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Syl Apps in his army officer's uniform (source)
I remember it just like it was yesterday! It was mid-morning when a knock came at the door of our one-room country schoolhouse. Our teacher went to the door; conversed briefly with the neighbour from across the road—then announced “THE WAR IS OVER!”
He was, of course, referring to VE Day…Victory in Europe! It would still be weeks until that final triumph—Victory in Japan—came. But because Germany was looked upon initially as the enemy of the British Empire and her allies, while the USA was the main player in the Pacific, it was indeed time for celebration.
I confess that I did not fully grasp the realities of World War II. The announcement came on May 8th. I would be 10 years old the next day! I knew of the concern by relatives and neighbours for their men and women overseas—but the ugliness of such a conflict escaped my young mind.
I was little affected personally. Because we lived on a farm, even rationing held little significance. Apart from the limitations on gasoline and sugar, the fact that we grew our own food took the edge off the kind of burdens town and city dwellers experienced.
I was fascinated with war planes. I made a scrapbook (using home-made paste) and filled it with images of Spitfires, P-51 Mustangs, Lancasters, and B-29 Superfortresses. The only negative aspect of this was that whenever I heard a plane fly over at night I was worried they might bomb our house.
Mr. Whitten also told us we had the rest of the day off school! For someone who had no love for the classroom, this was wonderful news. Again — I missed the significance of the seriousness of it all!
I make no pretences—this column will be written from a Canadian perspective. I know my country’s history and its traditions. But it is intended to pay tribute to all in the free world who paid the price to guarantee that we enjoy the privileges of democracy. We consider November 11th to be a milestone day on the calendar—and should be honoured as such by all who still benefit from the reason it exists.
Originally it was Armistice Day—based on the cessation of hostilities of World War I — surrender of the enemy on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. But it continues to pay tribute to those active in all battles for freedom since that time— including World War II — on which we will focus in this missive.
The preciousness of peace must never be forgotten or taken for granted. Only 8% of the time since the beginning of recorded history has the world been entirely at peace. Over more than 3000 years only 286 have been warless. Therefore, “Lest We Forget” is a formal way of saying “and don’t you forget it!”
“Sacrifice” is often associated with the price paid by countless members of allied forces. It is estimated that over 50 million lost their lives in ways directly related to the war. It is said that in the Dieppe offensive, as much as 90% of some forces failed to survive with their lives. But countless others were wounded, and never fully recovered—living out their remaining years with limbs or confined to wheelchairs or worse. The emotional upheaval—especially those who were confined to prison camps — betray understanding.
Generally speaking, society was turned upside-down. Particularly as the fray escalated, the continuing battles overseas were like an undercurrent touching every element of daily living. Not only was there perpetual concern for the safety of loved ones serving in the Army, Air Force, or Navy, but the warp and woof of day-to-day routines were strained. Instead of riveting Chevrolets and Pontiacs, General Motors in Oshawa was producing armoured cars and fuselages for Dehaviland Mosquitos. In Detroit, instead of Fords and Mercuries, armoured cars and anti-aircraft gun carriages rolled off the lines. In Calgary and Philadelphia, instead of silk stockings and scarves, parachutes by the hundreds were packaged to be shipped to air force bases overseas.
And, If you ate it, wore it, or rode it, then it was in short supply. Anything from snow shovels to screw nails; from tires to tricycles were in very limited supply. Food basics like sugar, butter, milk, and meat were rationed—and could not be purchased without presenting the appropriate ration “stamps”.
And, Canada’s National Sport, from the amateur level to the NHL were seriously affected. In fact the negative impact was so severe that the world’s premier hockey circuit came close to being designated to dry dock for the duration.
On the eve of the 1942-43 campaign, it was seriously questioned whether the NHL would continue to operate. Many politicians felt it was the patriotic thing to do for the loop to hibernate while fighting continued. J.R. Ralston, Minister of Defense, concurred.
However, an American statesman, Charles Sawyer, appealed on behalf of the NHL and AHL to rethink that opinion. After much deliberation, Elliott Little, (whose office amounted to the minister of manpower) declared it was imperative for the country’s morale that the game continue as usual. At the same time it was declared that “no player could be excused from military duty to play hockey”.
That regulation was quickly applied when Stuart Smith, who had been working in a munitions plant in Ottawa, signed a contract with Montreal. In no time at all he was back with the lunch bucket brigade.
As in civilian life, the corridors of warfare were faced with shortages—shortages of players with sufficient talent to stock six rosters. One shinny scribe opined: “It is abundantly clear that 15 or 16 men to a team gives the NHL quantity, but not quality—not enough to go around”.
At that crucial moment there were 176 competitors under contract to the “Original 6” fraternities—90 of them actual members of NHL clubs, who had switched to uniforms connected with the armed services.
Some squads were hit harder than others. The New York Rangers were especially sabotaged by the number of enlistments. Virtually the entire starting line-up of the 1939-40 Stanley Cup winners were in military service by 1943. Manager Frank Boucher commented: “I have no hockey team — only a sweater. It seems unfair. The season is almost completed and I still have no team!” Of course it is common knowledge that he himself sought to fill the gap, by returning to action at age 42 for several games.
The Bruins were likewise stripped of power. Goalie Frank Brimsek was in the Navy and the entire Kraut line of Schmidt, Dumart, and Bauer were wearing the blue of the RCAF.
Surprisingly, the Blackhawks fared reasonably well — considering they were robbed of the contributions of the Carse brothers, Bill and Bob; Max Bently, Johnny Mariucci, Alex Kaleta, and goalie Sam LoPresti — whose war-heroics stories are second-to-none. They also were without the sharp-shooting “Wee Willie” Mosienko for a crucial season. He was rejected for military service, but was forbidden to cross the border to skate with the Windy City crew — managing only one game against Toronto and one against Montreal. Fortunately he and Bentley were not absent the same year.
While the Toronto Maple Leafs lost the services of a total of 19 skaters to the war effort, their absence did not always occur during the same time frame. Nevertheless, when the line-ups were submitted for the 1943-44 campaign, no less than stalwarts like Turk Broda, Syl Apps, Bob Goldham, Wally Stanowski, Sweeney Schriner, the Metz brothers, Gordie Drillon, and Hank Goldup were noticeable absentees.
Both Detroit and Montreal managed to keep a somewhat stable roster, in part because many of their key players (with the exception of Sid Abel, who was three years in the RCAF) were working at munitions factories or facsimile. The Hab’s “Punch Line” remained intact to light up the red lamps behind opposing netminders. (when the “Rocket” faced enlistement, his numerous previous injuries got him passed over).
Just how desperate teams were to complete their rosters was revealed in a number of ways. For instance, a retired Art Wiebe, happy making donuts in his Vermillion, Alberta bakery, at the very end of 1943, pulled his equipment out of mothballs and suited up for 33 games that campaign.
One journalist, tongue-in-cheek, observed: “When a Dutch refugee, Hans Brinckner, landed on this side, carrying a pair of skates, five NHL scouts tried to sign him!”
The overall result was summarized accurately by Toronto’s GM, Conn Smythe: “You have to admit that former NHL’ers are worth two wartime NHL’ers. There is no Left Winger, Right Winger, Centre — no Defenseman — comparable in quality to what existed before Hitler blew the lights out on civilization!”
The Globe & Mail’s Jim Coleman expressed the extent of reaching for manpower help when the Leafs had two members of Chewie’s Aces, a Junior “B” club, sport the team’s logo on their chests.
Glen Harmon, manning the blueline for the Senior Quebec Aces, was “borrowed” by the Hurling Habitants for a brace of contests. But they forgot to return him to his QSHL — so he stayed on permanently.
Bep Guidolin became the youngest ever to don NHL livery in November 1942 when the Bruins were scratching to ice a full complement of players. He was 16 years old.
Generally speaking the best league in the world forged an agreement with the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to use OHA competitors under certain circumstances. Those “circumstances” were dealt with on a day-to-day, individual basis. One shinny scribe pondered: ”Young men have been up to the pro ranks and back again. They become professionals one night, and shamateurs the next. They are not pro; they are not amateurs; they are a wartime product!”
Just who was able to play where; who was able to cross the 49th parallel to participate in matches and when; how some were deemed unfit for military service and why—was wrought with confusion. (Prospective recruits were excused for bum shoulders or knees—Teeder Kennedy had groin problems—yet they plunged into the rough and tumble fastest game on earth)
One Sports Editor mused: “There has been a lack of consistency in the government’s scheme for hockey. One player of military age is allowed to play for his club across the border under due certification. A young Bruin is called up and decides to be a sailor. The Navy returns him to the Bruins; the officer doesn’t feel like keeping any young fellow from a chance to make money. What is sauce for one hockey goose is apple sauce for another.”
I have no intention of boring readers with copious examples. But a quick glance at a handful of instances affirms the inconsistencies of the application of rules and regulations. “Mud” Bruneteau worked at the Ford plant in Detroit. He could only play weekend games in the Motor City. Phil Watson in New York, and Vic Heyliger in Chicago found themselves in similar circumstances. Perhaps the worst blunder related to the Broadway Blueshirt’s Bryan Hextall . Referred to as a “non-resident alien”, he had exposed himself to be drafted on both sides of the border. But no call-up came from either his own country of Canada or the USA. Still, he was not allowed to cross the border to don the Ranger’s garb, and sat out the entire 1944-45 schedule. Ott Heller, who was “tarred with the same stick”, was able to fulfill his blueline duties in the Big Apple.
Just how hard it was to keep track of the legitimate and the illegitimate was demonstrated in December of 1943. Three young men wearing Army uniforms walked into the RCAF dressing room, emerging in full hockey togs — and helped Joe Primeau’s boys defeat Navy. Within hours the RCAF were given notice they were done in that circuit.
Other scenarios, peculiar to the war years, also abounded. Because of the shortage of leather one NHL manager confessed no new hockey gauntlets were available and he had sent out 62 pair to be repaired.
As the war finally came to an end, the fall-out of the demand for materials of various kinds, manifested itself in the shortage of sticks. Somehow, with their lofty status the pay-for-play fraternities managed to pull rabbits out of hats, but it was hard on lower-level elements of the game. Kids were considering finding sturdy tree limbs with just the right “lie” as replacements.
A rather surprising snag arose due to U.S. Customs charging duty on hockey sweaters crossing their border. For both the Leafs and Habs it created a dilemma. When Toronto played in Boston they needed dark uniforms—white was fine for the other three. It was the same with Montreal and the Red Wings.
But Hap Day refused to pay duty on both colours. He also refused to have his troops wear “cheap” orange pullovers to contrast the home blues in New York. What fun the officials had. Only the red stripes on the Broadway guys distinguished the two.
One adjustment pertaining to action on the ice, amounted to an “unwritten rule”, based on maintaining the current rosters, as weak as they were. With special focus on boarding, it was deemed wise to cut down on the rough stuff, since the shrunken line-ups could not afford to lose skaters due to unnecessary injuries. Those who criticised this as “panty-waist” hockey were not involved in trying to ice a team with as many on deck as possible.
Not everything related to the fallout association with the global conflict, was negative, however. A charitable spirit surfaced in a number of ways, taking the edge off the sting evidenced in the above. Not least of this was the practice of giving free passage to big league games by men and women wearing uniforms of the armed services.
As well, a number of games were classified as “patriotic”. For instance, when the OHA Senior Toronto Marlboros took on the Detroit Red Wings in Windsor on January 24. 1943, $6000 was raised to assist families of the heroes of the Dieppe invasion.
In December of 1942 the Boston Bruins set aside a generous portion of their gate receipts for four league games, raising over $50,000.00 for the Red Cross.
Not all of this philanthropy was of a volunteer nature. Following the infamous Gaye Stewart/Jimmy Orlando stick-swinging ignominy in 1942, President Dutton included in their sentencing a $100.00 donation from each to the Red Cross.
In a totally different vein, an arrangement was made for Foster Hewitt’s Saturday night radio broadcasts to be heard via short wave radio on many battle fronts overseas. The unanimous response by those serving there was that they were intensely encouraged by the “voice of hockey” lifting their spirits in this manner.
Almost 65 years have passed since this terrible conflagration took place. A vast majority of those living today have no personal recollection of it. This reflection of “man’s inhumanity to man” cannot be erased simply because it is now ancient history. Even this reminiscence, the purpose of which is to pay tribute to those who contributed to the benefits we enjoy now, cannot lessen its dread. But, as General Dwight Eisenhower said the year of its cessation: “The world must know what happened, and never forget!’
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