The War Years

The War Years

Syl Apps was the face of the Maple Leafs during the franchise's greatest era.

On this Remembrance Day, 2010, I’d thought it would be fitting to take a look back at the Toronto Maple Leafs during the years of the Second World War.

Having been on the losing side of the Stanley Cup Finals for three consecutive years (Chicago, Boston, New York) to close out the 1930s, the Leafs remained on the verge of becoming a championship team. Unfortunately, pending greatness would instead be put on hold as the roster would be decimated while players answered their country’s call to duty in the early 1940s.

The following is a quick synopsis of the Maple Leafs’ successes and struggles during the war years, and the glory that would ultimately follow.

Playoff Format (1938 – 1942, seven-team league)

Round 1
Series A –> 1st place vs 2nd place, best of seven –> Winner proceeds to Cup Final
Series B –> 3rd place vs 4th place, best of three –> Winner proceeds to Round 2
Series C –> 5th place vs 6th place, best of three –> Winner proceeds to Round 2

Round 2
Series B winner vs Series C winner, best of three –> Winner proceeds to Cup Final

Stanley Cup Final
Series A winner vs Round 2 winner

Playoff Format (1942 to 1967, six-team league)

Round 1
Series A –>1st place vs 3rd place, best of 7
Series B –>2nd place vs 4th place, best of 7

Stanley Cup Final
Series A winner vs Series B winner

1939-40

The 1939-40 Maple Leafs, despite injuries to front-line forwards Syl Apps and Sweeney Schriner, managed to finish third overall behind strong defensive play and goaltending: Turk Broda won 25 games and posted a 2.23 GAA, appearing in 47 of the season’s 48 games. The electrifying Gord Drillon, two years removed from winning the Calder trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, led the way with 21 goals and 19 assists in 43 games (placing him 4th overall in the league scoring race). However, after sweeping both Chicago and Detroit in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Leafs would fall to the New York Rangers in six games in the Final.

1940-41

With a new coach in former long-time defender Hap Day, the Maple Leafs would place second overall in the league, finishing as the only team to feature three 20-goal scorers (Drillon, Apps, Schriner). Broda would record 28 wins and better his GAA to an even 2.00, while appearing in all 48 games. But despite the optimism with which the franchise entered the playoffs, the Leafs were oustered in a 7-game first round series by the  Boston Bruins, who would go on to capture the Stanley Cup.

1941-42

Determined to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment of the previous season’s first round exit, the Maple Leafs bolstered their offense by trading depth players Red Heron and Gus Marker (along with prospect Nick Knott and cash) for veteran scoring winger Lorne Carr. Led once more by Apps and Drillon, and having nine players (including Carr) reach double digits in goals, the Leafs would once again finish second overall in the standings. In a six-game first round set, the Leafs would knock off their long-time nemesis, the New York Rangers, to earn a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals … where history would be made.

Finding themselves down 3 games to none against a Detroit team which had finished 5th in the league, Leafs’ coach Hap Day made the unpopular decision to bench underachieving star forward Gord Drillon, replacing him with the young & unproven Don Metz. The message was loud and clear, and the team responded by winning the next three to force Game 7 on home ice.  Cue the drama.

Down 1-0 in the third period, the Leafs tied the game on a powerplay goal by veteran winger Sweeney Schriner. Pete Langelle would score the go-ahead goal just minutes later, and Schriner would add another to put the final stamp in a 3-1 victory. The win ended a 10 year Stanley Cup drought for the Maple Leafs, and created history as the Leafs became (and still remain) the only NHL team to ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit in the championship round.

1942-43

As the news became ever-more grim overseas, several players would exchange their NHL uniforms for those of their country. Most of the Canadian players who joined the war effort would be stationed in Canada, in bases in the Toronto and Ottawa area, or along either coast. Many would join local senior pro leagues to stay in shape, playing a handful of games each season as their respective tours of duty and service commitments allowed.

Although the roster turnover experienced by the Leafs consisted primarily of depth players, significant impacts were created by the departures of stalwart defender Wally Stanowski, forwards Don and Nick Metz, and Stanley Cup hero Pete Langelle. Others who left to join the service included Bingo Kampman, Bob Goldman, John McCreedy, and Ernie Dickens.  To cap off the departures, longtime star winger Gord Drillon, unhappy over his benching during the Finals, was traded to Montreal (he would enlist in the Canadian Army the following year, and elect to remain on the East Coast following his military service).

Despite boasting three 20+ goal-scorers, nine in the double digits, and the acquisition of star defender Babe Pratt, the Maple Leafs slipped to third in the now six-team league (the New York Americans had folded following the ’41-’42 campaign). Against the 1st place Detroit Red Wings in the first round, minus the injured Syl Apps, the Leafs would fall in 6 games.

1943-44

Another season of change beckoned for the Toronto Maple Leafs, as longtime star players Syl Apps, Turk Broda, and Sweeney Schriner all left to serve in the war effort. Also joining the forces were up-and-coming Billy Taylor and Gaye Stewart. Despite these losses, the Leafs were able to finish in 3rd place once more behind the superb play of  Lorne Carr (36 goals, 38 assists in 50 games at age 33), Babe Pratt (57 points in 50 games) and rookies Gus Bodnar (62 points in 50 games) and Ted Kennedy (49 points in 49 games). However, the unproven goaltending duo of Paul Bibeault and Benny Grant proved little trouble for the Montreal Canadiens, who easily dispatched the Maple Leafs in five games, outscoring Toronto 23-6 (including an 11-0 blowout in Game 5).

1944-45

With the return of Schriner, the Metz brothers, and Stanowski from service duty, and the addition of rookie goaltender Frank McCool to the lineup, the Maple Leafs were expected to once again be a contender. However, the team struggled during the regular season, again finishing in third place as injuries cost Schriner half his season and ravaged the defense also. As the playoffs began, the Maple Leafs once more found themselves matched up against their despised rivals, the Montreal Canadians. This time, however, it would be the boys in blue who would get the last laugh with a hard-fought 4-2 series win to advance to the Final.

In the Final, the Maple Leafs would meet the Red Wings, against whom they had made Finals history only three seasons before. In an ironic twist, this time it would be the Leafs who would go up 3-0 behind back-to-back-to-back Frank McCool shutouts … only to drop the next three games as the Red Wings would force a Game 7.  But history would not repeat itself any further; in the deciding game the Leafs would hold on for a 2-1 victory to claim their second Stanley Cup victory of the 1940s, with Babe Pratt scoring the winning goal while a player by the name of Gordie Howe sat in the penalty box.

1945-46

The 1945-46 season was supposed to be a repeat season for the Maple Leafs, one in which the roster would be bolstered by the return of Leafs’ legends Syl Apps and Turk Broda from their respective service duties. It was anything but. Although Apps showed his time away had no impact on his game, maintaining a point-per-game pace while resuming his captaincy, the same could not be said for Turk Broda, who struggled to find his form as a backup to Frank McCool (who himself struggled mightily). Age finally caught up to Lorne Carr and Sweeney Schriner, who each experienced a severe decline in production, and Babe Pratt was dogged by a gambling scandal which would ultimately lead to his departure from Toronto. Perhaps the lone bright spot was young Gaye Stewart’s 37 goals in 50 games, but not even his stellar play could save the season. The end result saw the Leafs finish in 5th place and out of the playoffs, a far cry from the expected impact of the return of the legendary Apps and Broda.

Epilogue: The Post-War Years

Following the disasterous 1945-46 campaign, McCool was released amidst demands for more money, allowing Broda — who had worked himself back into shape — to regain his starting job. Both Schriner and Carr retired from the NHL, with youthful players Howie Meeker and Harry Watson filling the void, and Ted Kennedy and Gaye Stewart assuming prominent roles. On the blueline, Pratt’s minutes were filled by a pair of rookies, Gus Mortson and the then-unknown Bill Barilko. The youth movement paid off, as the Leafs would capture the Stanley Cup in the 1946-47 campaign — the first of four in the next five years, for a total of six championships in a ten-year span from 1941-42 to 1950-51.

For the prominent players of this era, their futures held a mix of fortune and misfortune. Frank McCool, who had held out for more money following the Stanley Cup win, never played at a high level again after the disastrous 1945-46 campaign.  Turk Broda, on the other hand, would go on to re-capture his early form and backstop the Leafs to each of their subsequent 1940s championships. Babe Pratt played a single season in Boston, later finishing his playing career in a minor league on the West Coast. Following the Stanley Cup victory of 1946-47, Gaye Stewart was traded (along with Gus Bodnar, Bud Poile and Ernie Dickens) to the Chicago Blackhawks for Max Bentley, who was instrumental leading the Maple Leafs to Stanley Cup victories in 1947-48, 1948-49, and 1950-51. Ted Kennedy would go on to play his entire career in a Toronto uniform, retiring in 1957 with his name securely held in the pantheon of Maple Leafs’ legends.

As for Syl Apps, the 1947-48 season would prove to be his swan song. Still producing near his usual point-per-game clip, the 32-year old Apps elected to retire following the second of three consecutive Stanley Cup victories. Few NHL players have lived such a storybook career: Apps, who reputedly never drank, smoked, or swore in all his years in the NHL, had been a Junior hockey star, a University football captain, a pole-vault champion, and Olympian all before Conn Smythe convinced him to join the Toronto Maple Leafs (as the story goes, Apps only agreed to an NHL contract because there were no better-paying jobs available at the time). Three Stanley Cup victories, interrupted by two years’ military service, and a host of league, team, and community accolades later, Apps was, and is — quite deservedly — remembered as one of the greatest Maple Leafs players of all time.

The Toronto Maple Leafs would never again match the success of those 1940s teams, although they would come close in the 1960s. Following the 1951 championship, Bill Barilko (who scored the Cup-winning goal) boarded a plane to go on a fishing trip. He never returned. Ominously, the Maple Leafs would not win another Stanley Cup until the 1962 season; the year the wreckage of the airplane, and his body, were finally found.  The Leafs would go on to win Cups in 1963, 1964, and 1967

and the rest, as they say, is history.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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