Monday, June 4, 2012

Maple Leaf Gardens: School Days

In anticipation of moving their hockey program to the Peter Gilgan Athletic Centre at Maple Leaf Gardens, Ryerson University has put the wheels-in-motion to secure a prestigious event for the facility. They have made a bid to host the 2014 Canadian University Men's Hockey Final.

There is a rich history of university hockey having been played at Maple Leaf Gardens, dating from the early 1930s until the structure was put into mothballs following the 1998-99 hockey campaign.

From 1987-88 to 1996-97, the University of Toronto hosted the CIAU championship game. At the outset, games were contested at Varsity Arena, but from 1992-93 to 1996-97, the action shifted to Maple Leaf Gardens.

The final university game played at 60 Carlton Street, featured Guelph and the New Brunswick Reds. In the championship game, held on St. Patrick's Day 1997, Guelph emerged victorious edging their opponent 4 to 3.

In February 1963, Maple Leaf Gardens was the site of an exhibition between the Trail Smoke Eaters and a collection of college all-stars.

Trail, the 1960-61 World Champions, were preparing for the 1963 tournament in Stockholm. Prior to their stop in Toronto, the Smoke Eaters fell 3 to 2 in Windsor to the Bulldogs. From Toronto they travelled to Halifax to conclude their Canadian tour.

The College All-Stars were composed of players from Laval University, McGill, Montreal U., McMaster, University of Toronto and Ryerson Institute.

Getting their opportunity to shine under the big top, the College All-Stars rose to the occasion. They beat Trail goalie Seth Martin three times, while the opposition only connected once. Scoring for the All-Stars were Bill Mahoney (McMaster), Ward Passi (Uof T) and Raymond Cadieux (Laval). The lone Trail marker came off the stick of Harold Jones.

Since the opening of Maple Leaf Gardens on November 12, 1931, a steady flow of games involving students at various levels within the educational system have been on the docket.

Reviewing a list of hockey activities held at the Gardens, it reveals school names ranging from Upper Canada College and St. Michael's College to Neil McNeil and Northern Vocational.

An annual tradition was the Schoolboy Finals. Imagine the thrill of a high school athlete skating on the same ice as Dave Keon or occupying Johnny Bower's net. That was the case in February 1962, when Malvern were crowned kings, thanks to their lopsided 10 to 2 thumping of Humberside.

The last school to have its name in lights on the Gardens marquee were the 1998-99 squad from St. Michael's. Playing in the Ontario Hockey League, the Majors and Oshawa Generals met on March 19, 1999. Oshawa slammed St. Mike's by an 8 to 3 margin.

And which school set sail on the maiden voyage in Maple Leaf Gardens?

That honour goes to the University of Toronto Schools.

They were participating in the Sportsmen's Patriotic Association (S.P.A.) tournament. Designed as a pre-season event, teams from the OHA senior and junior ranks took part. In 1931, the junior series ran from November 16 to December 7. The grand prize for winning all the marbles was the Sportsmen's Trophy.

The University of Toronto Schools, established on September 12, 1910, served as a laboratory school for the University of Toronto faculty of education.

On the hockey front, their claim-to-fame was capturing the inaugural Memorial Cup in 1919. Their victory came at the expense of the Regina Patricisa.

Maple Leaf Gardens, fresh from celebrating its grand opening four days earlier, was the location for game one of the S.P.A. series on Monday November 16, 1931. The main attraction pitted the University of Toronto Schools against the Toronto Canoe Club.

Those supporting the University of Toronto Schools, would experience a very long and painful night. As noted in a newspaper story the following day, "the first game was all Toronto Canoe Club, with the University Schools hardly ever having a clear chance to go in on goal for a shot." The proof of this was reflected in the score - 10 to 0 - as TCC kicked-off the tourney with a shutout.

A future star for the Toronto Maple Leafs stole the spotlight on the evening of November 16, 1931. The scoring ace for the "paddlers" was Bob Davidson.

Tipping the scales at 185 pounds and standing at five-foot-eleven, Davidson was a Toronto native, born on February 10, 1912. He suited-up for the Toronto Canoe Club from 1928-29 to 1931-32. Like many of his counterparts from that era, Davidson pulled double-duty with another team. While employed with Cities Service Oil Company, the big left winger skated in the Toronto Mercantile Hockey League (1929-30, 1931-32 and 1932-33). The oil company sponsored a club known as Toronto Cities Service.

In the match with University of Toronto Schools, Davidson went on a scoring rampage. When the final bell rang, his name dominated the scoring summary. One source credits him with accumulating seven goals and one helper. Another account mentions the scoring sensation netting five goals and two assists. No matter which set of figures are correct, Davidson sparkled on offence.

It would be interesting to know if any members from the Leaf organization were in the building to witness the damage inflicted by Davidson on University of Toronto Schools. In their first outing in Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto only beat Chicago goalie Chuck Gardiner once, in a 2 to 1 loss. We do know Davidson and his father were in attendance to observe the pomp and circumstance on opening night.

The marksman for Toronto's first tally in their new home was Charlie Conacher. One can picture Conn Smythe salivating if he watched young Davidson's goal production.

Following his time with the Toronto Canoe Club and Toronto Cities Service, Bob Davidson joined the Marlboros chain. In 1932-33 he laced up skates for the junior squad, and in '33-'34 graduated to the senior Marlboros.

Davidson turned pro with the Syracuse Stars in 1934-35 (IHL), and also managed to appear in five contests with the NHL Leafs. The following campaign, he increased his time with the parent club, dressing for 35 encounters, and wearing the colours of Syracuse for another 13.

Over the next ten-years (1936-37 to 1945-46), Davidson became a key member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Despite his scoring prowess in junior, Davidson evolved into a solid and dependable defensive forward for Toronto.

Right from his first appearance, Davidson was meant to be a Maple Leaf. His first chance to perform in a regular season tilt came on January 31, 1935. Coach Dick Irvin and his team were at home to face the New York Rangers. Davidson, summoned from Syracuse to replace an injured Busher Jackson, skated on a line with Joe Primeau and Charlie Conacher.

Post-game reviews for Davidson's opening act indicated the Leafs had a hit on their hands.

"Bob Davidson, up from Syracuse to sub for Busher Jackson, did himself some good and though he was nervous making his big league debut, he showed speed and gameness," wrote Andy Lytle in the Toronto Daily Star.

"He was impressive indeed. He should remain with the Leafs for he fitted in like no youngster has been able to do since the time that Canacher and Jackson jumped from junior ranks into professional company," marvelled Bert Perry in the Globe and Mail.

After blasting the University of Toronto Schools in game one of the S.P.A. series, Davidson and his teammates tangled with Stratford in the second round. The outcome was much different. The Toronto Canoe Club lost 5 to 1.

On December 7, 1931, at Maple Leaf Gardens, the Toronto Marlboros squeaked out a 3 to 2 win over West Toronto to claim the Sportsmen's Trophy.

Although Bob Davidson and company were unable to defend their S.P.A. championship from the previous year, he would have many more opportunities in the future to display his skills on Gardens ice.

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