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

Stan Fischler
billlegsfraser

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.

As for hockey, the Glace Bay Miners had one advantage over the Sydney Millionaires in wily GM Marty MacDonald, who pulled ploys out of his hat with a magician’s ease. When it came to winning the playoffs, however, his major headache was in goal: a very vulcanized netminder named Earle Boates who earned his nickname, ‘Leaky.’ MacDonald knew there was no way the Miners could win the post-season from the Millionaires with Boates between the pipes.

Which meant Plan B – as in Bill ‘Legs’ Fraser – was hatched. Fraser, was an excellent goalie, but had the misfortune of puckstopping for the last-place North Sydney Victorias, who finished the regular season far out of the playoffs. In those days of the seven-team NHL, the truculent Fraser was regarded as one of the finest goalies not in the majors. With that in mind, ‘Magical Marty’ put one-and-one together and figured he’d produce a title by replacing Boates with Fraser. On paper it made sense, but in reality it was no small challenge since neither Leaky nor Legs was invisible.

MacDonald knew that in those Second World War years the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association had ruled that a team was allowed to replace a player who enlisted in the armed forces. Pulling Boates aside one day, MacDonald shoved 200 dollar bills in his hand and said, “This is yours if you enlist right now.”

But Leaky was neither patriotic nor co-operative, asserting that he’d rather face pucks than bullets. “OK,” MacDonald said. “Here’s $100, buy yourself a train ticket to Montreal and stay there until you hear from me.”

With Boates gone and the Sydney-Glace Bay playoff series set to begin, Millionaires staff, foolishly cocky about their team’s invincibility, naively agreed Fraser could be the Miners’ goalie. A minority in the club’s high command and loads of Sydney fans disliked the idea of giving the hated foes any break. And they were right as Fraser stunned Sydney citizens to the core by beating the Millionaires in the first three games the best-of-seven series. Just like that Sydney was on the brink of elimination.

By this time Boates had left Montreal and was hiding out in Truro, N.S., while Glace Bay began to plan its post-championship festivities. Game 4 was set for March 10, giving the Millonaires’ high command time to do something, anything to avoid a humiliating sweep. The trick was to reach the source of their migraines, the CAHA. Sure enough, angry Sydney officials presented a two-pronged demand: disqualify the indomitable Fraser and erase his three wins to start the playoffs all over again. Furthermore, that motion was seconded by Judge A.D. Campbell of Sydney, who also happened to be president of the Cape Breton League. Campbell not only ruled that Fraser was finished as a Miner, but also that all three Glace Bay wins were invalid.

When Glace Bay citizens heard the news, they went beyond bananas. They went to war. Barricades were erected at the city line preventing Sydney delivery trucks access to Glace Bay. Readers Digest writer David MacDonald, who covered the fracas, noted that if a Sydney citizen happened to be in Glace Bay, he or she was refused service in the Glace Bay restaurant. “One Glace Bay priest,” MacDonald said, “invoked divine aid.”

Meanwhile, delighted Glace Bay fans were gobbling up tickets for the potentially decisive fourth game when, lo and behold, a strike-breaking discovery was made. Visiting Truro, a Sydney resident came upon poorly hidden Leaky, who instantly knew the jig was up. Boates immediately phoned his GM who blurted, “Come on back – and bring my money.”

Barricades were removed and what once was to be Game 4 now was Game 1. More than 3,000 hopeful-but-doubtful Glace Bay supporters got a collective case of lockjaw as Leaky was true to his nickname. He allowed nine goals, while the Miners illuminated only one red light. That was enough for MacDonald, who forfeited the rest of the series. Mangling the English language the way Boates botched goaltending, MacDonald concluded, “At least I made it a series to remember!”

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 a recent edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.