Conn Smythe

A Canadian Hockey Legend

conn smytheConstantine Falkland Cary Smythe, MC (February 1, 1895 – November 18, 1980) was a Canadian businessman, soldier and sportsman in ice hockey and horse racing. He is best known as the principal owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League (NHL) from 1927 to 1961 and as the builder of Maple Leaf Gardens. As owner of the Leafs during numerous championship years, his name appears on the Stanley Cup eight times: 1932, 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1962.

Conn Smythe was born in Toronto, February 1, 1895. He first went to high school at Upper Canada College, and hated it. The following year, therefore, he transferred to Jarvis Collegiate Institute where he developed his athleticism, playing hockey, rugby, football and basketball, and playing on city championship teams in basketball and hockey in 1912.

At 17 Smythe become a homesteader on 150 acres (0.61 km2) in Clute Township, near Cochrane, Ontario, only to have the house he built destroyed by a devastating fire. He then changed his mind about living in the bush and enrolled in engineering studies at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1912. There he played hockey as a centre, captaining the Varsity Blues men’s ice hockey team to the finals of the 1914 Ontario Hockey Association junior championships and to the OHA junior championship the following year. The coach of the losing team in 1915 was Frank J. Selke, who years later would work for Smythe at Maple Leaf Gardens. Smythe also played on the University of Toronto football team, although not as a starter.

The First World War interrupted his studies. A week after winning the OHA championship in March 1915, Smythe and his eight teammates enlisted. Smythe recalled in his memoirs that he and several classmates tried to enlist at the beginning of the 1914–15 season, but were told to come back when they had beards. After attending the Royal School of Artillery in Kingston, Ontario he made full lieutenant, and was able to get himself transferred to the 40th (Sportsmen’s) Battery of Hamilton, organized by publishing figure Gordon Southam, son of William Southam. The unit, with Smythe as team manager, organized a team to compete in the Ontario Hockey Association’s senior league; they were one of four Toronto-based teams in the league in 1916. He played one game at centre, and then decided to replace himself with a better player. The team did not complete the season, as the 40th Battery went overseas in February 1916.

conn smythe - maple leaf posterThe Battery was ordered into the Ypres salient. On October 12, shelling found their position killing Major Southam and Sergeant-Major Norm Harvie, making Smythe temporarily commander of the Battery. The Battery fought for nearly two months in the trenches near the Somme before being relieved. In February 1917, Smythe earned a Military Cross, when during an attack the Germans counter-attacked with grenades. Smythe ran into the fight and killed three Germans and helped several wounded Canadian soldiers back to safety. Smythe then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in July 1917. One of his instructors was Billy Barker, who would later become the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Following the war, Smythe returned to Toronto. With his accrued Army salary and the proceeds from the sale of his homestead plot, he started a sand and gravel business. For a while, the business became a partnership with Frank Angotti, who owned a paving business. To support the need for sand and gravel, Smythe bought land northwest of Toronto for a sand pit. He returned to the University of Toronto and finished his civil engineering degree in 1920. Irene and Conn were married during the school year. Smythe and his paving business partner split, and Smythe retained the sand and gravel business. The company was named C. Smythe Limited and the company slogan was “C. Smythe for sand”, which he had painted on his trucks, the lettering in white on the blue of the trucks. Frank Selke, who had moved to Toronto, was one of Smythe’s first employees in the business. Irene took sand and gravel orders over the phone as well as taking care of newborn son Stafford. Smythe would own the business until 1961.

Queen Elizabeth II congratulates Maple Leaf Captain, Ted Kennedy, on her first visit to Canada in 1951
Queen Elizabeth II congratulates Maple Leaf Captain, Ted Kennedy, on her first visit to Canada in 1951

Meanwhile he continued to coach with the University of Toronto, and was even involved with the New York Rangers as a scout, but dispute with the then owner, Tex Rickard ended that relationship. However, using money he had received from Rickard, he doubled it by betting on a football game, and then doubled it again when he bet on the Rangers to defeat the St. Pats in Toronto. The Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1928, their second year of existence, largely with the players Smythe had brought to the team.

The Rangers went to the top of their division, while the St. Pats were doing poorly. J. P. Bickell, a part-owner of the St. Pats, contacted Smythe about taking over the team as coach, but Smythe turned him down. Smythe was more interested in owning the team or a share of the team, and told Bickell so. Not long after, the St. Pats were up for sale and Bickell offered Smythe a chance to become a part-owner. The club had a tentative agreement to be sold for $200,000 to a Philadelphia group, which would move the team. If Smythe could raise $160,000, Bickell would not sell his $40,000 share and the team would remain in Toronto. Smythe was successful, and on February 14, 1927, Smythe invested $10,000 and with the help of some partners bought the St. Pats, renaming them the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Maple leaf Gardens, 1935
Maple leaf Gardens, 1935

In 1929, Smythe decided, in the midst of the Great Depression, that the Maple Leafs needed a new arena. He knew it would take over a million dollars to construct and he got backing from Sun Life for half. The site was land from T. Eaton Co. on Carlton, a site Smythe selected because it was on the street car line. Smythe gave up the coaching position to concentrate on the arena project. The building started construction on June 1, 1931, and was ready on November 12, 1931, after five months. As part of a corporate reorganization, Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. was founded that year to own both the team and the arena. To pay for the building construction, the construction workers were paid with Maple Leaf Gardens stock instead of 20% of their pay. Selke, who had union connections, and Smythe were successful in negotiating the payment method in exchange for using unionised workers.

Thus, As owner of the Leafs during numerous championship years, his name appears on the Stanley Cup eight times: 1932, 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1962.

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