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.
How could this icy aberration have taken place? For one thing, Don was available for a cup of NHL coffee at critical moments and invariably delivered big time for Toronto. In 1942, for example, Toronto trailed Detroit three games to none in the final. Suddenly, coach Hap Day benched his leading scorer, Gordie Drillon, replacing him with unsung Don. Metz emerged as the playoff-scoring hero as the Leafs became the only team in history to win the Cup after losing the first three games of the final.
Don celebrated his feat by enlisting in the Canadian Armed Forces, returning to suit up for the 1945 final when Toronto beat Detroit in seven games. But the aforementioned heroics were small potatoes compared to Don’s headline grab in 1946-47. This time it was a blockbuster check that would pave the way for an astonishing upset Cup win two months later.
During 1946-47, the defending champion Montreal Canadiens seemed a sure bet to repeat. Armed with a spate of Hall of Famers, coach Dick Irvin relied on offense from his famed ‘Punch Line,’ featuring center Elmer Lach and wingers Maurice Richard and Toe Blake. Subtract Lach, the theory went, and the line’s punch would be acutely softened. That’s precisely what happened, thanks to Don’s thundering whack job on Lach that had long-term implications in determining the Cup champion.
The thumping was delivered Feb. 6, 1947, at the Forum as Lach launched an attack from his zone. Forechecking Don cut across the ice as Lach, doing an NHL version of the Titanic, swerved into him. The collision sent helmetless Elmer tail spinning, his head violently striking the ice.
“I hit Elmer from the side,” said Don, pleading innocent and later being exonerated by NHL president Clarence Campbell, “but did not see him fall.”
Long after Lach was hospitalized with a fractured skull, Montrealers continued crying foul, and charges of dirty play reverberated all the way into April when the Habs and Leafs coincidentally met in the final. Then, in a strange move, Irvin invoked God to once and for all referee the endless Metz-Lach furor.
“Irvin prophesied that the outcome of the series rested solely in the hands of Providence,” wrote columnist Jim Coleman in the Globe and Mail. “He said that if the (Metz-Lach) accident was only an accident, the Leafs would win the series. If the injury was deliberate, Providence would intervene and the Canadiens would win the Cup.”
With Don in the lineup, and without any known divine intervention, the rookie-laden Leafs triumphed in six games – good for Don’s third ring, but not good enough for GM Conn Smythe to guarantee him a spot the following season. In 1947-48 Don paid Pittsburgh another AHL visit in addition to playing 26 games with Toronto. At playoff time Don was a Leaf again and almost magically won his fourth ring, seemingly his last.
Meanwhile, big brother Nick retired with his four rings. Since no NHL team had ever won three straight Stanley Cups, nobody expected Don to add to his jewelry collection. This was especially the case in 1948-49, when Toronto finished a dismal fourth, burdened with a sub-.500 (22-25-13) mark.
Ah, but there was one lucky Cup remaining on coach Day’s roster. Don had done his annual minor league service, having played 17 games for the AHL Hornets, but was a Leaf again at playoff time. With Don back on the roster, Toronto disposed of the Boston Bruins in five games and then Detroit in four for an unprecedented third straight Cup and a fifth ring for Don.
To this day nobody in hockey history can match the marvelous Don Metz, who played for five Cup-winners in Toronto without ever playing a single full season with the Leafs.