CONN SMYTHE: That Man in The Greens

TRENT FRAYNE January 1 1952

CONN SMYTHE: That Man in The Greens

TRENT FRAYNE January 1 1952

CONSTANTINE Falkland Cary Smythe, the most successful hockey executive in the world, has been called "a dead-end kid dressed up like Little Lord Fauntleroy” and it is a fact that almost everything about him is a paradox. Although he was a poor hockey player and has not laced on a skate since he failed to make the University of Toronto senior team more than thirty years ago, he has consistently produced one of the most colorful and, over the years, the best professional team in hockey. At the height of the depression, in 1931, he built Maple Leaf Gardens, the finest indoor arena on the continent. He has made hockey so respectable that it is right up there with ballet in the social scale in his native Toronto, yet some people blame him for turning the game into a ruffianly burlesque of what it used to be and others regard him as an ogre and a dictator. He condones players who draw penalties and preaches fire and brimstone to his Toronto Maple Leafs before a game (“If you can’t beat them out in the alley,” he’ll say, “you can’t beat them in here on the ice”), yet he neither smokes nor drinks and has little patience with those who do. He twice introduced his team’s retired captain to a national radio audience as “Syl Apps, our captain, who does not smoke or drink.” He fought like a catamount to get into the last war and then spent a fair proportion of his time fighting the army he had sought to join; just before his discharge he helped precipitate a national political crisis by risking a court martial to denounce the army’s recruiting methods.

Smythe, a millionaire, believes there is no substitute for hard work, although one of his friends described him recently as “a practical mystic.” “He believes in playing hunches and he believes in luck,” his friend remarked. “For instance, Conn honestly feels that the backing of everyone in Toronto will help make the Maple Leafs win. Mix his superstitions with his practical ability and you’ve got Connie.” “He’s a belligerent Irishman,” an Irish friend of Smythe’s said fondly not long ago. “He never goes halfway in anything. He’s either glad or sad or mad but he’s never neutral and he’s never moody. If he’s got something on his mind he spills it and I guess that makes a lot of people whose hair he musses dislike him.” An army acquaintance, Major Zooch (Pete) Palmer, of Hamilton, Ont., who succeeded Smythe as officer commanding the 30th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery near Caen after a shell fragment struck Smythe’s spine, commented with admiration recently that he’d never seen a group of army men quite so well trained as Smythe’s battery. “There was a feeling that’s hard to describe,” he said. “Officers called the men by their first names and as an old RMC man I’d never heard of such a thing. Yet on my second day with the battery I found myself doing the same thing and it was completely natural. Another thing; there was the most remarkable discipline I’d ever encountered. One night a fellow broke out of barracks, stole a jeep and went high-tailing off to a nearby town. When he got back several hours and several drinks later, the boys in his hut gave him an awful going over. He’d have been a hero in most other outfits but in this one he had the men sore.”

There are many who contend that Smythe could have been a success at anything and, for a fact, he hasn’t missed much. On a shoestring he bought a small share of a sand-and-gravel business thirty years ago from Angelo Angotti whom he later bought out. Today, sixty trucks with C. Smythe for Sand emblazoned across their sides in white churn in and out of a property worth about three hundred thousand dollars. He is the largest single shareholder in Maple Leaf Gardens (no individual owns controlling interest) now valued at better than four million dollars. He started a housing development near his gravel pit five years ago and built five-room bungalows for veterans of his battery who couldn’t find accommodation for their families in Toronto’s postwar real-estate boom and he kept right on developing the project until last summer when he sold out. He produced bungalows for eight thousand five hundred dollars in days when few owners had trouble getting twelve thousand five hundred for the same thing. He has owned a stable of race horses and, as treasurer of the Ontario Society for Crippled Children in Toronto, has been described by one of the board members as “the difference between success and failure of the whole venture.’’

Steely Grey When Angry

Smythe, who will be fifty-seven next Feb. 1, has the body of a man thirty years his junior. He is well-muscled and flat-stomached, although his activity has been slowed by the effects of the war wound. His right leg is considerably slimmer than the left because the splinter severed a nerve in his spine and he walks slowly and with a slight limp. He is able to play golf, however, and to swim twice a day during his annual six-week winter vacation in Florida through January and part of February, and at his summer home at Orchard Beach, Lake Simcoe. The only outward evidence of the wound and two subsequent operations for removal of the splinter is a small scar at the base of the spine. The wound injured his large intestine, which causes him frequent pain and discomfort.

Smythe is stocky, five-foot-seven, has a sandy complexion and pale penetrating blue eyes which his secretary, Madeleine McDonald, swears turn steely grey when he is annoyed or angered. He has a deep forceful voice, is an avid reader of historical and adventure novels, the New Yorker magazine and such factual books as Winston Churchill’s war memoirs. He’s a whodunit movie fan and, with Mrs. Smythe, an enthusiastic playgoer on Broadway and in Toronto. The Smythes live in a spacious nine-room house in Toronto’s west end which they built in 1929 and recently remodeled. Their housekeeper, Jessie Watson, has been devoted to her employer for twenty two years, knows he prefers plain good food (“especially roast beef”) and that he finds it hard to believe that some people enjoy caviar or other exotic tidbits. Smythe drinks neither tea, coffee, nor milk; in fact, he sips stronger liquid only after the Leafs have won a championship and fill the Stanley Cup with champagne. Mostly he drinks ginger ale.

Smythe’s office, which also serves as the Gardens board room, is big, well-lighted and, like his home, hung with several outdoor oil paintings by the Canadian artist Manly MacDonald. There are two blown-up photographs near his mahogany desk, one of Syl Apps holding the Stanley Cup and the other of Ted Kennedy, the current team captain, with the same trophy. On the wall behind his swivel chair are group pictures of the seven Maple Leaf teams that have won the Cup since the Gardens was built. A long narrow mahogany table, with nine chairs around it, occupies most of the space at the far end of the office. It is, of course, for board meetings. Smythe has a son, Stafford, with him in the sand business and although Stafford is not particularly devoted to hockey he helps his father greatly in administering the Leafs’ amateur system. Another son, Hugh, is a doctor now in his second year of interning at the Toronto General Hospital. There were two daughters but one of them, ten-year-old Patricia, died suddenly about six years ago. The other girl, Miriam, is married to Jack Hoult, employed in the Gardens box office.

In Boston, Half a Night In Jail

Smythe has been hockey’s most publicized figure for almost a quarter of a century—partly because he discovered early in his career that feuds with rival teams made good newspaper copy, both at home and on the road. Though many of these have started with tongue in cheek, some turned out to be completely genuine. For instance, through one twelve-year period he and Art Ross of the Boston Bruins did not speak to one another and for the last two years he and Jack Adams of the Detroit Red Wings have not exchanged words. Smythe has said that he detested Ross because the Boston boss seemed to have devoted his life to making a fool of Smythe. “He stationed two longshoremen near our bench in the Boston Garden and their instructions were to goad me into a fight,” Smythe said recently. “He wanted to have me put in jail.” One night as he was making his way toward the Toronto dressing room after a game the longshoremen began pushing him and insulting him. Smythe shouted back at them and then he saw Ross nearby, obviously angry. “He started after me but little Frank Selke, then my assistant, saw him coming and dove at him with a flying tackle that knocked him down,” Smythe has related. “We got out of there fast but not before I yelled at one of the longshoremen, ‘When your boss gets up tell him I can’t waste my time with anybody that a man as small as Selke can lick.’ ” Smythe now watches home games with relative calm from the green seats, high up in the Gardens.

But one time Ross did succeed in getting Smythe behind bars. It was in Boston on a December night in 1933 that Irvin (Ace) Bailey, Toronto right-winger, was tripped by Boston’s boisterous defenseman, the great Eddie Shore. Bailey almost became the first fatality in the league’s history. When his feet were pushed from under him from behind he went into the air and fell to the ice. His skull was split at both temples. While he lay unconscious on the ice his teammate, Red Horner, sought out Shore, hit him with a roundhouse right on the chin and when Shore fell his head also hit the ice and he, too, was knocked unconscious. The Boston arena began to rock with a roaring cacophony. Smythe, leading the way while Toronto players carried Bailey to their dressing room, heard a fan shriek, “Fake, fake! The bum’s actin’.” Smythe wheeled and swung. He struck a bespectacled spectator who he believed had shouted. Blood spurted from the fan’s face and rink policemen took charge of Smythe and escorted him to jail. The fan charged assault and battery but according to Smythe, Art Ross, who originally had instructed the fan to lay the charge, demanded he withdraw it when the seriousness of Bailey’s injury became apparent. Smythe was released at 2 a.m. Meanwhile, Bailey lay unconscious in a hospital and it wasn’t until fifteen days and two delicate brain operations later that he regained consciousness. He was in Boston for six weeks, during which Smythe never left the city. He arranged to send Bailey’s wife and daughter to a Boston hotel and when the player recovered sufficiently to return to Toronto Smythe arranged a benefit game between an All-Star NHL team and the Leafs. He raised over twenty thousand dollars for Bailey who is completely recovered today although he never played hockey again.

Smythe packed the Boston rink another time when the Bruins were going particularly badly. He inserted a signed four-column advertisement in a Boston newspaper addressed to the fans: “If you’re tired of what you’ve been looking at, come out tonight and see a decent team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, play hockey.” The livid Art Ross, who now refers to Smythe as “the big wind from Lake Ontario,” wanted the league to fine Smythe a thousand dollars for his impertinence and the late Major Frederic McLaughlin, then owner of the Chicago Black Hawks, issued a statement denouncing such undignified antics. So the next time Toronto visited Boston, Smythe decked himself in top hat, white tie and tails and strode majestically around the corridors, tipping his hat and bowing every few steps. Smythe and Ross have since made up. The Toronto fireball explained to a friend not long ago: “His two sons both served overseas with excellent records. I figured anybody who could rear two boys like that must be all right.”

Currently, Smythe and the Detroit general manager, Jack Adams, have not spoken for two years, Smythe claiming Adams has become “a front for Norris.” This would be James Norris, Sr., owner of the Red Wings, the Detroit Olympia, the Chicago Stadium, rinks in Omaha, Indianapolis and St. Louis and the largest shareholder in New York’s Madison Square Garden. He also owns the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, forty freighters on the Great Lakes and the Norris Cattle Co., which includes three of the largest cattle ranches in the United States. Smythe, who has a tremendous admiration for Norris' son, Jim, Jr., says the senior Norris is “spoiled,” “has to have his own way” and “can’t take one line of criticism.” They frequently are involved in arguments at NHL meetings. Smythe surprisingly terms young Jim Norris who, as president of the International Boxing Club, is the fight game’s czar in the U. S., “the best judge of hockey talent I know. If I were making a deal and wanted to be sure of my judgment on a player involved, young Norris would tell me and he’d be within one percent of making a perfect appraisal.”

Smythe was born a hundred yards from the present site of Maple Leaf Gardens and a lot of things have happened to him, he has said, because he is Irish: “I was sired by an Irishman and dammed by an Englishwoman. I’ve got my father’s fight and my mother’s common sense.” He was pale and puny, the only son of Albert Ernest Stafford Smythe, a newspaperman who, though poor, managed to send the boy to boarding schools after his mother died when he was seven. One of the first things he did was to shorten his imposing collection of Christian names to just plain Conn. His father wanted him to become a lawyer and because he was a student himself he surrounded the boy with volumes of Dickens and Tennyson. But the confinement drove him outdoors and the fact that he did not have the proper changes of clothes in school and was compelled to pay his tuition in driblets of quarters and half dollars often made him furious. He discovered an outlet, an evening-up place, in sports, in which he excelled. When he threw his weight around violently enough he discovered he got what he wanted and at the University of Toronto he was a belligerent hundred-and-eighteen-pound centre for the Varsity junior hockey team.

He was a nineteen-year-old undergraduate when war was declared in 1914 and early the following year he went overseas as an artilleryman. Commissioned in the field, he won the Military Cross in 1916 and then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps where, as a reconnaissance pilot, he was mentioned in dispatches. He was still an argumentative little battler and he argued constantly with his observer, a big tough Irish Catholic, over religion. The day their plane got hit behind enemy lines Smythe, a Protestant, looked at the earth spinning up to meet them and then shouted to his observer: “In about a minute we’re going to find which one of us is right.” They didn’t. Both walked away from the crash. Smythe was captured and when he began to argue with a German soldier he was shot at from point-blank range. The bullet ripped through his flying jacket without touching him. He spent fourteen months in prison camp, alternately endeavoring to escape (he made it twice and was recaptured both times) and playing bridge. “We played so much bridge,” he recalled recently, “that I’ve never played the game since.” After the armistice he got back to England late in December but there were no officers to arrange leave and transportation for his group when it reached London. “I had a date in Manchester,” Smythe says, “and there was a guy from the prairies with us who said he could drive a locomotive engine. So we swiped one in the yards. We reached Manchester at two-thirty in the morning and sat down to Christmas dinner.”

Back in Canada he felt like an old man, an old man of twenty-four who had lost four years out of his life. He wanted to make money, to be independent, so he went back to university and finished his civil-engineering course. On graduation he got a job in Toronto’s public works department but it didn’t last long. “I was the worst engineer who ever graduated,” he reflected many years later, “and when the City of Toronto found its sewers running uphill they agreed with me.” Misdirection wasn’t alone responsible for his decision to forsake engineering. On every project he undertook he found great difficulty in obtaining sand and gravel. That’s when he bought into Angelo Angotti’s small firm. And while that business was struggling along Smythe took to hanging around the city’s hockey rinks, acting as timekeeper and goal judge for hockey games.

In 1927, the last year he coached the University of Toronto team, they won the Allan Cup. The following year, as the Varsity Grads, they represented Canada at the 1928 Olympic Games in St. Moritz and won the world’s championship. The team’s earlier showing in intercollegiate games with Boston College, Harvard and Princeton in the old Boston Garden, and Smythe’s handling of the players, had impressed the Garden president, Charles W. Adams. When in 1926 the NHL began to expand and New York, Chicago and Detroit were admitted into the league, Adams recommended Smythe to Col. John Hammond, president of the New York Rangers, as the man to assemble and coach the Rangers. Smythe agreed verbally to a salary of ten thousand dollars but before the team played a game Hammond decided to replace Smythe with an older, more experienced hockey man, Lester Patrick. He ordered Smythe seven thousand five hundred in settlement which Smythe accepted while protesting hotly, insisting he had earned the full ten thousand. He stomped out of Hammond’s office to watch the Rangers engage in their first league encounter in Madison Square Garden. They were playing the Montreal Maroons, then world’s champions, and before the game Smythe ran into Hammond’s boss, the late Tex Rickard, famous fight promoter and then Garden president.

“Well”, asked Rickard, “do you think we’ll hold ’em down to ten goals?”

“Hold ’em down?” snorted Smythe, “you’ll beat them.”

The Rangers did, too, scoring a 1-0 victory and Rickard was elated, praised Smythe’s acumen and declared he ought to be a vice-president in charge of hockey at the Garden.

“I wouldn’t work around here,” growled Smythe. “You don’t treat your employees right.”

Then he told Rickard that Col. Hammond owed him two thousand five hundred dollars. Rickard escorted him to Hammond’s office, listened to the details of the agreement and then told Hammond to write a cheque for twenty - five hundred dollars. He wagered it, while in Montreal en route home, on the University of Toronto to beat McGill -and he won. He then wagered these winnings on the underdog Toronto St. Pats to triumph over the Ottawa Senators, and won again.

A year later, with two Toronto brokers, the late Peter Campbell and E. W. Bickle, he bought the St. Pats, who were an NHL team, for one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. He got two good hockey players out of the lot, Hap Day and Ace Bailey, a trainer named Tim Daly and a National Hockey league franchise in a small rink called Mutual Arena. Smythe changed the team’s name to the Maple Leafs, striving for a national appeal, and he added new players in a building program that gradually attracted fan interest. It was tough sledding though, and Smythe soon realized that to buy and pay the kind of players he needed to produce a winner there would have to be an arena of greater seating capacity. In their first year in Mutual Arena, for example, the team drew a total $123,000 and had one gate of only $1,400. So at the height of the depression in 1930 Smythe set to work to build a million-dollar rink. He wheedled capital from bankers and businessmen. The architect went on the cuff; contractors took part payment in stock; even the carpenters, masons and electricians got part of their wages in stock. One of Smythe’s greatest strikes was in eliciting the interest and support of the late J. P. Bickell, a mining man and one of the country’s richest. Bickell, sold on Smythe’s drive, enthusiasm and determination to succeed, used to phone his friends, tell them who was speaking and casually inform them they had just bought ten thousand dollars’ worth of stock in a place called Maple Leaf Gardens. It was built within a year and at the beginning it was no gold mine. Even in the 1933-34 season the total receipts were only $253,000 (by contrast, the Gardens does better than $800,000 on its present thirty-five-game schedule and, when the Leafs gain the Stanley Cup finals, receipts are just about $1,000,000). Smythe refused to scrimp, however, and his tireless efforts to give the fans a winner finally won them over in large numbers. Crowds of 13,000 for professional hockey are average nowadays and there have been more than 18,000 people in the building for political rallies.

Smythe returned to the army as Canadian units were being mobilized after Hitler’s invasion of Western Europe although, since he had come out of the first war a lieutenant, he had difficulty getting a rank higher than that. He instructed COTC artillerymen, finally conceived the idea of organizing a battery of athletes, sports writers and anyone else who wished to recruit with such a collection. For a while army orders, called the “blues,” referred to him as “to be acting major, temporary captain, Lieut. Smythe” and then when his so-called Sportsman’s Battery, the 30th Anti-aircraft, was formed he was confirmed as a major. At the beginning the 30th’s officers’ mess was the ladies’ powder room in one of the Toronto Exhibition buildings. Then training was undertaken at Petawawa Military Camp and on Vancouver Island and in October 1942 the unit went to England. The 30th didn’t go to France on D-Day but word was received from the High Command late in June 1944 that the outfit would be moving out of England any day.

That evening, during a unit softball game in the south of England, Smythe, then forty-nine, was playing third base. With two out and a runner on second, Smythe moved back of third to catch a pop fly. Just as he reached for the ball, the runner from second crashed into him and Smythe fell to the ground. His side pained agonizingly and he realized some ribs were broken. Gritting his teeth against stabs of pain that twice rendered him unconscious the major uttered only one sentence: “Any guy who peeps about this can expect a court-martial.” Some of the men carried Smythe to a civilian doctor who refused to touch a military man until he was informed that all medical officers were away. He patched Smythe’s side (there were four broken ribs) and four days later, his side tightly strapped and he himself strapped to a chair, Smythe went to France. A derrick lifted him from the ship into a small landing craft and when he got into shallow water he unstrapped himself and led his men ashore.

Scarcely a month later a German reconnaissance plane flew over the battery headquarters near Caen, dropping flares. One became embedded in a tarpaulin covering an ammunition truck. Smythe, realizing the stuff might go up at any moment -- there were between fifty and sixty thousand rounds of small-arms ammunition, grenades, antitank mines piled under the tarp—directed removal of the flare and the men grabbed shovels to throw sand on fires in the area. But before anyone could reach the ammunition truck there was a tremendous explosion. A piece of flying steel hit Smythe in the back and knocked him to the ground and out of the war.

The hospital ship which carried Smythe to Canada brought a stormy bedridden major. Risking court-martial, he charged outspokenly that replacements in France were inadequate, that untrained men were being sent into action because the Canadian government was refusing to send conscripted men overseas. This was a point many a Canadian newspaper had made but Smythe was the first man in uniform to speak up as loudly as he did and it had its effect. Papers which had opposed the government policy used Smythe’s words to rekindle their case and there were tremendous repercussions in the ensuing political controversy which culminated in the resignation of Defense Minister J. L. Ralston and the subsequent defeat in a by-election at Owen Sound of Lieut. Gen. A. G. L. McNaughton, who had returned to Canada after being commander - in - chief of the Canadian Army and who sought election so that the cabinet could retain him as defense minister.

Smythe felt he had a personal problem at Maple Leaf Gardens when he returned to his desk, too. He believed certain directors were endeavoring to undermine him, replace him with Frank Selke, who had been his assistant for twenty years and who now is general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, and send him to Montreal as president of the NHL where his growling voice wouldn’t play so leading a role in Gardens administration. Selke has said the charges were groundless but that he and Smythe were unable to get along after the major returned to his office. Selke resigned his Gardens post and shortly afterward accepted the Montreal position. Smythe has not changed his point of view. “They wanted to kick me upstairs to the NHL president’s job,” he said not long ago. “But this is where I belong and this is where I’ll stay.”

In the second and concluding installment in the next issue of Maclean's Trent Frayne tells how Smythe became a millionaire through a paradoxical combination of a sure gambling instinct and a shrewd and efficient business brain.