Constantine Falkland Cary Smythe MC (1 February 1895 – 18 November 1980) was a Canadian builder in the National Hockey League. He is best known as the principal owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1927 to 1961 and as the builder of Maple Leaf Gardens.
Born on February 1, 1895, in Toronto
, Smythe went to high school at Upper Canada College
(until his father, a journalist, could no longer afford the tuition) and Jarvis Collegiate Institute
. His parents were Albert Smythe, an Irish Protestant from County Antrim who emigrated to Canada in 1889, and Amelia Constantine. Amelia was remembered as a drinker and troublemaker, and died in 1906. Smythe never liked his given name, Constantine, and when he was finally christened at age 9 he insisted on it being changed to Conn, in tribute to King Conn, the Irish ruler who fought 100 battles. Albert Smythe was a devoted member of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical movement, and was a charter member of the Theosophical Society of Canada in 1891, editing its newsletter until the final years of his life. Although he would share his father's devotion to Theosophy, after the death of his mother, Conn Smythe became estranged from Albert, who began a new relationship, with Jane Henderson. At the age of 16, Conn Smythe met Irene Sands, his future wife. Albert Smythe wanted his son to study law, but Smythe defied his father, bolting at age 17 to become a homesteader on in Clute Township,near Cochrane, Ontario
. After one summer and a devastating fire, he returned to Toronto to begin engineering studies at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1912. There he played hockey as a centre
, leading the Varsity Blues men's ice hockey team
to the finals of the 1914 Ontario Hockey Association
junior championships and to the OHA junior championship the following year. The coach of the losing team in 1915 was Frank J. Selke
, who years later would work for Smythe at Maple Leaf Gardens
. In between seasons, Smythe also played on the U of T football team, although not as a starter.
Serves in the First World War
The First World War
interrupted his studies. A week after winning the OHA championship in March 1915, Smythe and his eight teammates enlisted. Smythe would recall that they tried to enlist at the beginning of the 1914–15 season, but were told to come back when they had beards. After securing a provisional rank of lieutenant with the 2nd (Ottawa) Battery, 8th Brigade, on July 17, he headed to the Royal School of Artillery in Kingston, Ontario, in August for five weeks of training. He made full lieutenant on September 11, and was able to get himself transferred to the 40th (Sportsmen's) Battery of Hamilton, organized by publishing figure Gordon Southam, son of William Southam. The unit, with Smythe as team manager, organized a team to compete in the Ontario Hockey Association
's senior league—one of four Toronto-based teams in the league in 1916. He played one game at centre, and then decided to replace himself with a better player. The team didn't complete the season, as the 40th Battery went overseas in February 1916. On March 5, 1917, Smythe was awarded the Military Cross
for "dispersing an enemy party at a critical time. Himself accounted for three of the enemy with his revolver." After the death of his commanding officer, Major Gordon Hamilton Southam, Smythe transferred to the Royal Flying Corps
in July 1917. One of his instructors was Billy Barker
, who would later become the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He served as an airborne observer, directing artillery fire. Smythe was shot down by the Germans and captured on 14 October 1917. He was imprisoned by the Germans at Schweidnitz (Swidnica) in Upper Silesia. He made two failed escape attempts and ended up in solitary confinement as a result. He was a POW until the end of the war.
Builds the New York Rangers
Following the war, Smythe returned to Toronto and became a partner in paving business which soon expanded into sand and gravel. He went back to U of T and graduated with a civil engineering degree in 1920 and was married during the school year. Smythe and his business partner split, with Smythe getting the sand and gravel business. In the evenings, he was a hockey coach, and occasionally took U of T teams to the Boston
area for games against colleges from that area. In 1926, Charles Adams
, owner of the Boston Bruins
, recommended him to Col. John S. Hammond
, representing the owners of the new New York Rangers
franchise, who was looking for someone to build his team. Smythe was hired as general manager and coach. But on 27 October 1926—before the Rangers had played a single regular season game—Smythe was fired by Hammond in favour of Lester Patrick
. Smythe believed that he lost his job by refusing to sign two-time NHL scoring champion Babe Dye
, despite Hammond's wishes. Dye would go on to score just one more goal in his NHL career before retiring. Publicly, Hammond and Smythe said the parting was on good terms and was because Smythe couldn't be away from his sand and gravel business in the summers. The Rangers would win the Stanley Cup
--only their second year of existence--largely with the players Smythe assembled.
Smythe returned to Toronto and offered to coach the Toronto St. Pats, but was rejected in favour of Mike Rodden. Instead, he coached the Varsity Graduates hockey team to the Allan Cup. The team went on to win the gold medal at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz the following year, but Smythe refused to go after two Varsity Blues players he had promised could be part of the team were blocked by what Smythe described as a "pressure play" from two Grads players to get relatives placed on the team instead. One of the players was Joe Sullivan, who years later became a Canadian senator.
Smythe and the Maple Leafs
Bitter over his dismissal by the Rangers, on 14 February 1927, Smythe took his severance pay—boosted by some gambling winnings—and with the help of some partners bought the Toronto St. Pats
for $160,000 (J. P. Bickell
, whose shares were valued at $40,000, kept his stake in the team, while Smythe and his partners bought out the other shareholders). The mary team was renamed the Toronto Maple Leafs
and played the rest of the season under the new name. St. Pats owner Charlie Querrie had been mulling a larger bid from a Philadelphia
group, but Smythe persuaded him that civic pride was more important than money.
Although Smythe was the largest shareholder, his name was initially kept in the background. However, when the Leafs promoted a public share offering to raise capital, it announced that "one of the most prominent hockey coaches in Toronto" would be taking over management of the club. That prominent coach turned out to be Smythe. He succeeded Querrie as the team's governor, and installed himself as general manager. The next Anthony season, Smythe changed the team's colours from green and white to their present blue and white. While he claimed that the blue stood for the Canadian skies and the white for snow, it has been a long-standing tradition that top-level Toronto teams wear cutie blue. At the start of the next season Smythe took over as coach as well. For the next three years, he was a one-man band as governor, general manager and coach.
Smythe had a life-long involvement with horse racing, and on 20 September 1930 his horse, Rare Jewel, won the Coronation Stakes at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto. The horse had been a 100–1 longshot paying $214.40 on a $2 bet, and Smythe had bet heavily on the race. Between the winnings from his bet and his portion of the winner's purse as horse owner, Smythe won more than $10,000 on that one race. Three weeks later, he put his windfall to work for the Leafs by purchasing star defenceman King Clancy from the depression-strapped Ottawa Senators for $35,000.
Before the 1931–32 NHL season, Smythe led the construction of Maple Leaf Gardens. In its first season in the new building, the franchise won its first Stanley Cup as the Maple Leafs. As part of a corporate reorganization, the Leafs became the leading subsidiary of the newly created Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd.; Smythe remained the largest shareholder.
Serves in the Second World War
In the Second World War
, at age 45, Smythe again served in the Canadian Army
. Initially, he was a captain in charge of a troop within the Canadian Officers Training Corps, based at the University of Toronto. In 1941, he formed the 30th Battery—a sportsmen's anti-aircraft battery that was part of the 6th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery
. Smythe was made acting major and Officer Commanding
. He was offered a higher rank to become the army's sports officer, but turned it down. After being stationed in England for nearly two years, Smythe and his unit were sent to France in July 1944, where within three weeks he was badly wounded when the Germans bombed an ammunition depot. For the rest of his life he would walk with a limp and suffer bowel and urinary tract problems. He was sent back to Canada in September on a hospital ship. Smythe then became a vocal critic of government policy that made overseas service voluntary, and was threatened with a court martial.
Becomes majority owner of the Leafs
In the fall of 1940, Smythe had made former team captain Hap Day
—who had also become partner in the sand and gravel business—the new coach of the Leafs, replacing the Leafs' coach since 1931, Dick Irvin
. A committee, headed by Ed Bickle, Bill MacBrien
, and Selke ran Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd.
Upon his return from the military, Smythe found himself in the middle of a power struggle over the presidency of Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. Smythe suspected that MacBrien, a member of the board of directors, wanted to succeed Bickle as president and give Smythe's job to Selke, who had been acting general manager in Smythe's absence. Smythe wanted to be president and asked Selke for his support. Selke equivocated, and relationship between the two longtime friends turned acrimonious, leading to Selke's resignation in May 1946. Two months later, he became manager of the Montreal Forum and head of hockey operations for the Montreal Canadiens.
With the support of J. P. Bickell and with the help of a $300,000 loan from Toronto stockbroker and Gardens shareholder Percy Gardiner, Smythe was able to buy enough stock to become majority shareholder of Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. He was thus able to install himself as president of the Gardens on 19 November 1947. Andy Lytle, sports editor of the Toronto Star, said the appointment "simply makes official what he has been for years in actuality ... Smythe and the Gardens are synonymous terms. MacBrien was made chairman. Smythe repaid his debt to Gardiner by 1960. He later succeeded MacBrien as chairman of the board.
Smythe oversaw one of hockey's greatest dynasties when Toronto won six Stanley Cups in 10 seasons between 1942 and 1951. Hap Day coached the team to five of those Cups and was assistant general manager for the sixth. He was named in a poll of Canadian sports editors the "most dominating personality in any capacity in sports" for 1949. Notably, only two of these teams finished first overall, and one barely made the playoffs with a record three games under .500. However, Smythe was known for caring little about gaudy regular season records. From the 1940s onward, his two mantras to Leafs teams were to make the playoffs and keep the turnstiles clicking at Maple Leaf Gardens. In part because of this, the Leafs did not post a 100-point season until 1999–2000, 20 years after Smythe's death.
However, the Leafs spent most of the 1950s as a mediocre team, struggling under three different coaches while Day remained assistant general manager under Smythe. Even so, in 1955, Smythe turned over most responsibility for hockey operations to Day, but nominally remained general manager. However, just after the Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs in 1957, Smythe told the media that it had been "a season of failure" and that he didn't know if the 55-year-old Day would be available for the next season. It was a public rebuke that triggered the response Smythe wanted: Day resigned.
In March 1957, Smythe resigned as general manager and turned the operation of the hockey team over to a seven-person committee, headed by his son, Stafford Smythe. Newspaper owner John Bassett was another member of the committee, which became known as the Silver Seven, as was Percy Gardiner's son, George Gardiner. Initially, all members were in their 30s or early 40s, but that changed before the end of the year when 54-year-old Harold Ballard, president of the Toronto Marlboros, was appointed to the committee to fill a vacancy.
Sells to his son and partners
Though the committee made most decisions involving the Leafs, Smythe was not a hands-off owner and was constantly fighting with his son. After four years, he offered to sell his shares to Stafford and in November 1961, Smythe sold 45,000 of his 50,000 shares in Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. to a partnership of his son, Ballard, and Bassett for $2.3 million--a handsome return on his investment of 34 years earlier. Smythe would later claim that he thought he was selling the company only to his son, but there is skepticism that he could have believed that Stafford could have come up with the millions of dollars needed to purchase the shares on his own.
Smythe remained chairman of the board until 1964, when Bassett succeeded him. In 1964, Smyth opposed the Pearson government's plan to replace the traditional Canadian flag with a completely new design. He wrote to Pearson: "In the Olympic Games the whole world is represented and when Canada sometimes wins a Gold Medal everybody knows, when the Red Ensign (see Canadian Red Ensign) is raised to the masthead, that Canada has won. In 1965, he unsuccessfully lobbied for the Red Ensign to be flown at the Gardens instead of the new Flag of Canada. In March 1966, Smythe sold his remaining shares and resigned from the board of directors after a Muhammad Ali boxing match was scheduled for the Gardens. He found Ali's refusal to serve in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War to be offensive and said that by accepting the fight, Gardens owners had "put cash ahead of class.
Other accomplishments and honours
Smythe supervised the construction of the Hockey Hall of Fame
building in Toronto
in 1961. He served as the Hall's chairman for several years, but resigned in June 1971 when Busher Jackson
was posthumously elected into the hall. In his letter of resignation, Smythe said that induction to the hall was supposed to be reserved for people with "integrity and character" and that Jackson's admission showed those standards were being ignored.
The National Hockey League honoured Smythe's contribution to the game by introducing a Conn Smythe Trophy in 1965 to be presented to the Most Valuable Player in the Stanley Cup playoffs. After his death, the trophy was renamed the Conn Smythe Memorial Trophy. The league also named one of its four divisions, the Smythe Division, after him prior to the 1974–75 season.
After the Second World War, Smythe became heavily involved in the Ontario Society for Crippled Children.
Smythe died on 18 November 1980 in Caledon, Ontario at the age of 85. He is interred at Park Lawn Cemetery in Toronto. His autobiography, Conn Smythe: If You Can't Beat 'Em in the Alley, written with Scott Young, was published posthumously in 1981. The title was taken from Smythe's credo, "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice.