Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Fit for a Queen

Sixty-years is an awfully long time to be on the job. The same routine day-in and day-out. But, hey if you are enjoying the gig and having fun, why not carry on.

And how do you celebrate to mark such an extended period of loyal and successful service?

Well, your employer holds a huge Diamond Jubilee party in your honour, like the festivities taking place in England for Queen Elizabeth's longevity as head of the Monarchy.

Prior to becoming the Queen, young Elizabeth came through the ranks apprenticing as a Princess.

Trips abroad were a key part of her responsibilities. They provided an opportunity for Elizabeth to acquaint herself with the traditions and customs of countries her father served as King.

Once on foreign soil, the Queen-in-training could secure a better understanding of her future subjects by taking part in local activities. First-hand knowledge could be obtained by observing and asking questions. For example, what common bond units Canadians from coast to coast?

On an autumn afternoon in 1951, Princess Elizabeth discovered the answer by becoming one of us. The visitor from across-the-pond, along with Prince Philip, took a journey into Canada's soul. The path to finding what makes Canada, Canada, took the Royal couple on an adventure to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

With Conn Smythe acting as tour guide, the two visitors were in good hands. There was no better individual to represent the game. Most Canadians treated hockey like a religion. Sunday, being a day for worshipping. Saturday, reserved for hockey.

For English speaking Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs were Kings. In Quebec, the Montreal Canadiens sat on the throne. Saturday evening was Hockey Night in Canada. The nation linked together by the radio broadcast.

Conn Smythe
In his early years, Conn Smythe held two aspects of life close to his heart - love of country and love of hockey. In many ways, they were one in the same. Political riffs at home or conflicts on the world stage could be resolved in the same manner as a hotly contested match on the ice. The type of dust-up where combatants are unwilling to give an inch. Where physical strength and sheer willpower carry the same weight as shooting and passing.

Away from hockey, Smythe demonstrated his passion and dedication for the Empire by constructing a brilliant career in the military. He shared Wilfrid Laurier's belief that "when Britain was at war, Canada is at war, there is no difference at all."

Heading into World War One, Smythe took the following oath as part of  completing and signing his Attestation document on October 19, 1915:

I, Conn Smythe, do make Oath, that I will be faithful and bear Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs and Successors, and that I will as in duty bound honestly and faithfully defend His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, in Person, Crown and Dignity, against all enemies, and I will observe and obey all orders of His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, and all of the Generals and Officers set over me. So help me God.

Smythe, didn't take these words lightly. They became a way of life for him. Later, he would evoke their meaning and intention when sending his hockey clubs into battle.

Rookies and veterans were expected to be "faithful and bear allegiance" to the Toronto Maple Leafs. They will "honestly and faithfully defend" the Toronto Maple Leafs. On and off the ice, Leaf players and Maple Leaf Gardens staff "will observe and obey all orders" laid down by Conn Smythe.

Having already fought in the Great War, Smythe jumped back into the fire when World War Two flared-up. It was a case of "you can take the man out of the military, but you can't take the military out of the man."

Once again, Smythe couldn't separate the two passions which dominated his being.

The following passage from his autobiography - If You Can't Beat 'EM in the Alley (with Scott Young, 1981, McCelland and Stewart) - provides insight into Smythe's state-of-mind:

...for years I had been talking to hockey players in military terms - telling them what real soldiers were like, how much they would do for their team, how much they'd give, and how brave they had to be to survive, when war came I had to face that. Had I been talking fiction or fact? Was I a fraud or did I live up to my own principles? I had made myself out to be a warrior and tried to make my players be warriors too. I thought it was up to me to lead by example.

When Princess Elizabeth arrived at Maple Leaf Gardens on October 13, 1951, Smythe escorted one of the "Heirs and Successors" through the front doors at 60 Carlton Street.

After spending so much time in Europe aiding the war cause, Smythe was more than happy to return the favour and play the role of host on his home turf.

The guest of honour proceeded to the seating area via a door which opened from the Gardens lobby. Seats in Box 50 were replaced by comfortable chairs. The Royal Box decorated with a huge Union Jack.

Once settled, the ceremonies got underway. Then, before a crowd of 14,000 spectators, the Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks engaged in a 15-minute exhibition.

During a recent interview with former Leaf Danny Lewicki, we chatted about what occurred almost 61-years-ago on October 13, 1951.
"Of course, it was a very exciting day for us," recalled Lewicki as he described the sentiment and mood of his teammates. "Just to think she would be there," marvelled the big forward explaining the anticipation of all those involved.

"We had one period in the afternoon just so she could see what hockey was all about," noted Lewicki.

"I remember the famous picture of Teeder (Leafs captain Ted Kennedy) bowing to her when he was presented to her. It was a very memorable afternoon, no doubt about it," stated the native of Fort William, Ontario.

Were the players provided with any specials instructions on how play the game - perhaps, with emphasis on skills rather than physical force?

"Not really, no. The only thing we were told was that we couldn't go up and speak to her on our own. Teeder was the only one who could go up there and bow or whatever, but we were not allowed to go near or say anything to her," replied Lewicki.

Danny Lewicki
I wondered if Leaf supporters were more interested in eyeballing Royalty or their heroes on the ice. After all, it isn't everyday a Princess and Prince hang out and enjoy a hockey game.

"I would think so. She was a very attractive lady. Most people would be watching her instead of the game," commented the Memorial Cup, Allan Cup and Stanley Cup winner at the end of our conversation.

From all accounts, Toronto and Chicago treated their special guests to a close-knit affair. No goals were scored and neither squad attempted to tone down the physical contact.

It didn't take Princess Elizabeth long to get into the swing of things. At one point, she sounded like a typical Canadian hockey fan, when she quizzed Smythe following a thunderous check, "isn't there going to be a penalty in this game?"

When a Leaf defenceman failed to get the puck to Ted Kennedy, Princess Elizabeth told Smythe "that was not a good combination."

Talking to Al Nickleson of the Globe and Mail, Smythe provided readers with his thoughts and impressions.

"They both enjoyed the game tremendously. That was apparent in the way Prince Philip roared with laughter at the upsetting body-checks and the way the eyes of Princess Elizabeth glowed as the players shot by her at full speed," informed Smythe.

Next on tap for the globe-trotting travellers was a encounter between  Montreal and New York on October 29, 1951 in the Forum. Danny Lewicki and company must have made a positive impact, as this time around, Elizabeth and Philip remained for the entire sixty-minutes of action.

Thanks to Floyd Curry's hat-trick, Montreal defeated New York by a score of 6 to 1.

Princess Elizabeth's first exposure to our grand game received high marks. Conn Smythe must have been pleased as punch with the results.

He would have expected nothing but an experience fit for a Queen.

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