War Stories: Conn Smythe And The Shrapnel That Found Steel

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. All opinions expressed by Mike Ulmer are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Toronto Maple Leafs or its Hockey Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Maple Leafs and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NHL accredited member of the media.

Five times.

That was, by Conn Smythe’s own count, the number of times the odds were against him ever returning from war.

The man who founded the Maple Leafs fought in both World Wars and saw unspeakable carnage first-hand.

In World War I he fell into command when his superior was killed by mortar shell. It fell to him to move the battery’s 12 horse-pulled guns through heavy shelling. Many of the animals dropped dead when freed from their harnesses.

He collected guns and ammunition from dead comrades. At Vimy he charged into a German trench and shot three enemy soldiers, including one he killed by shoving his gun into the soldier’s belly and pulling the trigger.

Once he fell asleep in a country house. A buddy saw him sleeping and slipped a gas mask on him. The Germans did indeed use gas but thanks to his friend’s action, Smythe survived. He would later be shot down, captured and spend 14 months in a POW camp.

He rounded up another battery when the World War II started. In his mid forties he left his wife and children, pulled strings to get to the fighting and then was seriously wounded in action when he was hit by shrapnel trying to pull a burning tarp from an ammunition truck.

The shrapnel remained near his spine and his injuries pained him the rest of his life.

From his hospital bed back in Canada Smythe orchestrated a successful campaign to enact conscription. His furor nearly toppled Canada’s wartime government.

Conn Smythe loved the military life that nearly killed him.

War shaped Conn Smythe and not necessarily for the good. He was dictatorial and contemptuous of any authority that challenged his own. He once traded a player for marrying in mid-season against his wishes.

The patriot virulently opposed the move to a new Canadian flag. He resigned from the Maple Leafs board of directors when they allowed Muhammad Ali to fight at the Gardens. He harassed and ruthlessly dispatched players who sought to create a players’ association.

But his steadfast belief that nothing he would see in peacetime was as ruinous as what he saw in war was the metal that occupied his spine long before the shrapnel got there. He gambled, bullied and built the Maple Leafs and did the same in building Maple Leaf Gardens during the worst days of the Depression.

Smythe loved the brotherhood of the military. He once told an interviewer that “of a hundred men in the army, you could trust maybe 95 of them. From 100 people in civilian life you would be lucky to get five you could trust.”

If war shaped our country, and there is little doubt that it did, it has also shaped our institutions, institutions like this one, a hockey team shaped by a little tyrant who risked everything to stop tyrants who were infinitely worse…lest we forget.

 

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About Mike Ulmer

Mike Ulmer has written 210 post in this blog.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. All opinions expressed by Mike Ulmer are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Toronto Maple Leafs or its Hockey Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Maple Leafs and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NHL accredited member of the media.



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