After beginning the 1926-27 season as the Toronto St. Patrick’s and then finishing the campaign as the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team was looking for a fresh start in 1927-28. As we enjoy this season’s opening game against the Winnipeg Jets, we look back at the first season opener for the Toronto Maple Leafs: November 15, 1927.
“Pro hockey fans will be re-introduced to the Toronto team this fall,” reported the Toronto Daily Star on September 27, 1927. “The jersey will be banded blue and white with a large maple leaf on the breast. The words ‘Toronto Maple Leafs’ appear in blue letters on the maple leaf.” In fact, once the season began, the Maple Leafs became the first NHL team to feature two different sweaters. They introduced a blue sweater with a white maple leaf on the chest as well as a white sweater with a blue maple leaf on the chest. Part of the rationale was to avoid confusion with other NHL teams sporting blue sweaters, namely the New York Americans and New York Rangers.
Training camp for the Maple Leafs opened on October 22, and players were quickly reminded that Conn Smythe was, in the words of the Toronto Daily Star, “a real taskmaster.” Players participated in softball and soccer games in an area along the Don Valley, followed by relay races and then a four-kilometre run back to the Arena Gardens, their home arena, located on Mutual Street just a stone’s throw from the location of their future home, Maple Leaf Gardens.
The first season-opener for the Toronto Maple Leafs took place against the New York Rangers at the Arena Gardens on November 15, 1927. The game had great significance for Conn Smythe.
Following the First World War, Conn Smythe returned to Toronto and started a sand and gravel business, but hockey was never far from his heart. Despite having a toddler at home (his son Stafford, later to own the Maple Leafs), Smythe coached the University of Toronto varsity team. It was through his coaching of this team that he became involved in the NHL. The Varsitys regularly traveled to Boston for games against colleges from that area. In 1926, Boston Bruins’ owner Charles Adams recommended Smythe to Colonel John S. Hammond, who was looking for someone to build the newly awarded New York Rangers franchise. Smythe was hired to assemble a team, which he would then manage. But on October 27, 1926, just before the Rangers had even played a single regular season game, Hammond fired Smythe in favour of Lester Patrick.
Although no longer employed by the Rangers, Smythe was invited to attend the team’s opening contest in Madison Square Garden, an invitation he nearly turned down because he felt that the Rangers had short-changed him. Colonel Hammond had paid Smythe $7,500 to settle his contract, but Smythe felt he was owed $10,000. At the insistence of his wife, Smythe travelled to New York and attended the opener in the owner’s private box. While there, Smythe made his feelings known, and Hammond begrudgingly paid him the extra $2,500.
On the return to Toronto, Smythe visited Montreal, and bet the $2,500 on a football game between Toronto and McGill, and turned his severance into $10,000. That money was used by Smythe as his part of the $200,000 purchase price of the Toronto St. Patrick’s. With a consortium of heavyweight business leaders, including mining magnate J.P. Bickell, Smythe and his partners bought the Toronto St. Patrick’s and renamed them the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The 1927-28 season opened with the Maple Leafs roster including goaltender John Ross Roach, defenceman Hap Day and Art Duncan, and forwards Ace Bailey, Bill Carson, George Patterson (who had scored the first-ever goal for the Maple Leafs) and Joe Primeau. Day had been named captain, and with the responsibility was given an extra $500 on his contract.
Leafs Nation (early version) was excited. “The local fans have a team this year that they are going to be able to support,” explained the Toronto Daily Star. “It should be one of the best openings that professional hockey has ever had in this city.”
In a custom that continues to this day, the 48th Highlanders marched onto the ice surface and “dispensed pleasing music before the game and during the rest periods (intermissions).”
As the skirl and drone of the 48th Highlanders concluded, The Honorable W.D. Ross, Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, marched to centre ice to perform the ceremonial faceoff between Bill Carson of the Maple Leafs and Bill Cook of the Rangers.
The warm Toronto air and the frigid arena ice played havoc with the game, which was played with a fog enveloping the ice surface. Both Roach in the Toronto goal and Lorne Chabot manning the net for New York complained about the lack of visibility when pucks were sent their way. The problem proved so challenging that players on both sides skated around the rink together between periods in an effort to clear the fog from above the ice.
The Maple Leafs fell to the Rangers 4-2 that evening, with the Toronto Daily Star reporting that “the locals (Leafs) were not lacking in aggressiveness but their team play was very faulty, they did not pass the puck much and when they did, the passes usually went wrong.” Captain Hap Day was announced as the best player on the ice for Toronto.
The Maple Leafs finished the season in fourth place in the NHL’s Canadian Division, missing the playoffs for the third straight season. It would be another 80 years before the team missed the playoffs three consecutive times again.
The New York Rangers, meanwhile, finished second in the American Division, and went on to win the Stanley Cup that spring, just their second year of existence, and largely with the players that Conn Smythe had brought to the team.
Although 90 years apart, there are some vestiges of that first season-opener that remain. Although this 2017-18 NHL season opens for the Maple Leafs in Winnipeg, the home opener on Saturday, October 7 will again see the New York Rangers facing the home team, and as always, the 48th Highlanders will be on hand to start the proceedings.
We can only hope that the results will be different than that game 90 years ago.