Examining A Wartime Habs Myth On Remembrance Day

"He's just a wartime hockey player."

This quote came from the mouth of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Frank Selke in the mid 1940s, when Maurice Richard scored 50 goals in 50 games while World War II raged overseas. While the assumption went more or less undisputed at the time, the notion that Richard was simply a wartime hockey phenominon took root and gained ground outside of the province of Quebec.

Canadiens coach at the time, Dick Irvin Sr.'s rebuttal after the war ended years later amounted to, "We'll the war must still be ongoing, because Richard is still scoring."

While the Rocket never again enjoyed the torrid 50 goal pace he set in the 1944-45 season, he did top the 40 goal mark in three of the following six seasons. Often injured, and playing in newly elongated schedules, the Rocket's scoring feats were practically given an asterisk by Selke's initial comments in the day.

Years later, when Selke moved his talents from the Maple Leafs front office to the Canadiens organization, the perception was rarely put forth by him ever again. Instead, it became Leafs owner Conn Smythe's propaganda in assessing the entire Montreal Canadiens team of era, going so far as to render the club war time cheaters in a sense.

The 1943-44 season was a campaign in which the NHL teams lineups were most drastically affected by players enlisting in the World War II service. The enlisting affected the composition of all six clubs, watering down the product in many views. Several teams lost core elements and the Canadiens were greatly criticized at the time, as it seemed on the surface that the Habs lost less talent than others did to the war.

Smythe, a veteran of the first world war, became a Major in World War II, and served overseas in the 1944 season. Chapters and books have been written recounting Smythe's valiant efforts on behalf of his country. He was without a doubt, a true Canadiens wartime hero.

Where Smythe becomes full of himself, is in his battlefield war of words aimed at the Montreal Canadiens on ice success that built while he was off serving his country. He never quite accepted that the Canadiens gained ground on Toronto while he was not at the helm of the team. Smythe never let go of his notion that the Canadiens organization profited from the perceived weaknesses of others to become an NHL power in the mid 1940's.

In truth, as one can see, the Canadiens did lose a great deal of talent to the war. In the end, what the team ultimately did, was manage their club resources more shrewdly with the war on the horizon.

Around the NHL, the impact of war was severe. The Boston Bruins lost the services of the entire "Kraut Line" of Woody Dumart, Milt Schmidt, and Bobby Bauer after the 1941-42 season. That year the trio had accounted for a total of 41 of the clubs 160 goals, and the Bruins finished third in the standings with 56 points, four behind the league leading Rangers.

The following season, in 1942-43, minus the "Kraut Line", the Bruins finished second, four back of the Red Wings, but scored a whopping 195 goals, an increase of 35 in the absence of their top line. This season, Bruins players would hit the net with even better accuracy, counting for 223 goals, while surrendering a dreadful 268 against.

Losing the "Kraut Line" it could be said, hardly hampered their offense.

In New York, the Rangers also sacrificed a top trio to the war effort, with brothers Mac and Neil Colville, flanked by Alex Shibicky, missing in NHL action starting in the 1942-43 season. In 1941-42, the line's last season together, the trio accounted for 42 goals. In truth, the Colville brothers line were the Rangers second line, as the trio of Phil Watson, Bryan Hextall, and Lynn Patrick, aged 27, 28, and 29 respectively, accounted for 71 goals that season.

What hurt the Rangers most, was the loss of 21 year old rookie goalie "Sugar" Jim Henry to the service, as their goals against ballooned from 143 to 253 in a single season. New York went from 171 goals scored, down to 161 goals that season, but the Watson, Hextall, Patrick trio still packed some punch, hitting the net 63 times between the three of them. In Henry's absence, the Rangers record dropped to 29-7-2 to 11-31-8. In 1943-44, the Rangers employed a horrifying 34 players, while grounding themselves to a 6-39-5 record.

The Maple Leafs were also affected by players having been enlisted in the army. The Leafs lost goaltender Turk Broda and top scorer Syl Apps to the war. Each were undoubtably among the best at their positions in the early 1940's, and their losses surely hurt the team. Howie Meeker, a prospect who had yet to play in the NHL, enlisted and was hurt overseas in a shrapnel blast. Meeker recovered sufficiently to became the Calder Trophy winner in 1946-47.

In 1942-43, the Leafs third place standing involved a 22-19-9 record, while the team scored 198 goals. With Broda in goal, the Leafs allowed 159 goals against. In the 1943-44 season, minus the skills of Broda and Apps, Toronto held onto third place with a 23-23-6 record, only one point shy of their previous regular season. Their goals for increased by 16 goals to 214, while their goals against jumped by 15 to 174. The subtraction of Apps from the lineup was more than made up for by the additions of Calder Trophy winner Gus Bodnar (22-40-62 in 50 games) and rookie George Kennedy (26-23-49 in 49 games).

The Detroit Red Wings were most fortunate in 1942-43. With a lineup that featured neither young stars enlisting, and veterans just old enough to avoid service in the military, they finished second to the Canadiens with a 26-18-6 record for 58 points, a drop of 3 points from 1942-43

The Chicago Blackhawks, a perenial doormat in these times, were mostly unaffected by the war. The season total in both seasons held status quo at 49 points.

What was generally suspiscious to Smythe and others, was the Canadiens going from a record of 19-19-12 in 1942-43, to a superlative season of 38-5-7 in 1943-44. In his mind he smelled a rat, and he blamed the notion that Canadiens players appeared to be the least involved in the war. He spoke his views loud and long enough for them to take hold and became truth to many, but as is often the case, history was simply becoming a version of truth supplied by the loudest historian with the largest pedestal.

If one does not believe the Canadiens contributed to World War, it is surprising to learn that only 8 of 27 players employed during the previous 1942-43 season returned to the club in their record setting year. Many of their elements were off to war, and all that remainded from the club were Maurice Richard, Toe Blake, Elmer Lach, Butch Bouchard, Buddy O'Connor, Leo Lamoureux, Ray Getliffe, Glen Harmon. Only Blake and harmon had made a legitimate name for themselves by this point in their NHL careers.

Richard had tried to enlist, twice, in previous years, but had been turned away both times due to severe injuries suffered in games. Lach also failed his physical. Blake at 32, and often injured himself, fell into the same situation. To the surprise of many, the three who had rarely played together gelled incredibly well. The following season, they would finish 1-2-3 in scoring.

Missing from the previous 1942-43 season, were a core of up and coming stars and able veterans. Joe Benoit, Alex Smart and Smiley Meronek, all set for promising careers, were sent overseas. Benoit had contributed 30 goals and 27 assists the previous year. Smart scored three goals in his first NHL game. Meronek had 9 points in a short 12 game stint before leaving the team early in the 1942-43 campaign. Marcel Dheer, a fourth younger talent also joined rank.

All Star defenseman Ken Reardon was the Canadiens most significant loss, and he was joined by Gord Drillon, a 28 goal scorer acquired from Toronto two seasons prior.

Between Drillon and Benoit alone, the Canadiens were down 58 goals from the loss of their two best shooters - a fact seldom noted in hockey history books.

In a controvercial trade, the Canadiens acquired Montreal born Rangers forward Phil Watson, who had been initially restricted to playing games only on Canadiens soil due to the terms and duties of his enlistement. Over the course of the season, his restrictions were lifted, and he would appear in all games with the Habs. The Canadiens however, paid dearly for his services for one season, sacrificing all of veterans Charlie Sands, Fern Gauthier, John Mahaffy, Wilbert "Dutch" Hiller and Tony Demers to acquire Watson.

Perhaps in the final tally, it could be seen that Canadiens General manager Tom Gorman simply managed his club better than anyone else. In hindsight, good fortune and a shrewd knack for talent spotting served him well

When Gorman had taken over the run of the team in 1940, the Canadiens were on the brink of folding due to hard times from the Depresssion of the 1930's. Slowly, Gorman assembled a group of talented players, and they were destined to make the club a league power sooner or later. Injuries to players had stunted this development, and the Canadiens were in fact overdue for a breakthrough season in 1944. Many things, the war nonwithstanding, had fallen into place for the 1943-44 season.

Two off - season moves Smythe made, or in fact didn't make, greatly affected the Canadiens this season.

Having lost goaltender Turk Broda, one of the best in the game, to the war, Smythe loaned the Canadiens Paul Bibeault for a season instead. The price was cheap, as Bibeault was a stiff who'd worn out his welcome in Montreal. A few seasons earlier, Smythe lost Broda's heir apparent in a training camp decision. The goalie, a Toronto native in the Leafs own backyard, would star for the Canadiens in the next seven seasons.

Bill Durnan, the game's only ambidextrous stopper in history, was perhaps the biggest reason the Canadiens turned their fortunes around. He was simply amazing in his rookie season as a 27 year old. In truth few hockey men saw Durnan coming, but soon he would win six Vezina trophies in seven season with Montreal.

Gorman was fortunate with Smythe's next oversight. In the middle of the 1943-44 campaign, the Canadiens GM called around the league to find some interest for an often injured forward he had on his hands that he was unsure would amount to very much. Every team including Toronto failed to make the Canadiens a substancial offer for the so called brittle player.

Returning to the lineup early in the 1944 calandar year after missing four games with another injury, Maurice Richard caught fire once placed with Blake and Lach. He made up for lost time quickly, scoring 23 goals in his final 22 regular season games. He would add 12 more in nine playoff games as the Canadiens captured the Stanley Cup.

Who knew?

Richard would go on to shatter every scoring record in the game while defining the Canadiens organization for generations with his fiery, empassioned play. The Canadiens were lucky - Smythe and four other NHL organizations couldn't have known.

Years later, Smythe made great attempts and offers in the hundreds of thousands to acquire Richard, but the Canadiens would never part with him. He plotted it in some detail, getting the Toronto mayor to honour Richard for various feats, and often spoke of the possibily of making an offer to the media. At one point, a Toronto paper even printed a mock up photo of Richard in the Leafs blue woolies. The courting never amounted to anything serious. Tampering rules would prevent such a thing happening today.

Smythe never admitted to his oversights, just as he was always prepared to brag and take credit for everything his right hand man Selke achieved. It was not in his charcter to admit defeat, as he was a warrior through and through. Credit to others would simply not come from a man as proud as Smythe.

When the Canadiens came up for discussion with Smythe, the questions always turned to how, in his opinion, the Canadiens basically cheated during wartime.

Smythe often underlined that a Canadiens director named Len Peto, had found war time factory work for the Habs players in a Montreal plant that built products for the war, thus helping to keep them from front line duty. This may have been a case putting the cart before the horse, as the Canadiens players doing factory work were refused by the military, but still sought to do their part for the war effort. Smythe, it could be said, did not overlook the convenience of twisting the truth when it came to serving his own needs.

It is doubtful that he ever got over missing out on Rocket Richard. When Smythe was off serving at war, he liked Selke to inform him of prospective deals. In fact, it is often said that when Selke fleeced the Canadiens of Ted Kennedy that year without first consulting Smythe, it would later lead to a feud, resulting in his termination in Toronto because Smythe had not been advised.

In Toronto, once the talent pool accumulated by Selke ran dry, the Maple Leafs under Smythe's full reign, endured an 11 year Cup drought from 1951 to 1962 - an eternity back in the day.

It's the character of some people, that when they can no longer boast of themselves, they seek to tear others down. That's just the bottom line in the long held story of the "war time hockey player" on the team of cheaters.

For more information on hockey during wartime, and an example of the thoughts above, check out Joe Pelletier's Greatest Hockey Legends' "War and Hockey History" and Lest We Forget: Bob Carse - Hockey's POW.

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