‘Ulcers’ McCool came from nowhere to win a Stanley Cup, then disappeared


By 1944-45, most NHL rosters had been decimated by enlistments in the Second World War. The Maple Leafs were Exhibit A, led by GM Conn Smythe, already a First World War hero, who organized a Toronto Sportsmen’s Battalion of athletes and sports media during the Second World War. The Leafs’ 1942 Cup-winning goalie, Turk Broda, followed Smythe’s patriotic lead in 1943, joining the Canadian armed forces.

That left Toronto’s interim GM, Frank Selke, Sr., in a bit of a jam. He didn’t have a single solid goalie in his lineup – not that Selke didn’t try to find a decent replacement. During 1943-44, Selke filled the Broda gap with an assortment of stopgaps including Benny Grant, Paul Bibeault and Jean Marois. The result was a third-place finish and a speedy first-round exit at the hands of the Habs, who disintegrated Bibeault and his mates in the final game, 11-0, to clinch the round.

The frustrated acting GM was ready to try anything in the autumn of 1944 and ultimately did just that. Against Smythe’s wishes, he hired a skinny netminder afflicted with a bad case of ulcers. What was worse, Frank McCool happened to be a 26-year-old goaltender with no pro experience and no serious action since his university years at Gonzaga five years earlier. But that was better than no goalie at all.

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Don Metz’s cameos always paid off for Maple Leafs

Don Metz

For almost a decade in the 1940s, unobtrusive career-minor-leaguer Don Metz strived to become a full-time NHLer with the Toronto Maple Leafs alongside his starry big brother, Nick. But poor, beleaguered Don endlessly failed.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, over a nine-year span, Don, a Saskatchewan wheat farmer, became only one of three Toronto skaters to play for five Stanley Cup winners. (Hall of Famers Turk Broda and Ted Kennedy were the others.) “I was lucky that way,” Metz told me during a telephone interview I conducted with him more than 10 years ago.

Don was more than lucky. He was the right Metz at the right time with the right team. His older brother excelled for the Maple Leafs over 518 games compared with Don’s paltry 172 contests, but Nick never could top Kid Metz’s feat. Read more

Blood feud over “L’Affaire Howe” became profitable for former Maple Leaf/Red Wing Gus Mortson

Gordie Howe and Ted Kennedy (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

The 1950 semifinal between Toronto and Detroit ranks among the most intense post-season series in NHL history. This was due to Gordie Howe’s near death after an alleged butt-end. “L’Affaire Howe” ignited one of the longest-running hates in the game: Detroit GM Jack Adams vs. Toronto captain Ted ‘Teeder’ Kennedy. The primary witness was Toronto defenseman Gus Mortson who was there when the blood feud started and there again eight years later when Adams bitterly reaffirmed it to Mortson who had by then become a Red Wing.

Adams’ hatred for the Maple Leafs was already deep rooted and understandable by the time the 1950 playoffs began. After all, Toronto had won the previous three Cups, including a sweep of Detroit in the 1949 final. But now it was a year after that debacle and, led by Howe, the Wings were stronger than ever. “We can do it this year,” Adams boasted prior to the opening game. “We’ve got the team this year.”

And so they did, primarily because Howe had blossomed into a star, patrolling right wing on Detroit’s Production Line with captain Sid Abel at center and Ted Lindsay on the left side. But when the Leafs went up 4-0 in the opener at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium few expected what Toronto author Jack Batten described as “one of the most infamous and controversial events” in NHL history. Read more

Imagine a desperate GM bribing his goaltender to skip town during the playoffs — it happened in 1941

Stan Fischler

Big-time senior-level hockey was popular in the early 1940s and never more mean-spirited than in the Cape Breton League of Nova Scotia. By far the biggest rivalry was between Glace Bay and Sydney. Tough, poor and grimy, Glace Bay specialized in coal mining, while just 13 miles away sat the more sophisticated, patrician Sydney, a steel city. And in late March 1941, as the two towns girded for the playoffs, a warlike atmosphere enveloped the province. Read more

The day Detroit’s Alec Connell was nearly shot by a mobster

Stan Fischler
Alec Connell

Alec Connell was exceptionally good at stopping pucks for the Detroit Falcons (later Red Wings) in 1931-32. Whether he could blunt lead bullets was another story.

Connell, who once had six straight shutouts in 1927-28, is less, but still notably, remembered as the only hockey player to cause Manhattan’s police riot squad to be called out. That was because the mob nearly took over Madison Square Garden one night in 1932, all because of a disputed overtime goal that had big-time playoff implications for the New York Americans.

This was when the Amerks shared MSG with Gotham’s other NHL team, the Rangers. Unlike Lester Patrick’s well-behaved Blueshirts, the Star-Spangled Skaters proved to be the Gashouse Gang of hockey. Their owner, and Mob boss, William ‘Big Bill’ Dwyer, was a convicted felon who’d been the state’s most notorious bootlegger during Prohibition. He surrounded himself with a scary gang to protect him and his liquid interests. These gangsters included such notorious figures as Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, Legs Diamond and Frank Costello, who would people the Garden on hockey nights as Dwyer’s guests. Read more

How Eddie Shore’s legendary toughness extended off the ice

Dit Clapper and Eddie Shore (Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Those who knew him have said only Eddie Shore could pull off such an impossible feat – in this case, enduring a harrowing, death-defying, 22-hour trek from Boston to Montreal just so he could suit up for a game that his slumping Bruins desperately needed to win. The ordeal featured a traumatized Boston taxi driver, a challenging blizzard, a twice-ditched cab, frostbite and the likelihood of a $200 fine.

The saga began on the night of Jan. 2, 1929 when Shore’s friend drove him to Boston’s North Station where the train to Canada was taking on coal. When his pal’s car broke down en route, Shore tried to fix the engine, but was unsuccessful. After a few minutes, he glanced at his watch and realized that time was running out.

He’d be fined if he missed the train so he hustled off to the terminal, but it was too late. As the locomotive lurched out of the station, Bruins GM Art Ross suddenly and disturbingly realized Shore was missing. “I ran down the platform trying to jump on the last car of the train and just missed,” Shore said. “I knew I’d be in a jam if I blew that game.”

Aware his Bruins (6-7-2) were shorthanded because of injuries and not wanting to pay a missed-train fine, Shore was determined to reach Montreal in time for the Maroons game. Read more

Punch Imlach and one of the most spectacular sports comebacks of all-time

Punch Imlach (Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

There are realistic limits to the power of positive thinking. Trouble is, nobody bothered convincing George ‘Punch’ Imlach of that during the home stretch of the 1958-59 campaign.

The rookie coach-GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs should have known better than to predict his team would make the playoffs. Not even the NHL schedule-makers believed him. “Near the end of the season the official announcement from league headquarters had Montreal, Boston, Chicago and New York making it,” Imlach wrote in his autobiography, Hockey Is A Battle. “There was no mention of Toronto against anybody.”

Then again, a less optimistic Punch would have known the reason why. “By March 9th,” added Imlach, “we were nine points out of fourth (the last playoff berth.) But I still said we’d make it.” That got a laugh out of Rangers coach Phil Watson, who had a long-running feud with Imlach. “Imlach can crow all he wants,” needled Watson, “but it will be the same this year as last. The Rangers will make it, the Leafs won’t.”

Watson’s confidence was rooted in his starry lineup that included future Hall of Famers Gump Worsley, Harry Howell, Bill Gadsby and Andy Bathgate. Maple Leafs patriarch Conn Smythe was so skeptical of Imlach’s confidence, he wondered out loud, “Did we get a coach or a madman?”

What nobody could have forecast was the curious turn of events that damaged the Rangers’ playoff bid. Their downfall began inside the dressing room where players were in open rebellion against Watson, who worked them to exhaustion in practice. “Down the stretch,” Camille Henry said, “Phil nearly killed us with a one-hour workout right after we played a game.”

Still, on the weekend of March 14-15, 1959, the Rangers could have disposed of Toronto’s playoff chances during their home and home clash. All New York needed was one win and all of Imlach’s predictions would have the shelf life of smoke rings.

The Leafs trashed Watson’s troops 5-0 on Saturday, but Watson figured that wasn’t a problem. Even a tie Sunday would crush the visitors. Late in the third period of a 5-5 tie, Watson almost got his wish. Then, it happened. Before going off on a line change – and merely to kill time – Toronto’s Bob Pulford sent an ordinary wrist shot towards Worsley that strangely eluded the Gump and gave the Leafs a 6-5 win, pulling them within three points of the Rangers with just three games left to play on the season.

The usually reliable Worsley was failing. With another chance to secure the playoffs, he lost to Boston, 5-3. “I can’t understand why our goalie has lost his touch,” said GM Muzz Patrick, whose bleats turned into screams a night later when the Leafs played Montreal at The Forum, usually a guaranteed loss to the soon-to-be four-straight Cup champs. Alas, the unseen hand was on Imlach’s side. Hall of Fame goalie Jacques Plante was injured and always-reliable backup Charlie Hodge was available, but, inexplicably, coach Toe Blake started inexperienced Claude Pronovost. His lack of experience showed. The final score was 6-3 for the Leafs, who climbed within one point of New York.

It all came down to a pair of weekend games for each team. The Rangers opened with an afternoon 5-2 win in Detroit. The Leafs replied with a home win over Chicago. This meant the race would be settled Sunday night. First, Montreal against the Rangers in New York, then, an hour later, Toronto at Detroit. Blake angered the Rangers by starting Hodge, who beat the Blueshirts, 4-2. Prior to the late-starting game at Detroit’s Olympia, Leafs boss Stafford Smythe greeted Imlach. “Well,” comforted Smythe, “at least you had a good try.” With that, Imlach exploded: “What the hell are you talking about? We’ve come too far to lose now. Don’t be stupid.”

Smythe was smart enough to know only a Leafs victory would ensure a playoff berth. With the third period underway, the game was tied 4-4. But Dick Duff scored early in the third and Billy Harris scored to cement a 6-4 win. The chap Conn Smythe called a “madman” had done the impossible. “They got a madman all right, but they didn’t know it at the time,” Imlach said. “In the coaching business there’s a thin line between a madman and a genius.”

How astonishing was Imlach’s feat? The normally reserved Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot put it bluntly, “It rates as one of the most spectacular sports comebacks of all-time.”

Stan Fischler is an award-winning writer and broadcaster who’s covered the game since 1954. He’s been a contributor to The Hockey News since 1955 and you can continue to find his Strange But True features in almost every issue. He’s also produced the hockey newsletter, The Fischler Report, for the past 20 years. Fischler’s latest book is Behind the Net: 101 Incredible Hockey Stories.

This feature originally appeared in the May 26 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

Red Kelly’s high road to redemption

Red Kelly (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

If ever an NHL player defied the odds – and succeeded in every way – it was Leonard Patrick ‘Red’ Kelly.

A Maple Leafs scout studied him as a kid graduating from the St. Michael’s College team in Toronto in 1947 and said Kelly wouldn’t last 20 games in the NHL. ‘Red’ wound up playing 1,316 games in the bigs, starting with Detroit and finishing (guess where?) in Toronto.

During his reign in Motown, Kelly skated for no less than four Stanley Cup winners. Nonetheless, after winning three Lady Byngs and a Norris Trophy, Kelly was unceremoniously traded in 1960 to the New York Rangers, along with forward Billy McNeill, for defenseman Bill Gadsby and forward Eddie Shack, because Red Wings boss Jack Adams was angry with Kelly over a contract dispute. Kelly, however, refused to report to the Blueshirts and eventually was dealt to Toronto. His adamant stance proved to be the predecessor of NHL free agency. “When I heard about the trade,” Kelly recalled, “it didn’t take me long to make up my mind about what I was going to do. I decided to retire rather than go to New York. So did McNeill.” Read more