Every season, the Toronto Maple Leafs honour a number of Canadian veterans in their final home game before Remembrance Day. Most see it as a respectful, kind gesture from a Canadian team to honour those who have fought for freedom. What they may not know about is the Maple Leafs unique history, with the thoughts of Remembrance Day embedded in the very name itself.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Remembrance Day
Conn Smythe and World War I
During the 1926-27 season, the Toronto St. Pats were finally put up for sale after a number of financially difficult years. Although C.C. Pyle nearly acquired the club in order to move them to Philadelphia, the St. Pats’ ownership group accepted a lower offer from Toronto investors spearheaded by Conn Smythe in order to keep the team in Toronto.
On February 14, 1927, Conn Smythe officially took control of the Toronto St. Pats. This is where the Maple Leafs’ history with the thoughts of Remembrance Day begins.
Just 10 years previous, Smythe was serving in the Canadian army in World War I. A lieutenant with the 40th Battery of Hamilton, Smythe went overseas in February of 1916. The Battery was ordered into the Ypres salient, eventually fighting near the Somme. Smythe was even awarded the Military Cross for “dispersing an enemy party at a critical time”. In early 1917, a German trench countered a Canadian offensive with grenades. Smythe proceeded to charge the trench single-handedly armed only with a revolver, killing three and helping several wounded Canadians back to safety.
After transferring to the Royal Flying Corps later that year, Smythe met Billy Barker, one of his instructors. Barker would become the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1927. Smythe served as an airborne observer, and on October 14, 1917, was shot down by the Germans. He was imprisoned as a prisoner-of-war until the end of the war, spending a total of 14 months in confinement.
With the roots of Canadian patriotism deep within the new owner and manager Conn Smythe, he renamed the club the “Maple Leafs” on his first day in control. He believed the maple leafs to be a badge of courage, honouring the Canadian soldiers who wore the maple leaf in the war with the name and logo.
World War II
As the Toronto Maple Leafs were so entwined with the Canadian efforts in World War I, 20 years later Smythe felt the same sense of patriotism when World War II broke out. At nearly 45 years of age, Conn Smythe once again enlisted in the Canadian army. “I felt it was a shame that we had to go back to Europe and win the war again that we thought we’d won for all time back in 1918,” he would explain. “But if we had to, I wanted to be there.”
To begin the war, Smythe served as a captain at the Canadian Officers Training Camp. In 1941, he formed the 30th Battery, becoming the unit’s commanding officer. The Battery was originally stationed on Vancouver Island to thwart any Japanese threat from the west, before being sent to England in 1942.
With an NHL team of 20 years behind him, Smythe wasn’t the only Maple Leaf to join in the fight in World War II. Players and even executives joined Conn Smythe in the effort to fight for Canada against the Axis powers. J.P. Bickell, a Leafs executive and former St. Pats shareholder, became one of the major forces in halting Adolf Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain. He sent food parcels overseas, donating planes and money to the Royal Canadian Air Force as well. Bickell became known as one of the “Four Busy Bs”, along with Lord Beaverbrook, Beverley Baxter, and R.B. Bennett, providing the Allies with bombers and fighter planes that would shut down the Nazi offensive on Britain.
In 1940, with Smythe still stationed in Canada, he encouraged his players to join Non-Permanent Active Militia units, writing to each individually. “In case you are honoured with a call to the Canadian forces, you will be ready. If you are not called, you will have complied with the military training regulations and be free to play hockey until called upon,” Smythe would write.
Maple Leafs such as Syl Apps, Turk Broda, Hap Day, and Billy Taylor had enlisted, joining the Toronto Scottish. Although most of the NHL players who had enlisted would not see time on the battlefield in Europe, the patriotism around the National Hockey League, not just Toronto, was quite evident.
After the 1941-42 season, Jack Church (26), Ernie Dickens (20), Bob Goldham (19), Bingo Kampman (27), Pete Langelle (23), John McCreedy (30), Don Metz (25), Nick Metz (27), and Wally Stanowski (22) all left the Maple Leafs for military service.
After coming back from 3-0 in the Stanley Cup Finals to defeat the Detroit Red Wings, the hero of the series would be off to serve in the military in Don Metz. Metz had scored a hat trick in Game Four and netted the game-winner in the Game Five. He would not appear in a Leafs uniform again until 1945, coming back for the postseason. Pete Langelle was another big loss for Toronto, after scoring 32 points in 48 games in the regular season.
That season, the Leafs would third in the league and lose in the semi-finals against the Red Wings. Lorne Carr and Billy Taylor both burst out for 60 point seasons, leading the team in scoring.
That summer came even more bad news for the Toronto roster. Syl Apps (27), Sweeney Schriner (30), Billy Taylor (23), and Turk Broda (28) would all be leaving for military service.
Apps, as most know, was one of the best players in the NHL. He had won the Calder in 1937 and the Lady Byng in 1942, putting up 40 points in just 27 games the year previous as well. 23-year-old Billy Taylor had just led the team in scoring, while Sweeney Schriner had scored 36 points in 37 games. And of course, Turk Broda was the Leafs starting netminder, who had won the Vezina as recently as 1941.
That year, Toronto would maintain their pace, even without such big names, finishing third in the regular season once again. The Leafs would lose in the semi-finals against the Montreal Canadiens.
In 1944, Conn Smythe was still fighting for his nation. Nearly 50 years of age, he was badly wounded when the Luftwaffe bombed an ammunition depot. Smythe was hit in the back by a fragment of a bomb. For the rest of his life, Smythe would walk with a limp.
Sweeney Schriner, Nick Metz, Don Metz, Wally Stanowski, and John McCreedy over the following 1944-45 season, with Schriner scoring 37 points in just 26 games. The added boost to the lineup, still without Apps, Broda, and Taylor, helped the Leafs to an incredible playoff victory over the regular season champion Canadiens, en route to a Stanley Cup.
Not all players returned home to don the blue and white. Toronto made a trade with the New York Rangers during the 1942-43 season, acquiring Red Garrett. Tragically, Garrett was killed after a German U-boat torpedoed the corvette HMCS Shawinigan, during a convoy escort mission off the coast of Newfoundland. The Toronto native never got to play for his hometown team. He was just 20 years old.
Another Maple Leafs prospect, Red Tilson, was also killed during the Second World War. In October 1944, he was killed during the liberation of the Netherlands. He was also just 20 years of age.
Every November 11, we are reminded of the sacrifices made so that we can enjoy our freedom, that we can watch Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday night. So as the Boston Bruins take on the Toronto Maple Leafs this evening, ensure you have a poppy on your left chest to remember those such as Red Garrett and Red Tilson who didn’t make it back home.
Lest we forget.
All quotes are credited to “The Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club, Official Centennial Publication.”
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images