Picking good rookies, says Conny Smythe, is the hockey manager’s toughest job
H. H. ROXBOROUGH
HOCKEY MATERIAL, like gold, is where you find it," said Conny Smythe. "I thought the woods were full of prospects." The manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs leaned back in his chair. "There are prospects and prospects, but I assure you that good hockey material doesn't just happen. Finding a big league hockey prospect is a job in itself, but that's only the beginning. He has to be developed. The supply is scarce, the competition terrific, and the career of a professional player is brief. Not more than a dozen players who were in the league ten years ago are likely to appear in any 1937-38 line-up. Only three of the Maple Leafs of six years ago are still with us.:'
Hockey is big business. With such a rapid player turnover, where is the material to keep the industry going? What does a good professional prospect look like. Is it better to buy matured stock or develop youngsters? How is the selected stock properly ripened?
These questions concern the mob that put two million clicks in National Hockey League turnstiles in one season; and it seemed to me that no one was better qualified to supply the right answers than the managing director of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mr. “Conny” Smythe.
Certainly any man who played on and captained an Ontario junior hockey championship team; took Canadian college teams to the States for fifteen years; managed an amateur team that won the highest Dominion honors and later captured an Olympic crown; assembled a professional team that won a world’s title in its second attempt; started again, without a player, and built another machine that also attained the highest possible distinction in the hockey world; has been a governor of the National Hockey League for twelve years, and is still a young man, should have the experience to solve hockey riddles.
So, in an atmosphere reeking with sport lore, surrounded by camera impressions of sport nobility, we sat in Mr. Smythe’s comfortable office in Maple Leaf Gardens to talk shop.
“What is a hockey manager’s biggest problem?” we asked.
“Raw material,” declared Conny Smythe. “If you urere a shareholder in an industry that had many millions invested in buildings, equipment and goodwill, with branches in six cities, you’d want to be sure of a constant source of raw material. In other words, we’ve got to have big-time-calibre players coming up constantly.”
“Where do they come from?”
Players Come From Everywhere
AS I TOLD you, they don’t come ready-made. At least, not often enough to count. There’s a big difference between a smart professional and a likely amateur. They come from all over Canada. In every province there are good prospects, but Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Owen Sound, Kitchener, Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary are apparently located on the main vein. At one time there were fifteen players in the N.H.L. who had learned their game in Toronto. Our own club picked up Conacher, Jackson, Thoms, Horner, Davidson, Hamilton and Fowler right in the home town.”
“Does the origin of the player produce a different type of recruit? For instance, can you distinguish a lad who grew up in the West, from an Eastern rookie?” we enquired.
“Not definitely,” said the governor. “Some people think Westerners are faster skaters because they are brought up on keener ice, and they point to such speedy men as Boll, March or Goldsworthy to prove their contention. But Charlie Conacher, when he really turns it on, and Bob Gracie and Hec Kilrae are just as speedy, and they were developed in Ontario.
“In a general sense, however, there are a couple of distinctions. After watching Canadian amateur finals for many years I think Westerners are not so good individually, but do have an edge in team-play. They are also quite smart in puck-carrying and making plays, but usually their shooting is inferior to that of the Eastern team members. Why this should be, I don’t know. But don’t get me saying that all the good prospects come from Ontario or Quebec, for, while the West has only a third of Canada’s population, just about half the professional hockey players grew up in Manitoba and beyond.”
“But, Mr. Smythe, with distances so great as they are in the Dominion, and with g(xd prospects likely to be discovered anywhere along a 3,000-mile range, how do you hear about the boys that are likely to make good?” was our next enquiry.
“Let me tell you this,” responded the magnate who has been looking for hockey “ivory” since 1926, “talent rarely drops on your doorstep. I might dream that a stranger would come to some morning practice and say, ‘My name is Jones; I’ve come to let you see how good I am.’ and then have him prove to be another Eddie Shore. But it would be only a dream.
“Heroes like Jones live only in fairy tales. The closest I ever came to stumbling over talent was when the Maple Leaf Gardens entered a team in a professional lacrosse league. The venture was a financial flop, but out of the wreckage we rescued ‘Flash’ Hollett, put him on skates, developed him into a good hockey player, and sold him to Boston Bruins for $17,0(X).
“Generally,” continued Conny, “success in hockey is dependent upon good scouts and knowing what you want. My hockey career started before the War, and I’m veryfortunate in having friends who know real talent, in every likely hockey-playing district ir the country. Even my own lad is a boy scout. Though he’s only fifteen, he has played on two city championship teams and his reports on juvenile material are respectfully considered.
“We probably get 100 tips for every one that clicks.
Strangely, most of the tipsters compare their hopeful with the current sensation. When King Clancy was at his peak, the usual description was ‘He’s every bit as gxxl as Clancy was at that age,’ and now they say, ‘He looks better to me right now than Apps did two years ago.’
“With all this talent being freely offered, it is only to be expected that there are times when the wrong player is chosen. But, behind the scenes, there are reasons.
“We once had ‘Sweeney’ Schriner, the league-leading scorer for the past two seasons, on our farm team,” recalls Mr. Smythe. “A couple of smart, sturdy Kitchener boys, now making good, were tipped to us before anyone else had a line on them. If we could sign up and retain all those we liked, we would rarely go wrong, but our league permits each club to sign only twenty players at one time. So I suppose we’ll still have to slip up on the odd one who later makes us wonder where we were looking when he came our way.”
“What do you look for in the boys you do pick up? Is size a factor in your choice?" we asked.
Heart, Head and begs
IZE apparently isn’t as important as some suppose. “Little fellows like Clancy, March. Joliat, Worters.” says Conny, “were just as good as the rangy players. But if we can get a big boy. with everything else that the smaller
Continued on page 26
Head, Heart and Legs
---Continued from page 19 -------
one has, then naturally we prefer him.
“Red hair isn't a handicap,” he added, "but color in the form of outstanding (x-rsonality is more desirable and far better for the box-oflice. In the main though, the ideal recruit has head, heart and legs.”
“That’s intriguing,” we remarked. "What do you mean by head, heart and legs?”
"By head,” Mr. Smvthe patiently explained. "1 mean that the boy must be smart. It isn’t enough to stickhandle in mid-ice; he must lx* able to beat defenses and score goals, for a score of 0-0 never won a hockey game. Centre men like Boucher, Barry and Apps, illustrate what I mean by heads-up players.
“Heart is something else; it might be called by such words as courage, optimism, determination. Clancy was typically a heart man. In dressing rooms between I^eriods and on the ice at critical moments, even after his 147-pound frame had been freely tossed around and his knees were nearly hitting his chin, his fighting spirit was an inspiration to his teammates. To reach tops, a rookie must have heart.
"So with legs. No game has so many starts and stops and sudden bursts of sjxed as hockey. No matter how smart or determined a player may be, if his legs fail and he loses that split-second advantage that enables him to snare a loose puck, receive a pass or go around a defense, then he’s on his way out. In nearly every case, it’s ageing legs that send young men in their early thirties into retirement. Often players with only two of these assets make
good, and the rookie with all three is quite rare."
“If the perfect youngster is so rare,” we asked, "isn’t it better to buy the finished product than experiment with untried material?”
"It is not.” was Conny’s firm decision. And when this matured sportsman says no, there is no mistaking it for a pale form of yes.
“Hockey players," he affirmed, “are like race horses. You can’t buy War Admiral at his peak, but you might have had him as a yearling and brought him along. Similarly with hockey players. You can get them young and develop them to fit into your team, but you can’t buy good players except at prohibitive prices. If they’re worth $25,(XX) to you as a buy, they are likely worth that much to the team that owns them. And the team knows it.”
Then he added with a glint in his eye:
"There are teams in the National Hockey league who don’t dig deep enough and long enough, and their standing shows it. It’s the breeders, on track or ice, who get the top-notchers. "
“Do you ever lose a youngster that appeals to you?” we asked.
“Yes,” he answered. “The real difficulty in getting them young and knowing you can’t sign them right away, is keeping
them under cover until you are ready to use them. Once you show undue interest in a boy, some other club hears about your enthusiasm and away goes the yearling. In my first roundup, some years ago, I spoke too loud about a lad named Jimmy Ward, and Maroons snatched one of the real stars of the game right out of my hand. At this moment I know a couple of boys who seem to have head, heart and legs, but you just try to get their names from me.”
“When you do definitely place a player on your club and reserve list, how do you bring him along?”
Boyhood Training Necessary
V\ TF. OPP2N a training camp about ’* three weeks before the season opens, and gradually work up to playing games. In these matches we carefully compare material, and when the National Hockey league games start, our major team is pretty well settled. Those who don’t catch on with the Leafs are sent to Syracuse Stars, and are brought up from this farm club to make replacements. Any N.H.L. team that thinks it can get along without operating a minor club is making a big mistake.”
On the farm team, the young player is brought along in such a manner that will enable him easily to fit in with the style of the big club, so that newcomers will not
upset team play. While Mr. Smythe believes that every rookie has a lot to learn, he hesitates to change a player’s style.
"Every athlete who ever amounted to anything,” reasons the Leafs’ director, “had a style all his own. Ty Cobb didn’t run bases like anybody else; Joe Louis doesn’t try to fight like Dempsey did; Glen Cunningham doesn’t run his mile in any other runner's pattern; Eddie Shore was a great hockey player just because he played like Eddie Shore and no one else. Greats in any sport are originals, not imitators. and if we choose a player from the thousands that play hockey, that player has something in his own right or he wouldn’t be coming to the top. While we tell the recruit a great many things he never knew before, we don’t ask him to skate like Jackson, shoot like Conacher or stickhandle like Joliat. If he’s good, we expect him to be himself.”
“Svl” Apps, leading rookie of last season, a sensation in his first year, is typical of how the kids grow up naturally.
“Before Mrs. Apps’ little boy could skate.” explained his boss, “he had a stick and banged tin cans and pine knots on his way to school. When a front-lawn depression froze over, Syl learned to skate. On a pond five feet by fourteen feet, he stickhandled through the maze of neighboring children’s feet, and practiced shooting against a bam door. Before long he was getting in the hair of the icemaker at Paris Arena, and starring in the river games for the Quality Hill gang. And all
this natural development came before he was fourteen years old.
“In that year,” continued Mr. Smythe, “Apps began playing with Paris Juniors in the Ontario Hockey Association. Three seasons later he joined McMaster University; and after three years with the Collegians, he signed with Hamilton seniors. When Syl came to us he was only twenty-one years old, yet a veteran in hockey experience.”
It is just such a background, thinks Conny, that keeps United States from producing even one all-American team.
“Professional hockey,” he recalls, “has been played in United States for a couple of generations, but even yet, of the 120 players in the National Hockey League, there aren’t a dozen who are Americanborn, and many of those learned their hockey in Canada.
“Major McLaughlin’s ambition to make his Chicago Black Hawks a team of native sons is quite all right, and his success would be a good thing for both himself and hockey. But such a result requires a great deal of patience; it certainly can’t be done in a season.”
Neither, it seems, can the major take a flock of Chicago youngsters and bring them along.
“My own boy,” continued Mr. Smythe,
“plays three or four times a week; gets more hockey in a season than an American youngster, on artificial ice. would get in ten years. In Toronto, there is one league with 187 teams. It is the city rinks and corner londs that make hockey players.
“It seems to me that the Chicago magnate’s best bet would be thoroughly to scout United States colleges. I have taken many college teams to the States, and have been surprised at the ability of some of the individuals, also the improvement in their team play. In the last two Olympics, United States teams were gxxi enough to make the issue doubtful, and last year Harvard beat University of Toronto in Boston. If Major McLaughlin could pick up each season about three college boys with head, heart and legs, and gradually mix them in with experienced professionals, in about five years his All-American team would be a reality.
“Meanwhile.” concluded Mr. Smythe. “there are 100,000 Canadian kids now playing shinny. Instead of growing up to be a policeman or lire chief, the ambition of each of these lads is to become a real hockey player. Until United States, England and Europe can produce a flock of native puck-chasers, Canadians must continue to shoulder the hockey-man’s burden.”
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