Monday, April 28, 2014

Happy 95th - Wally Stanowski!

Although each NHL Oldtimers Lunch is special, certain months are cause for heightened expectations and activity. That was the case on April 7, 2014, when Wally Stanowski's 95th birthday celebration brought out a huge crowd.

Officially Wally's birthday is today, April 28th, but an early start to acknowledge this special event was welcomed by everyone.

"As many of your family members and friends gather to celebrate the approach of your 95th birthday please accept the congratulations of the entire National Hockey League in anticipation of that remarkable milestone," stated Senior Vice-president of hockey operations Jim Gregory as he read into the record a letter from Commissioner Gary Bettman.

The bulk of Bettman's correspondence dealt with Wally's participation in the historic 1942 Stanley Cup Final. Down 3 games-to-zip against Detroit, Wally and his Maple Leaf teammates stormed back to win the next 4 contests and captured hockey's grand prize. This accomplishment has not been repeated in Cup Final competition.

Commissioner Bettman concluded his birthday greeting with this message for the guest of honour, "Wally, we marvel at your longevity and your spirit, we cherish your contributions to hockey and we wish you only the best going forward."

No birthday is complete without cake!

Wally with family
Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford, gives Wally a City of Toronto proclamation
Mike Ferriman, manager - game presentations for the Toronto Maple Leafs, brought Wally a team jersey
The Storey family (R) presents the Stanowski family a wonderful gift for Wally

A big thank you to John Cavers for the above photos.

As part of the festivities, I gave a talk, briefly outlining Wally's career. Below is a transcript of the speech.

Monday April 7, 2014
Markham, Ontario

Wally "The Whirling Dervish" Stanowski was born on Monday April 28, 1919, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A review of the Winnipeg Tribune newspaper from that date provides insight into Wally's first day on this earth.

"Ex-Kaiser to be tried for crimes," declared a page one headline referring to news about World War One.

Locally, a headline addressed a rash of automobile accidents involving children. It read - "City council to make streets safe for children."

On the financial page, Winnipeg's Board of Trade was trying to convince The Canadian National Railroad to move their headquarters to Winnipeg.

Robinson's Clothes Shops on Portage Avenue reduced the price of their suits and topcoats from $35. to $25.

Eaton's celebrated their Jubilee Anniversary in 1919 and a chap could purchase a new felt fedora for $4.

After shopping, one could go to Eaton's Grill Room, located on the 5th floor, and order a chicken pie with a baked potato, bread and butter, for only .65 cents - Is anyone from the restaurant listening?

At Griffith and Wright Garage on William Avenue, a 1918 Chevrolet would set you back $900. Ditto for a 1918 Ford Roadster.

Simpson, Mitchell & Ewing, located in the Union Trust Building, listed a house for sale on Chestnut Street. Their ad provided details - "7 rooms, hardwood floors and finish downstairs, large well arranged rooms, well built and very warm, large garage." Back in 1919, this could be your castle for $5,700.

As Wally was born in hockey's off-season, baseball was front and centre on the sports page. The Cincinnati Reds extended their winning streak to 5 games after weekend victories over St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

Young Wally wouldn't be exposed to hockey until the seasons changed and the two senior leagues - Winnipeg and Manitoba - began play. They were the big local attraction when it came to hockey in 1919-20.

Wally played junior with the St. Boniface Seals and participated in the 1938 Memorial Cup at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

Prior to a key contest in the Memorial Cup, Wally found a letter which had been slipped under his hotel door. In it was a financial offer to throw the game. Quoting Wally, "I was suppose to skate behind the net and pretend I was lacing my skate, which meant I'm going along with it. I was going to do it as a gag, but I didn't, just in case we lost. They offered me $100."

Obviously, Wally believed that crime doesn't pay.

And he was rewarded as St. Boniface went on to capture the Memorial Cup winning the fifth and deciding game 7-1. That contest set a Canadian attendance record for a hockey game to that time with 15,617 bodies going through the turnstiles at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Wally joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1939-40. The following season he was named to the First All-Star Team along with Boston defenceman Dit Clapper. This achievement is one of Wally's fondest memories from his big-league career.

As a result of winning the 1942 Stanley Cup, Wally remains a part of NHL history. Down 3 games-to-none in the Final versus Detroit, the Maple Leafs took the next 4 encounters and is still the only club to accomplish this feat in the Final.

Like many players from that era, Wally's NHL time was interrupted due to World War Two. He returned to Winnipeg along with his friend and fellow Leaf teammate, Pete Langelle, and served as a physical fitness instructor with the RCAF. Also, he played hockey for the Winnipeg RCAF Bombers.

After the War, Wally returned to the Leafs and won three more Stanley Cups in 1945, 1947 and 1948.

Last summer in an interview with Bruins legend Milt Schmidt, I asked him to assess the Leaf defence of the 1940s. He replied, "I would say as far as skating is concerned, in my opinion, Stanowski was the fastest skater."

No one would argue with Milt's appraisal.

And that included Conn Smythe. On October 18, 1939, he described Wally's style of play to the Toronto Daily Star, "He plays defence as though he was swivelled at the hips. He skates swoopingly with legs spread out. You can rock him but he is harder to knock down than Joe Lewis."

Wally's ability to effortlessly skate up ice and participate on offence, then whiz back to attend to his defensive responsibilities  was his greatest asset.

A trade in June 1948 saw Wally go to the New York Rangers where he played for 3 more campaigns.

His career ended in 1951-52, when he suffered a serious leg injury while skating for the AHL Cincinnati Mohawks.

The box score on Wally's regular season play in the NHL reads as follows:

Games Played- 428
Goals- 23
Assists- 88
Points- 111
PIM- 160

In the playoffs:

Games Played- 60
Goals- 3
Assists- 14
Points- 17
PIM- 13
Stanley Cups- 4

Emile Francis told me a wonderful story which involved Wally and Ivan Irwin when they all played for Cincinnati. This trio along with Jean-Paul Denis roomed together. Wally was out of action due to an injury and the night before a scheduled game he rubbed it in that he was going to a pub while the others had to get their rest. Unknown to Wally, Ivan had planted an exploding devise in his vehicle. Emile Francis heard the bang as he slept in their apartment and he told me, "Wally came out of that car and he looked 100-years-old."

The moral of this story is twofold. First, only good teammates could pull off pranks like that and it obvious Wally fitted in no matter where he played. Secondly, we should all be careful when we depart these lunches and head for the parking lot. "Ivan the Terrible" could strike again!

As many of you know, Wally holds the title of being the oldest living former Toronto Maple Leaf.

Wally, in anticipation of your 95th we take this opportunity to celebrate your life and we all wish you good health and many, many more years as the elder statesman of Leaf Nation.

Also, I want to send Emile Francis a photograph when you really do turn 100 - HAPPY BIRTHDAY WALLY!!!

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