With a new owner, a new team name and a new arena about to break ground, the Toronto Maple Leafs embarked on a new chapter of professional NHL hockey in Toronto. Owner and General Manager Conn Smythe would hire Dick Irvin to coach the Maple Leafs, after injuries prematurely ended Irvin’s playing career. The Marlboros junior program was under the care of Frank Selke Jr., who would later join the Leafs as assistant GM. Four players were set to graduate from the Marlboros who would be at the forefront of a very successful time in Maple Leaf history. They’re alright, the kids are alright.
As mentioned in the previous article, NHL teams from this era were responsible for scouting, signing and developing their own rosters of players and prospects. Teams were able to secure the rights to players by signing them to an agreement known as a “card”. This was not a contract for playing services that would see the player get paid, but instead was a means of controlling player rights. There were three types of cards, known as “A”, “B” and “C” cards. The A and B cards were primarily used for evaluation purposes. Players would be signed to these cards for the purposes of a tryout, either in a game or a training camp. If a player signed one of these cards with a team, they were obliged to fulfill the tryout obligation to that team before they could tryout with another team. The C card was far more permanent. The C may as well have stood for Chattel, because that is essentially what a player became when he signed one of these cards. NHL teams could sign prospects as young as 13 to C cards. By signing one, a prospect permanently signed over his rights to play professional hockey to that team. Even if a player didn’t have a current contract to play with an NHL team, the parent team still owned his rights. That player was forbidden to play elsewhere unless the team arranged a trade, release or a new assignment. This was known as the reserve clause and essentially remained in force until 1972. If a player ran afoul of his coach or general manager for any reason, that player could be assigned wherever the team saw fit. Teams regularly used this right for punitive, development and strategic reasons. This was the system players from that era operated under, a reality far away from what players experience today.
In terms of development, the newly acquired Marlboros program paid dividends for Smythe’s Maple Leafs almost immediately. Games were played at the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street and also at Ravina Gardens in the Junction area of West Toronto. Team management and scouts could keep an eye on prospective players from both the Marlboro team and their opponents. The Maple Leafs also employed a network of scouts across Canada and the USA to report on players of potential interest. If players on other teams hadn’t been carded, they were free to sign with any NHL team. For the 1928-29 season, Smythe hire Frank Selke Sr. to coach the Marlboro junior team. Selke had been coach and general manager of the Toronto Ravinas of the Canadian Professional Hockey League, which later became the International Hockey league (IHL). Selke took a talented Marlboro team through a prolonged Memorial Cup tournament that saw the Marlboros defeat the Elmwood (Manitoba) Millionaires for their first Memorial Cup. The Marlboros were led on the ice by Harvey “Busher” Jackson, Charlie Conacher and George “Red” Horner. Conacher scored 28 goals during the 15 game tournament. Horner, Conacher and Jackson all graduated to the Maple Leafs the next season. Joining the trio was another player who had briefly been a Marlboro and played for Frank Selke with the Toronto Ravinas, Joe Primeau. Conacher scored 20 goals in 38 games his first season. Coach Dick Irvin put Conacher, Primeau and Jackson together on one line and they immediately became the team’s top line and one of the best in the NHL. The line was nicknamed “The Kid Line” and led the Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup in the 1931-32 season. It was the franchise’s third Stanley Cup, and first under the Toronto Maple Leaf flag in their inaugural season at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Kid Line led the Maple Leafs to six Stanley Cup final appearances over the next 8 seasons, but unfortunately lost each time. During this period the Marlboros graduated several players to the Maple Leafs, including Bill Thoms, Buzz Boll, Art Jackson and Reg Hamilton.
Charlie Conacher went on to play 9 seasons with the Maple Leafs, was a Stanley Cup champion, a 5 time NHL All-Star, led the League in goals for 5 seasons, led in points twice and won the Hart Trophy twice. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961. Conacher’s number 9 is recognized as an honoured number by the team and Conacher is immortalized on Legends Row. Conacher went on to coach the Oshawa Generals of the OHA after his retirement from playing, leading them to a Memorial Cup in 1944. He also served as head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks from 1947-50. The Conacher family has a long successful sporting history; Charlie was the brother of Lionel (HHOF -1994) and Roy (HHOF-1998) Conacher. His nephew Brian Conacher, also a Marlboro graduate, played for the Maple Leafs for 4 seasons, winning the Calder Cup in 1966 and a Stanley Cup in 1967. Harvey “Busher” Jackson played 10 seasons as a Maple Leaf, was a 5-time NHL All-Star, a Stanley Cup champion and won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1936-37. Jackson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1971. Jackson was a flamboyant player that often made news with his high-spending lifestyle. It eventually led to his trade from the Leafs and later in life his alcoholism and financial difficulties led to a sad end. Joe Primeau played his entire 9 year career as a Maple Leaf, was a Stanley Cup champion, an NHL All-Star and a 5 time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy. “Gentleman” Joe Primeau went on to a successful coaching career with the Maple Leaf organization that saw him win a Stanley Cup with the Leafs and a Memorial Cup and Allen Cup with the junior and senior Marlboros. Red Horner played 12 seasons as a Maple Leaf defenceman who played physical hard-nosed hockey, retiring in 1939-40. Horner won the Stanley Cup in 1931-32 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1965.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had a successful period from 1929-30 to 1939-40 that saw them win one Stanley Cup and make six Stanley Cup final appearances. They were led by four Hall of Fame players that came up through the Marlboro organization. The Maple Leafs and the Marlboros had moved into the new Maple Leaf Gardens and provided the city with an exciting style of hockey. A winning culture was firmly in place and a new decade of Maple Leaf and Marlboro hockey was about to begin. That period will be the focus of the next look at the Marlies Through Time.