Much to the exasperation of his wife, Conn Smythe enlisted for duty in the Second World War. Many questioned why Smythe, almost 45 years of age with a family and significant business interests, would insist on joining up again having already served honourably in Canada’s First World War effort. “I felt it was a shame that we had to go back to Europe and win the war again that we thought we’d won for all time back in 1918. But if we had to, I wanted to be there,” he explained.
In 1941, Smythe formed the 30th Battery, a sportsmen’s battery within the 7th Toronto Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery. Major Conn Smythe became the unit’s Officer Commanding.
Back in 1940, however, Smythe had arranged for his Toronto Maple Leafs players and staff to take army training with the Toronto Scottish Regiment. Over the course of the season, Smythe wrote to every player on the team and in the system, urging them to join the Non-Permanent Active Militia (NPAM) units. He informed all those who had joined NPAM that, “In case you are honoured with a call to the Canadian Forces, you will be ready. If you are not called, you will have complied with the military training regulations and be free to play hockey until called upon.”
The National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA), which had passed in June 1940, required hockey players to undergo 30 days of training (the period of training was later extended to four months). By April 1941, men in non-essential employment were attached to their NRMA units as long as the war lasted. In the summer of 1940, NHL players were signing up to do their essential NPAM training. By joining, players were committing to training and, theoretically, the possibility of being called up to active service. But ostensibly, signing up allowed many players to continue their professional hockey careers.
The Maple Leafs were proud to announce that a large portion of the roster had enlisted. Conn Smythe boasted that the list included Syl Apps, Turk Broda, Jack Church, Bob Davidson, Hap Day, Gord Drillon, Hank Goldup, Reg Hamilton, Red Heron, Phil Stein, and Billy Taylor, all of whom joined the Toronto Scottish. Don and Nick Metz joined the Regina Rifles, while Pete Langelle and Wally Stanowski joined the Winnipeg Rifles. Bucko McDonald joined the Grey and Simcoe Foresters. Bingo Kampman joined a regiment in Kitchener and Lex Chisholm joined up in Oshawa. A willingness to serve their country was apparent up and down the Maple Leafs roster.
As the war continued, more and more players vacated their spot on the Maple Leaf Gardens bench for service. The roster was littered with players who had not passed their physicals along with several young university students adept with a stick and puck.
During the summer of 1944, Major Conn Smythe and his unit had been sent to Caen in northwestern France to continue battling the Nazis. On July 25, the Luftwaffe bombed an ammunition depot and Smythe was badly wounded.
The Major recalled the fateful evening in his memoirs. “That night, the rumble of guns and flickering of explosions were all around us. Then the Luftwaffe came after the bridges. High flares came first, drifting down by parachute and lighting the whole area. Our guns opened up as we ran for the stairs. I was almost outside when on an impulse that I couldn’t explain – it was a warm summer night – I ran back and put on my heavy trenchcoat.
When I got outside, attacking planes were coming from every which direction dropping incendiaries as well as anti-personnel bombs that sent out a swath of fragments when they hit the ground. The night was full of gunfire, explosions, shouts and screams.
I was helping pull a burning tarpaulin off an ammunition truck so we could get the truck out of there when I was hit a terrible blow in my back, either by a bomb fragment or our own exploding ammunition. I tried to move but seemed to be paralyzed from the waist down. The jagged piece of metal that had done all the damage was still sticking quite a way out of my back. Immediately I thought of the heavy trenchcoat, the impulse that had made me go back for it, the tough cloth that must have slowed down the fragment just enough that although I was badly hit, I was still alive. I always thanked some higher power for sending me back to get that trenchcoat.”
Smythe survived the wound, but his injuries were permanent. For the rest of his life, he walked with a limp and was plagued with bowel and urinary tract issues.
Smythe returned to Canada, recuperating at Chorley Park, formerly the official residence of Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor before serving as a military hospital during World War II. But he was well enough to travel to Detroit on April 22, 1945 and looked on with glee as his Maple Leafs claimed the Stanley Cup with a 2-1 win over the Red Wings. NHL president Red Dutton presented the Stanley Cup to team captain Bob Davidson, coach Hap Day and to Major Conn Smythe.
Eight days after that on-ice celebration, Adolf Hitler took his own life. On May 7, 1945, Germany signed an unconditional surrender. The Maple Leafs’ Cup win had been trumped – happily, of course – by victory in Europe. Yet, Canadians were emotionally exhausted when that expected victory finally arrived. Yet, despite the world’s weariness of the war, reports from Germany began to reveal just how odious the Nazi regime had been. When Canadian soldiers walked into concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen, they came face-to-face with the Nazi’s unconscionable work. There, the Canadians found hideous pile upon pile of the skeletal dead and were welcomed by the skeletal undead who had somehow survived the unfathomable.
Shaken by what he had seen, CBC War Correspondent Matthew Halton issued a mournful report from Germany that was broadcast across Canada: “How could birds sing here? It seems impossible, almost a blasphemy that birds should sing in this country of unspeakable evil.” The Canadian soldiers who had liberated the survivors of Bergen-Belsen would never need any jingoistic rhetoric to help them make sense of the importance of their duty. This was self-evident; it was staring back at them through the grateful, if sunken eyes of those who had managed to outlive Hitler.
In early August, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. The Second World War was officially over.
The war had changed Canada. The war had strengthened the country’s economy and had put Canada on the map as a true middle-power. It was not without its costs. 1.1 million Canadian men and women served in the three branches of the military. Of these, 44,000 lost their lives while another 54,000 were wounded.
A few NHL prospects perished during the war. Windsor’s Joe Turner, signed to the Detroit Red Wings, had enlisted in the U.S. Marines and was killed in action in January 1945. So were one-time Maple Leafs prospects Dudley ‘Red’ Garrett, killed off the coast of Newfoundland, and Albert ‘Red’ Tilson, who was killed during the liberation of the Netherlands in October 1944. But this was not the First World War, where several senior level players saw plenty of serious active duty and where Stanley Cup champions such as Frank McGee and Allan ‘Scotty’ Davidson perished. Davidson, for instance, was captain of the Toronto Blueshirts and had been presented with the Stanley Cup in March 1914 after his team defeated the Victoria Aristocrats. Thirteen months later, Davidson was dead, killed in the aftermath of a trench-raid at Givenchy. In contrast, not one NHL regular was killed during the Second World War.
Still, hockey – and specifically, Toronto Maple Leafs hockey – had played an important role in surviving the darkness of the time. Just as Canadians had listened to Leafs radio broadcasts to forget about the Depression, so too did they listen to the Maple Leafs to forget about the War. Foster Hewitt’s play-by-play had been a place to retreat to; a place where troubles were, at least for a moment, forgotten. And the Leafs’ Stanley Cup win only added to the elation that came with the end of war.