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Constantine Falkland Cary Smythe MC (February 1, 1895 – November 18, 1980) was a Canadianmarker businessman, soldier and sportsman in ice hockey and horse racing. He is best known as the principal owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League (NHL) from 1927 to 1961 and as the builder of Maple Leaf Gardensmarker. As owner of the Leafs during numerous championship years, his name appears on the Stanley Cup eleven times: 1932, 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1966.

Smythe is also known for having served in both World Wars, organizing his own Battery in World War II. The horses of Smythe's racing stable won the Queen's Plate twice among 145 stakes races wins during his lifetime. Smythe started and ran a successful sand and gravel business. Smythe was a big supporter of the Ontario Society for Crippled Children and the Variety Club and founded the Conn Smythe Foundation philanthropic organization.

Biography

Early years

Conn Smythe was born on February 1, 1895, in Torontomarker to Albert Smythe, an Irish Protestant from County Antrim who emigrated to Canada in 1889, and Mary Adelaide Constantine, an English woman. Mary and Albert were married in the 1880s while emigrating to Canada. Albert and Mary had a rocky marriage and would not live together for more than months at a time. The couple were mismatched. Mary, known as Polly, was remembered as pretty, a drinker and troublemaker, and died in 1906. Albert Smythe was quiet, a vegetarian and a devoted member of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical movement, and was a charter member of the Theosophical Society of Canada in 1891, editing its newsletter until the final years of his life.

Smythe was born at 51 McMillan Street, now known as Mutual Street, not far from the future site of Maple Leaf Gardens, and lived there until the age of two. Smythe was the second of two children born to Mary and Albert. Smythe had a sister five years older named Mary who died in 1903. Smythe never liked his given name, Constantine, and when he was finally christened after his mother died he insisted on it being changed to Conn. After the death of his mother, Smythe became estranged from Albert, who began a new relationship with Jane Henderson.

Smythe first went to high school at Upper Canada Collegemarker, although his father, a journalist, could not afford the tuition. He hated it and after a year and a half he transferred to Jarvis Collegiate Institutemarker. At the age of 16, Conn Smythe met Irene Sands, his future wife after a football game against Parkdale Collegiate Institutemarker, where she attended. Albert Smythe wanted his son to attend university after grade 12 but Smythe defied his father, bolting at age 17 to become a homesteader on in Clute Township,near Cochrane, Ontariomarker. After one summer and a devastating fire, he returned to Toronto to begin engineering studies at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1912. There he played hockey as a centre, captaining the Varsity Blues men's ice hockey team to the finals of the 1914 Ontario Hockey Association junior championships and to the OHA junior championship the following year. The coach of the losing team in 1915 was Frank J. Selke, who years later would work for Smythe at Maple Leaf Gardensmarker. In between seasons, Smythe also played on the U of T football team, although not as a starter.

Serves in the First World War

The First World War interrupted his studies. A week after winning the OHA championship in March 1915, Smythe and his eight teammates enlisted. Smythe would recall that himself and several classmates tried to enlist at the beginning of the 1914–15 season, but were told to come back when they had beards. After securing a provisional rank of lieutenant with the 2nd (Ottawa) Battery, 8th Brigade, on July 17, he headed to the Royal School of Artillery in Kingston, Ontario, in August for five weeks of training. He made full lieutenant on September 11, and was able to get himself transferred to the 40th (Sportsmen's) Battery of Hamilton, organized by publishing figure Gordon Southam, son of William Southam. The unit, with Smythe as team manager, organized a team to compete in the Ontario Hockey Association's senior league—one of four Toronto-based teams in the league in 1916. He played one game at centre, and then decided to replace himself with a better player. The team didn't complete the season, as the 40th Battery went overseas in February 1916.

The Battery was ordered into the Ypres salient. On October 12, shelling found their position killing Major Southam and Sergeant-Major Norm Harvie, making Smythe temporarily commander of the Battery. The Battery fought for nearly two months in the trenches near the Somme before being relieved. In February 1917, Smythe earned a Military Cross, when during an attack the Germans counter-attacked with grenades. Smythe ran into the fight and killed three Germans and helped several wounded Canadian soldiers back to safety. On March 5, 1917, Smythe was awarded the Military Cross for "dispersing an enemy party at a critical time. Himself accounted for three of the enemy with his revolver." After an attack where several Canadians were killed because of what Smythe thought was poor planning by the Battery's Major, Smythe wanted out. Smythe transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in July 1917. One of his instructors was Billy Barker, who would later become the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Smythe served as an airborne observer, directing artillery fire. Smythe was shot down by the Germans and captured on October 14, 1917. He was imprisoned by the Germans at Schweidnitz (Swidnica) in Upper Silesia. He made two failed escape attempts and ended up in solitary confinement as a result. He was a POW until the end of the war.

Return to Toronto

Following the war, Smythe returned to Toronto. With his accrued Army salary and the proceeds from the sale of his homestead plot, he started a sand and gravel business. For a while the business became a partnership with Frank Angotti, who owned a paving business. To support the need for sand and gravel, Smythe bought land north-west of Toronto for a sand pit. He returned to the University of Toronto and finished his civil engineering degree in 1920. Irene and Conn were married during the school year. Smythe and his paving business partner split, and Smythe retained the sand and gravel business. The company was named "C. Smythe Limited" and the company slogan was 'C. Smythe for sand', which he had painted on his trucks, the lettering in white on the blue of the trucks. Frank Selke, who had moved to Toronto, was one of Smythe's first employees in the business. Irene would take sand and gravel orders over the phone as well as taking care of new-born son Stafford. Smythe would own the business until 1961.

In the evenings, he coached the U of T varsity team. It was through his coaching of the U of T team that he became involved in the NHL. The U of T team travelled regularly to the Bostonmarker area for games against colleges from that area, with great success. In 1926, Charles Adams, owner of the Boston Bruins, recommended him to Col. John S. Hammond, representing the owners of the new New York Rangers franchise, who was looking for someone to build his team. Smythe was hired to recruit a team, which he would then manage. But on 27 October 1926 —before the Rangers had played a single regular season game— Smythe was fired by Hammond in favour of Lester Patrick. Smythe believed that he lost his job by refusing to sign two-time NHL scoring champion Babe Dye, against Hammond's wishes. Smythe thought Dye was not a 'team player.'

Smythe applied to coach the Toronto St. Pats, but was rejected in favour of Mike Rodden. He would continue to coach for U of T and take on a new senior team made up of from U of T players, called the Varsity Grads. The team would eventually win the Allan Cup, and represent Canada at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritzmarker the following year. Smythe would refuse to go after two Varsity Blues players he had promised could be part of the team were blocked by what Smythe described as a "pressure play" from two Grads players to get relatives placed on the team instead. One of the players was Joe Sullivan, who years later became a Canadian Senator.

Although no longer a Rangers employee, Smythe was invited to the Rangers' opening game in Madison Square Gardenmarker by Tex Rickard, an invitation he nearly turned down because he'd felt short-changed by the Rangers. Hammond had paid Smythe $7,500 to settle his contract, and Smythe felt he was owed $10,000. At the insistence of his wife Irene, they travelled to New York and attended the opener in Rickard's private box. When the Rangers won the game, surprising the Montreal Maroons, Rickard offered Smythe a vice-presidency with the club. Smythe turned the Rangers down, partly because of the disputed $2,500, although Rickard ordered Hammond to pay off the rest. On the return trip to Toronto, Conn and Irene visited Montreal, where Smythe bet the $2,500 on a football game between Toronto and McGill; he then bet the $5,000 he won on the Rangers to defeat the St. Pats in Toronto, winning again, turning the $2,500 into $10,000 in three days. Publicly, Hammond and Smythe said the parting was on good terms and was because Smythe could not be away from his sand and gravel business in the summers. The Rangers would win the Stanley Cup in 1928 – only their second year of existence – largely with the players Smythe had brought to the team.

Smythe and the Maple Leafs

The Rangers went to the top of their division, while the St. Pats were doing poorly. J. P. Bickell, a part-owner of the St. Pats, contacted Smythe about taking over the team as coach, but Smythe turned him down. Smythe was more interested in owning the team or a share of team, and told Bickell so. Not long after, the St. Pats were up for sale and Bickell offered Smythe a chance to become a part-owner. The club had a tentative agreement to be sold for $200,000 to a Philadelphia group, which would move the team. If Smythe could raise $160,000, Bickell would not sell his $40,000 share and the team would remain in Toronto. Smythe was successful, and on February 14, 1927, Smythe invested $10,000 and with the help of some partners bought the St. Pats, renaming them the Toronto Maple Leafs.

At first, Smythe's name was kept in the background. However, when the Leafs promoted a public share offering to raise capital, it announced that "one of the most prominent hockey coaches in Toronto" would be taking over management of the club. That prominent coach turned out to be Smythe. He succeeded Querrie as the team's governor, and installed himself as general manager. He installed Alex Romeril as coach. For the next season, Smythe changed the team's colours from green and white to their present blue and white, the same as the colours of his sand and gravel business trucks. While the team claimed that the blue stood for the Canadian skies and the white for snow, it should be noted that it has been a long-standing tradition that top-level Toronto teams wear blue. Smythe also took over as coach and for the next three years, he was a one-man band as team governor, general manager and coach.

Before the 1931–32 NHL season, Smythe led the construction of Maple Leaf Gardensmarker. In its first season in the new building, the franchise won its first Stanley Cup as the Maple Leafs. As part of a corporate reorganization, the Leafs became the leading subsidiary of the newly created Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd.; Smythe remained the largest shareholder.

Thoroughbred horse racing

Smythe first became interested in horse racing as a boy, when he would take stories his father wrote at the track to the newspaper office downtown. Smythe started owning horses in the late 1920s, but he rarely had any success. One early purchase turned out to be one of his most famous. When Mrs. L. A. Livingston sold off her stable, he bought Rare Jewel, a filly, for $250. The filly regularly ran last. The horse was eligible for the Coronation Futurity Stakes, one of the best two-year-old races and Smythe was full of blind hope, and on the trainer's advice, entered her in the race. The day of the race, both the trainer and his partner gave the horse some brandy, unknown to Smythe. Meanwhile Smythe bet over $100 on Rare Jewel. Rare Jewel won the race, a 100–1 longshot paying $214.40 on a $2 bet, besting future Queen's Plate winner Froth Blower. Between the winnings from his bets and his portion of the winner's purse as horse owner, Smythe won more than $10,000 on that one race. Three weeks later, he put his windfall to work for the Maple Leafs by purchasing star defenceman King Clancy from the depression-strapped Ottawa Senators for $35,000. The purchase was only possible because of his gambling winnings, as the other Maple Leafs owners refused to pay the Senators' then-high price, and only agreed when Smythe volunteered to use his own money.

Smythe continued to own horses through the 1930s, but he sold off his horses in 1940, when he made plans to go off and fight in World War II, and did not re-enter the racing business until 1954. In 1951, Smythe bought land for a farm in Caledon, Ontariomarker, originally looking for a new location for a gravel pit. At first he kept only cattle, but in 1954 he decided to get back into owning race horses, in partnership with Larkin Maloney and an area was set aside to keep horses. Smythe learned about the business and went into breeding, buying mares in foal from top thoroughbred lines, and hiring future Hall of Fame trainer Yonnie Starr.

Maloney and Smythe's most famous horse Wonder Where, also led to the breakup of the partnership. Wonder Where, named by Maloney, was bred at Frank Selke's farm in Quebec and bought by Maloney and Smythe in 1957. In 1959, Wonder Where had an outstanding season, including winning the Canadian Oaks. The horse was voted Canadian Horse of the Year for the year and later, the filly would be inducted in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. The Wonder Where Stakes would be established in honour of the horse in 1965, becoming one of the Canadian Triple Tiara races for fillies in Canada in 1995. After the outstanding year in 1959, Maloney wanted to continue racing Wonder Where and Smythe did not, concerned over some tendon trouble. The horse broke down in a race in Fort Eriemarker, and the partnership dissolved after that.

While not the largest operation, Smythe's horses won 145 stakes races during his lifetime, a record second only to E. P. Taylor in Canada. Smythe's stable won the Queen's Plate twice, the last time in 1967 with Jammed Lovely. In 1973, Smythe became a founding member of the Jockey Club of Canada. In 1977 he was inducted in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. After his death, the Smythe stable was sold in 1981 to Gardiner Farm and Harlequin Ranches, for an estimated $2.5 million. The racing stable had been given in Smythe's will to the Conn Smythe Foundation, which as a charitable foundation, could not run a business. The new owners leased back the farm and stables. The only horse not in the sale was Jammed Lucky, Smythe's favourite, which was given to Smythe's grand-son Tommy. Jammed Lucky was 23 years old. Jammed Lucky had sired 25 winning foals to that point.

Second World War and the Conscription crisis

In the Second World War, at age 45, Smythe again served in the Canadian Army. Initially, he was a captain in charge of a troop within the Canadian Officers Training Corps, based at the University of Toronto. In 1941, along with Colonel Richard Greer he formed the 30th Battery—a sportsmen's anti-aircraft battery that was part of the 7th Toronto Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, Canadian Active Army. Smythe was made acting major and Officer Commanding. He was offered a higher rank to become the army's sports officer, but turned it down. After first serving on Vancouver Island to defend against Japanese attack, the Battery embarked in September 1942 to England. After being stationed in England for nearly two years, Smythe and his unit were sent to France in July 1944, where within three weeks he was badly wounded when the Germans bombed an ammunition depot. For the rest of his life he would walk with a limp and suffer bowel and urinary tract problems. He was sent back to Canada in September on a hospital ship.

Smythe, who had seen that the army was using improperly trained troops due to a lack of soldiers, interviewed other soldiers during his time in the hospital, compiling a record to confront the Mackenzie King over. King had developed a official government policy of voluntary service for political reasons and Smythe saw the detrimental effect it had on the Army. Volunteers tried to press home service troops into active service, and the undermanned troops overseas. From his hospital bed in the Chorley Park Hospital, Smythe dictated a statement to the Toronto Globe and Mail, which printed it on its front page on September 19, 1994:

Smythe's statement that provoked a political crisis in Canada
“The need for trained reinforcement in the Canadian Army is urgent.





During my time in France and in the hospitals of France and England, I was able to discuss the reinforcement situation with officers of units representing every section of Canada. I talked to officers from far Eastern Canada, French Canada, Ontario and all the Western Provinces. They agreed that the reinforcements received now are green, inexperienced and poorly trained. Besides this general statement, specific charges are that many have never thrown a grenade.





Practically all have little or no knowledge of the Bren gun and finally, most of them have never seen a Piat anti-tank gun, let alone fired one. These officers are unaniminous in stating that large numbers of unnecessary casualties result from this greenness, both to the rookies and to the other soldiers, who have the added task of trying to look after the newcomers as well as themselves.





I give these true facts of the reinforcement situation in the hope that:

  1. Col Ralston, if has other information, will know that his facts are out of date or that he has been misinformed;
  2. The taxpayer will insist that no more money be spent on well-trained soldiers in this country except to send them to the battle fronts;
  3. The people who voted these men should be used overseas when needeed should insist on the Government carrying out the will of the people; and
  4. The relatives of the lads in the fighting zones should ensure no further casualties are caused to their own flesh and blood by the failure to send overseas reinforcements now available in large numbers in Canada.”


Smythe was alleged to be doing his actions solely for political gain. The publisher of the Globe and Mail at the time was prominent Conservative George McCullagh, and Smythe was friends with Ontario Conservative Premier George Drew. McCullagh and Drew may have used Smythe for their political ends to defeat King. The issue of lack of reinforcements was well-known within the Army and Smythe did not make any complaints to senior officers while in active service. Despite being criticized, Smythe kept up his public criticism in the newspapers. After Ralston (Canada's defence minister) travelled to Italy, he saw for himself the shortage of skilled reinforcements. Ralston, who by then King did not trust, was replaced with Andrew McNaughton who was against conscription. However, even King saw the need to send troops for the Canadian Army and he ordered 17,500 reserve troops to Europe in November 1944, which started to arrive in January 1945

Becomes majority owner of the Leafs

In the fall of 1940, Smythe had made former team captain Hap Day—who had also become partner in the sand and gravel business—the new coach of the Leafs, replacing the Leafs' coach since 1931, Dick Irvin. A committee, headed by Ed Bickle, Bill MacBrien, and Selke ran Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd.

Upon his return from the military, Smythe found himself in the middle of a power struggle over the presidency of Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. Smythe suspected that MacBrien, a member of the board of directors, wanted to succeed Bickle as president and give Smythe's job to Selke, who had been acting general manager in Smythe's absence. Smythe wanted to be president and asked Selke for his support. Selke equivocated, and relationship between the two longtime friends turned acrimonious, leading to Selke's resignation in May 1946. Two months later, he became manager of the Montreal Forummarker and head of hockey operations for the Montreal Canadiens.

With the support of J. P. Bickell and with the help of a $300,000 loan from Toronto stockbroker and Gardens shareholder Percy Gardiner, Smythe was able to buy enough stock to become majority shareholder of Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. He was thus able to install himself as president of the Gardens on November 19, 1947. Andy Lytle, sports editor of the Toronto Star, said the appointment "simply makes official what he has been for years in actuality ... Smythe and the Gardens are synonymous terms." MacBrien was made chairman. Smythe repaid his debt to Gardiner by 1960. He later succeeded MacBrien as chairman of the board.

Smythe oversaw one of hockey's greatest dynasties when Toronto won six Stanley Cups in 10 seasons between 1942 and 1951. Hap Day coached the team to five of those Cups and was assistant general manager for the sixth. He was named in a poll of Canadian sports editors the "most dominating personality in any capacity in sports" for 1949. Leafs were masters of playoff hockey, their regular-season performances usually fair to good or just good enough to make the playoffs. Smythe was known for caring little about gaudy regular season records but he did care about winning the Cup, because "winning sells tickets."

However, the Leafs spent most of the 1950s as a mediocre team, struggling under three different coaches while Day remained assistant general manager under Smythe. Even so, in 1955, Smythe turned over most responsibility for hockey operations to Day, but nominally remained general manager. However, just after the Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs in 1957, Smythe told the media that it had been "a season of failure" and that he didn't know if the 55-year-old Day would be available for the next season. It was a public rebuke that triggered the response Smythe wanted: Day resigned.

In March 1957, Smythe resigned as general manager and turned the operation of the hockey team over to a seven-person committee, headed by his son, Stafford Smythe. Newspaper owner John Bassett was another member of the committee, which became known as the Silver Seven, as was Percy Gardiner's son, George Gardiner. Initially, all members were in their 30s or early 40s, but that changed before the end of the year when 54-year-old Harold Ballard, president of the Toronto Marlboros, was appointed to the committee to fill a vacancy.

Sells to his son and partners

Though the committee made most decisions involving the Leafs, Smythe was not a hands-off owner and was constantly fighting with his son. After four years, he offered to sell his shares to Stafford and in November 1961, Smythe sold 45,000 of his 50,000 shares in Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. to a partnership of his son, Ballard, and Bassett for $2.3 million—a handsome return on his investment of 34 years earlier. At first, Smythe thought the sale was only to his son, and when he learned that it was to the threesome, he was furious with Stafford. He had hoped that Stafford would eventually keep the Gardens for his son Tommy. Despite his misgivings, Smythe did not cancel the deal.

As part of the deal, Smythe resigned as president and managing director, nominating Stafford to succeed him. On Stafford's instigation, the board then granted Smythe a $15,000 annual allowance, an office at the Gardens, and a car and driver for the rest of his life. Stafford, Ballard and Bassett then nominated Smythe as chairman of the board. Smythe was chairman of the board until 1964, when Bassett succeeded him.

In 1964, Smythe opposed the Pearson government's plan to replace the traditional Canadian flag with a completely new design. He wrote to Pearson: "In the Olympic Games the whole world is represented and when Canada sometimes wins a Gold Medal everybody knows, when the Red Ensign (see Canadian Red Ensign) is raised to the masthead, that Canada has won." In 1965, he unsuccessfully lobbied for the Red Ensign to be flown at the Gardens instead of the new Flag of Canada.

In March 1966, Smythe sold his remaining shares and resigned from the board of directors after a Muhammad Ali boxing match was scheduled for the Gardens. He found Ali's refusal to serve in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War to be offensive, because, as he put it in his autobiography "The Gardens was founded by men - sportsmen - who fought for their country. It is no place for those want to evade conscription in their own country. The Gardens was build for many things, but not for picking up things that no one else wants." He also said that by accepting the fight, Gardens owners had "put cash ahead of class."

Other accomplishments and honours

Smythe supervised the construction of the Hockey Hall of Famemarker building in Torontomarker in 1961. He served as the Hall's chairman for several years, but resigned in June 1971 when Busher Jackson was posthumously elected into the Hall. Smythe said that it made him sick to think of Jackson alongside such Leafs as "Apps, Primeau, Conacher, Clancy and Kennedy. If the standards are going to be lowered I'll get out as chairman of the board." Jackson was notorious for his off-ice lifestyle of drinking and broken marriages.

The National Hockey League honoured Smythe's contribution to the game by introducing the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1965, to be presented to the Most Valuable Player in the Stanley Cup playoffs. After his death, the trophy was renamed the Conn Smythe Memorial Trophy. The league also named one of its four divisions, the Smythe Division, after him prior to the 1974–75 season.

After the Second World War, Smythe became heavily involved in the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. After learning that he had incurable cancer in 1978, Smythe made provisions in his will to set up the Conn Smythe Foundation, which distributes money to charities in the Toronto area. Smythe Park in Toronto, is located on the site of his old gravel pit. The surrounding neighbourhood is named Rockcliffe-Smythemarker.

Smythe died in 1980 in Toronto at the age of 85. He is interred at Park Lawn Cemeterymarker in Torontomarker. His autobiography, Conn Smythe: If You Can't Beat 'Em in the Alley, written with Scott Young, was published posthumously in 1981. The title was taken from Smythe's credo, "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice.

Family

Smythe married Irene Sands on March 17, 1920 at Central Methodist Church. Irene and Smythe first lived at an apartment on St. Clair Avenue, then moved to the Runnymede area of Toronto to be close to Smythe's sand and gravel business, which owned a gravel pit north-west of Jane Street and St. Clair. (Smythe Park exists on the site today). After their first two children, Stafford and Miriam, were born, they moved to the Baby Pointmarker enclave of Toronto, where they would live for the rest of their lives. Irene and Smythe had two other children, Hugh and Patricia. Hugh became a doctor; a specialist in rheumatology, and later a director of Maple Leaf Gardens. Patricia died due to an allergic attack at the age of ten, in 1945.. Stafford became involved in the Smythe sand and gravel business and Maple Leaf Gardens before dying of complications from a bleeding ulcer in 1971. Irene died on June 20, 1965 of cancer. Smythe died in 1980, also of cancer, at his home on Baby Point.

Coaching record

Team Year Regular Season Post Season
G W L T OTL Pts Finish Result
TOR 1927–28 44 18 18 8 - 44 4th in Canadian Did Not Qualify
TOR 1928–29 44 21 18 5 - 47 3rd in Canadian Lost in Second Round
TOR 1929–30 44 17 21 6 - 40 4th in Canadian Did Not Qualify
TOR 1930–31 2 1 0 1 - (53) 2nd in Canadian (resigned)


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