Conn Smythe

Constantine Falkland Cary Smythe MC (February 1, 1895 – November 18, 1980) was a Canadian builder in the National Hockey League. He is best known as the principal owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs 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 eleven times: 1932, 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1966.

Early years

Born on February 1, 1895, in Toronto, Smythe went to high school at Upper Canada College (until his father, a journalist, could no longer afford the tuition) and Jarvis Collegiate Institute. Smythe never liked his given name, Constantine, and when he was finally christened at age 9 he insisted on it being changed to Conn, in tribute to King Conn, the Irish ruler who fought 100 battles. He began engineering studies at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1912. There he played hockey as a centre, leading 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. In between seasons, Smythe also played on the U of T football team, although not as a starter.

Smythe and the Maple Leafs

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. At first, Smythe’s name was kept in the background. However, when the Leafs promoted a public share offering to raise capital, it announced that “one of the most prominent hockey coaches in Toronto” would be taking over management of the club. That prominent coach turned out to be Smythe. The next season, Smythe changed the team’s colours from green and white to their present blue and white. While he claimed that the blue stood for the Canadian skies and the white for snow, it has been a long-standing tradition that top-level Toronto teams wear blue. At the start of the next season Smythe took over as coach as well. For the next three years, he was a one-man band as governor, general manager and coach. Before the 1931–32 NHL season, Smythe led the construction of Maple Leaf Gardens. In its first season in the new building, the franchise won its first Stanley Cup as the Maple Leafs. As part of a corporate reorganization, the Leafs became the leading subsidiary of the newly created Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd.; Smythe remained the largest shareholder. Smythe had a life-long involvement with Thoroughbred horse racing, and on September 20, 1930 his horse, Rare Jewel, won the Coronation Futurity Stakes at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto. The horse had been a 100–1 longshot paying $214.40 on a $2 bet, and Smythe had bet heavily on the race. Between the winnings from his bet and his portion of the winner’s purse as horse owner, Smythe won more than $10,000 on that one race. Three weeks later, he put his windfall to work for the Leafs by purchasing star defenceman King Clancy from the depression-strapped Ottawa Senators for $35,000. A partner for several years with Larkin Maloney in a number of horses, in 1959 their horse Wonder Where was voted Canadian Horse of the Year and following its formation, the filly would be inducted in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. In 1973, Smythe became a founding member of the Jockey Club of Canada. In 1977 he was inducted in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

Becomes majority owner of the Leafs

Smythe oversaw one of hockey’s greatest dynasties when Toronto won six Stanley Cups in 10 seasons between 1942 and 1951. Hap Day coached the team to five of those Cups and was assistant general manager for the sixth. He was named in a poll of Canadian sports editors the “most dominating personality in any capacity in sports” for 1949. Notably, only two of these teams finished first overall, and one barely made the playoffs with a record three games under .500. However, Smythe was known for caring little about gaudy regular season records. From the 1940s onward, his two mantras to Leafs teams were to make the playoffs and keep the turnstiles clicking at Maple Leaf Gardens. In part because of this, the Leafs did not post a 100-point season until 1999–2000, 20 years after Smythe’s death. However, the Leafs spent most of the 1950s as a mediocre team, struggling under three different coaches while Day remained assistant general manager under Smythe. Even so, in 1955, Smythe turned over most responsibility for hockey operations to Day, but nominally remained general manager. However, just after the Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs in 1957, Smythe told the media that it had been “a season of failure” and that he didn’t know if the 55-year-old Day would be available for the next season. It was a public rebuke that triggered the response Smythe wanted: Day resigned. In March 1957, Smythe resigned as general manager and turned the operation of the hockey team over to a seven-person committee, headed by his son, Stafford Smythe. Newspaper owner John Bassett was another member of the committee, which became known as the Silver Seven, as was Percy Gardiner’s son, George Gardiner. Initially, all members were in their 30s or early 40s, but that changed before the end of the year when 54-year-old Harold Ballard, president of the Toronto Marlboros, was appointed to the committee to fill a vacancy.

Sells to his son and partners

Though the committee made most decisions involving the Leafs, Smythe was not a hands-off owner and was constantly fighting with his son. After four years, he offered to sell his shares to Stafford and in November 1961, Smythe sold 45,000 of his 50,000 shares in Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. to a partnership of his son, Ballard, and Bassett for $2.3 million—a handsome return on his investment of 34 years earlier. Smythe would later claim that he thought he was selling the company only to his son, but there is skepticism that he could have believed that Stafford could have come up with the millions of dollars needed to purchase the shares on his own. Smythe remained chairman of the board until 1964, when Bassett succeeded him. In 1964, Smythe opposed the Pearson government’s plan to replace the traditional Canadian flag with a completely new design. He wrote to Pearson: “In the Olympic Games the whole world is represented and when Canada sometimes wins a Gold Medal everybody knows, when the Red Ensign (see Canadian Red Ensign) is raised to the masthead, that Canada has won.” In 1965, he unsuccessfully lobbied for the Red Ensign to be flown at the Gardens instead of the new Flag of Canada. In March 1966, Smythe sold his remaining shares and resigned from the board of directors after a Muhammad Ali boxing match was scheduled for the Gardens. He found Ali’s refusal to serve in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War to be offensive, because, as he put it in his autobiography “The Gardens was founded by men – sportsmen – who fought for their country. It is no place for those want to evade conscription in their own country. The Gardens was build for many things, but not for picking up things that no one else wants.” He also said that by accepting the fight, Gardens owners had “put cash ahead of class.”