Maple Leafs Were Saved by a War Hero

This Remembrance Day, when the Toronto Maple Leafs take the ice, consider that it’s a team named to honour Canada’s soldiers and a franchise that owes its very existence to the actions of a war veteran. For many hockey fans, Conn Smythe is the name of the trophy presented to the NHL’s most valuable player during the playoffs. The award is appropriately named for what Smythe did for the NHL, the Maple Leafs, and Canada.

The Toronto Maple Leafs logo at center ice
The Toronto Maple Leafs logo at center ice (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

There are several Maple Leafs who’ve served their country, and each one of them deserves recognition. So do the more than 2.3 million Canadians who served our nation and the more than 118,000 who made the ultimate sacrifice. It is difficult to comprehend how many people were impacted by war. Sometimes it’s more relatable to hear about one person to understand how important Remembrance Day is for Canada.

Smythe Goes from Hockey to the Trenches

Smythe enlisted for the armed forces just days after winning the 1915 Ontario Hockey Association championship. Within a year, he fought in the trenches near Somme in the First World War. After being awarded a military cross, he was transferred to the Royal Flying Crops, but in October 1917, his plane was shot down, and he was captured. Smythe was a prisoner of war until the war ended 13 months later, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

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When Smythe returned to Toronto, he started a business and went to the University of Toronto to finish his civil engineering degree. He coached the varsity hockey team and caught the attention of some NHL owners. The New York Rangers hired Smythe as general manager and coach to create the new team. But they let him go just before the regular season, and the Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup the following year. Smythe continued to coach at U of T and lead a new senior team to the Allan Cup, earning it the right to represent Canada at the 1928 Olympics.

Smythe Saves Toronto’s Team

That’s right around when Smythe’s hometown team, the Toronto St. Pat’s went up for sale. He led a group to raise enough money to buy the team and keep it from another buyer who was ready to move it to Philadelphia. The new ownership group renamed the team the Maple Leafs, which came from a World War I fighting unit, the Maple Leaf Regiment. The team colours were changed to blue to represent the sky and white to symbolize snow. Consequently, these were also the colours used for Smythe’s gravel business, which started years earlier.

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Over the next few years, he served in different positions with the club as a coach, governor and general manager. Then, during the great depression, Smythe decided the team needed a new arena. So he stepped down from his team duties to work on the arena project, and soon Maple Leafs Gardens was born. The iconic building is represented on the Conn Smythe trophy awarded before every Stanley Cup since 1964-65 season.

Smythe Called Back to War

But the world was headed back to war, and at 45 years of age, Smythe joined the war effort. At first, it was overseeing the training corps at U of T, before heading to Vancouver Island to defend the west coast from a possible Japanese strike. Smythe was later sent to England and then France. In July 1944, he was lucky to survive a bombing that injured his spinal cord, leaving him with several lifelong injuries, including a limp. While in the hospital, he spoke to several soldiers who felt the new reinforcements were not properly trained and made his findings public. The Globe and Mail published his arguments on the front page of the paper.

When he returned, he picked up where he left off with the Maple Leafs, eventually buying a controlling interest in the team and leading it to 6 Cups in a decade. Later in life is worked closely with several charities, including the Canadian Paraplegic Association and the Ontario Society for Crippled Children.

When you put on that blue and white Maple Leafs jersey on November 11 to cheer on the team against the Pittsburgh Penguins, remember Smythe, who was just a kid when he went to war for the first time and then an established successful businessman who went to fight a second time. Remember him and all those veterans who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today.