The Toronto Maple Leafs finished the 1941-42 regular season in second place. They defeated the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs, propelling them into the Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. Although the Leafs had finished 15 points higher than the Wings during the regular season, Detroit was no pushover. “Detroit will come out roaring,” predicted Leafs managing director Conn Smythe. “Unless we can out-thump them, we’ll be behind the eight-ball.”
The Red Wings stunned the hockey world, winning the first three games of the Final to hold a seemingly insurmountable lead in their pursuit of a Stanley Cup victory. No team had ever rebounded from a three-game deficit to win a playoff series. Few believed it even remotely possible.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Leafs coach Hap Day phoned Conn Smythe, who was in Petawawa finishing a course to qualify as a major in the Second World War, and discussed the idea of replacing Bucko McDonald, the Leafs most physical defenceman, and benching Gord Drillon, who was mired in a scoring slump. Drillon had led the team in scoring during the regular season and was named to the NHL’s Second All-Star Team, but he was an enigma. The Toronto Daily Star called him “the inexplicable unit. Good one night, bad until the fit comes on him again.” In spite of his star status, the Toronto fans were unmerciful to Drillon. “I used to be afraid to put on my skates,” he admitted. “They booed me even when I was warming up.”
In place of Drillon, the coach inserted Don Metz, who had missed much of the regular season with a broken ankle but had been a reliable defensive substitute for three seasons. Ernie Dickens, who had spent most of the season in the American Hockey League, replaced McDonald. Day also added Hank Goldup, a regular through the season but yet to play in the Final.
“It took a lot of guts,” remembered Wally Stanowski. “Everybody thought Smythe had lost his mind!”
“The Red Wings had forechecked us to death in the first three games,” recalled Bob Davidson. “Gordie (Drillon) was a great goal scorer, but he wasn’t too strong at digging the puck out of the corners. So Hap moved Don Metz onto our line.”
Drillon never played another game for the Leafs. He was sold to the Montreal Canadiens before the start of the next season.
Legend has it that Coach Day resorted to sentimentality to rally his club prior to Game Four. “Boys,” he began, his head bowed and his voice softened. “I received a letter before tonight’s game, and I’d like to read it to you. ‘Dear Mr. Day. I am 14 years old and have been a fan of the Maple Leafs my entire life. I live in Detroit and the kids in my school tease me because I like the Leafs. They are all Detroit Red Wings fans. Please, Mr. Day, don’t let your team give up. Please beat the Red Wings and win the Stanley Cup so I can go back to school with my head held high. Signed, Doris Klein.’”
Team captain Syl Apps then stood and spoke of the pride in wearing the Maple Leaf on his chest, and how a city and country were depending on the Leafs. Years later, he recalled, “We were thinking we couldn’t lose four straight and face the people back home.”
With Game Four tied at three, Nick Metz was fed a pass by Apps and beat Detroit netminder Johnny Mowers. Nick’s brother Don added an assist on what would prove to be the game-winning goal.
With just over a minute remaining in the period, a spectator grabbed Bob Davidson’s stick as he leaned against the boards. Davidson wrenched the stick back and swung at the fan, and then motioned to police officers seated in the penalty box, but they ignored the summons from Davidson, who grew even more livid as he dodged a woman’s shoe and a hot water bottle aimed his way.
Jack Adams called referee Mel Harwood over to the Wings bench, but the official refused, instead, trying to get the teams to line up for the faceoff. On instruction from Adams, the Detroit players refused to take their places. After several uncomfortable seconds, the Wings finally did take the faceoff, but they had seven players on the ice. Harwood pointed to the Detroit bench to get a player into the penalty box, and Don Grosso was instructed to serve the too many men penalty, but he refused. When he finally did, he placed his stick and gloves at the referee’s feet in surrender.
Adams went into a rage. As the final buzzer sounded, the Red Wings surrounded Harwood, and then one pushed him. Adams skidded across the ice and lunged at the referee. Linesmen Sam Babcock and Don McFadyen tried to hold Adams back, but he was able to grab Harwood’s sweater, tearing it in the process. Adams took a swing at Harwood but caught Babcock on the nose. A second later, Adams and Harwood, one in shoes and the other on skates, exchanged punches on the ice. Badly outnumbered, Harwood had to be rescued by police. NHL president Frank Calder, watching the melee from the stands, was similarly attacked by fans.
Police finally intervened. Calder, Harwood, Babcock and McFadyen were given armed escorts back to their hotel, and the NHL president then announced that Jack Adams had been suspended indefinitely. Don Grosso’s act of defiance earned a $100 fine.
The Toronto Daily Star reported that Adams’ “passions are absolutely unbridled when he fancies his team is getting less than he considers an even break.” Harwood, incidentally, never officiated another NHL game.
The tide had turned.
Back in Toronto for Game Five, Day replaced Hank Goldup with Gaye Stewart, a promising youngster who had spent the season in junior with the Toronto Marlboros.
The Red Wings had come unglued. The game ended with Toronto spanking Detroit 9-3. Don Metz led the way with three goals and two assists. Two nights later back in Detroit, Turk Broda blanked the Wings 3-0, with Don Metz contributing a goal 14 seconds into the second period.
The series, miraculously, was tied at three games apiece. Conn Smythe was given leave from military duties to return to Toronto for the deciding game of the Stanley Cup Final, and arrived in full military regalia. Sweeney Schriner looked over at the anxious major. “What are you worried about, Boss? We’ll get you some goals.”
Jack Adams, on the other hand, was still serving his suspension. While he made the trip to Toronto on his own, he was prohibited from dealing with his team, yet, photographers discovered him in the lobby of Maple Leaf Gardens using a pay phone to contact his coach. Caught red-handed, he retired to the dressing room and through gritted teeth, listened to the game on the radio.
The Red Wings led 1-0 at the end of the second period. During the intermission, Conn Smythe strutted into the dressing room to deliver a speech, shaming his team with every attack on their courage and masculinity. Into the third period, Sweeney Schriner potted a goal, and then Pete Langelle scored to put Toronto ahead, a lead they would never relinquish. Schriner added an insurance tally to cement the Maple Leafs victory and an astonishing comeback from a three-game deficit to win the Stanley Cup.
It was the greatest comeback in hockey history!
NHL president Frank Calder presented the Stanley Cup to Hap Day and team captain Syl Apps. Conn Smythe, standing to one side during the presentation, grabbed Calder’s fedora and waved it jubilantly.
While general hysteria filled the streets outside the arena, a relieved Coach Day admitted, “We won it the hard way. I had my doubts right up until that final bell rang.”
“It was a magnificent accomplishment because the team looked hopelessly beaten,” wrote the Toronto Daily Star. “Day risked his reputation on a chance throw of the dice. He gambled with an important change in his lineup and came away victorious.”
It was the first and only time a team has come back from a three-game deficit to win the Stanley Cup.