Conn Smythe and others enlisting in 1939 at Maple Leaf Gardens.
The relationship between professional sports and the military has long been a complicated one. To outside observers the NFL often seems like another branch of the American Military. Don Cherry sets aside time each week on Coach’s Corner to remember the fallen men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Both Brian Burke and Luke Schenn travelled to Afghanistan this summer to visit troops serving there with the latter sponsoring a program for the military men and women known as “Luke’s Troops”. While today the relationship is mostly symbolic, in the past the connection was much more direct. No man better demonstrates the relationship between hockey and the military than Conn Smythe.
Smythe was born February 1, 1895 just up the street from the future site of Maple Leaf Gardens. Smythe was attending the University of Toronto when he enlisted to serve in the First World War, in March of 1915. While enlisted Smythe organized a team to compete in the Ontario Hockey Association’s senior league; the team never played as his 40th Battery was shipped overseas in February of 1916.
Smythe’s Battery was sent to Ypres and fought for nearly two months in the trenches near the Somme. Smythe was a fearless soldier, on March 5, 1917, he was awarded the Military Cross for "dispersing an enemy party at a critical time. Himself accounted for three of the enemy with his revolver." During a German counter-attack he rushed in, shot three Germans and dragged several Canadian soldiers back to safety. No big deal.
While serving with the Royal Flying Corps Smythe was shot down in October of 1917 and held as a POW by the Germans. He made two failed escape attempts and was placed in solitary confinement as a result. He was released at the end of the war. Then he came home and founded the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In September of 1939 after the outbreak of the Second World War the league contemplated cancelling the season. According to September 1939 New York Times article the seven NHL teams decided that the season would continue as schedule despite the outbreak of war. “President Frank Calder of Montreal said he understood some players had already enlisted in Canadian units but that the league policy would be to “carry on” indefinitely.
While Mr. Calder did not believe that conscription would be necessary he stated that should it come to that the league would “attempt to operate with the best personnel it can muster”. While the NHL was trying to distance itself from the War, Conn Smythe had other ideas.
Conn Smythe enlisting a Toronto reporter.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Smythe was GM of the Leafs. In the early summer of 1940 he circulated a letter to his Maple Leaf players instructing them to “sign up immediately with some non-permanent militia unit and get your military training in as soon as possible” as “you might be wanted immediately” and “you might be wanted for a comparatively long time”.
Smythe did not believe that they would necessarily be needed to serve but it was best to be prepared in case they were called upon. Smythe reminded the players that “in the meantime, until called upon, you have a job to do at home.” Their job was “to report fit and ready to play the best hockey of your career for the Toronto Maple Leafs this winter… and you must have had your military training, which, incidentally, should send you down here fit.” He also reminded players that they would require a Passport to travel to the United States.
The article summarizing the letter also made note that the Leafs were “no strangers to military training”. In the fall of 1939 for “more than a month” the Leafs “underwent machine-gun drills” and “reported daily for lectures and practical instruction and made marked progress in general militia training.” Smythe wanted his Leafs to be ready to serve if called upon.
Early in the war there was speculation that Smythe might quit his job to join the military. On January 16, 1941 Smythe said that he would enlist in the army “anytime they give me a job”. Speculation was rampant as Smythe missed a meeting with the League’s Board of Governors to make a visit to Ottawa. According to Smythe he was there “to ‘help out’ a friend with private business”. While he was eager to serve Canada should the opportunity arise he said “in the meantime ‘I’m going back to Toronto to watch the Leafs win a hockey game.”
Soon after Conn was back serving with the Canadian Military. In 1941 he formed the 30th Battery. It was a sportsmen’s anti-aircraft battery, part of the 7th Toronto Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, Canadian Active Army. Smythe was made acting major and Officer Commanding. His battery first served on Vancouver Island and was then sent to England in 1942. He spent two years there before being sent to France in July of 1944.
On July 29 1944 the Washinton Post reported that Smythe had been “severely wounded” in France “following an enemy bombing attack some nights ago”. Toronto Star War Correspondent Frederick Griffin reported that Smythe “was in charge of an anti-aircraft battery defending French bridges held by Canadian troops.
During the attack an ammunition truck was hit and Smythe lead some of his boys with firefighting equipment. Just then two German planes swung low, dropping bombs and machine-gunning the Canadians. Smythe was knocked out by a fragment of explosive in his back.” Smythe was sent back to Canada in September.
When he returned Smythe spoke out about his belief that the Canadian Military was using improperly trained troops, which lead to unnecessary casualties. Maj. Smythe released a statement that claimed that “the reinforcements received now are green, inexperience, and poorly trained.” Maj. Smythe and the officers he spoke with also believed that “large numbers of unnecessary casualties result from this greenness, both to the rookies and to the other soldiers, who have the added task of trying to look after the newcomers as well as themselves.” In response, the Canadian Government sent Defense Minister James L. Ralston to investigate these claims.
After the War Smythe returned to his role as GM and lead the Leafs to 6 Stanley Cups in 10 years between 1942 and 1951. It is fitting that the trophy which bears his name is given to the player most valuable to his team during the Stanley Cup playoffs, the ultimate battle of the NHL season. While Conn survived, many were not as fortunate.
It is important to take the time to remember their sacrifices and to appreciate the freedom for which they fought.
- War fails to halt plans for hockey. 1939. New York Times (1923-Current file), Sep 21, 1939.
- Hockey men advised in war drills. 1940. The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file), Jul 20, 1940.
- Smythe may go into canadian army very soon. 1941. The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file), Jan 16, 1941.
- Connie smith hurt in action. 1944. The Washington Post (1923-1954), Jul 30, 1944.