The 1941-42 NHL season was the dawn of the Original Six. The Brooklyn Americans had survived that year, barely, but never made it to the next- the team was ‘suspended’ because of the war, never to be revived again. Through the 20s, the NHL had grown, featuring ten teams from 1926-1931, but the Depression killed off most of the experimental expansion franchises.  By the end of 1942, only six would remain: the eccentric Blackhawks and the faded Canadiens, the nasty Bruins and the star-chasing Rangers, the Leafs and the Red Wings.

When these last two met in the 1942 Stanley Cup Final, the Wings were the considered the underdog. In the regular season, they’d finished fifth, fifteen points behind the second-place Leafs, and although Detroit had two Cups to Toronto’s one, the Leafs had had an unmatched eight SCF appearances in the previous ten years. Both Jack Adams and Conn Smythe had built their teams up from nothing, but of the two, Smythe had been more successful. At the time, the Leafs were the most lucrative, most popular, and increasingly the most dominant team in the NHL. They were on the verge of greatness. The Red Wings, on the other hand, were still a work in progress. Although James Norris was willing to spend freely on players, Adams had not yet been able to net any stars of League-wide proportions. Fans in Detroit were still only half-educated about hockey, and Red Wings games were still subject to massive influxes of Ontarian Leafists, who would heckle the home team mercilessly in their own barn.

So if you’d gone down to the bull ring, where the bookies of Maple Leaf Gardens did their business, in March 1942, you probably would have found that most of the money was on the Leafs.  They were no Kingsesque juggernaut, but they were most definitely favored.  It came, then, as a tremendous shock to the hockey world when they proceeded to lose three games in a row and put themselves on the brink of a pathetic sweeping-out.

The standard explanation given for the Leafs’ failure in games 1-3 has to do with tactics. To hear some of the history books tell it, you’d think Jack Adams invented dump-and-chase in 1942. The Red Wings were playing the aggressively simplistic style we now associate with weaker teams everywhere- get the puck in deep, dig it off the boards, try to pop it out into the slot. It sounds ridiculous to think of this as a novel idea, but perhaps it makes some sense when one considers the context. The forward pass had only been legalized a little over a decade before, so at that point traditional hockey strategy still emphasized the importance of having an artistic center or a rushing defenseman carry the puck into the zone. Moreover, at that time there was no red line and dump-ins from just over the defensive blue line were perfectly legal. By throwing the puck all the way down the ice from wherever they were, the Wings were challenging the Leafs to a lot of footraces, and the Leafs weren’t winning them.

Dump-and-chase may also have been a particularly effective plan because the Leafs were, then as now, an ideologically-driven team. Conn Smythe was obsessive about offense, so much so that when he left the team to go off to war, he left a directive with the board stating that the Leafs must “at all times stress offensive tactics and players.” Although his coach, Hap Day, was an early proponent of defensive systems, Smythe was apt to throw screaming fits if he felt his team wasn’t attacking hard enough, and in the Gardens, Smythe’s fits were law. He’d been away from the team for most of the season, preparing his battalion to go to Europe, but he came back for the Finals and brought his standards with him. If, in the first three games, the Leafs were playing a style that predisposed them to have a lot of their players deep in the offensive zone, it’s easy to imagine how Adam’s method of dumping it two-thirds of the length of the ice might have worn them down.

But the how does not matter so much as the what, and the what was that the Leafs found themselves down 0-3 in the Stanley Cup Final. A scant four years previous, that would have been enough to eliminate them entirely, for the Finals had only been made a seven game series in 1939. Maybe something about that made the situation seem less dire. These men had played in a hockey world where three losses would have been the certain end. Now they were playing in a world where there was still a tiny glimmer of possibility. They were seriously disadvantaged, true, but there was a chance where there had been none before. Maybe the comeback didn’t seem quite so impossible in 1942.

Game four began much as the others had. The Leafs fell behind early, giving up two goals to Detroit in the first period. During the second intermission, Hap Day decided to pursue the venerable and ancient coaching strategy of ‘doing crazy shit in order to shake things up’. He mounted a two-pronged attack of guilt and fear against his players. First, in the dressing room he read a letter from a 14-year-old girl named Doris Klein, who was one of those heckling Leafs fans living in Detroit, and had written to beg the team to win so she could hold her head high etc etc. Then, after soaking his players’ hearts in the warm fuzzies of adolescent devotion, he ended with a gut-punch to the ego: Gordie Drillon, the team’s leading scorer, was going to benched for the rest of the game. Don Metz, little-known but in Day’s eyes more defensively responsible, was going to get his ice time.

When Metz scored late in the second to put the Leafs up 4-3, Day must have felt tremendously vindicated, but fact is he didn’t have enough letters from teenage girls or stars to bench to keep doing this for three more games. As much as it would be touching to think of either of those moves as the great turning point of the series, the truth is both less sweet and more hockeyish. The real watershed moment came at the end of the game and didn’t involve the Leafs at all. It was all about Jack Adams.

See, Adams had noticed that the Red Wings were getting rather more penalties in this series than they generally got in hockey games.  Something on the order of fifteen times more, actually. The Red Wings PIMs-per-game average in the regular season had hovered around nine. In four games against the Leafs, though, they’d averaged 135. That’s 135 penalty minutes, on average, per game.  When referee Mel Harwood doled out twenty-two more minutes against the Wings- trailing by one goal, with the Cup on the line- in the final moments of the third period, it was too much for Adams to handle. As soon as the game was over, he jumped onto the ice and attacked the ref.

Adams and Harwood, the one in shoes and the other on skates, exchanged punches on the ice. A Wings player tried to intervene and was soon drawn in himself, and as the fight pressed along the boards, a few eager spectators jumped in. On the other side of the ice, a different group of fans decided to attack a linesman, who hadn’t even been involved in the controversial calls. Soon brawls were erupting all over the arena. Harwood, badly beaten, had to be rescued by police. Frank Calder, the NHL president, was similarly saved from a fan assault. Both were given an armed escort back to their hotel, from whence, shortly after, Calder announced that Jack Adams was suspended from the NHL indefinitely.

Remember, Jack Adams is, at this point, both the Wings GM and coach. He is that franchise, both its chief architect and its master strategist. For his players and fans, he is the focus of a cult of personality similar to that which grew around Smythe in Toronto. And now he is banned from joining his team for either practices or games. He’s cut off. The Red Wings drop the next two games miserably, losing 9-3 and then 3-0, and the series goes back to Toronto.

The atmosphere before a game seven is always tense, but this one is more so than most. Adams makes the trip up independently, but still can’t work with his team. Toronto photographers catch him in the lobby of Maple Leaf Gardens, trying to call in instructions to his assistants on a pay phone, provoking another round of public screaming and threats from the Wings guru. Smythe comes down in his full military regalia, eager play the role of General Inspiring the Troops in the most literal possible way. Reporters chase Day around the building with questions: Will Drillon play? Will Smythe be behind the bench? In the dressing room? Will they follow an offensive or defensive style? The Gardens sells out and then some, setting a new record for the largest crowd ever to attend a hockey game- 16,218.

Smythe watched the game from his box.  Adams had to listen to Foster Hewitt from the dressing room.  The first period was tense, scoreless. In the second, Detroit went up a goal, and with Drillon still not playing, the Leafs scoring potential was doubtful.  Just before the third period, Smythe went down to the dressing room to deliver his great speech, strutting around with his medals on his chest, shaming his team with every attack on their courage, dignity, and masculinity he could manage.  The players, reportedly, laughed at him, and then went out and scored three unanswered goals. The Leafs won their second Stanley Cup, four games to three.  It was the first, last, and only time a team has come back from a three-game deficit to win in the Finals.

In the picture, Calder presents the Cup to Day and Syl Apps, while Smythe steals Calder’s hat and waves it at the crowd. Conn Smythe was a fabulously successful man, but he never looked happier, anywhere, than in that photo. It makes sense. That may well be the happiest moment in hockey history.

***

One time doesn’t mean a whole lot in hockey, where lots of strange things happen once and never again. The 1942 Leafs comeback is an artifact of a different time- different rules, different coaching strategies, different moral values. I doubt there are any practical lessons the Devils can take from this story to help them take down the Kings, except perhaps for this one: it is possible.

That, and ‘try to provoke Daryl Sutter into punching a ref.’

Material for this post was collected from Putting a Roof on Winter, by Michael McKinley, and The Lives of Conn Smythe, by Kelly McParland.