie,” answered the premier. “Well, I had a horse running yesterday at Woodbine and there is no way that nag could win without help from the Lord. I didn’t have a dime bet on him and the son-of-a-# paid 60 to 1.”
His love of horse racing probably started when he was a boy, going to the track with his father who worked for the Toronto World. In an odd way the track played a significant part in the life of both the hockey team and the life of Connie Smythe. He wanted and needed King Clancy for the Leafs but he didn’t have the money to buy him from Ottawa. It was all or nothing. He placed a big wager on his horse Rare Jewel running at Old Woodbine and it won. With the winner’s purse plus the money from his bet he had the $35,000 he needed…..and King Clancy became a “Maple Leaf for ever.”
Connie didn’t know that Rare Jewel romped home loaded with firewater. There was no saliva or urine test, so track officials never discovered that just before the race the trainer poured a bottle of choice brandy down her throat…She liked it - and it sure made her run.
I often wonder how the history of the Maple Leafs would read today if there was never a Clancy. He was devoted to the game and loyal to his mentor…even though as a coach he was at times subjected to language from Connie and conditions that would be frowned on today. With Connie shouting orders to the bench from his upper box to Clancy`s small speaker, a sometimes angry and exasperated coach would stuff it deep down in his pocket so he couldn’t hear it.
I first met Connie in Caledon where his sand and gravel pits were located - and he threatened to throw me out of his office. His gravel trucks were speeding through the main street of the village of Caledon East, and residents complained to their MPP, who happened to be my boss, the Minister of Education. The suggestion that if he paid his drivers by the hour rather than by the load they might be less careless did not go over well…“I fought in two bloody wars to protect my rights and no dam government bureaucrat is going to tell me what to do.”
Then he offered me a cup of coffee and asked my name. I had introduced myself as Clare Westcott when I first met him but I repeated it again. He laughed and said, “I like you, for it took guts to come out here and talk to me the way you did…for most people think I’m a tough son-of-a-#. And are afraid of me,” But I’ll call you Wes, for I’ll never remember your first name.” From then until he died in 1980…I was “Wes.”
He did fight in two wars…although close to 50 and considered too old, “Major” Smythe took his battery to France in 1944 and within a month was severely wounded and shipped back to England, paralyzed from the waist down. He tried to extinguish a fire started by a German plane in a truck loaded with ammunition. It threatened to blow up battery headquarters…and it did - and exploding metal cut deep into his back.
Going to war was a gamble, for although he built the Gardens and almost single-handedly made the Maple Leaf hockey team, and twice won the Stanley Cup, he was still only an employee - not the owner. Ed Bickle and other shareholders were said to be upset with his pushy, almost arrogant style and wouldn’t be unhappy if he didn’t return from the war…or a palace coup ousted him…
But he did come back, and managed the team to five more Stanley Cups before leaving in 1961.
He walked with a jaunty gait, and was dapper and wore spats, as my father did in the 1920s and ‘30s. In fact the spats are noticeable in the official group pictures of the team with the owners and staff.
In the early 1970s, he would call my office and say something like, “Wes…what kind of humour is the premier in? Do you think we could get some land out of him today?” Connie and the Reverend Bob Rumball were looking for land in Metro Toronto on which to build a modern institution where deaf men and women could be trained.
“A stroke of the pen” was his favourite line with Davis. “You’re the big boss here, Bill.” He would say…“You can do anything - it just takes a stroke of the pen.”
I enjoyed talking to him. In recalling the past he had colourful ways of expressing himself about those he truly liked…and those he still hated. At one end of the scale was his favourite, Teeder Kennedy. At the other end was poor old Busher Jackson. Jackson’s great record on the ice was simply written off and forgotten because of his trouble with booze. In spite of his fame as part of the famous “Kid Line”, leading the Leafs to three NHL titles, named to five All Star teams and the top scorer in 1933, his entry to the Hall of Fame had to wait until 1961 when Connie was gone from the Maple Leaf organization and couldn’t block it.
He seemed to enjoy my talking about my hometown of Seaforth in the ‘30s and ‘40s…and the Palace Rink. The old wooden arena with natural ice where the Seaforth Beavers battled with the Clinton Colts. He knew that small town Intermediate “B” hockey was rough. He laughed when I told him what manager Lorne Dale said about the Seaforth fans back then. “If they don’t see blood on the ice, they want their damn money back.”
He knew “Chic” Apple, sports editor of the Stratford Beacon Herald - and he knew he was an OHA referee…but he didn’t know that after a close game with the Goderich Sailors where his calls came into question he had to be escorted out of the side door of the rink by the police and spirited away from angry fans in an OPP car. Connie laughed and said, “Some of my most creative cursing was reserved for near-sighted referees.”
We talked about Ralph “Cooney” Weiland, Captain of the Bruins who came home to Seaforth in the summer to see his mother. He lived 200 yards from the Egmondville river where he first learned to skate. In the ‘30s I caddied for him at the old Seaforth Golf Course.
I asked Connie if he ever tried to get him for the Leafs. “I took the train to Chicago to see him play before he became the Bruins coach - while he was still with Detroit, and I offered him $3,000.00 a year.” “The son-of-a-# wanted $3,200. so I told him to go to hell.” In 1971 Jack Dennett and I accompanied Cooney to the ceremony where he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
I called Connie`s house a couple times when he was ill and spoke to his housekeeper…and asked if I might come and chat with him. I went up on a wet November day and was almost sorry I did - for he was on a low narrow bed, almost like a couch, in a room that looked like it was a large kitchen. He looked like the pictures of the survivors at Dachau. He said, “Hello Wes,” in a faint whisper.
The nurse answered a knock on the door and came back with a large bouquet of flowers…“Mr. Smythe, these are for you from Mr. Ballard.” With that he said, “Get Harold on the phone.” He wasn’t able to move his arms and his face was thin and drawn. The nurse got Ballard on the phone and laid the cradle of the phone on his face, and held it so he could talk. Gathering up enough strength to speak, he said, “Harold, get that no good Imlach son-of-a-# off the bench.” Then he shut his eyes and the nurse lifted the phone and hung it up. He didn’t say goodbye or thank Harold for the flowers. I said goodbye and left…but I don’t think he heard me. I never did see him again…He died a few days later.
But you never know for sure…like Elvis he may be back, for Constantine Falkland Cary Smythe, like his father, believed in reincarnation.