Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Conn Smythe: Toronto's Best Man

In the continuing series of looking back at the trophies of the NHL and how they came to be, we push forward today with another major individual trophy. The Conn Smythe Trophy is presented "annually to the player judged most valuable to his team during the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup Playoffs". This trophy doesn't necessarily go to the leading scorer in the playoffs, nor does it always go to a player of the winning team. It legitimately will go to the player who helped his team get to the Stanley Cup Final. It is awarded to the winning player at the conclusion of Game Seven in the Stanley Cup Final right before the Stanley Cup is presented. So who is this Conn Smythe guy? Why was he so important? What kind of trivia is there to know about the Conn Smythe Trophy?

Constantine Falkland Cary Smythe was born on February 1, 1895 in Toronto, Ontario. His father, Albert Smythe, was a journalist who emigrated to Canada in 1889 with his wife, Amelia Constantine, from Ireland. Amelia died in 1906, and her legacy was one of a drinker and a bit of a loose cannon in terms of her attitude. Conn, who was never fond of his given name of "Constantine", was christened in 1906 and shortened his name to "Conn" after Irish ruler King Conn who fought in over 100 battles during his lifetime.

After spending some time in Toronto as a student, Albert Smythe had plans for Conn Smythe to take up studying law. Smythe left Toronto after defying his father, and moved onto a farm near Cochrane, Ontario. His move out of town didn't last long as he enrolled at the University of Toronto in 1912 to study engineering. He suited up for the Toronto Varsity Blues as a centerman, and led them to the Ontario Hockey Association Final in 1914 before leading them to the championship in 1915.

After winning the OHA Championship in 1915, Smythe, along with eight teammates, enlisted in the Canadian military for the start of World War I. He joined the 40th Battery of Hamilton as Lieutenant, and was sent overseas in February 1916. After his commanding officer died in 1917, Smythe transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. He was shot down by the Germans and captured on October 14, 1917, leading to his imprisonment as a prisoner-of-war. He tried twice to escape but failed, and was put into solitary confinement until the end of the war.

Smythe returned to Toronto upon the conclusion of World War I, and finished his civil engineering degree at the University of Toronto in 1920. He married Irene Sands, his long-time love who he had known since he was 16, in 1921 at the age of 26. During his evenings, he would coach the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, and occasionally took them to games in Boston against amateur teams in and around the Massachusetts city. Because of these trips, he was noticed by Charles Adams, owner of the NHL's Boston Bruins, and Adams recommended Smythe to John S. Hammond, the representative of the owners of the New York Rangers, in 1926. Hammond hired Smythe to be the first coach and general manager in the history of the Rangers, but Smythe was fired before the team even played their first game. According to Smythe, he was fired for refusing to sign Babe Dye who, in Smythe's estimation, was far too old. The New York Rangers went on to hire Frank Patrick who kept a number of players signed by Smythe. In 1928, just two years after Smythe began building the Rangers, they won their first Stanley Cup.

After Smythe was fired by the Rangers, he went back to Toronto and coached the Varsity Graduates to an Allan Cup Championship. After winning the Allan Cup, the Varsity Graduates went to the 1928 St. Moritz Olympic Games, and won the gold medal. Smythe, however, refused to join the team at the Olympics after two University of Toronto players were denied joining the Olympic squad by two Graduate players in order to have the Graduates' relatives on the team. Smythe was unimpressed by this rather selfish move, and stayed in Toronto while the Varsity Graduates went to the Winter Olympics.

Smythe was busy with other interests over this time. With his severance pay and some gambling winnings off the horses he owned, he and a few partners bought the Toronto St. Pats hockey club in the NHL. The team was renamed as the "Maple Leafs" shortly after the group had closed the sale. Smythe became coach of the Maple Leafs, and was named as general manager shortly thereafter. The start of the 1927-28 season saw the Toronto Maple Leafs drop their old colours of green-and-white that the St. Pats wore, and adopt their new colours of blue-and-white. Smythe also created one of the most dynamic lines in hockey history when he paired Harvey "Busher" Jackson and Charlie Conacher with Joe Primeau to make the famous "Kid Line" in Toronto. Jackson would actually affect Smythe's career over 40 years later as well, but we'll get to that shortly.

By 1931-32, Smythe had the team in their new arena, aptly named the Maple Leaf Gardens. The Maple Leafs swept the New York Rangers, Smythe's old team, in the Stanley Cup Final to win the Stanley Cup in their first year in their new building. He hired a young man named Frank J. Selke as his assistant to run the Maple Leafs. With World War II beginning in the summer of 1939, Smythe turned control of the Leafs over to Selke, and Maple Leaf Gardens to a committee.

After serving in World War II, Smythe returned to Canada to find Maple Leaf Gardens Limited, the company that controlled both the Maple Leafs and the Gardens, in turmoil. One of his partners, Bill MacBrien, was suspected of trying to takeover as President from Ed Bickle, and to replace Smythe with Frank J. Selke. Smythe countered with a powerplay of his own, and asked for Selke's support. When Selke balked at the offer, the friendship that had developed between the two men soured. Selke eventually resigned in 1946 as the relationship deteriorated completely.

Smythe took control of Maple Leaf Gardens Limited by becoming the largest stakeholder after purchasing $300,000 of stock in 1947. On November 19 of that year, he installed himself as President of Maple Leaf Gardens Limited, thus giving him full control of the Maple Leafs and the Gardens. He essentially oversaw the greatest period of success in the Maple Leafs' history from 1942 until 1951 where the Leafs won six Stanley Cups in ten seasons. For all the success that the Leafs have seen since that 1942 season, they didn't post a 100-point season until 1999-2000, two decades after Conn Smythe had passed away. If anyone doesn't believe that the Leafs were in it for the money, one didn't know Conn Smythe.

In 1957, Conn Smythe resigned as the Maple Leafs General Manager, his team suffering through a plague of mediocrity. Smythe turned the team over to a committee of people, including his son, Stafford Smythe, who would eventually earn the moniker of "the Silver Seven". Smythe was the Chairman of the Board, and would continually fight with his son over various affairs involving the team. In 1964, he sold 45,000 of his 50,000 shares in Maple Leaf Gardens Limited to John Bassett and his son for a reported $2.3 million. Bassett became the new Chairman of the Board, and Smythe was all but done with the Maple Leafs at the age of 69.

Smythe did some questionable things besides owning the Maple Leafs. In 1964, three years before Canada's 100th Anniversary, there was talk that Lester B. Pearson's government was toying with an idea to replace the Canadian Ensign flag with a new design. Smythe wrote to the Prime Minister with the intent of keeping the Canadian Ensign instead of the new flag, and all but begged Pearson not to change the flag. He was unsuccessful in swaying Pearson, however, as the new Canadian flag became the iconic look that we all know.

In March 1966, he sold his last 5000 remaining shares in Maple Leaf Gardens Limited and resigned from the Board of Directors after the Gardens successfully negotiated a deal to host a Muhammad Ali boxing match. Smythe was furious that the Gardens would allow a man who refused to serve his country in the Vietnam War, and said that the owners of Maple Leaf Gardens had "put cash ahead of class".

Smythe also accomplished many good things outside of hockey. He was in charge of the construction of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in 1961, and served as the HHOF's Chairman until 1971 when he resigned after Harvey "Busher" Jackson was inducted to the Hall of Fame. After Jackson's scoring dropped off in 1939, Smythe traded Jackson to the New York Americans. Jackson was extremely unhappy with this treatment after having spent ten years as a Maple Leaf, and he and Smythe had a serious falling out. When Jackson was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Smythe resigned as he felt that Jackson's character was not worthy of the Hall of Fame.

Maple Leaf Gardens Limited presented a trophy to the NHL to celebrate all of Smythe's accomplishments in hockey in 1964. In 1965, the NHL named their newest trophy after him, and awarded it for the first time. The design features the arena he helped to build in Maple Leaf Gardens with a botanically-correct maple leaf behind the iconic arena.

Smythe passed away on November 18, 1980 in Caledon, Ontario at the age of 85. The Conn Smythe Trophy was renamed as the Conn Smythe Memorial Trophy in memory of Mr. Smythe.

The first player to receive the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs was Jean Béliveau of the Montreal Canadiens. It has been awarded to 38 different players in the 44 times it has been presented, and the voting is done by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association (PHWA).

Here are some interesting facts about the Conn Smythe Trophy winners since it was first awarded in 1965:

  • The Montreal Canadiens have had nine Conn Smythe Trophy winners - the most of all the teams in the NHL. Detroit has had five winners, while third place is occupied by Philadelphia, Edmonton, and the New York Islanders who have four Conn Smythe Trophy winners each.
  • Only one player has won the Conn Smythe Trophy three separate times. That player is goaltender Patrick Roy. Goaltender Bernie Parent, forwards Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, and defenceman Bobby Orr are the only other multiple winners. Those four latter players have won the Conn Smythe twice each.
  • Patrick Roy is the only player in NHL history to have won the Conn Smythe Trophy for two teams. He won with the Montreal Canadiens in 1985-86 and 1992-93, and also won with the Colorado Avalanche in 2000-01.
  • Montreal's Jean Béliveau was the first centerman to win the Conn Smythe in 1965.
  • Detroit's Roger Crozier was the first goaltender to win the Conn Smythe. He won it in 1965-66.
  • Montreal's Serge Savard was the first defenceman to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy. He won the award in 1968-69.
  • Montreal's Yvon Cournoyer was the first right winger to win the Conn Smythe Trophy when he won in 1972-73.
  • Philadelphia's Reggie Leach was the first left winger to win the Conn Smythe Trophy after earning it in 1975-76.
  • Centermen have earned the trophy a total of 15 times. Goalies are next with 14 wins. Defencemen have nine wins. Right wingers have four wins. And left wingers have only won twice in 44 years.
  • There have been only five players who have earned the Conn Smythe Trophy while playing for the losing team in the Stanley Cup Final. They include Detroit's Roger Crozier (1965-66), St. Louis' Glenn Hall (1967-68), Philadelphia's Reggie Leach (1975-76), Philadelphia's Ron Hextall (1986-87), and Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2003-04).
  • Of the five players above, the only player who was not a goaltender to have won a Conn Smythe Trophy while losing in the Stanley Cup Final was Reggie Leach.
  • The first, and only, American-born player to have won a Conn Smythe Trophy thus far was defenceman Brian Leetch of New York Rangers. He won the award in 1993-94.
  • The first European-born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy was defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings. He won the award in 2001-02.
  • The first, and only, Russian-born player to have won the Conn Smythe Trophy was centerman Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Malkin won the award in 2008-09.
  • Only 16 teams are represented on the Conn Smythe Trophy over the 44 years it has been awarded.
  • Of the Original Six teams, only the Chicago Blackhawks have not had a Conn Smythe Trophy winner in their franchise history.
So there's a look back at the history of Conn Smythe, one of the most powerful men in hockey, and the trophy that was named in his honour. While some may say that Smythe ruled with an iron fist over the Maple Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens, it is very clear that he was committed to the game with all that he did for it.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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