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1980: Mourning Conn Smythe, ‘The Major’ of the Maple Leafs

The Story

For more than five decades, Conn Smythe's name was synonymous with the kind of uncompromising, bare-knuckle hockey that he expected from his Toronto Maple Leafs. But he was also known as Hockey's Great Architect, thanks to his founding of the Leafs and his unwavering vision for their arena, Maple Leaf Gardens. His reign came to an end on Nov. 18, 1980, when Smythe died at the age of 85. This As It Happens clip remembers the man one newspaper eulogized as having both "glaring faults and sturdy virtues.""If you can't lick 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice." That was the line most often attributed to Conn Smythe by both fans and journalists - despite the fact that he denied ever saying it. Regardless, Smythe is still fondly remembered for being a champion of the kind of down-and-dirty style of play that many hockey fans long for. A tough businessman and controversial public figure, in the end "The Major" was almost as well known for his cantankerous comments as he was for his business savvy.

Medium: Radio
Program: As It Happens
Broadcast Date: Nov. 19, 1980
Guest(s): Babe Pratt, Conn Smythe
Host: Alan Maitland
Interviewer: Barbara Frum
Duration: 6:45
Photo: National Archives of Canada (PA-163191)

Did You know?

• Conn Smythe was born Constantine Falklands Karrys Smythe in Toronto on Feb. 1, 1895. When he was 12 he shortened his name to "Conn", which means "hero of a 100 battles" in Gaelic.

• A natural athlete, Smythe led his junior hockey team to the Ontario Hockey Association championship in 1920 while he was attending the University of Toronto for engineering. He also coached the U of T hockey team in the late 1920s, bringing them two Allan Cup wins and a world championship.

• After helping establish the New York Rangers, Smythe returned to his hometown. Smythe's hockey career took flight in 1927, when he purchased the Toronto St. Pats hockey club and changed the name to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

• Over the next 50 years, Smythe played multiple roles within the franchise including owner, coach and general manager. But he's perhaps best remembered for spearheading the construction of Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1930s.

• Throughout his hockey career Smythe was a fierce advocate of tough play. An obituary in the Toronto Star credited him with "building a team that relied on muscle and mayhem as much as skill. Smythe at once brutalized the game and energized it into a favourite national spectacle."

• With the Depression in full swing, Smythe invested $1.5 million to help build Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto - less than 100 metres away from where he was born.

• Dubbed "The House That Smythe Built," the Gardens was constructed in less than five months. The Leafs won the Stanley Cup the following year and went on to win six more under Smythe.

• During his years as coach in the 1940s, he was often ridiculed for his swank clothing, which included imported Italian hats, white spats and walking sticks. A rival coach described him as "a dead-end kid dressed up like Little Lord Fauntleroy."

• Smythe was also a force in the world of Canadian horse racing. Two of his horses won the coveted Queen's Plate; Caledon Beau in 1958 and Jammed Lucky in 1967.

• In 1930 his horse Rare Jewel won the Coronation Futurity race in Toronto. He used his $15,000 share of the purse to lure Frank (King) Clancy from the Ottawa Senators. Clancy's $35,000 contract was one of the biggest deals in hockey history and helped draw fans to the Gardens.

• In Smythe's Globe and Mail obituary, King said he played for the Leafs for seven seasons and never signed a contract.

• "He was friend and taskmaster," he said of Smythe. "When we weren't scoring goals, he used to make us mad at him, then go sit behind the goal and tell us to take our best shots at him."

• Smythe was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958 as a "builder."

• In 1961 Smythe sold his controlling interest in the Leafs to his son Stafford, John Bassett and Harold Ballard for $2 million.

• Ballard was later convicted of fraud for using $82,000 of Gardens money to remodel his home, among many other charges.

• In 1964 the team donated The Conn Smythe Trophy, which was to be presented to the most valuable player during each season's playoffs. Jean Béliveau, captain of the Montreal Canadiens, was its first recipient in 1965.

• Smythe was well known for his colourful and cantankerous personality. A staunch monarchist, he fought against the adoption of a new Canadian flag in the mid-1960s.

• In 1966, he resigned from the board of directors of Maple Leaf Gardens after Muhammad Ali was booked for a fight. Smythe objected because Ali had been banned from boxing in the U.S. after he refused to be drafted into the army.

• Smythe, a veteran of both world wars, earned his nickname "The Major" following his service as a field commander during the Second World War.

• Smythe devoted his spare time to numerous charities, including the Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf, the Ontario Association of the Deaf and The Smythe Foundation, which helped physically disabled children.


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